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The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 8, February 25, 2007, Article 15

JOSH TATUM RACKETEER NICKEL REFERENCES PRIOR TO 1968

Patrick Feaster writes: "I'm a graduate student in Folklore at Indiana
University and just recently encountered your discussion of the story
of Josh Tatum and the "racketeer's nickel."  As I understand it, the
earliest version of the story you've yet been able to find appears in
the 1968 book "Counterfeiting in America" by Lynn Glaser, and I see
there's been some speculation that Glaser made the story up.  In fact,
the story had appeared in print before 1968 -- though not by very
much, as far as I can tell.

"I was able to turn up a good many references to the gilding of
nickels in sources from the 1880s, some quite interesting, and
some naming specific "racketeers," but none that match the details
of Tatum'sstory.  There was enough interest in the possibility of
using gilded nickels for fraudulent purposes in 1883-85 that the
Tatum story would certainly have circulated in the popular press if
it had been at all widely known.  LeRoy Burnette, "Comments on Coins,"
Lima News (Lima, Ohio), June 24, 1961, p. 31, contains a lengthy
discussion of the "racketeer's nickel" (a term that was already in
use in the 1950s, if not earlier), but Tatum's name doesn't yet
appear, nor do the really distinctive aspects of his story, so I
would assume that story wasn't yet familiar to collectors at that time.

"The first appearance of Tatum's name I can find is in Maurice M.
Gould's column, "Coin Roundup," entitled "$5 for Nickels," as it
appeared in the Independent Press-Telegram of Long Beach, California,
on Sept. 5, 1965: "PROBABLY the most famous coin counterfeiter of all
times was Josh Tatum, who, with the aid of a jeweler friend,
gold-plated the 1883 Liberty Nickels and was able to pass them off as
$5 gold pieces, since the original had the same appearance and size of
this piece.  His scheme was to buy a five-cent item in a store, hand
the merchant the 'gold piece,' and then accept the $4.95 in change
which the merchant invariably gave him.  When Tatum was taken into
court for fraud, the charges against him were dismissed because he had
never asked for change....  Tatum made approximately $15,000 through
his scheme -- equivalent to quite a fortune during this period."

"The story next surfaces in Dan Tuttle's column, "Coin Fare," as it
appeared in the Jan. 28, 1967 issue of the Post-Standard of Syracuse,
New York, with the new (?) detail that Tatum was a deaf mute: "One of
the most celebrated cases involving the racketeer nickel was the trial
of one Josh Tatum.  It seems that Tatum distributed a large number of
the golden nickels throughout New England.  He would go into store
after store, buy a 5-cent cigar and silently accept the $4.95 change
from the proffered bogus $5 gold piece.  At the trial there was no
shortage of complaining witnesses and no problem of identification.
And yet he was acquitted.  It turned out that Josh was a deaf mute and
since he didn't ask for it, each $4.95 he received was considered a
gift."

"The allegation that the Josh Tatum episode gave rise to the expression
"to josh" comes up in a newspaper article, "Coin Show at Acres," Times
Standard, Eureka, California, Apr. 17, 1970, p. 6: "Many people
attribute the saying, 'I was only Joshing' to the Josh Tatum incident."
 I don't have Glaserís book and so don't know whether this claim was
also made there in 1968.  The expression is, in fact, considerably
older than 1883, as has often been pointed out, so this would seem to
be a folk etymology rather than a true explanation.

"Josh Tatum was clearly not a "famous" counterfeiter prior to the
mid-1960s, but could he still have existed?  Well, maybe.  But there
were only four Joshua Tatums in the 1880 U. S. federal census, and none
of them was a deaf mute!  I suspect his story most likely originated in
the 1960s in reaction to the Secret Service's recently adopted policy
of confiscating "racketeer nickels" from irate coin collectors, since
I guess plated coins were technically illegal to own at the time.  No
doubt this policy led to a lot of speculation into possible loopholes
in the law, and the invention of Josh Tatum would have been a natural
outgrowth of this.  But can anyone trace the story back beyond Gould's
1965 column?"

 DON'T JOSH ME
 esylum_v03n18a08.html

 WHO'S JOSHING WHO?
 esylum_v03n19a10.html

 THE JOSH TO END ALL JOSHING
 esylum_v03n20a07.html

 EARLY JOSH TATUM REFERENCES SOUGHT
 esylum_v06n54a11.html

 JOSH TATUM REFERENCES
 esylum_v06n55a14.html

 WAS LYNN GLASER JOSHING US?
 esylum_v07n02a12.html

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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