Dream of Finding Gold?
By Mike Thorne
walking down the street, when suddenly I see a
coin half buried in the dirt off the sidewalk.
Naturally, I dig it up, but as I begin to look
around, others become visible in the loose soil.
Sometimes these are silver coins, sometimes key
coins, sometimes gold. With each coin I
discover, there's an added thrill as I continue
searching for more.
In case you haven't guessed, I'm talking about a
recurring dream I have. Do you have dreams of
this sort? Is this a dream that's common only to
coin collectors, or is it a dream experienced by
collectors of other objects? Do stamp collectors
dream of finding high values of the Pan American
series, for example, or of the big three
Zeppelins? What about art collectors? Do they
dream of discovering unknown paintings by
Vermeer or Van Gogh?
Imagine for the moment that it's not a dream.
Imagine that you and a buddy are kids digging in
the hard-packed dirt of an unused cellar and you
unearth a pot of U.S. gold coins. What would you
do with them? After you had shown them to your
mother, would you then take them to the police?
Ah, but we have to consider the context. Suppose
you've made your great find in the early years
of the Great Depression. Further, President
Roosevelt has just taken the country off the
gold standard and has called for all gold coins
to be turned in to the banks. Or at least that's
the way it seems to non-collectors. Now what
would you do with them?
As it turns out, this is not an academic
exercise I've posed for you. This actually
happened to two boys, Theodore Jones and Henry
Grob, on Aug. 31, 1934, while they were digging
in the cellar of a rooming house in Baltimore.
They quite literally found a pot of gold.
But was it a pot of gold at the end of the
rainbow? Did the boys turn their find into the
good life for themselves and their families?
Like most stories that deal with the sudden
acquisition of fabulous riches, there's not a
simple answer to the question. In this case,
both boys undoubtedly experienced both positive
and negative emotions as a result of their find.
For one thing, it's not hard to imagine their
excitement and joy as a result of the discovery
itself. In the cellar, with gold coins sifting
through their grubby fingers, I suspect that
Jones and Grob experienced the same sense of
elation that I experienced when I found my first
1914-D Lincoln cent in a roll of pennies. Only
in their case, it was undoubtedly multiplied
After all, this was in the heart of the
Depression, the two lived in relatively
impoverished conditions, and the sight of any
coin larger than a dime was probably quite rare.
Leonard Augsburger describes the scene as
follows: "Theodore struck [the copper pot] with
a hammer, and the pot heaved its last breath,
disgorging thousands of gold coins onto the
soiled mattress that lay in the dirt underneath
this hovel of poverty.& There would be many
mistakes made in dealing with this pot of gold,
and the boys made the first one quickly. In the
next few minutes, Henry and Theodore inflicted
untold damage on the coins, probably to the
extent of a million dollars in today's money."
As a collector who knows the value of
originality on the surface of a coin, don't you
just cringe to think of what Jones and Grob did
to "clean up" the mess before them? But what
should they do with the treasure?
Deciding against turning it in to a bank in
exchange for paper money, the two and their
families turned it in to the local police
station. There, the hoard was further "improved"
by cleaning with kerosene and vinegar. Actually,
that wasn't so bad; the worst part was that
coins that were stuck together were separated
Eventually, the coins were taken to court to try
to establish ownership. Augsburger takes great
care in laying out the cases of the various
claimants to the hoard. In the end, the judge in
the case awarded the "contents of the copper pot
of some $11,427 face value, to the infant
defendants as finders of treasure trove."
Was this the end of the story? Not by a long
shot. Next, we have the auction sale of the
3,508 gold coins found by the boys. Of this
total, there were 2,789 gold $1 pieces, 65 gold
$2.50s, 255 gold $5s, 81 gold $10s, and 317 gold
$20s. The dates ranged from 1834 to 1856. The
final take from the auction was somewhat less
Of course, not all of the money went to the two
boys, and even they weren't supposed to receive
it until they reached 21. The auctioneer had to
be paid as well as the boys' attorney.
Again, there's much more to the story. There's a
burglary, which supposedly relieved Theodore and
his family of $3,100 in currency and $500 in
gold. Where did this gold come from?
The story the boys told was of another find of
treasure, more gold coins, in other words,
although the evidence supporting this find was
slim. Was the second find really just coins held
back from the initial discovery?
Further details include the fact that one of the
two boys was in and out of reform school, and
the other died young, with his mother spending a
significant portion of his estate on his burial.
If you like to read about hoards of gold coins
and the effect they can have on the people who
find them, then you'll almost certainly find
Augsburger's Treasure in the Cellar: A Tale of
Gold in Depression-Era Baltimore an interesting
read. Published by the Maryland Historical
Society, the book is available from The Johns
Hopkins University Press for $26, or from online
booksellers such as Amazon.