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A Brief History of the Racketeer Nickel

A fraudulent 5-cent piece dug up in Deadwood may not be very valuable, but its story is worth its weight in gold

Deadwood's Racketeer Nickel (City of Deadwood)
smithsonian.com

In 2001, reports Tom Griffith at the Rapid City Journal, archeologists in Deadwood, South Dakota, uncovered a cache of more than 200 coins while excavating part of the Old West city’s Chinatown. The coins were catalogued and in 2009 transferred to a storage facility in Deadwood's city hall. But recently, coin experts Margie and Kevin Akin took another look at the stash. While they found that many of the objects were brass religious medals or gaming tokens, one coin did stand out: an 1883 racketeer nickel.

According to one tall tale, the racketeer nickel was developed after the U.S. mint issued the Liberty nickel in 1883. On one side it had the head of Liberty. On the obverse, it simply had the Roman numeral V and nowhere did it spell out its value as 5 cents. As it so happened, the nickel was close in size to the $5 gold piece, which had a similar design. So, as the story goes, a man named Josh Tatum began gold-plating the nickels and passing them off as $5 gold coins, for instance buying a 5-cent cigar then placing the coin on the counter and getting $4.95 in change. When he was finally caught, he was exonerated since he was unable to speak, and thus never actually misrepresented the currency.

While that story is apocryphal, the nickels are not. The problem is, points out Sarah Laskow at Atlas Obscura, they are easily faked and show up regularly on eBay. The Akins tell Griffith that the Deadwood nickel is only worth about 10 cents because of its poor condition, but that’s not the point. What makes the Deadwood coin special is that it may be the only racketeer nickel to actually show up in an archeological dig. The fact that it was found in situ in Deadwood gives it meaning even if it’s not valuable. “It’s pretty easy to plate a nickel,” says Kevin Akin. “It makes such a great story, but they’re fakes. None of them has the provenance of this particular coin, the Deadwood Racketeer Nickel.”

Griffith reports that newspaper accounts from Deadwood in 1880s say people weren’t actually trying to pass off the nickels at the poker table (and risk getting shot over the ruse). Instead, young men used the gold-plated coins as cuff buttons that “to the uninitiated look for all the world like genuine five-dollar gold pieces.”

Griffith reports that U.S. Treasury officials publicly scoffed at the idea that the coins could ever be used for counterfeiting, but that was probably just a smoke screen. Coin Trackers reports that they wised up and began printing the word “Cents” on the back of the coins starting in 1884. The nickel was produced until 1913 when it was replaced by the buffalo nickel.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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