The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 8, February 24, 2019, Article 21


Fact or Myth Racketeer Nickels banner

NNP Project Coordinator Len Augsburger writes:

The earliest mention of Josh Tatum found on the Newman Numismatic Portal is in the October, 1958 issue of Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine.

Len provided a copy of the text to Lianna Spurrier and Julia Purdy for their research into the Josh Tatum story. Julia's found an earlier version. -Editor

Julia writes:

I found a slightly older mention of Joshua Tatum / Josh Tatum and the 1883 nickels. This is from May 22, 1955 and it attributes the story to Brooklyn/New Jersey numismatist Charles H. Ryan. I believe he is one and the same as Cecil H. Ryan - I'm not sure why he started using a different name. The author of this piece Michael "Mickey" MacDougall "The Card Detective" is quite a character too!

I transcribed the article from the "Camerica" Sunday magazine of the Dayton Daily News. I think it was likely published in multiple newspapers across the country but I only found this one printing.

There are two parts to this newspaper article. The first part describes Ryan's interactions with the U.S. Secret Service over his production of what seem to be repousse "push-out" coins. The second part is Ryan's Joshua Tatum story. -Editor


By Michael MacDougall
Exposer of Cheats, Swindlers

Josh Tatum and the Nickel Gyp Game I HEREBY confer the title of man of distinction on Charles H. Ryan, new Jersey's well-known numismatist. He certainly deserves the honor, for Ryan is the only man I have ever known who has won an argument with the United States Secret Service. True, he had an unfair advantage, for the argument was about coins and on that subject Charles Ryan is an authority. He is immediate past president of the Brooklyn Coin Club and currently a candidate for the board of governors of the American Numismatic association.

Recently Ryan purchased a set of dies which made ordinary dimes, quarters and halves into objects of beauty by raising the central design. Rings, brooches and bracelets are manufactured from the transformed coins.

Economically the venture was a success but Ryan ran into unexpected difficulties. He was summoned to the New York office of the Secret Service and informed that he had violated a federal regulation pertaining to the defacement of U.S. coins. The law says briefly, that anyone who mutilates or alters a United States coin, with intent to defraud, and attempts to pass same for face value or more, is guilty of a felony, punishable by fine and/or imprisonment. A serious charge, said the G-men.

But the trouble was more apparent than real. Ryan pointed out that there had been no intent to defraud and, moreover, he had not attempted to pass the coins but had sold them for jewelry.

The agents checked with government lawyers and eventually agreed.

This experience set Ryan to thinking about the reason for such a law. He did some investigating and came up with a curious tale. Back in 1883, a deaf-mute named Joshua Tatum made a small fortune by slightly altering a coin and passing it for one hundred times its face value.

The item in question was the first design of the liberty head nickel, so-called because it portrayed a woman's head wearing a liberty headpiece on the obverse. On the reverse was the motto: 'E Pluribus Unum" and a large "V." The "V," the Roman numeral for 5 was the only indication of value.

The half eagle, or $5 gold piece, was in general circulation at the time. It also displayed a woman's head with a liberty headpiece on the obverse. On the opposite side was the sign of value, "Five D.," denoting $5.

Tatum, noticed that the two coins, when held heads up were almost alike. About the only difference was the color--white for the nickel, yellow for the half-eagle.

A visit to an unscrupulous jeweler was first on the agenda. The nickel, when gold plated, looked just like the gold piece. Joshua Tatum ordered a thousand so treated.

His first victim was a Boston tobacco dealer. Tatum pointed to a Pittsburgh stogie, selling for five cents, and paid with one of the doctored nickels, placing it face up on the counter.

The unsuspecting tradesman saw the gleaming yellow coin with the familiar Liberty head, long associated with the half-eagle. He tossed the coin into the cash drawer, handed Tatum $4.95 in change.

A hundred times that day, in a hundred different stores, Joshua Tatum repeated the gyp game. He never bought anything costing more than a nickel, he always laid the phony gold piece face up on the counter. A few merchants casually turned the coin over, saw the V for five, and took it for granted it was a newly issued $5 gold piece.

The first 1000 were all passed in the city of Boston. Then, Tatum ordered 10,000 and started on the road. Shortly cities all along the Atlantic seaboard were complaining to the Secret Service about the nickel which could masquerade as gold.

Eventually, Joshua Tatum was caught. At the trial the government paraded a long line of witnesses, all of whom testified that they had been bilked out of $4.95 by the defendant.

When Tatum's lawyer took over he asked each witness just one question. "Had Tatum ever asked for change?"

Always the answer was the same -- "No,"-- he had merely laid down the fraudulent coin and accepted the change offered. Indeed, since Tatum was a deaf mute, he could hardly have done otherwise.

The defense attorney asked for a dismissal on the grounds that Tatum hadn't cheated the merchants, they had cheated themselves! And, on that technicality, Joshua Tatum was acquitted.

In an emergency session Congress authorized the mint to change the design of the new nickel. The words "Five Cents" was substituted for the "V" and "E Pluribus Unum."

Julia adds:

The Scrapbook piece is from 1958 and the C.H. Ryan / MacDougall article is from 1955. The text of the Tatum tale is very similar on both publications. It may have started with Ryan and/or MacDougall -- but I wouldn't be at all surprised if something earlier turns up.

Pete Smith writes:

About twenty years ago I worked for a large international law firm. We employed a records clerk who went to law school and returned to work for us during the summer. I told him the story of Josh Tatum and asked if he could do a check through legal records to confirm the story. He was unable to find any record of a court case involving Tatum. I became more convinced that the Tatum story is a myth.

Emergency session of Congress? I doubt that. As Paul Schultz and others have pointed out, parts of this tale are hard to swallow.

Thanks to Len, Julia and Pete for their sleuthing work. If a court case can't be found the entire story is suspect.

Was this the source for subsequent retellings of the tale in numismatic circles? Time will tell - can any earlier published version be found? See Julia's article (next up in this issue) for more information on Cecil "Charles" Ryan.

Here's a thought: If Ryan was making repousse coins, was he making gold-plated "Racketeer" nickels as well? His newspaper article provides a perfect background story. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:

Wayne Homren, Editor

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