Facebook Pixel

The Tale of Josh Tatum and His 1883 Racketeer Nickel

2022-09-26 18:00:00
The Tale of Josh Tatum and His 1883 Racketeer Nickel
Posted in: News, News

The Tale of Josh Tatum and His 1883 Racketeer Nickel

In numismatics, there are several factors that could draw a collector to a particular coin. Some of the most popular coins in US history are those with an interesting story. The 1883 “Racketeer Nickel” is the prime example of an iconic coin whose popularity stems from its wild origin tale.

In 1883, the Mint debuted the brand-new Liberty Head Nickel as the successor to the retired Shield Nickel. Like the Liberty Head gold coins of the day, the new nickel’s obverse displayed a left-facing bust of Lady Liberty. This was customary of the time, and if one were not paying attention, coins of the same size could easily be mistaken for one another.

The Liberty Head Nickel’s reverse was fairly nondescript, as its main design element was the Roman numeral for five to indicate the coin’s denomination of five cents. The failure to explicitly state “five cents,” however, left room for a crafty mind to take advantage of the design.

The legend goes that in February 1883, a deaf-mute Bostonian named Josh Tatum realized the Liberty Head Nickel and Liberty Head Half Eagle were roughly the same size. He also noticed the absence of “cents” below the Roman numeral five on the nickel. Upon these realizations, Tatum saw an opportunity and wasted no time in executing his plan.

Tatum quickly gathered 1,000 nickels and took them to a local pawn shop, where he asked a broker to plate the coins in gold. The broker obliged, and it was time for Tatum to put his theory to the test.

To Tatum’s delight, his hunch had proven correct: he was, in fact, able to pass the gold-plated nickels off as half eagles. So, from store to store he went, purchasing items for the cost of a nickel and receiving $4.95 in change.

Tatum successfully turned his scheme into a rather lucrative endeavor. According to the legend, he went from town to town, scamming any store owner who fell for his tricks. In total, he accumulated a whopping $15,000 from his fraudulent nickels!

However, despite a good run, Tatum was eventually caught and arrested for his swindling scheme. After his arrest, charges were pressed and he headed to trial.

As if Tatum hadn’t had enough luck, he caught a very fortunate break in the courtroom. His lawyer, who was apparently as clever as his client, found an opening to beating the prosecution.

Tatum’s inability to speak, his lawyer argued, meant he could not have told the storekeepers the coins were worth five dollars. He simply placed the coins on the counter and received the change he was given. Unable to combat the defense’s claims, the prosecutor had no choice but to acquit Tatum on all charges!

After the ordeal, the Mint wasted no time in altering the nickels’ design to place “cents” under the Roman numeral five.

The specific details of Tatum’s scheme, and whether he was the sole faux nickel distributor, are subject to debate. Regardless, these nickels are now a collector favorite, with an origin story more ridiculous and humorous than any coin. Rare Collectibles TV proudly offers a variety of silver nickels, including the Liberty Nickel.