Tom Kays submitted the following interesting story and query about a case of U.S. Mint Prestidigitation. -Editor In 2009, his bicentennial birth year, let us remember a most deserving and eminent historical personage honored by U.S. Mint gold medal. No not President Abraham Lincoln, but the next most famous person also born in 1809. No, not naturalist Charles Darwin, born the same day, or even composer Felix Mendelssohn.
This man was famous on both sides of the Atlantic, being feted by kings and hobnobbing with presidents while Lincoln, as-yet-unelected, split fence rails and Darwin, as-yet-unpublished, went bird watching, comparing the odd bug in worldly obscurity, and Mendelssohn had already passed away. Let me first tell you how this eminent fellow unexpectedly sprang to mind.
Going deep through the drawers of his father-in-law’s desk, sealed since perhaps 1939, a friend discovered both a kid leather souvenir billfold and coin wallet. Each held three items. The billfold held two $5 promissory notes from Augusta Georgia, dated October 1861 and an 1899 Philippines five peso note issued during the short span of Philippine independence from Spanish and American rule. A relative had served in the Spanish America War and collected remembrances we surmise.
In the wallet we discovered a 1925 Stone Mountain half dollar, green from long contact with leather, a well toned 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition half dollar, and a rare and unfamiliar, lightly gilded bronze medal about the size of an eagle but thick as two large cents.
The medal boasts a handsome portrait on one side and on the reverse the following inscription: “Presented to Herr Alexander as a token of esteem by his friends. New York. 1847.”
Herr Alexander, eminent conjuror, was as famous as General Tom Thumb by 1847. Alexander Heimbürger was born in Germany in 1809. He toured Europe to acclaim and began working the North American magic circuit, still a young man.
Herr Alexander’s act was “boffo” at President Polk’s White House fooling the likes of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster. With President Polk’s letters of diplomatic assistance, Herr Alexander went on extended tour in South America playing the “Palace,” in 1850, not a theater, but the royal palace of Pedro II in Brazil.
On leaving New York in 1847 he was presented with a heavy gold medal, cast in the United States Mint in Washington. This medal has his portrait on one side, and on the reverse the following inscription: "Presented to Herr Alexander as a token of esteem from his friends. New York. 1847"
From Carus, Paul - The Open Court, Volume XIX, 1905, Open Court Publishing Company, Chicago, P.355., from The Harry Houdini Collection – Library of Congress, via Google Books
The bronze medal found by my friend may have been a contemporary, less noble, once gilded copy, probably sold at a premium among the magician’s friends to finance die sinking and to offset the cost of the ten dollar, solid gold version of the medal presented to Herr Alexander himself.
In 1903 Harry Houdini was delighted to discover the old and esteemed magician of last century; Herr Alexander still lived in retirement in Münster, Germany, with a daughter living in New York. Harry Houdini sought out Herr Alexander to talk tricks of the conjurors trade and hear stories of his astounding magic capers before royal audiences a half century ago. Herr Alexander recollected during his New York engagement, he helped out one “Orzini” an illusionist with a magic cabinet act.
As an entertainer Orzini bombed with audiences at the New York Park Theater. Herr Alexander was amazed to discover the same Orzini eventually became famous but not for illusions. He bombed for the last time, blowing himself up in Paris during a bungled assassination attempt at the carriage side of Emperor Napoleon III, who escaped dazed but unharmed. Orzini had only just arrived in Paris from America and in his effects the gendarmerie found his illusionist’s magic cabinet and many unanswered questions.
So here's my question for the E-Sylum readership: The United States Mint provides coinage to meet the needs of commerce, prepares medals for war heroes distinguished by act of Congress, and satisfies official diplomatic requests such as fabrication of dollars for presentation to Siam in 1834 (using old dies of 1804, since those were all that came to hand), but how do we account for the United States officially striking a gold medal for an entertainer?
Was this official, or was it an amazing feat of Herr Alexander, mesmerizing President Polk’s White House into doing him a singular honor? What other entertainers of any stripe during the early 19th century were so recognized by U.S. Mint gold medals? Is Herr Alexander’s medal evidence of a golden age of moonlighting by diesinkers at the Department of the Mint in Washington to make a little on the side, fabricating less-than-official products to satisfy private interests? I’m sure even the great Harry Houdini was amazed and had much to learn from his elder, Herr Alexander whose magic lives on to surprise us out of unexpected quarters.
Actually, it was not uncommon for the U.S. Mint to strike medals honoring (or at the request of) private individuals and organizations. R.W. Julian's classic book, Medals of the United States Mint: The First Century 1792-1892
has entire chapters devoted to categories such as
- Personal Medals
- School Medals
- Marksmanship Medals
- Religious and Fraternal Medals
The Personal Medals chapter includes medals honoring Louis Agassiz, Robert and Louisa Gilmore, Dr. David Hosack. One medal in the Unclassified chapter may actually be the first one struck at the Mint - J. Rickett's Circus, circa 1840.
I was unable to locate a listing for a Herr Alexander medal. However, the author indicates that Mint records prior to 1855 are sketchy at best, and a definitive list may be an unobtainable goal.
This reference to a gold medal struck for Herr Alexander in the late 1840s could pave the way for future research. Is anyone aware of the whereabouts of this medal, or any prior research linking its striking to the U.S. Mint? -Editor
Luckily, Bob Julian is an E-Sylum reader. I asked him about the medal and he writes:
Not a chance of it's being a Mint medal. The Mint was not in Washington and medals were not cast in those days, they were struck. The writer of the 1905 book simply assumed that it was made in the Mint. Such medals could easily have been made in New York City by any one of several engravers. It is an interesting piece, however.
Wayne Homren, Editor
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