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The E-Sylum: Volume 17, Number 40, September 28, 2014, Article 13

ANSWER: SAMUEL JOHNSON'S GOLD TOUCH PIECE

Last week I published the following excerpt from NPR's Writer's Almanac. -Editor

It's the birthday of Samuel Johnson (books by this author), born in Litchfield, England (1709). He was a sickly boy, and had been since the day he was born — "almost dead," he said. He contracted the lymphatic form of tuberculosis, called scrofula, when he was two, and because it was popularly believed that the touch of royalty could cure scrofula, he was taken to the queen. She touched him and gave him a gold medallion, which he kept for the rest of his life. Her touch didn't cure him, and neither did various disfiguring treatments that left him scarred.

I asked, "So.. what was that gold medallion given to him by the Queen? And what became of it? If he kept it until his death, who had it next? Can it be located today?" Several readers came through with the answer. Thanks, everyone! Below is the description of the piece from the web site of the British Museum. -Editor

Dr Johnson's touch-piece

Dr Johnson's touch-piece
English, AD 1711

For many centuries it was believed that the touch of a king or queen would cure an individual suffering from scrofula, a disease of the lymphatic system also known as the king's evil. Ceremonies at which British monarchs 'touched' sufferers continued from the time of Edward the Confessor (reigned 1042-66) to Queen Anne (reigned 1702-14).

By the sixteenth century 'touching' involved hanging a gold coin around the neck of the sufferer. The coin was usually an angel, a denomination introduced in 1464 and named after the figure of the archangel St Michael which appeared on it. After production of the coin had ceased in the mid-seventeenth century, small medals of a similar design were produced specifically for the ceremonies. The inscription that appears around the saint on these pieces translates as 'To God alone the glory', indicating the ultimate source of the cure. This example is said to be the medal with which Queen Anne 'touched' Samuel Johnson (1709-84) in 1711, when the future writer and compiler of the celebrated Dictionary of the English Language was a sickly two-year old baby.

To read the complete article, see:
Dr Johnson's touch-piece (www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/cm/d/dr_johnsons_touch-piece.aspx)

Scott Miller writes:

I took a quick look in Helen Farquhar’s Royal Charities, and sure enough, in Part IV she devoted several pages to Dr. Johnson and noted “It appears that Johnson was himself no great believer in the royal gift of healing, and we know that he did not long wear the token presented by the Queen, for, as we see it in the British Museum, it is in fine condition”.

Andy Singer writes:

Samuel Johnson’s gold medallion, properly called a “touch piece”, is presently in the British Museum. Noel Woolf, in The Sovereign Remedy. Touch Pieces and the King’s Evil. The British Association of Numismatic Societies. Doris Stockwell Memorial Papers No. 4 (Manchester, 1990), writes on page 18:

“Among those Touched by Queen Anne was Dr. Johnson. He was brought to her as a child of two-and-a-half. Coming from Litchfield, as his family did, this meant a journey of three days and a stay of several nights in London. The most likely date for this event was 30 March 1712. His Touch Piece is in the British Museum. It shows little or no signs of wear, although his biographers have said he wore it all his life. According to Boswell he was never cured and the sight of one eye was seriously affected.”

Noel Woolf’s 64-page pamphlet is really quite an interesting study of the history of the ceremony and use of Touch Pieces in England, concentrating on those especially struck for the ceremony from the reign of Charles II until 1807, the death of his great-nephew, Henry (IX), Cardinal Duke of York. The pamphlet was originally published as a series of papers in the British Numismatic Journal in 1979, 1980, and 1985.

John Kleeberg was the fastest on the trigger, forwarding the BM link last Sunday night. It's a delight to learn that this piece has survived and is in good hands. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
QUERY: SAMUEL JOHNSON'S GOLD MEDALLION (www.coinbooks.org/esylum_v17n39a27.html)



Wayne Homren, Editor

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To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor at this address: whomren@gmail.com

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