A murdered woman found in a dark lane. A New York City police
detective and her mystery novelist fiancée. A mash-up of Dan Brown and
National Treasures treasure hunt clues. And a
container full of 1,000 1792 half dismes? Just another Monday episode
Episodes of the ABC TV’s murder mystery series have veered into
science fiction conventions, zombies and political conspiracies over
the years, all told with the romance-tinged banter of title character
Richard Castle, a mystery novelist/police consultant, and New York
City Police Detective Kate Beckett. In the episode airing Oct. 28,
titled “Get a Clue,” the program’s theme ventured into numismatics, to
the delight of collectors, including Coin World columnist and
numismatist Joel Orosz.
Coins and fiction are no strangers. Master mystery novelist
Raymond Chandler sent private investigator Philip Marlowe in search of
a missing Brasher doubloon in the 1942 novel The High Window. A 1913
Liberty Head 5-cent coin was “stolen” in the Dec. 11, 1973, Hawaii
Five-O episode, aptly titled “The $100,000 Nickel”; the actual
specimen appearing in that episode will appear at public auction in
January, when it is expected to bring more than what the 1973 title
suggested — a lot more.
The recent Castle episode introduced numismatics fairly early in
the story, through a seemingly off-the-cuff comment by a character
being interviewed by Detective Beckett and Castle (only in television
would a police department permit a mystery novelist, be it Castle or
Jessica Fletcher, unfettered access to crime scenes and interviews).
Eventually, the clues lead to a Franciscan order and a secret
chamber in their monastery. Inside the chamber is a stone sarcophagus
with fresh chisel marks suggesting someone had tried to open it. The
sarcophagus is opened after Castle turns a globe.
Inside the sarcophagus is a container filled with a hundreds and
hundreds of 1792 half dismes, maybe even a thousand (a scene to make
any coin collector’s heart beat a little faster; but what would happen
to the market for the half disme?). Castle reaches into the keg of
coins and pulls out one for examination; the close-up image reveals a
prop coin that is a fairly decent reproduction of the real coin.
Spoiler alert: Eventually the killer is identified as a relative
of the victim, who was a descendant of the writer of the 1798 letter
and apparently the original owner of the half dismes according to
family lore. He wanted the half dismes for himself because the victim
did not plan to profit from them. Case solved. Cue the closing credits.
A 1792 half disme expert speaks
So what does an expert on 1792 half dismes think about the coin
details airing in the episode? Numismatist Joel Orosz, who along with
Pete Smith and Len Augsburger is writing a book titled 1792: Birth of
a Nation’s Coinage, weighed in after being tipped off about the
episode by Coin World:
“First let’s give writer Christine Roum (according to the Castle
entry in Wikipedia) the benefit of the doubt — she was writing for a
serio-comic police procedural, not writing for The Numismatist or The
American Journal of Numismatics — so we should expect some
exaggeration for dramatic effect, not strict fidelity to the facts.
“Second, let’s give Ms. Roum credit for knowing more than the
average bear about half dismes. She understands that half dismes, not
chain cents, were the first regular issue coin produced by the United
States Mint. She has her characters pronounce the word ‘disme’ the way
in which most 1790s Americans likely pronounced it: same as ‘dime.’
The obverse of the prop half disme, twice visible in brief close-ups,
seems a reasonably faithful reproduction of the original. And although
title character Richard Castle’s pronouncement that Martha Washington
provided the silver to strike the half dismes is almost undoubtedly
untrue, it is a faithful reflection of a pervasive myth about the half
dismes of more than 150 years duration.
“With all of this in mind, I won’t dwell on the little things,
like Castle’s statement that the Treasury minted the half dismes (in
1792, the U.S. Mint was part of the State Department, not the
Treasury); nor the curious decision of the Franciscan order to donate
the approximately 1,000 half dismes to the Mint, rather than to
museums of the ANS, ANA, or the Smithsonian.
“There are, however, three major numismatic errors that should be detailed.
“Error # 1: Castle says ‘one of these sold at auction last year
for 1.5 million dollars.’ No half disme has ever realized that much at
auction (although Heritage’s sale of the Starr specimen for $1.41
million in January of this year came close). Presumably Castle was
referring to the 2007 transaction between Steve Contursi and the
Cardinal Collection Educational Foundation, in which a half disme
graded [Mint State] 68 and reputedly once the property of David
Rittenhouse was reported to have sold for $1.5 million.
“Error #2: The ‘National Treasure’ aspect of the show — a hoard of
1,000 uncirculated half dismes, each worth $1.5 million, carefully
hidden in back in 1798, is finally discovered! — doesn’t quite add up,
either today or especially in 1798. Sure, today a thousand
uncirculated half dismes would be valuable — but if a thousand of them
suddenly came on the market, the value of each would fall
significantly from a level of $1.5 million — that’s what happens when
you increase supply by a factor of more than ten. And, it must be
remembered that back in 1798, with only a handful of coin collectors
active in the United States, the value of the half dismes would have
been face value — would an earthenware jar filled with $50 worth of
half dismes have been considered a ‘National Treasure’?
“Error #3: Castle, in speaking of the creation of the half dismes,
says ‘Back then, before the Revolution, it was illegal for anyone but
the King to make coins.’ The half dismes, of course, were struck in
1792, nine years after the Treaty of Paris (signed September 3, 1783),
brought the American Revolution to an official close. In fact, they
were struck after the Confederation government had come and gone, and
after the Constitution was written and ratified.”
Orosz concluded, “It was fun to watch and see how Ms. Roum used
these fascinating little coins for dramatic effect!”
Orosz indicated that a discussion of the episode will appear in a
chapter in the book he, Smith and Len Augsburger are writing (to be
published by Heritage).
The episode can be watched at http://abc.go.com/shows/castle. ■