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Dream of Finding Gold?
By Mike Thorne
Coins Magazine

I'm 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 many times.

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 with knives.

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 than $20,000.

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.

 



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