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The E-Sylum: Volume 12, Number 1, January 4, 2009, Article 16


The Brooklyn Eagle published a story this week on the famous "spy nickel" case. This is the first article where I've seen the actual secret code hidden inside the piece. The article even has a translation of the message. It's pretty mundane, but that one nickel led to the capture of a Russian spy. -Editor
Spy Nickel Code

It was late June 1953 in Brownsville, another Monday night collecting Daily Eagle subscription fees door-to-door. Fourteen-year-old newsie Jimmy Bozart knocked on a door at 3403 Foster Avenue. His customer needed change for a buck so Jimmy got nickels from the housewives across the hall. The deal done, Bozart made his way out to the summer Brooklyn street.

As he bounded down the stairs, the nickels in Jimmy's palm slipped from his grasp and fell to the floor. The newsie rushed to gather his change, and then he noticed one of the five-cent pieces had cracked on impact. Jimmy dropped the suspiciously light coin again to see what it was made of. As soon as the nickel hit the floor, Jefferson's face split from Monticello on the other side.

“Whaddya know, there's a picture inside this nickel.”

So began the strange saga of the hollow nickel case, a true spy story principally involving a nickel, a newsie, Brooklyn, Finland, Moscow, a sad spy, and a major motion picture starring Jimmy Stewart with special guest J. Edgar Hoover.

When Jimmy examined his busted nickel, he didn't know what to make of the half-inch photograph inside it—a picture of nothing but numbers in columns. But as a newsvendor and an avid reader of the pulps, his gut told him it was a secret code, a spy thing. Bozart let his suspicions slip to a friend whose dad was a cop. The NYPD patrolman reported Jimmy's nickel up the chain of command, and a few days later, the FBI came to collect that five-cent piece.

The Bureau couldn't make heads or tails of the coin or the microfilm inside it. The nation's best cryptologists and most sophisticated machinery could not crack the code. Agents fanned out to New York's novelty shops, interrogated curiosity dealers and interviewed magicians. A nationwide effort to ferret out hollow coins yielded a few magic pennies in LA and DC—and in New York, a half-dollar novelty for the concealment of other, smaller coins. The Bureau's search confirmed what Jimmy probably already knew: trick coins were common enough, but none of them looked like the Brownsville nickel. The hollow nickel case was left to cool in 1953, but it was not shelved.

To read the complete article, see: The Hollow Nickel Case: Espionage in the Borough of Brooklyn (

Wayne Homren, Editor

Google NBS ( Web

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