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Treasure in the Cellar
More trouble than riches
by Frederick N. Rasmussen

The story of two Baltimore teenagers and their random discovery of a cache of gold coins in a copper jug while digging in the dirt cellar floor of a three-story rowhouse at 132 S. Eden St. became a national story during the height of the Depression.

Theodore Jones, 16, and Henry Grob, 15, both from fatherless families who were on relief, had formed a club, the "Rinky-Dinky-Doos," and were busy digging a hole on the warm afternoon of Aug. 31, 1934, in the floor of the Eden Street tenement where Jones and his mother resided.

Newspaper accounts from the time described the booty the boys were probably burying as "secret club papers" or "cards, dice and chips."

Suddenly, while digging, Jones' shovel struck something. He reached into the hole and pulled out a round medal coin.

"Look!" he exclaimed to Grob, "here's a medal," The Sun reported at the time.

Grob replied, "You're crazy. That's a $20 gold piece."

The boys began to furiously excavate the corner of the cellar.

"I was digging in that hole - hands, elbows, knees and everything," Jones told a Sun reporter.

"After more than half the hoard had been scratched out, they found the container it had been in - a gallon can - now more than half-rotted away. With the coins, glittering through their gold mold, scattered around them, they sat on the dirt floor and dreamed dreams of what they would do with their wealth," the newspaper reported.

What the boys had unearthed in two separate pots were 3,558 gold coins that dated from the 1830s, 1840s and 1850s, worth a face value of $11,200. Today, their discovery would be worth more than $10 million.

After splitting the find and reporting it to their families, they thought they would deposit their newly found fortune in a bank.

Grob's brother-in-law advised them that the U.S. Gold Act in 1933 gave the federal government title to the country's gold, which was to have been turned in by May 1 of that year.

If Grob and Jones had attempted to deposit the gold coins in a bank, they would have faced arrest, so they went instead to the city police.

Hours after their discovery, the two youths walked into the Eastern District police station carrying the fortune, which had been stashed in cigar boxes and leather bags.

Officers at the station were "incredulous" at the sheer volume of what the boys had brought in to show them, The Sun observed.

Grob told reporters later that evening that he wanted to use his share to buy a house for his mother and open a bank account "if there is anything leftover." Jones said he wanted his mother to have a washing machine while he hoped to buy a new suit. "But when the youths will get any of the $11,200 treasure remained undecided last night," The Sun reported.

The money - in denominations of $20, $10, $5, $2.50 and $1 gold pieces - was locked up in a vault at the police station. As to ownership, lawyers told the newspaper that "in such cases anything found on the property usually belongs to the owner."

How the fortune had come to rest beneath the dirt floor of an old rowhouse instantly became a topic of discussion.

Longtime residents told reporters that the neighborhood had once been the home of seafarers and ship captains and that perhaps the gold coins represented the handiwork of a seafaring miser.

"Scores of claimants are expected to appear, and before the fight is over, the two youths who found it may have nothing left but the memory and the thrill which comes with owning - if only for a few minutes - thousands of bright gold coins," The Sun observed prophetically.

Claimants were obviously not in short supply, and they flooded Baltimore Circuit Court #2, presided over by Judge Eugene O'Dunne.

The estate of Isaac Chenvin, an East Baltimore jeweler, made a claim but it was later disqualified.

More substantial claims were made by heirs of Andrew J. Saulsbury, who owned the Eden Street house from 1865 until 1889, and by Mary P. Findlay and Elizabeth H. French, two semi-impoverished genteel Bolton Hill sisters, who held the ground rent on the house at the time of the discovery.

Litigation dragged on for several years with the Findlay-French sisters not going quietly into that good legal night as their lawyer, Emory H. Niles, later a judge, continued to mount legal appeals.

In 1935, the 3,558 coins, divided into 438 lots, were auctioned off on May 2, 1935, at the Lord Baltimore Hotel, realizing a sale of $20,000.

When all was said and done, the two youths were awarded $6,000, though the money would not be available to them until they were 21 years old.

However, Henry Grob never saw a dime. In 1937, he was working for the Panzer Packing Co. as a mayonnaise worker for $16 a week. He went swimming in the harbor even though he had a cold, and developed pneumonia. He died at South Baltimore General Hospital.

A year later, his mother filed a claim with the Circuit Court to assume her son's share from the sale of the gold.

Theodore Jones, who later used his legal name on his marriage certificate and became Theodore Krik Sines, worked as a shipyard machinist for Bethlehem Steel Corp. He died in 1977 at age 57.

The Great Baltimore Gold Rush of 1934 and the woeful tale of its two instigators is the subject of a new book, Treasure in the Cellar: A Tale of Gold in Depression-Era Baltimore by Leonard Augsburger, published last week by the Maryland Historical Society.

Augsburger, 45, a Chicago telecommunications software engineer who lives in Vernon Hills, Ill., has been a lifelong coin collector.

Augsburger, in a recent telephone interview, said he had been searching old coin magazines looking for a book topic when he stumbled upon the saga of Jones and Grob.

The story of the gold find, resultant court battles over ownership and coin auctions had long faded from public memory.

"I thought, there's got to be more here, and that's how I got it going," he said.

The book took Augsburger five years of research as he traveled back and forth between Illinois and Baltimore, checking out leads and census records, locating family members associated with the case, reading old microfilmed newspapers and legal decisions.

"One thing that struck me, was how little people know about the case today," he said. "When I contacted Harry O. Levin's daughter, who lives in Florida and whose father was the attorney for Grob and Jones, she said she never heard of the case."

As to the coins, Augsburger said, "the whereabouts of only a handful of them is known today."

As the Evening Sun editorialized in 1936: "Back in September, 1934, when two East Baltimore boys unearthed a hoard of gold in an Eden Street cellar, we ventured the solemn prediction that the finding was more likely to lead to trials and tribulations than joy."

Augsburger will speak about Treasure in the Cellar at 4 p.m. Sept. 28 at the Baltimore Book Festival.
 



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