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Confronting Sheldon

Confronting Dr. William H. Sheldon, early American copper, large cent collector, author of Penny Whimsy - by David T. Alexander

By David Thomason Alexander for CoinWeek …..

Dr. William Herbert Sheldon, born on November 19, 1898, and dying on September 17, 1977, was venerated for decades as one of the historical giants of American numismatics.

During his later life, he took the stage as the godfather or even the resident deity of the highly specialized field of early American copper cents. These were the large cents first struck in 1793 that were among the earliest U.S. coin denominations collected and intensely studied by American numismatists after these coins were discontinued by the Philadelphia Mint in 1857.

Though gone now for almost half a century, Sheldon’s spirit will undoubtedly remain at the heart of that collecting specialty for a long time despite scandal and disillusionment among large cent devotees. Adding to Sheldon’s unique status is the enveloping cloud of dark memory surrounding his chief disciple, the late Walter H. Breen. In death as in life, the two remain inseparable and their intertwined careers still challenge their surviving friends and enemies.

Early Life

There is no question that Sheldon’s birth in Warwick, Rhode Island had a formative effect on his later scientific beliefs.

Rural New England in the 1890s remained dominated by descendants of the Puritan settlers who were notable for their closely related families and rejection of latecomers–especially immigrants from Ireland, French Canada, and southern Europe. Often Catholic, these immigrés were uniformly “outside the charmed circle of New England life” as writer H.P. Lovecraft later wrote[1].

His father, William H. Sheldon Sr., was a successful animal breeder, and the son early came to know the canons of raising prize-winning livestock. It may be that the boy was directed toward an academic life by having as his godfather the philosopher-psychologist William James[2]. Sheldon himself always claimed to be a cousin of prominent Providence coin dealer George Arnold. It is a measure of the violence of feeling surrounding his name today that New York numismatic curator-scholar Dr. John Kleeberg has dismissed this kinship claim as “another of Sheldon’s lies.”

Be that as it may, Sheldon’s formal education was thorough for the time, beginning with graduation from Warwick Veterans High School in 1915. This was regarded as a major achievement in the years before the First World War when elementary school sufficed for most Americans. He pursued undergraduate studies at Brown University and achieved his Master’s at the University of Colorado.

He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1925, going on to teach psychology at that prestigious institution and later at the University of Wisconsin. After additional studies at the University of Chicago Medical Center he received his M.D. in 1933. During a two-year fellowship in Europe, Sheldon met the aged Sigmund Freud and studied under Carl Jung. He was now well situated to assume a leading position in the unfolding field that became known as constitutional psychology.

Sheldon’s writings, published by Harper & Brothers, would come to include Psychology and the Promethean Will in 1936; The Varieties of Human Physique (an Introduction to Constitutional Psychology) in 1940; The Varieties of Temperament (A Psychology of Constitutional Differences) in 1942; Varieties of Delinquent Youth (An Introduction to Constitutional Psychiatry) in 1949; and Atlas of Men in 1954.

It is unlikely that any significant number of numismatists would ever have been aware of Sheldon’s psychological researches and publications had they not been listed on the dust jacket of the first printing of his Early American Cents, 1793-1814, when that title was published by Harper & Brothers in 1949. As it was, these neatly listed titles gave the dust jacket the sterile appearance one might have expected from a science textbook of that era.

In the later brouhaha, it was forgotten that Early American Cents had an enormous and formative value on American numismatics going far beyond large cents alone. Sheldon could WRITE, an uncommon skill among large cent folk and other numismatic specialists then and now. His style was uniquely welcoming to newcomers and veteran numismatists alike. It would be hard not to respond to his 1948 confession: “I have written this book because ever since childhood I have wanted to read it and it wasn’t there.”

Somatypes and Eugenics

His work in psychology involved the identification of basic personality traits, which he identified as Viscerotonia, Somatotonia, and Cerebrotonia, and three bodily somatotypes, which he named Endomorphy, Mesomorphy, and Ectomorphy. By precise identification through scientific nude photography and resulting measurements, Sheldon asserted that he could determine the body type and temperament of any individual and therefore understand said individual’s personality, somatotype, and probable direction in life.

