USA Coin Album: An Infamous Anniversary

Posted on 10/14/2014

2014 marks the 60th anniversary of one of the more bizarre episodes in American numismatics.

Before addressing the exact subject of this column, I want to preface it by saying that I have in my numismatic library many odd and forgotten publications that rarely appear within the bibliographies of more prominent and popular books. Some of these monographs may have caused a stir when published, only to recede into obscurity with the passing of years. Some are quite old, while others are recent enough that persons still active in the hobby will recall them when the titles are mentioned. Among the little gems in this latter category is a monograph written and published by Dwight H. Stuckey in 1982 titled The Counterfeit 1944 Jefferson Nickel. My copy is signed by the author and dated “May – 1982,” but I have no recollection of when or where I acquired it.

Stuckey tells the tale of one Francis Leroy Henning of Erial, New Jersey, who briefly gained notoriety in 1955 when he was caught counterfeiting several dates of Jefferson nickels. His counterfeiting actually seems to have been perpetrated mostly during the previous year, but it did not become public knowledge until the following spring. Henning, who was 64 at the time of his capture, had used a mechanical transfer process to create six obverse dies of different dates and a single reverse. These were used in combination to produce the five dates known to exist: 1939, 1944, 1946, 1947 and 1953. The sixth date was never determined, and all of his nickels had no mintmark. Of course, anyone familiar with the Jefferson series will see immediately how at least one of Henning’s products was spotted as false—all 1944 genuine nickels, regardless of mint, carry a large mintmark above the dome of Monticello.

Indeed, it was coin collectors who first reported counterfeit 1944 nickels circulating in or around Camden, New Jersey, in the southern part of the state. Not only did the 1944 pieces lack the requisite mintmark, they were seemingly of the same copper-nickel composition as normal nickels. Unfortunately for Henning, who was clearly not a numismatist, the nickels coined from late 1942 through 1945 were of a copper-silver-manganese composition that became rather dark in circulation and looked quite different from worn copper-nickel pieces.

Perhaps the first person to report a counterfeit 1944 nickel was Harmon K. Rodgers, a New Jersey resident and a coin collector. He contacted the Secret Service as early as October of 1954, and further counterfeit nickels were brought to the attention of various banks in the Camden area by other collectors. A sampling of these pieces, $2.40 worth according to Stuckey, was submitted to the Secret Service in December by a teller at the Pennsauken National Bank named Emil Bissig. All had been turned into the bank by local coin collectors, as yet the only persons who were not being fooled by the fakes. Other dates in their possession included 1946 and 1947 nickels.

In consultation with the U. S. Mint in Philadelphia, agent Robert J. Motto was told by Mint Clerk Margaret Bainbridge that wartime nickels were made of a different composition than the usual one and that this certainly accounted for the slightly off color reported by collectors for the suspect nickels. Amazingly, she added that the Philadelphia Mint doesn’t normally use mintmarks, so their absence on the 1944 pieces was not a cause for alarm! It seems that Henning wasn’t the only person to be uninformed about the wartime issues.

Collectors continued to insist that the coins were fake, and one individual, Walter Williams of Merchantville, New Jersey, sent three samples dated 1944, 1946 and 1947 to Rae Biester, Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint. She forwarded them to Mint Director William H. Brett in Washington, DC, and Brett had the coins analyzed. They were found to be both overweight and slightly oversize.

The Secret Service was now convinced that it had a problem on its hands, and letters were sent to banks in the Camden area to be on the lookout for phony nickels. Few were found, as bank tellers lacked sufficient numismatic knowledge, and the fakes were clearly good enough to fool most people. In frustration the agents then began contacting coin clubs around the country, and the Secret Service briefly considered placing an announcement in The Numismatist before rejecting the idea. It turned out that all of the counterfeit nickels were still surfacing in the Camden-Philadelphia area. At the May 23, 1955 meeting of the Camden Coin Club, agents Abel and Clemens were in attendance and were shown multiple examples of several dates. A reporter learned of this meeting, and the story was soon in all of the area newspapers.

This publicity spooked Francis Henning, and he fled to Cleveland, dumping his remaining supply of fake nickels in Cooper Creek near Haddonfield, New Jersey. His makeshift mint was discovered in August, when a worker sent to clean out the building vacated by Henning found an assortment of metalworking machinery and some 67,000 blanks for making nickels. Now that agents had a name to go with the coins, Henning was apprehended just weeks later in Cleveland. Ironically, Henning was a known counterfeiter who had been routinely investigated a couple of times during the nickel search without anyone becoming suspicious. He ended up getting additional prison time for printing fake $5 notes while in Cleveland!

David W. Lange's column, “USA Coin Album,” appears monthly in the Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.

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