Coin Profiles – The Phantom Silver Dollars Of 1895

By Tom DeLoreyHarlan J Berk Ltd. .....
 

The Morgan dollar has long been one of the most popular American coin series, apparently second only to the Lincoln cent in the number of people who collect it in some manner, and the 1895-P dollar has long been called “The King of Morgan Dollars.”

1895 Morgan Silver Dollar. Proof-64 Cameo (PCGS). CAC.

1895 Morgan Silver Dollar. Proof-64 Cameo (PCGS). CAC.
Photo Courtesy of Stack's Bowers

However, for an equally long time it has been one of the more frustrating series to the collector who seeks completeness in his sets, as no numismatist has ever been able to fill the 1895-P hole in his Whitman album or Capital plastic holder with a genuine business strike specimen, despite a reported mintage of exactly 12,000 coins.

Wealthy collectors have usually been able to fill that hole with one of the 880 Proofs struck in that year, always available at a healthy price several times what a Proof from a “common” year would bring, and I have even seen a few sets where an 1895-P gold Double Eagle rattled about the dollar-sized hole.

Perhaps a hundred of the Proofs are currently known in various circulated conditions at slightly more reasonable prices, having been spent over the years by hard-up collectors during the Great Depression, children buying candy without their Father’s knowledge and garden-variety thieves, and it is not impossible that another fifty or so have been permanently lost due to lengthy circulation and/or melting. Many hundreds of 1895-O&S dollars also exist with their mint marks removed, though most of those so altered were mutilated many years ago before the branch mint coins of this year became expensive, (in part because so many of them were altered!)

Conventional wisdom has long held that the 12,000 business strikes must have been melted down in accordance with the Pittman Act of 1918, when the U.S. government reduced some 270,000,000 silver dollars to bar form and shipped the bars to India. There the British government, bankrupted by the war in Europe but desperately in need of the war materiels provided by its colonial empire, converted the silver into Rupees to pay the workers producing these goods. It is hard to say if the colonial subjects would have felt enough loyalty to a foreign monarch to have continued to work for free, but the monarch probably slept better knowing he did not have to test this loyalty.

Though none was ever found, reference books continued to list the 12,000 pieces as having been struck, and collectors held out the hope that someday, somewhere one of them would turn up. Collectors remembered how the extremely rare 1903-O Morgan dollar, most of which had indeed disappeared in 1918, became much less rare in 1962 when several hundred thousand pieces were discovered in Treasury vaults, and various second or third hand reports about findings of so-called business strike 1895’s, invariably circulated Proofs, kept the myth alive.

Even now I hear the numismatic equivalents of “urban legends” about how supposedly the famous coin dealer B. Max Mehl kept an original bag of 1895-P dollars in his safe, or that the Las Vegas Mafia has two bags, or other such nonsense. Now, however, there is convincing evidence that the 12,000 business strikes reported for 1895 never existed, or at least that if 12,000 coins were released in 1895 they were actually dated 1894!

1895 Morgan Silver Dollar Reverse

1895 Morgan Silver Dollar. Proof-64 Cameo (PCGS). CAC.
Photo courtesy of Stack's Bowers

In preparing mintage figure lists for “The Coin World Almanac” and the “Coin World Comprehensive Catalog & Encyclopedia of United States Coins” over the years I had long suspected that the 12,000 coins reported for 1895 were a phantom bookkeeping entry, like the four 1854-C Type I gold dollars listed in the U.S. Mint Report as having been struck in that year which were actually 1853-C dollars sent to the Philadelphia Mint for the 1854 Assay Commission to examine, but lost in transit and cleared from the accounts via a bookkeeping entry in 1854.

The other likelihood was that they were merely leftover 1894 dollars that for some reason had never been released, as I knew that it was normal practice in this era for the Mints to carry small, leftover amounts of struck silver coins that would not fill up solid $1,000 bags over to the next year and include them in the first bag of that year’s coinage (and in its Mint Report as well!), but I could never figure out why they would have held over 12 solid bags of dollars.

