US Coins

Johnny Dollar on case of Confederate half dollar

Coin Lore column from Feb. 20, 2017, weekly issue of Coin World:

The Confederate half dollar was rare until J.W. Scott struck hundreds more. That’s the takeaway from a Feb. 3, 1957, episode of Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, a radio drama from the waning days of the medium.

In 1957, Dollar investigated “The Confederate Coinage Matter.”

A Confederate half dollar, insured for $20,000, was missing, and Dollar was tasked with finding it.

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Early in the show, Dollar asks insurance agent Bert McGraw about the coin.

Dollar: Now what makes that particular coin worth $20,000?

McGraw: Like I said, it’s Confederate money — a silver half dollar and where it was minted, or something. That’s what does it, I guess.

Dollar: Where was it minted?

McGraw: New Orleans. Now, during the whole time of the Civil War, that mint only turned out four half dollars.

Henry Sampson, owner of the missing coin, told Dollar, “President Jefferson Davis gave it to my great grandpappy for his service to the cause.”

He told Dollar the Confederate half started out as “a regular Union 1861 piece. At the New Orleans Mint they ground off the reverse side and they stamped on the shield of the glorious Confederacy and stamped on the words Confederate States of America.”

Later in the show, Dollar discovers the coin is worth much less than $20,000.

McGraw told Dollar: That Confederate half dollar. Know what it’s worth? $5,000.

Dollar: But you insured it for $20,000.

McGraw: I know it. But look Johnny, it wasn’t all my fault. I mean, well, how did Sampson know about the dies? 

Dollar: What dies?

McGraw: The dies a man named Scott made 500 of those half dollars from, back in 1879. That’s what lowered the price of the original half dollar.

Dollar: You mean there are 500 of those half dollars in existence instead of four?

McGraw: 500 and 4. The four originals were made in 1861. The rest were made later.

Dollar: It looks like you’re out $20,000.

Dollar eventually finds the coin and restores it to its owner at a cost of $5,000 — what he figured the coin was actually worth.

At the time, A Guide Book of United States Coins, the “Red Book,” listed the original at $5,000 in Uncirculated and the restrike at $235.

The two are easy to differentiate. Restrikes were made as McGraw described — overstruck on 1861 halves with the reverse ground off.

Originals, contrary to the story, were struck on blank planchets, with a Union Seated Liberty obverse as the reverse, and a Confederate die for what is actually considered the obverse.

The 1957 Red Book, curiously, provides the basis for the Johnny Dollar story. The book says originals, too, were overstruck on already coined half dollars.

The Johnny Dollar episode can be found on Youtube.

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