USA Coin Album: Scrapbook Gold - Part 3

Whenever I’m stumped over what to write for this column, I return to my series of massive scrapbooks within which are all the articles and news items of interest that I’ve saved over the years.

This installment of “Scrapbook Gold” is prompted by an article written by Joseph M. Scheidler that ran in the May 1971 issue of COINS Magazine. It tells the tale of two half dollar pieces that played a role in history that the US Mint never anticipated and which have been preserved to the present day within the Chicago Historical Society Museum.

These two halves are dated 1854 and 1861, respectively, though there’s no obvious way to determine their mints of origin. Both coins are mounted face up on a single strip of black cardboard, and the mintmark, if any, is thus not visible. The coins are not glued to the cardboard; instead they are secured to it by a black ribbon running through holes drilled at the top and bottom of each coin. This ribbon then runs through holes at either end of the cardboard strip, and a seal of black wax placed between the two coins holds the entire assembly together. The coins may be lifted a bit from the cardboard, and, were it not for the ribbon passing over the mintmark area of each, it might be possible to view that portion of the coin. In a 1996 follow-up article for The Gobrecht Journal Joseph Scheidler revealed that he and Tom DeLorey re-examined the coins, and Tom was able to identify the 1861 piece as a Philadelphia striking by comparing its edge reeding count against a sample coin brought along for that purpose.

Why were these coins preserved in such a fashion? The answer lies in the brief role they played in a national tragedy. These two halves were placed over the eyes of slain President Abraham Lincoln as he lay on his deathbed, April 15, 1865. They were placed there to hold his eyelids closed and were replacements for the cent pieces initially used for that purpose. A series of letters that accompany this historic relic tell the whole story of how Colonel George V. Rutherford, present at the time of Lincoln’s death, placed the cents upon the president’s eyes. It was not stated whether these coins were the then-current small cents or the earlier large cents, still circulating to some extent. If the former, they were perhaps too light for the job at hand. If the latter, Rutherford may have thought them too humble to secure the eyelids of such a great figure. Whatever the reason, Colonel Rutherford quickly replaced the cents with two circulated half dollars from his own pocket.

Such coins were not in general circulation at the time, as silver and gold carried a premium over federal paper money throughout the war years, but some persons carried them as pocket pieces. The two halves held by the CHS are just moderately worn, reflecting their brief period of circulation, and both are blackened by years of idle storage at the museum.

Colonel Rutherford removed these coins from the president’s body as it was being taken away in preparation for burial, and he set them aside as personal mementos of the sad occasion. Weeks later, however, he began to read accounts by other persons who were present that day claiming that they had, in fact, been the person who performed this simple act of respect for Abraham Lincoln by placing the coins upon his eyes at the time of death. Determined to set the record straight, Rutherford solicited letters from eye witnesses to the occasion that would confirm his unique role.

Among those who responded was Brevet Major Montgomery C. Meigs, one of Rutherford’s fellow officers within the Quartermaster General’s office. In a letter dated September 6, 1865 Meigs wrote, “I certify, that on the morning of the 15th of April, 1865, soon after the late President expired, the Honorable E. M. Stanton, Secretary of War, directed Colonel Geo. V. Rutherford, in my presence and hearing, to place some pennies upon MR. LINCOLN’S eyes. Col. Rutherford placed the pennies upon MR. LINCOLN’S eyes, as directed, but immediately substituted Two Silver Half-dollar Pieces.” Two similar statements were provided by Major General C. C. Augur and Brevet Major D. H. Rucker, respectively, who were likewise present at the scene that day. Rutherford himself penned a letter detailing the exact circumstances and declaring that the coins mounted to the cardboard sheet were the very ones placed upon the president’s eyes. He also noted that the wax seal carried his letter “R” in old English script. All four testimonial letters were printed upon a single sheet of paper dated September 21, 1865 and then signed individually by the persons who wrote them. The coins and their cardboard mounting had been attached to the sheet, and the completed document was then presented by Colonel Rutherford to his son, Ralph Hurlbut Rutherford.

It’s not certain how this document and its attached coins came to be in the possession of the Chicago Historical Society. The CHS first catalogued it in 1926, giving the acquisition an “X” designation, indicating that it was of unknown provenance. There was some speculation that it was included in the massive collection of historic memorabilia purchased by the CHS around 1920 from the widow and surviving son of famed collector Charles F. Gunther. Mr. Gunther had died that year, and the CHS negotiated a price of $21,316.20 for the entire collection, which was an eclectic mix of American and world items. In all likelihood this numismatically interesting document was included as part of that extensive purchase.

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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