The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 16, Number 18, May 5, 2013, Article 14


The May-June 2013 issue of RNA News from the Rochester Numismatic Association features a nice article on pioneer collector John C. Lighthouse. It is from They Put Rochester on the Map, by Donovan A. Shilling (RNA President, 1975), Pancoast Press, 2012, with introductory and ending notes by RNA Editor Gerard Muhl. It is republished here in its entirety with the permission of the author. Thanks! -Editor

John C. Lighthouse began a leather manufacturing business in downtown Rochester that became known worldwide for its horse collars and halters. He also made mail pouches for the U. S. Post office. But according to RNA past President Donovan Shilling in his latest book, They Put Rochester on the Map, Light-house should also be remembered for his collection of rare coins. Investing profits from his lucrative business in coins, he amassed one of the nation's finest coin collections ever gathered during the Victorian Era. Following is an excerpt from Don's book:

He purchased many of the gold pieces from George Bauer, one of Rochester's pioneer coin dealers and an historic personality in his own right. Mr. Bauer remembers that the J. C. Lighthouse hoard of gold coins was kept in a small nail keg, with each coin protected with a careful wrap of tissue paper.

This fabulous numismatic treasure was brought to the public's attention in 1885 in a most unusual manner. Unfortunately, much of this wonderful collection was burglarized by the Garfields, a husband and wife team who made off with some of the collection's most prized pieces. They stole three 1792 half-dismes (dimes) made of melted silverware belonging to Martha Washington. They also pilfered several rare quarters, each listing for more than $500 in 1885 dollars. These they spent at cash value to enter a stage show at the Cook Opera House. The trial, held at the Monroe County Court House, established that the collection's value exceeded $60,000, not including gold medals and rare papal coins. It took many months to recover most of the rare coins. A substantial portion of the Rochester Savings Bank's vault was then used by Mr. Lighthouse to shelter his irreplaceable collection. It was newspaper accounts of the trial that brought national attention to J.C.'s special hobby interest.

To better understand the nature and value of the Lighthouse coin collection we use J.C.'s own words: "I began collecting in 1860, and my collection today weighs four hundred pounds. My U.S. series from 1793 to 1800 is as fine as I could purchase; from 1801 to 1857 all pieces are uncirculated; and from 1858 to now, all are in proof condition (highly polished first mint strikes) and in duplicate. In the U.S. gold series I lack some of the great rarities, but had I obtained these, the rest of my collection would be more limited and many younger numismatists would someday not have two or three of the same pieces to study. With every coin I have prepared a history card, so that some-day interest to study a series further might be realized."

With his intense interest in the field, John C. Lighthouse was soon recognized by the numismatic community. In 1903, he became member #479 of the venerable American Numismatic Association. In 1904, he was elected to the Board of Trustees for that organization. Following these honors, he decided to travel west in pursuit of a new interest, California gold coins and tokens. In 1905, J. C. settled in San Francisco. There, a new chapter in his life was written. Farran Zerbe, a famous coin collector of national stature, hearing that J. C. was now a resident of the city by the bay, requested that he be permitted to inspect the Lighthouse Collection.

We may remember that it was early on the morning of April 18, 1905, that San Francisco was devastated by its great earthquake and resulting fire. In a letter he received from John Lighthouse following the disaster, Zerbe quoted, "Mr. Lighthouse escaped the fire but writes that his home was severely damaged by the quake: 'Women folks scared to death, chinaware and bric-a-brac all broken.' Mr. Lighthouse's letter, just received, gives me the first information I have had in regard to my insistence on seeing his collection, proving the factor by which it was pre-served. Had it been returned to the safes (Safe Deposit Co.) from which he removed it to show me, melted bullion would have told the story of its fate." Thus fate, through the intervention of Farran Zerbe, prevented the destruction of many of our country's finest coins, while the Safe Deposit Company and all its monetary contents were devastated and turned to a melted ruin. We're not sure if the fire may have also destroyed Mr. Lighthouse's complete collection of fractional notes and "greenback'' currency.

On September 9, 1909, John C. Lighthouse passed away at age 65. As the Horse Collar King, he was able to make a fortune avidly pursue his hobby for forty-nine years, and earn fame in his own time. The 1936 auction of a portion of his collection was conducted by J. C. Morgenthau & Company in New York City. It oversaw the sale of more than 660 choice proof-finished United States coins. Few collectors today can boast of such a fine collection.

Had he lived three years more until 1912 who can say that he might not have preceded George French as the first RNA president? Either way, the club now does have a John C. Lighthouse as President, but one hundred years later.

Would any of our readers know the current whereabouts of Lighthouse-pedigreed coins? -Editor

For more information on the Rochester Numismatic Association, see:

Wayne Homren, Editor

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