The wild west of the late 19th century has yielded many fascinating stories rooted in both fact and fiction. This lesser-known story revolves around a bit of both.
In 1883, the U.S. issued their newly designed nickel which featured a vignette of Lady Liberty on the obverse and a Roman numeral “V” on the reverse which denoted 5 cents value. Some bunko artists of the era noticed that the coin had a striking resemblance to the current $5 gold coin; further tempting was that the U.S. did not include the word “cents” anywhere on the coin. A bit of gold-plating and we have an early counterfeit, the Racketeer Nickel.
Any Old West story deserves embellishment and this next one is what made the Racketeer Nickel famous. It goes that a man named Josh Tatum saw the potential of this opportunity and began to gold plate these nickels as they were so similar in size and design. He’d then walk into a general store, buy a 5-cent cigar, place down one of these gold-plated nickels and would receive $4.95 back in change. This happened a number of times. Finally, he was caught and put up for trial, but was never convicted guilty. His sly lawyer, knowing that Josh Tatum was a mute, defended that Mr Tatum never verbally misrepresented the currency and the judge ruled it as the shop owner’s error. Shortly after, the U.S. mint released a new slew of 1883 nickels with the words “cents” along the bottom of the coin’s reverse.
While that story might be widely accepted as a tall one, the nickels and their history are not. It has been researched, though, that many people who held these gold-plated nickels would use them as cufflinks, impressing anyone green enough to not know the difference from a $5 gold coin.