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A Coin a Day Keeps the Witches Away

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Growing up in a small town in Southern Utah gave me a fantastic opportunity to enjoy every season to its fullest. As a child, and still as an adult, fall trumps all others and by a wide margin. There was always something about the smell of the wood-burning stoves starting up, stews and freshly baked bread, the chill on the breeze, and of course, my favorite holiday; Halloween! Every year was filled with excitement on picking out a costume and gearing up for the school functions. I remember the cakewalks vividly, bobbing for apples, and drinking hot cider alongside a slice of pumpkin pie. It was around this time that I discovered my favorite of the Halloween ghouls...witches! As a matter of fact, I won our elementary school’s costume contest one year for dressing as a witch.

Fast forward several years. I remember perusing a coin publication where an article was describing the well-circulated notion that some Massachusetts silver coins were used as talismans to ward off witches. Most of us are aware of coins being used for a variety of purposes besides pure commerce. A few that come to mind are a sixpence in the shoe of a bride, placing coins on the eyes of the deceased, and the commonly seen practice of tossing a coin into a pond or well for payment of a wish. The thought that a coin could be used to dispel the magic of witches excited me. Before we talk about the numismatic importance of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I think it best to set the stage for the famous witch hunt that happened during the same period.

Lithograph title The Witch No.1 by Joseph E. Baker, published by George H. Walker & Co. circa 1862. Click to enlarge.

Salem, Massachusetts, was founded in 1626 by a group of Puritan immigrants from the nearby city of Cape Ann. Within a few decades, Salem proved to be an important city to the early colonists. The Puritan religion was rather strict in its laws and practices. It was heavily connected to superstitions and supernatural influences. It was believed in the Puritan society that women were more susceptible to the enticing of the devil and were less resistant to his powers and persuasions. After a series of unexplainable maladies befalling some of the citizens, mainly a few young children seeming to be under the influence of dark energy, witchcraft was blamed.

1652 Shilling Pine Tree, Large Planchet, Pellets (Regular Strike) PCGS MS63+. Image courtesy of PCGS CoinFacts. Click to enlarge.

From the winter of 1692 until the late spring of the following year, over 200 residents of Salem and a few surrounding villages were accused of witchcraft. Of these, 19 people were convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. One can imagine the state of distress and fear that must have swept through the colonies. Numismatic lore, as long as I can remember, has implied that many citizens carried an Oak, Willow, or Pine Tree Shilling, which was bent, to ward off the powers of witches. Something about the bent silver coin would dispel the forces of evil and protect the bearer. Wherever this tale originated, it can be put to rest as mere fiction. There are no records, contemporary or modern, to support this claim.

The Massachusetts coins mentioned above were certainly used by the citizens of Salem, as they were minted starting in 1652 and continued well into the 1680s. However, the large planchet varieties were struck on what is known as a rocker press. The dies that were used to strike them were curved and would press the coins. The small planchet coins were struck using flat dies on a screw press. Much like elongated cents being squeezed between two die plates, the large planchets would come out with a slight wavy bend. Seeing a large planchet shilling with a bend only screams originality to me and is a welcome sight.

We may never fully know when and where this old wives’ tale of bent shillings originated. However, it has always conjured images of an early American settlement and the supernatural in my mind. And, after all, who doesn’t love a good numismatic anecdote fictitious or otherwise?

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