Unfortunately, I could never prove either hypothesis, just as I have never been able to prove that the 700 Seated Liberty dollars reported out of the San Francisco Mint for 1873 were merely leftover 1872-S dollars held back because they did not make up a full bag, but released in 1873 after the denomination was discontinued and it was realized that the rest of the bag was not forthcoming.

Q. David Bowers, in his monumental “Silver Dollars & Trade Dollars of the United States, An Encyclopedia,” presents an amazingly in-depth reference source of contemporary accounts of all U.S. dollars that could not be duplicated without a lifetime of research. While having the privilege to read this book in galley form, I noticed a comment from George W. Rice in an article from the June, 1898 Numismatist that I had not seen before, which stated “In 1895, Proofs only, numbering less than 1,000, were struck.”

This comment has generally been overlooked in the modern study of Morgan dollars, yet it clearly states that no business strikes were known to exist or had even been produced long before the 1918 melting occurred. Bowers also quotes Pennsylvania dealer, ANA Governor and for many years the ANA’s official counterfeit detector Charles Steigerwalt as writing in “The Curio” in December of 1898 that “Dollars of 1895 from the Philadelphia Mint are only found in the Proof sets.”

Henry T. Hettger has followed up on the questions raised in Bowers’ book with an article published in the May/June 1994 issue of Bowers and Merena’s “Rare Coin Review” that does prove to my satisfaction that the 1895 business strikes never existed.

Hettger begins by explaining how the Sherman Silver Purchase Act of 1890 effectively bankrupted the U.S. by requiring the Treasury to purchase 187.5 tons of silver each month, paying for the silver with Treasury Notes which were redeemable in either gold or silver coin. When the clout-heavy mine owners redeemed the notes they usually received gold, although the law authorizing them stated that the Secretary of the Treasury could, at his discretion, have paid them off in silver dollars, thereby depleting the country’s gold reserves and causing a Bank Panic and Depression in 1893.

The Act was repealed in 1893, and the Mint, with hundreds of millions of unwanted silver dollars already in storage, quickly cut back on the coinage of additional dollars. Only 110,000 business strike dollars were reported for the Philadelphia Mint in 1894, though the San Francisco and New Orleans Mints continued to churn out over a million each.

In January of 1895 the Director of the Mint, in an attempt to help rebuild the Treasury’s gold reserves, ordered the Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint to henceforth pay out silver dollars only upon the receipt of gold coins in payment of them. This cut the already weak demand for dollars down to almost zero, and with millions in reserve gave the Mint no reason to strike new ones.

Hettger then presents a brilliant piece of research into a heretofore unsuspected mine of information, the Philadelphia Mint’s file of requests for silver dollars in 1895. In that era the Mints were much more amenable to selling their wares than, say, in the 1960’s, and it was perfectly normal for collectors and businesses alike to write directly to each Mint and to request to purchase both Proof and Uncirculated specimens of that and/or previous years.

I once purchased a complete run of S-Mint Morgan and Peace dollars from 1921 to 1928 along with a letter from the San Francisco Mint dated 1928 acknowledging a collector’s order for the enclosed coins, and regretting that no other dates were available for purchase at that time! I would like to commend the current administration of the Mint for bringing back, as far as it is feasible, the can-do attitude of this earlier era.

Hettger shows that every request for 1895-dated dollars was returned, except for those orders which were filled with Proofs. Curiously, one order dated February 15, 1895, asking for 500 1895 silver dollars or 500 1894 silver dollars if 1895-dated coins were not available, was also returned.

Why, then, were 12,000 dollars reported as being struck in 1895? The partial answer appears to lie in the fact that the Superintendent and the Chief Coiner of the Philadelphia Mint were both replaced in June of 1895, and as was the custom in the days of precious metals all of the gold and silver in the Mint at the time of the changeover was thoroughly inventoried.

The inventory reported that 48,000 1894-dated dollars were on hand (despite the earlier return of an order for same, although the order did not offer payment in gold as required), as well as 13,000 silver dollar blanks! The Director of the Mint then ordered the new Superintendent of the Philadelphia Mint to proceed to coin the 13,000 dollar blanks into dollars, and just a few days later the new coiner reported the delivery of 12,000 finished dollars which are, of course, the fabled 12,000 1895-P business strikes recorded in the Mint Report.

There is no explanation as to what happened to the other 1,000 blanks, though it may well be that this figure included spoils or misstruck coins and any blanks or coins condemned for being underweight. The leftovers that did not make up a solid bag might then have been carried over into 1896, when normal production resumed.

Hettger then offers “the telling clue” that the year end report for all coin deliveries in the calendar year 1895 lists the delivery of 12,000 dollars in June of 1895 with an asterisk and the footnote “*12,000 coined in 1894.” He interprets this to mean that the 12,000 pieces listed as being struck in June of 1895 were actually coins struck in and dated 1894, but for some reason not released by the Coiner’s department until June of 1895. If true, this would make the correct mintage for the 1894-P dollars 122,000 if only the 12,000 pieces “coined” in June of 1895 are added, or 170,000 if those coins plus the 48,000 1894-P still on hand in June of 1895 are added.

Curiously, the monthly delivery figures for 1894-P dollars as quoted in Bowers are 48,000 for August of 1894, 12,000 for September and 50,000 for October of that year. It is curiouser and curiouser that the 48,000 and 12,000 numbers reappear in 1895.

One possibility I might speculate in would be that the 13,000 blanks reported in the inventory were all defective in some manner or other, perhaps because they were slightly underweight or barely of inferior fineness, held back because of the scandal that evolved when it was discovered that the Carson City Mint, when it was closed in 1893, was missing tens of thousands of dollars worth of precious metals that had been embezelled by the Refiner and an assistant.

The Philadelphia Mint, always above such scandal, might have been extremely cautious in approving any planchet, and so have accumulated a large number of marginal ones. Normally a few slightly underweight coins were allowed into a bag if they were offset by a similar amount of slightly overweight coins, the net weight of the bag thus being correct, but in the aftershock of the Carson City scandal this may not have been done.

When the order came to coin the blanks, they may have been struck with 1894 dies to reflect the year the blanks were made (and a different Superintendent was in office), or they may have been struck with 1895 dies to reflect the actual year of coinage, and in either case immediately condemned and melted. There is a modern equivalent to this action, when the San Francisco Assay Office realized that it was not going to meet a Congressionally-mandated deadline of July 4, 1975, to produce 15 million sets of 40% silver Bicentennial coins for sale to collectors using a slow and deliberate method of producing coins that minimized contact marks.

The last six million or so Uncirculated sets were thus struck using high-speed presses and counted by machine into canvas sacks and immediately condemned as unfit for sale. Curiously enough, the coins remained in the sacks for years while the Mint doggedly sold the better sets, and when sales picked up during the silver boom of 1979-80 some of these “condemned” coins were finally packaged up and delivered to the public.

Another good possibility is that the 13,000 “blanks” were coins struck in 1894 that had been held back by the Coiner due to similar problems with their weights and carried on the books as blanks. He might then have found enough pieces to cobble together 12 solid bags of them he could report out as struck, and then either have let them go out into circulation or immediately have recalled and melted them.

A remote possibility is that the blanks might never have been struck and were merely reported as having been so on their way to the melting pot, but this action might have been construed as criminal in light of the Carson City scandal and it is most unlikely that this happened.

In any event, it is highly likely that the “King of the Morgan Dollars” never made it to the throne, or if he did then his reign was exceedingly short and bitter. I personally doubt that he ever existed.

Others, no doubt, have their own opinion.
 


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