I have seen references which indicate that large cents were notched and carried for ID by runaway slaves. I have only seen secondary references to this practice with none of them citing any source material or primary references. Can anyone point me in the direction of any primary references? I would like to know more about this practice such as: how widespread was it? and was there some kind of "code" in the way pennys were notched?
Thanks for any help.
Hi Pete ... Welcome!
I've occasionally seen sellers on ebay use some slavery or Civil War story to peddle their wares. But, when seriously questioned, the reply, if any, was something like, "My grandfather told me" or "That's what the guy who sold it told me." A longtime collector of 19th century tokens, I have yet to find any reference that links coppers to slavery in any way similar to your question. Personally, I'd love to find such intriguing info. Meanwhile, I'll enjoy finding and studying the many slavery related coppers that come my way. Best wishes in your pursuits!
There are many folks in the world that sell things with a story to justify a price and nearly none can provide evidence of some of the claims that they make. Just ask them to proove it and thier stories melt away.
Multi-sided cents were told to be tickets to the underground railroad, a crudly re-cut E in CENT are often promoted as brothel tokens. One seller promoted coppers that were holed as a slaves' majic tallisman. At least we know that double holed cents were in fact used as toys, the so called humdinger.
The creative mind knows no bounds especially when promoting sales.
We do know that yes coppers were used for many utilitarian purposes; tags, tools, advertising but this does by no means show that any specific coin that you hold in your hand is traceable to any specific use. -Without hard proof!
I have a couple of counterstamped cents that seem to have been used as livestock tags. There is no way to know for sure, but if so, was the livestock a dog, a goat or ..a ....field hand?
I collect things like this; mangled as they are, they inspire the mind. And who knows, maybe something in my collection really was used for a historically signifigent purpose. I just never pay for more than can be proven.
Last edited by copperhobbie; 03-19-2013 at 10:01 AM.
I have found this reference in 3 places...it actually looks like they are all quoting each other. Here are the links:
One of them has a bibliography which contains one book which may discuss the question. I will see if I can find the book to check it out. The book is: : Schwarz, Ted, Coins As Living History, Arco Publishing Co., New York, 1976.
I see no information that supports the allegation that these were "slave pennies" ... looks like pure conjecture, repeated again and again.
All too true, Chaut!. It has been my own experiance that there are those who opine on a subject and then become part of the bibliography of a subsequent author's writing, then, the first author quotes the second as gospell.
Originally Posted by Chautauquan
My avatar is an example of that. Lowe mentioned Liberia, Rulau back dated Lowe's testimony to encompass the ACS cent, Newman quoted Rulau, Rulau quotes Newman. Viola! The ACS cent was made by a garage mint in Belleville N.J.! The only problem is that it never happened!.
I did once hear the tale of notched cents used as identification for run away slaves but, as I recall, word of mouth back in the 1980's. Perhaps it was picked up from one of the publications mentioned above.
Here is what I have found so far about notched “slave pennies”, and it provides virtually no help at all to document such a use. It is only evidence that the stories about such use have been around for at least 40 years!
Jason Goodwyn in his book “Greenback” states that these coins were used for identification and so does Ted Schwarz in his “Coins as living history”. Neither of them gives a source for the possibility of such a use. If I can find a copy of either one of these books. then I’ll check the bibliography to see if there are any leads.
Apparently, there was an article in the August 1971 issue of “Numismatist” magazine by Warren A. Lapp titled “Uses and abuses of U.S. large cents”, which states, on page 1121: “One informant recently reported an 1828 large cent with a precisely-notched identification at 2 o’clock. The coin had been found on the shore of the Gunpowder River in Maryland, and its present owner had heard tales that such coins were used to identify slaves escaping along the Underground railway during the Civil War.” This may, indeed be the source for the stories. This quote has been provided to me, so I have not yet seen the article. At best it could indicate the presence of an “oral tradition” handed down from generation to generation about such use.
In my view none of this, so far, provides adequate support for us to state that pennies were put to such a use for identification.
Consider that there exists a wealth of slave narratives, many of which can now be read online; such, that once provided literate 1800's folks with heart-wrenching stories of human suffering. It's noteworthy to this thread that there exists within these narratives virtually no mention of coins, tokens and the like being used as some form of tool by fugitive slaves. I've done Google searches of many slave narratives, using the words "cent", "penny", "coin" and the like in recent years, hoping to make such a connection; then, to locate whatever examples I might acquire and write about it. That said, it's quite likely that some good folks, working on the underground railroad, likely handed coins to runaway slaves. Yet, there's absolutely nothing written that I've as yet seen which points to any such practice.
There are many slave-related, contemporary tokens that are available to collectors, nowadays. It's quite possible that some of these were held by abolitionists and then found their way into the hands of slaves; perhaps, even put to some useful purpose. Yet, there is no mention of such tokens that I've as yet been able to find in any slave narrative.
I did find one, singular mention of a "holed, five-cent coin." It must have been a half dime, as nickels did not enter circulation until after the Civil War. The narrative was that of a little slave girl who wore the coin on a string, as a necklace. It had been a gift, and others were always trying to get it away from her.
The lack of empirical evidence about the so-called "slave penny" suggests that its existence is no more than an old wives' tale. Like many old stories, it's probably taken many a twist and turn over generations past.
Last edited by Chautauquan; 03-26-2013 at 10:59 PM.
I have just finished reading REMINISCENCES OF LEVI COFFIN who was the President of the Underground Railroad (Pub: Cincinnati, The Robert Clarke Co., 1899) In this narrative, Levi Coffin tells of many of his experiences - in great detail - in escorting slaves along the Underground Railroad. He makes no mention of notched coins being placed in any kind of use. With the kind of detail he uses, I would think that if it had been a practice, he would have talked about it. The stories cover about 20 years of his experiences, so I must conclude that, at least, coins were not used in that part of the system.
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