The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 21, Number 25, June 24, 2018, Article 20

Researcher Dan Owens submitted this original article on the branch mint documents lost in the sinking of the S.S. Central America. -Editor

In 1857-1858, after the S.S. Central America foundered in a hurricane off the Carolinas on September 12th, the Director of the United States Mint, James Ross Snowden, and the San Francisco Branch Mint Superintendent Charles H. Hempstead exchanged several letters which in part cited the wreck. The main focus of their discussion revolved around handwritten copies of key San Francisco Branch Mint records that were lost with the ship.

The date of August 20th referred to in the letter excerpts, marked the morning that the steamship S.S. Sonora departed from her berth in San Francisco Bay and headed down to Panama. Her valuable cargo included over 400 passengers, the twice-monthly California gold treasure shipment and mail bags. The first leg of the passage by sea ended with a quick trip ashore and a crossing by light rail from the Pacific side of the Isthmus to Aspinwall on the Caribbean Sea where the S.S. Central America lay in wait for the voyage back to New York.

The Melter & Refiner cited in the letters was Agoston Haraszthy who was accused of a $152,000 shortfall of gold in the Branch Mint's account books.

The following excerpts are from Snowden writing to Hempstead.

Mint of the United States
Philadelphia Sept. 19th, 1857

“You have doubtless written to me by the mail which was on board the steamship “Central America”. We have the awful news of the loss of this ship at sea and of a large portion of the passengers, and the treasure on board as well all the Mail Bags.

I had expected by this steamer to receive your final report of the conclusion of the settlement of the late Melter & Refiner's account, and also the estimates for the next fiscal year.

In case your reports came forward by the last mail (viz. 20th ultimo.). I have to request that you will send me duplicates (if not already done) by the earliest opportunity...”

The Bullion Fund cited in the following correspondence gave the Branch Mint the power of paying coin to its depositors as soon as the value of their gold deposits were determined by assay. This was critical in California's high interest rate environment, where wasted time was lost money. Most miners, merchants and bankers in need of coin on the exigencies of steamer day could not afford to wait while their gold deposits sat in line waiting to be coined. Funded by the U.S. Treasury, the Bullion Fund was withdrawn during the financial crisis of 1857.

SSCA Sept. 19 1857_Update300

Mint of the United States
Philadelphia October 6 th , 1857

“In your last letter you refer to certain statements, accounts & c. forwarded to me by the preceding mail (viz. that of the 20th of August last). As the mail was lost at sea, I am not in possession of the details of the deficiency in the Bullion Fund of your branch referred to in your letter of the 4th ultimo., you also speak of the accounts of the late Melter & Refiner having been closed prior to forwarding of your letter by the mail of 20th August last. From this remark I infer that an official account of the settlement and statement of the precise amount of the deficit of the late Melter & Refiner was mailed to me on the 20th of August last. In my communication of the 19th ultimo. I informed you of the great calamity that had befallen the steamship “Central America” and the loss of the mail bags & c and requested you to forward me duplicates of all the papers addressed to me by that mail. The receipt of these duplicates is looked for with much anxiety, and I trust that the records of your office will enable you to supply them without much trouble...”

SSCA ship_Update300

Mint of the United States
Philadelphia December 4 th , 1857

“I have to acknowledge the receipt of your favor of the 4th ultimo. with the enclosures stated and a package containing the assay coins of your Branch Mint, reserved from the coinage of October, also duplicates of certain documents forwarded by the steamer “Central America”...”

“It is greatly to be regretted that the accounts forwarded by the “Central America” have been lost . The manner in which you propose to supply them is all that can be done; the employment of an additional temporary clerk is certainly proper...”

SFBM 1856 article_Update300

Mint of the United States
Philadelphia Jan. 4 th , 1858

...“As regards the extra compensation claimed by the clerks you name for services in preparing duplicates of the papers lost with the "Central America" I make the general remark that under repeated decisions of the Department such allowances cannot be made to persons in the service of the government whose compensation is fixed by law. If I had any doubts on this subject I would refer it to the Department; but the present Secretary of the Treasury as I know decided this point in the way I have indicated....

The fact you notice of finding gold in the rubbish carted from the Branch Mint is very remarkable, and indeed startling. But Mr. Haraszthy's operations were of such a character as to prepare one for almost anything. I therefore am not surprised. It shows gross carelessness or something worse.

The accounts of your Branch Mint for the 2nd & 3rd quarter of 1857 (lost with the steamer “Central America”) are in course of examination here (at the request of the auditor) preparatory to their transmission to Washington.

I may state that a subpoena was served on me recently to attend the trial of Mr. Haraszthy on the part of the defendant, and bring certain papers with me. Of course I cannot respond personally to the subpoena, but by next mail I will forward to you the papers asked for and request you to hand them to the court.”

                     Very Respectfully
                     James Ross Snowden
                     Director of the Mint

Charles H. Hempstead Esq.
Supt. Br Mint
San Francisco

As Robert Leonard pointed out to the author, the mint was churning out a million dollars or more in gold coins every month. Yet they refused to pay overtime to the clerks hired to reproduce the important Branch Mint records lost in a tragedy.

In the end, it was found that Haraszthy did not owe the government a single cent. The bulk of the Mint's losses had occurred by running the Refinery day and night to satisfy depositor demand. Under this heavy work load, fine gold was being drawn up the Refineries chimneys and settling on the Branch Mint's roof and the roof tops of nearby buildings.

Harazthy went on to become a famed agriculturalist in California with extensive vineyards under his watch. He passed away in 1869 in Central America, believed to have been snatched by an alligator from the bank of a river in Nicaragua or perhaps he drowned. His body was never found and may have simply been washed out to sea.

Note that although records were lost with the ship, the Mint thankfully had copies, as inferred from the Jan. 4 1858 letter. -Editor

Dan Owens adds:

The 2nd and 3rd quarter San Francisco Branch Mint accounts must have been re-copied by the SFBM clerks and successfully re-sent to Philadelphia on another steamer. Also see the December 4, 1857 letter acknowledging receipt of duplicates of certain documents.


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