Each individual could be assigned a three-digit identification summarizing the components Sheldon believed were inborn and unchanging throughout the subject’s life. His basic finding, his many disciples believed, could be summed up as “Physique equals destiny”, or “Somatotype determines your future”.

Sheldon needed a wealth of scientific data to fully demonstrate his concepts. In the fast-evolving scientific world of 1920-50, this was not impossible to accumulate. Evolving collegiate emphasis on physical education and the increase of interest in eugenics set the stage for the pursuit of such data through a far-flung program of nude photography first involving incoming college students at Ivy League schools and then others across the country.

Doctor William Herbert Sheldon Junior posing for a picture, United States, 1949 (Photo by Walter Sanders/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

Sheldon directed an institute for such physical studies at New York’s Columbia University from 1946 to 1959. Students found themselves required to pose nude against a series of calibrated metal rods that resulted in sets of precise measurements that would determine their somatotype. Such “posture photography” was part of a deliberate “scientific” program of building up the physical health and fitness of the student body. In time, tens of thousands of such photos had been taken and were warehoused in various places. Many were included in Sheldon’s Atlas of Men; thousands more were stockpiled for a matching Atlas of Women that never saw publication.

Not widely understood today was the belief of some scientists of that era–including Sheldon–that black children generally experienced a sharp decrease in learning ability around age 10 and that Mexican children did the same around age 12. Promoted by the then-fashionable and thoroughly respectable American Eugenics Society[3], such concepts inspired many of the earliest writings for Planned Parenthood and were heard again in the 1960s in the controversial arguments of Arthur R. Jensen.

Eugenics, along with a widespread belief in the superiority of the Anglo-Saxon component of America’s population, fueled calls for immigration “reform” that sought to exclude southern and eastern European migrants through discriminatory annual quotas. This would have been familiar terrain for Sheldon, as years before, New England had been a hotbed of Know-nothings and “Barnburners”, later of the American Protective Association (APA) whose members actively worked to exclude “undesirables” from employment in the United States.

Nor was it a coincidence that 1915 saw the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan and the 1920s witnessed its spectacular mushroom growth across the U.S., not only in the South but in New England and the Midwest, propelled by this exclusionary nationalist mood and disillusionment following World War I. But open enthusiasm for eugenics in the U.S. faded somewhat after the world witnessed what such thinking could bring under the leadership of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler.

Early American Cents

In 1949, few if any numismatists remembered these prewar controversies or had even heard of Sheldon himself before Early American Cents burst onto the scene. The revelations and controversies surrounding his activities in the fields of psychology and eugenics lay in the seemingly distant future. Had it not been for the status he achieved in the world of U.S. large cents, Sheldon’s “other world” would not necessarily have impinged on the consciousness of coin collectors.

The collecting of U.S. coins was jumpstarted by large cents during the 1850s when word got out of the Philadelphia Mint’s plan to replace this bulky, 28mm diameter pure copper denomination with a new 19mm copper-nickel coin. The even-less-popular copper half cents were scheduled to disappear altogether. Suddenly aware that the familiar coppers were about to vanish, numbers of Americans in the eastern states began trying to assemble from circulation what they thought would be date sets of cents spanning the years 1793 through 1857. The race was on.

Knowledge of what cents actually existed was sparse, and many early collectors spent years searching for a cent dated 1815, not knowing that no such coin existed thanks to a long-forgotten fire at the Philadelphia Mint. Pioneering Philadelphia collector Joseph J. Mickley searched for a cent of his birth year, 1799, learning in the process that the date was actually exceptionally rare.

Soon dealers in books and prints were adding old cents to their stocks, including the British-born Edward Cogan, who began offering coins with his other collectibles in Philadelphia before migrating to Brooklyn several years into his career. By the 1870s a number of dealers had emerged that offered coins at auction or in mail bid sales. Their auction catalogs were among the first forms of numismatic literature in the U.S. and are eagerly sought by collectors today.

