I've never run into any myself, but I guess they're out there. Then again, it's probably not done too much anymore, considering the fact that the change in our pockets is no longer composed of nobler metals and the "buying power" is minimal... yet there was a time, not long ago...
We're talking about counterfeit coins... funny money... and there's a reason why the subject came up. I guess the main reason is that I recently had a pile of it dropped on my workbench at the barn. They were beautiful copies, but you could tell from the coloring that something was wrong. I've dug orange coins in the past... usually nickels that had been in soil that was often wet, but I've never seen a Barber half or Standing Liberty quarter in the same condition! By the same token, I've rarely seen a Morgan dollar with the dulled patina of an old pewter spoon! But there they sat, piled one upon the other... a cache of counterfeit coins!
Although they were fakes, there was a certain, almost magical, aura about them. The quality of the dies used to make them must have been superb, because the coins were faultless. If not for the color and metal composition, you wouldn't be able to tell them from the real thing... as I am sure a lot of store owners once found out!
More than just the number and quality, the pile of counterfeits demanded questions. You found yourself trying to get into the mind of the man who made them... of the risks he took. I found myself wondering about the events that preceded their being thrown from the shoreline so long ago, to lie undiscovered for decades in the bed of the Hudson River. Had the counterfeiter been close to being caught? Was this a way of getting rid of any existing incriminating evidence? Had they been found after the counterfeiter's death and thrown into the waters by relatives who always wondered, "Just where does Uncle Harry get all his money?" Perhaps it was nothing more than an irate wife putting an end to her husband's illegal activities. We'll never know which of these answers is the correct one. Maybe it's better that way- not knowing, I mean- because I sure do love a mystery!
The types and dates of the coins offer some possible clues. All of the coins range in value from a quarter to a dollar. All of the originals would have been composed of silver. All the coins fall within the range of dates that would have been in circulation during the Great Depression.
Continually passing the same type and value of coin might lead to quick speculation and an even faster apprehension of the counterfeiter, so having a variety of coins to pass was in his best interest. Considering that all of the coins would have been silver, the counterfeiter made his job that much easier by having to only undergo a single final process, only one setup for plating or polishing to make his fakes passable.
Additionally, the counterfeit coins could easily be passed when grouped with some real coins. Let's face it, when you hand over four quarters in a purchase, does any clerk ever check to see if there's a bogus coin in the lot? No, they're busy checking the big bills for counterfeits. Talk about finding a way to make your money go farther, this counterfeiter had the system nailed down! He wasn't looking to get rich... just get enough money to put food on the table.
For the younger readers in the audience, the idea of counterfeiting coins might, on the surface, appear to be more trouble than it was worth. But anyone in the over-50 group remembers what the buying power of a few silver coins was when you were a kid. Growing up well after the Depression, (though I heard an awful lot about it... usually tied up in a lecture about how "Kids today don't appreciate anything," generally followed by the leading line, "Why, when I was a kid, back in the Depression...") in the 1950s, I remember getting a Walking Liberty half from my Dad every Saturday morning. With that half dollar I could spend all afternoon at the movies and still have enough to buy popcorn. I could buy ten Nestle's crunch bars... or five comic books... or enough Coca-Colas for the entire weekend. And if you had a silver dollar in your pocket, you were the richest kid on the block!
So, we know why they were made. We'll never know who made them. But how they were found and what it took to get them out of the ground is an interesting story of luck, ingenuity, and perseverance.
Len Dancause first brought the counterfeit cache to my attention, but the recovery efforts wouldn't have been complete without his partner, Peter Gallacchi. You might remember both those names from this magazine's "Best Finds" issue, in which Pete wrote the story "Treasure This," detailing the recovery of a real cache of lost silver.
South of the Troy Dam in upstate New York, the Hudson River is tidal, and it was during one of the low tides that Len and Pete found themselves searching the muddy shoreline for old coins. "It was brutally cold, and we were forced to work the exposed shoreline because everything else was frozen," began Len. "We found a few coins and a heck of a lot of fishing gear... mostly sinkers... and then I got this really solid sound running through my headset. I dug into the muddy riverbed and exposed a Barber half dollar, but I knew something was wrong almost immediately. The half dollar was orange!"
Len called Pete to his side and showed him the recovery. "It sure looked like a real coin," added Pete, "but you just couldn't get away from the fact that it was the wrong color. If it was silver it should have been blackened by being underwater."
Continuing their search, it wasn't long before other coins started finding their way to the surface- and while not all of those were orange, neither were they real. "We pulled a couple of Barber quarters from the mud, and they seemed to be the right color... almost. They were a dull gray, like old, unpolished pewter," stated Len. "When I pulled a broken Morgan dollar from the bottom of a hole, I knew something was really wrong!"
With those shortened days of winter the pair continued their search during what little light remained, recovering a handful of the strangely colored coins, determined to resume the hunt the following day. You don't have to have a really great memory to remember last winter if you live here in the Northeast. In a word, it was brutal... and Len and Pete were to face winter's wrath when they continued the hunt.
"We got to the shoreline at low tide and began finding multiple targets in some of the holes," Len continued. "The only problem was that the wet and exposed riverbed was freezing up faster than we could dig. There was a biting wind blowing down the river from the north, and it made for some pretty rotten detecting weather. We chipped through the ground on the small targets where we figured individual coins were lurking, but in some areas, just by the length and width of the target signal, we knew there could be dozens of coins just beneath the frost. In several cases we built small driftwood fires in an attempt to thaw the ground so we could dig. The process worked pretty well, and by the end of the second day we had nearly a hundred pieces of counterfeit coinage!"
Len and Pete occasionally revisit the site of the counterfeit coin cache, and usually return with a couple of additional fakes to add to their growing pile. It's a sadly lamented fact that none of the coins were real...
...but it sure makes for an interesting story about the oddities often encountered while in the pursuit of treasure and our nation's past!