Paul Schultz submitted these notes on his attempt to track down Josh Tatum of Racketeer Nickel fame. Thanks! -Editor
A couple of weeks ago you published a link to the Coin Week article about the legend of Josh Tatum and the No Cents nickel. I decided to look into
the plausibility of the story.
I did a search of the 1880 US census for anyone named Josh or Joshua Tatum in Boston. There was nobody even close to that name there at that time. In fact,
nobody with a name remotely similar to Josh or Joshua Tatum/Tatem is in any of the northern states in the 1850, 1860, 1870, 1880 or 1900 US censuses. Tennessee
has a Joshua Tatum in the first 4 of those censuses, Mississippi has one in 1870, and Alabama has one in 1900. There is one in Louisiana in 1850 who could be
the same one as the one from Alabama in 1900. There are no death or cemetery records that I found for a Josh Tatum in northern states in the 1800s. No
genealogies on Ancestry.com list a Josh Tatum from the north in the 1800s.
As a broad statement, Tatum is not that common a surname, and most people with that surname in the 1800s are from a southern state. This is not absolute
proof that the story is false, but it is circumstantial evidence that the story is rather doubtful. It is plausible that a Josh Tatum went north for a few
years in 1881-1885, plated some nickels, and then went back south. Or he might have come from Canada, or England, or some other place and left quickly after
the nickel incident. Or the census could have missed him, it is known that censuses are not complete, but missing him 4 or 5 times seems highly unlikely.
People obviously did move residences back in those days, but frequent relocations like today were rare.
All in all, I can prove nothing, but based on circumstantial evidence I strongly suspect that the story was a tall tale for the amusement of others. Perhaps
it is no coincidence that the original story, from a source in Virginia, came from an area of the country where the surname Tatum is not as unusual.
In addition to the previous data on a Josh Tatum, there is another aspect of the story that raises eyebrows. It states that he made $15,000 before being
caught. At a nickel coin being converted illegally to $5, it would require roughly 3,030 nickels to be plated and successfully spent to make $15,000 (including
the face value of the nickel, but not counting plating costs). First, apparently not 1 person in over 3000 realized it was a plated new style nickel they were
receiving. This seems unlikely. Second, if he walked into a different shop every half hour to spend one, for 8 hours per day, every day, that would be a lot of
spending to unload 16 coins per day.
Transportation time between cities is not included here, just time for walking from store to store, as if they were all in a row. At that rate, he would
need to spend them every day, 8 hours per day, for 190 days (over 7 months, since stores were closed on Sundays in 1883) to make $15,000. It doesn't seem
possible that he could have traveled between many cities and had time to spend enough nickels/$5 coins to profit $15,000 in a few months. And even if the new
nickel design were unknown at first, surely at least some people would have become aware of the new nickel before 7 months had passed, and would have caught
him sooner. The amount of time it would take to profit by $15,000 questions the credibility of the entire story.
Thanks. This is one of those zombie stories that never dies. Author Lianna Spurrier did a fine job navigating the uncertainties. -Editor
To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:
LOOSE CHANGE: FEBRUARY 3, 2019 (https://www.coinbooks.org/v22/esylum_v22n05a34.html)
Wayne Homren, Editor
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