Dennis Tucker of Whitman Publications submitted this note inspired by our recent discussions of alchemy and numismatics. Thanks!
Kenneth Bressett is a numismatic alchemist, of sorts. Like few other writers today, he can spin historical facts and figures into literary gold—engaging, romantic, adventurous tales that spark the imagination and bring coins to life.
In chapter 9 of his award-winning book, Milestone Coins: A Pageant of the World’s Most Significant and Popular Money, Ken tells the story of “The Alchemist”—Nicaraguan revolutionary general Agusto César Sandino, who managed, after a fashion, to turn lead coins into gold, with tragic results.
“For centuries,” Ken writes, “the physical goal of the alchemist was the transmutation of gold from base metals such as lead and copper. The Philosopher’s Stone of the Wise was said to confer the ability to create gold, prolong life, and cure all diseases. With it, the Elixir of Immortality could be obtained. With these aspirations in mind, it is no wonder that the ancient art of alchemy has persisted even to modern times, despite continual failure. There was a single man, however, who did succeed, in a sense, by making his own version of gold coins out of lead. The ingenious alchemist was General Agusto César Sandino.”
I’m pasting the text of the rest of “The Alchemist.” This is one of more than 100 numismatic tapestries Ken weaves in Milestone Coins.
For centuries, the physical goal of the alchemist was the transmutation of gold from base metals such as lead and copper. The Philosopher’s Stone of the Wise was said to confer the ability to create gold, prolong life, and cure all diseases. With it, the Elixir of Immortality could be obtained. With these aspirations in mind, it is no wonder that the ancient art of alchemy has persisted even to modern times, despite continual failure. There was a single man, however, who did succeed, in a sense, by making his own version of gold coins out of lead.
The ingenious alchemist was General Agusto César Sandino. He was a revolutionary leader in Nicaragua who led the United States Marines on a merry chase up and down the country in 1928 and 1929 in his fight against the conservative government headed by Adolfo Díaz and Emiliano Chamorro. Sandino protested against the U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in 1926 and the elections of 1927, and formed a guerrilla campaign against the occupying Marines sent there to restore order. No minor character, he led a sizable resistance army of jungle fighters equipped with rifles and machine guns.
The bandit army had to re-provision from time to time, and resorted to raiding local stores for all their needs. The general felt obligated to pay for his supplies, but without money he decided on a plan that would leave the frightened storekeepers with some compensation. After gaining control of the American-owned San Albino gold mines (located in the northern part of the country), some say he made a few gold coins, although none are known today. He then removed the lead water pipes from the mine and used that base metal to make more coins with the same molds.
The Sandino lead coins are inscribed R. DE. N. 10 PESOS ORO (oro meaning “gold”) on the obverse, and INDIOS DE A. C. SANDINO on the reverse. It is believed that fewer than six or seven of these unusual coins have survived, although at least two different dies were used to make them. The variety shown here, with a retrograde dollar sign before the denomination, is unique. These pieces are slightly larger than a quarter dollar and about three times as thick, and are crudely cast and barely legible.
While Sandino may have succeeded in making his lead coins pass for gold, the entire episode was a terrible tragedy. He made a practice of inspecting the villages, and if he did not find his money in circulation, he would kill the “offenders.” If the Marines and the National Guard found people with the coins, they too might kill them, as suspected rebels. The bandit slipped back and forth into Honduras and was never captured, but finally ended his reign of terror after the U.S. Marines withdrew. He was seized and executed in 1934.
The coins of Sandino are rather obscure and considered to be unauthorized tokens or emergency money, rather than an official issue of Nicaragua. Few have ever been traded on the numismatic market, and there are no recent valuations.
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
MORE ON THE ALCHEMICAL MEDALLION
Wayne Homren, Editor
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