Gerald Tebben

Five Facts

Gerald Tebben

Gerald Tebben, a Coin World columnist for more than 30 years, also contributes to Coin World’s Coin Values and edits the Central States Numismatic Society’s journal, The Centinel. He collects coins that tell stories.

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Odd uses for coins: ​Hidden messages, hidden poison

A hollowed-out nickel stuffed with microfilm played a part in the prosecution of notorious Soviet spy Rudolf I. Abel.

Abel used numerous nickels to conceal messages and microfilm that eventually found their way back to the Soviet Union. The coins were dropped at several locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn for retrieval by confederates for shipment to Russia.

One of those nickels was apparently spent and flowed unnoticed through the channels of commerce until Jimmy Bozart, a 13-year-old paperboy, accidentally dropped it.

Bozart collected 35 cents weekly from each of his Brooklyn Eagle customers. A pair of schoolteachers living in East Flatbush tipped him 15 cents on June 23, 1953. “You didn’t get too many 15-cent tips,” Bozart, recalled decades later.

As he walked down the stairs from the sixth-floor apartment, he dropped the 50 cents. He found 45 cents of the 50 cents and kept hunting for the missing nickel when he discovered what he described as “the wafer-thin back of a Jefferson nickel.”

He found the front of the 1948 coin a few feet away, with a tiny piece of microfilm inside.

Bozart figured something was up and turned the coin over to police. Four years later, the FBI came calling, asking him to testify in the Abel espionage case.

While Bozart was one of 68 witnesses, the coin story captured the public’s imagination. New York police rewarded him with a commendation. A citizen bought him an Oldsmobile as a reward.

Abel, who died in 1971, was convicted of espionage and traded Feb. 10, 1962, for captured American U-2 spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers. The prisoner exchange was the basis for the 2015 Steven Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies.

Powers, curiously, had a hollowed-out coin in his possession, too, when he was captured May 1, 1960, after his plane was shot down. A silver dollar he wore around his neck like a “good luck charm” had a CIA-issued, poison-laced injection pin inside.

Powers decided not to use the poison pin, a move that many called cowardly at the time. In 2012 he was posthumously awarded the Silver Star Medal for “exceptional loyalty” to America during his two years of captivity.

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