The E-Sylum:  Volume 7, Number 47, November 21, 2004, Article 16


  Tom Kays writes: "In response to "Holed Cent a Slave Coin?"
  - E-Sylum v7#46, first I want to discourage anyone from
  doing "research" on old coppers by cleaning them with Brasso,
  as described in the original November 13th story "Hole in
  History" seen in the Free Lance - Star of Fredericksburg, VA.

  Two pierced large cents were donated by well-wishers to the
  planned U.S. National Slavery Museum in the belief they are
  undocumented slave coins.  One was dated in the first decade
  of the 19th century and picked up in Clarke County, and the
  other was dated 1846 coming from a family collection.  Upon
  close inspection of the picture in the newspaper the earlier cent
  was neatly pierced by a small punch near the rim at 6:00 o'
  clock seen from the reverse.  The piercing went through the last
  digit of the date.  The presence of a single piercing for suspension
  seems to be the only evidence linking the coins to possible slave
  ownership, which is tenuous at best.   Anyone could have pierced
  a large cent.  I will provide several reasons, and hope E-Sylum
  readership will add their two cents worth.

  I'm told a small, undocumented cache of Large Cents turned up
  a few years ago in Virginia. Bottle diggers working underwater
  in the James River near City Point found eight old, holed coppers
  amid Civil War artifacts believed lost during the Siege of
  Petersburg, circa 1864. City Point was a bustling wartime
  terminus for troops and supplies destined for the lengthy
  campaign as well as General Grant's Headquarters and base
  of supplies. The little hoard is now dispersed but I saw one
  of the coins, an 1852  Coronet Style, Large Cent in very fine
  condition.  It had a pleasing smooth brown, non-dug appearance,
  which is possible if it laid deep in river mud these past 135 years
  or so.

  All the coins seemed machine punched, rather than hand pierced,
  with atypically large and ragged holes if intended for personal
  adornment.  The punch was placed off-center, directly through
  Liberty's head as though deliberately (politically?) aimed, with
  the sprue pressed flat on the reverse.  Four theories come to
  mind to account for these coins, none of which is entirely

  1)   Yankee Sinkers - One of the fellows downstream of the
  find called them "Yankee Sinkers," reasoning that they would
  have been shiny 'red cents' back in 1864 and that they might
  have been used as fishing lures, doing double duty as sinkers,
  since they were found in the water. Yet, lead Minnie balls
  would have been as common as gravel at City Point if one
  needed a sinker for fishing.   The 'Yankee' part came from
  his belief that only the northern troops would have had hard
  money enough to gamble it with the catfish.  This theory does
  not quite satisfy if you have ever gone float fishing using bait
  or fly-fishing using lures, but perhaps a trawling line makes
  sense.  Imagining bored soldiers on troop transport ships,
  that it would only take one fellow with the bright idea of fish
  for supper to get every available line over the side using
  whatever was at hand for lures, hooks and bait.

  2)  Circassian Tress Adornments -  "Are there any nice
  women here?'  "It depends on what you mean by nice
  women; there are some very sharp ones."  "Oh, I don't like
  sharp ones," Florimond remarked, in a tone which made his
  aunt long to throw her sofa-cushion at his head.  "Are there
  any pretty ones?"  She looked at him a moment hesitating.
  "Rachel Torrance is pretty, in a strange, unusual way, --
  black hair and blue eyes, a serpentine figure, old coins in her
  tresses; that sort of thing."  "I have seen a good deal of
  that sort of thing," said Florimond, a little confusedly..
  She had a striking, oriental head, a beautiful smile, a manner
  of dressing which carried out her exotic type, and a great
  deal of experience and wit.  She evidently knew the world,
  as one knows it when one has to live by its help.  If she had
  an aim in life, she would draw her bow well above the
  tender breast of Florimond Daintry.  With all this, she
  certainly was an honest, obliging girl, and had a sense of
  humor which was a fortunate obstacle to her falling into a
  pose.  Her coins and amulets and seamless garments were,
  for her, a part of the general joke of one's looking like a
  Circassian or a Smyrniote, -- an accident for which Nature
  was responsible.

  -- Excerpt from 'A New England Winter' by Henry James,
  The Century, a popular quarterly, Volume 28, Issue 4,
  August 1884, Page 586, via Cornell University, The
  Making of America.

  Coins worn on ones head in antebellum times were most
  likely small, thin old silver or gold if it could be obtained,
  half dimes, picayunes, and hammered groats, or better yet,
  half escudos ducats and zecchinos. The coins would have
  been pierced near the rim for suspension and sewed or
  wired to the fringe of a veil in an array, hung like lavalieres
  amid the lace.    Large cents with larger central holes could
  have threaded onto braided tresses directly, although they
  would not hang quite right being more horizontal than vertical
  in application.  The question of how a set of such objects
  landed in the water at City Point in 1864 does not hang
  quite right as well.

  3)   Spiritual Waypoints - The slave connection may come
  about in one of two ways.  An early practice supposedly
  performed by first generation African slaves from western
  coastal tribes (circa 1750) involves collecting a centrally
  pierced copper coin along with other meaningful ceremonially
  objects and burying them in the interior corner of a house
  foundation for some special purpose.   The two examples
  I recall were a badly corroded, George II copper and a
  William Woods Halfpenny, rather than any late date U.S.
  large cents.

  Anthropologists theorized that the round shape of the coin
  was somehow in tune with the Earth Mother, or somehow
  recalls the cycle of life, but I don't think they really know.
  A much more likely African American custom in dealing with
  the dead, as I understand it, uses familiar objects used
  during life, just before death, to help anchor the spirit of
  the dearly departed in this world. A favorite hairbrush, a
  cup, or perhaps a coin if the dearly departed held them
  dear, would be placed on the grave.  As the living world
  spins on mad for change, spirits could quickly loose touch
  with their descendents unless these familiar objects, that
  the spirit had once possessed in life, and would recognize
  again to repossess in death, are strategically placed, as
  focal points for communion between the living and the
  dead.  On some 'All Saints Day' family members above
  and below ground could reunite about these spiritual
  waypoints and remember. However, the coins need not
  be pierced for this purpose.  Neither case works well
  here to explain a spirited origin of the coins of City Point,
  or the two donated 'slave coins,' lacking better provenance.

  4)  Non-sparking Washers - One 19th century spot where
  brass and copper tools and fittings congregated was in the
  powder magazine.  Iron tools dropped on a slate floor
  could raise a spark setting off the whole shebang.  Percussive
  Civil War ordinance must have been a bear to safely
  transport and arm in the field.  Brass fuses charged with gun
  cotton, or infused with fulminate of nitroglycerin, probably
  required special tools and fittings to rack, stack and store
  on supply wagons and ships.   City Point during the siege
  of Petersburg must have seen it all.  Perhaps the fact that
  eight holed large cents were found together in the water
  points to some special naval ordinance use. Congreve
  Rockets, navy torpedos, marine grenadoes, or iron-clad,
  steam engine fittings all might have presented an emergency
  need for the Union Navy, Marines, Voltigeurs, or Ordinance
  staff to requisition a set of matched copper washers, made
  Johnny-on-the-spot out of whatever ships stores they had
  on-hand.   Large cents make sense, for late war use when
  naval supplies would be running nil. For whatever reason
  they went overboard together near a busy anchorage, no
  doubt unintentionally.  This at least explains the forethought
  needed to find a machine punch.

  What say you E-Sylum readership?  Caught any catfish?"

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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