The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 16, Number 31, July 25, 2013, Article 9


Fred Michaelson writes:

This is part of a chapter on the 1913 Liberty Nickel from Robert Van Ryzin's book "Fascinating Facts, Mysteries, & Myths About U.S. Coins."

Fred sent scans of pages in the book, but I contacted Bob Van Ryzin who kindly forwarded the text electronically for publication here in an easier to read format. Thanks! Great stories. -Editor

1913_Liberty_Nickel Olsen specimen The most colorful and endearing owner of a 1913 Liberty Head was J.V. McDermott, a hard-drinking, vest-pocket dealer from Milwaukee who was known for sliding “MacNickel” down the bar for the curious to see. McDermott purchased his specimen of the 1913 Liberty Head nickel from Jim Kelly in the early 1940s for $900 and quickly made himself and the nickel famous.

Even today, many numismatists have cherished stories to tell of their meetings with McDermott and of his rare nickel. Such is the case with collector Tom Fruit, who as a child became a friend and sometimes caretaker of the famous coin. Fruit, 14 at the time, met McDermott in 1949 after Fruit’s family moved to the south part of Milwaukee. A coin collector, Fruit became intrigued when he learned that a famous coin dealer lived not too far from his house. He went right over and knocked on the back door, where he was greeted by McDermott, clad in a sleeveless T-shirt.

“He was really nice,” Fruit said. “I told him I was interested in collecting coins, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a Pine Tree Shilling and his 1913 nickel.”

Fruit became a regular patron of McDermott’s, going back to make purchases from the dealer whenever a spare $5 or $10 earned from an odd job allowed. For a young collector, the association was a dream come true — a wealth of coins only a few feet from his family’s home. The two became friends. When Fruit turned 16 and was able to drive, he often drove McDermott to coin club meetings and coin shows.

“He would drive there and I’d drive back, because he did most of his business at the bar,” Fruit said of McDermott. “He never had a table that I remember. His table was the bar.”

McDermott made no secret of his passion for drinking, and often made reference to it at the beginning of his advertisements in Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine. In the February 1950 issue he said: “Had a bad cold last month. Doc says, ‘Go to bed for a couple of days.’ But I didn’t[,] as long as I can lift my arm and bend an elbow. I[’ll] never give up.”

From the February 1954 issue came: “That Dan Brown guy out in Denver told me of a rumor that’s goin’ around to whit that they’re goin’ to make us eat our corn instead of drink it — it’s very disturbing.”

And from the September 1960 issue: “Had to miss the Boston show — my neck looked like a hunk of raw meat (reaction from those x-ray treatments I guess). Looks like I’ll have some surgery. Oh! Me! Some of my pals want to get a pool going and one tavern-keeper has offered to mount my head behind his bar. (He says — as a warning to others.) Another one says he thinks it would be better if they shrink it. Anyway, I may fool them if lucky.”

Fruit remembers taking the famous coin to school to have pictures taken for McDermott.

“I used to carry that nickel around for days at a time,” he said. “I’d carry it around in my pocket. He wasn’t afraid to give it to anybody.

“A lot of times, at a coin show, he didn’t know where it was. It would be circulated up and down the bar and somebody would have it. Anytime I wanted the nickel, he would just give it to me. He didn’t ask any questions.”

McDermott also freely loaned the coin to clubs to promote their coin shows. Some believe, however, that with the number of venues at which the coin appeared, McDermott must have had a duplicate made. Fruit discounts such stories.

“There was a lot of talk that Mac had the real nickel and then a replica of it, and that is not true,” he said. “There has never been any substantiation to that. “In fact, I know it is not true, because I could recognize that nickel today. It had a little dent or flake missing right underneath the [Liberty’s] jaw. So I could recognize that nickel anytime, and it was always the same nickel.

“I think the reason for that is, people thought that he would never let a coin that expensive out of his sight. But that didn’t bother him because, he said, ‘What good is it to anybody. Everybody knows where the five nickels are and everybody knows that there are only five. Any one that would turn up, if it was stolen, nobody could sell it, because they would know whose it was.’ So that is why he really wasn’t concerned about anybody swiping it, and nobody ever did.”

Even after Fruit moved away from Milwaukee, he found that McDermott was willing to loan him the coin (at that point valued at nearly $12,500) for display at coin shows.

McDermott’s attitude toward loaning his valuable coin out for others to enjoy can be seen in an article he wrote for Coins magazine shortly before his death. “I don’t believe this coin, or any rarity, should be perpetually consigned to the concealing darkness of a bank vault,” McDermott said. “Legally one man may ‘own’ this 1913 Liberty head nickel, but in a very real sense it belongs to numismatics; for should the collecting fraternity lose interest in it the 1913 would fall by the wayside — all five would be required to buy a handi-pack of not-so-good five cent cigars.”

McDermott died on Sept. 29, 1966. The obituary notice in The Numismatist said, “He had myriad friends but few, if any, intimates,” but he “will live long in the memory of many who saw him and ‘it’ from coast to coast.”

Following her husband’s death, McDermott’s wife, Elizabeth, consigned the coin to a sale held Aug. 8, 1967, during the ANA convention in Miami, where it sold for a then amazing price of $46,000 to Nebraska dealer Aubrey Bebee, who later donated it to the ANA Money Museum in Colorado Springs, Colo.

By 2007, the fame and value of the 1913 Liberty Head nickels had grown to the point where the finest-known specimen was sold for a reported $5 million — a big price for a small coin with an uncertain past but a million-dollar-plus future.

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see: MCDERMOTT 1913 LIBERTY NICKEL DONATION TO THE ANA (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at

To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor at this address:

To subscribe go to:



Copyright © 1998 - 2020 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.

NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster