The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 19, Number 9, February 28, 2016, Article 21


Over 150 issues of The Centinel from the Central States Numismatic Society have been digitized by the Newman Numismatic Portal. Many thanks to CSNS for making this publication available to researchers and collectors everywhere. Len Augsburger found this interesting article by William A. Pettit on the first struck Columbian half dollar. Thanks! This is from Volume 15, Number 3 (the April 1968 Convention issue). Here's an excerpt. -Editor

The first struck Columbian half dollar

Take a chance meeting, an incomplete library index card, and a tattered newspaper, and you have the keys to unlock one of the numismatic mysteries of the decade.

One day early in March of this year, a man came to me at my work in Chicago and asked if there were any coin shows in the area in the immediate future. I told him that the next show of import in the area was the P.N.G. show to be held in October. Then I became curious and said, “Why do you ask?”

He said, “First, I should identify myself,” and he handed me a card reading: “E. Leland Webber, Director, Field Museum of Natural History.” Immediately I was interested!

“We found something at the Museum that might be of interest to collectors, and we would like to have it exhibited at a show.”

“Oh? What's that?” I asked.

“The first Columbian Half Dollar!” was his reply.

Needless to say, this was a surprise and I became even more interested. I asked him just what it would take to have it placed on exhibit at the P.N.G. Show in the Fall.

He replied, “Well, mainly three things. First, that it has adequate protection while outside the Museum. Second, that the Museum get adequate recognition in the publicity concerning the exhibit. And the third is probably the most unusual and the most important; that is, that the coin is not now, nor ever will be, on display at the Museum. The coin is not a part of our regular collections. It is a part of the ‘accumulated memorabilia’ that all museums have. Wo feel, however, that such an item would be of interest to collectors.”

I assured him that we could undoubtedly meet all of these requirements, and that I was going to be at the Museum in a few weeks and would like to make any additional preparation that might be necessary, and also to see the coin.

A few weeks later I made an appointment with Mr. Webber and went to the Field Museum to see the coin. When I arrived, Mr. Webber was just preparing to leave town, so he turned me over to Mr. Norman Nelson, the business manager of the Museum. I mentioned to him that I had come to see the First Columbian Half Dollar. He told me to be seated while he went down to the vault to get the coin. When he returned, he asked me to step into the next room to look at it.

As I stepped into the room, I saw a wooden box about 2 feet wide, perhaps 3 feet long, and about 8 inches thick, and it seemed to me that this was a very large package for one little coin to come in. Inside the box was a heavy brass frame that opened like a book exposing four sides. On the first page was the following document:

“The undersigned testify that on the nineteenth day of December, 1892, we witnessed the breaking of the original sealed package from the mint, in which was enclosed the box marked ‘No. 1’, containing the First Columbian Half Dollar and the sworn certificate of the Superintendent of the Mint; and witnessed further the delivery of the said coin and certificate to Wyckoff, Seamans and Benedict, by Mr. H. N. Higinbotham, President of the Worlds’ Columbian Exposition. And we further testify that the identical coin was immediately enclosed in the accompanying glass case, and in our presence sealed up.”

This document was signed by 19 administrators of the Columbian Exposition Commission.

On the second page of the frame was a document written on stationery from the Mint of the United States at Philadelphia, Pa., from the Superintendent’s Office, dated November 19, 1892, which read as follows:

“I hereby certify that the souvenir coin in box marked No. 1 was the first piece struck from the dies adopted for the Columbian Half Dollar, and sealed up in my presence, and in the presence of the Coiner, and delivered to Mr. James W. Ellsworth, of the Columbian Exposition Directors.”

This was signed by the Superintendent, O. C. Bosbyshell, and duly notarized by William C. Work below the body of the letter.

On the third page, in between the sealed glass panels, was the coin — the first 1892 Columbian Half Dollar —the first United States Commemorative coin — a brilliant proof. With it on that page was a phototype of the $10,000 check paid by Wyekoff, Seamans and Benedict, on behalf of the Remington Typewriter Company, to purchase this first coin, and below were the signatures of H. N. Higinbotham and five members of the Finance Committee.

On the fourth page was another typewritten letter, this one by the manager of a safety deposit vault in Chicago, dated June 5, 1893:

“I hereby (certify) that the temporary sealed glass case containing the First Columbian Half Dollar was deposited in safety deposit drawer #6384 in our vault, in the presence of H. N. Higinbotham representing the World’s Columbian Exposition, and Mr. John F. McClain representing Wyekoff, Seamans and Benedict, on the nineteenth day of December, 1892, since which date the said drawer has never been opened until the fifth day of June, 1893, when in my presence and in the presence of the witnesses signed below, the identical sealed glass case was removed from drawer # 6384, and in my presence and in the presence of the witnesses signed below, the seals were broken, the glass case was opened, the coin removed, a private mark was engraved upon the face of it, and the same identical coin was then placed, with the certificate of the mint and and other documents testifying to its identity, between the plate - glass sheets of the accompanying case. The glass leaves were then cemented together, then securely cemented to the framework, the frames locked, the keys destroyed, and the keyholes filled up.”

The signatures of the witnesses are below that of the vault manager.

As you noticed in the preceding document, ‘a small private mark was engraved upon the face of it.” I was concerned about this because I thought an otherwise flawless coin might have been damaged. It came to mind also that if this coin were displayed, people would be searching for the mark and it would be wise to know its location.

So I took out my magnifying glass and went over the face of the coin very carefully. Only after longs searching and looking did I find what I presumed to be the private mark. In the triangle formed by the bottom of Columbus’ hair, the back of his neck and the collar of his garment, was a small nick as if someone had taken the point of a jacknife and made the mark.

And that was the private mark put, on June 5, 1893, in the most inconspicuous spot that one could imagine!

I was unaware of (or had forgotten about) the private mark on this famous coin. This is a great example of the wonderful bits of numismatic information awaiting discovery (or rediscovery) by researchers. Every new generation of collectors is schooled by the current books and publications of their day, but is often completely unaware of information openly published in the past. A numismatic library is the hobby's storehouse of knowledge for the ages. Len came across this item randomly; it is just one example of the great information that awaits the reader. There is much more to the story - in fact, the article is continued in the July issue. -Editor

To read the complete article on the Newman Portal's Internet Archive collection, see:
The Resurrection of the First Columbian Half Dollar (


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