Sales literature not only sold coins for these early dealers but also provided a forum to lambaste their rivals in print in language that would not be suffered today. Comparing New York dealer Edouard Frossard to Rip Van Winkel; calling David Proskey the “nice-looking young man with the big India Rubber conscience”; or snubbing numismatist J.W. Scott as “the New York postage stamp dealer” were a few of the tamer exchanges.

Serious publications first appeared dealing with the many die varieties that pioneering students found of early date cents and, to a lesser extent, half cents. Coins of the earliest dates were replete with differently sized dates, digit locations, star and bust positions, recut letters and numbers, die clashes, and myriad other minutiae beloved of early copper enthusiasts and sought with equal fervor today.

Men like Frossard, New York’s J.N.T. Levick, Philadelphia’s Ebenezer Locke Mason, the “kindly old Quaker Doctor” Edward Maris, William Wallace Hays, F.W. Doughty of New Jersey, the great Sylvester Sage Crosby, Philadelphia dealer Henry Chapman, Ebenezer Gilbert, and obstreperous NYC dealer Thomas L. Elder wrote or published snippets about this or that date, and great collections were formed by George H. Clapp and Howard R. Newcomb.

But no one undertook, let alone published, an in-depth catalog of the entire large cent series until William Herbert Sheldon, Ph.D., M.D. burst over the numismatic horizon in 1947. His first appearance was almost ephemeral; “Sheldon numbers, basal values and numerical grades” were promised by the great New York and California dealer Abe Kosoff for Numismatic Gallery’s auction of the Robert Henderson Collection, held at the 1947 Buffalo, N.Y. convention of the American Numismatic Association (ANA). Henderson was a mogul of the Sheraton hotel empire and a well-known figure in the world of early copper.

The convention came and went, but nothing further was heard of “the Sheldon book” until 1949 when it materialized in hardcover entitled Early American Cents, bearing the copyright date 1948 and the imprint of Harper & Brothers. The dust jacket inscription called it “A completely informative handbook by an authority on America’s most cherished series of old coins — the early pennies or large coppers with fifty-one full-page collotype plates and accompanying charts.”

As noted above, the tan cover also listed several of Sheldon’s constitutional psychology books, which probably mystified all but one reader, the 27-year-old (or 28- or 29-year old) Walter H. Breen (more on Breen will appear below). These titles established Sheldon’s image as a scientist bringing the scientific method to the study of early American copper coinage. He not only believed in the scientific study of the coins and their varieties but also attempted to apply science to the determination of rarity and market value for this highly complex field.

The Sheldon Scale

Sheldon’s publication of “basal values”, along with his rarity scale for each date and variety, was then harnessed to what he called a Science of Cent Values, expressed as “Market Price = Basal Value x Numerical Grade”. The next couple of decades saw vigorous attempts to defend this “Science”, to refine it, explain its increasingly obvious failure to guide the real-world coin market and to defend its creator (Sheldon). Few bothered to point out that collectors’ lust for coins is simply not guided by scientific considerations and cannot be strait-jacketed by any “science”, nor can their ardent pursuit be disciplined by any expert’s pontification about value.

The “Numerical Grade” referred to was the Sheldon Rarity Scale, originally based on the availability and market value of varieties of 1794 cents in the “second quarter of the 20th century”, 1925-1945. The numbers it employed (1 through 70) corresponded to the market value in dollars of cents in the grades of “basal state” through Mint State or Uncirculated. Thus, a coin worn nearly smooth might have been expected to sell for a dollar, an Extremely Fine example for $40, and a perfect Uncirculated coin (if such a thing existed) for $70.

This grading scale was first applied to an incredibly narrow area of early U.S. copper coinage. In the wholly different numismatic universe of the 1980s, after commercial numismatics had exploded into big business replete with “investment” claims, scandals, and aggressive investment dealers, the Sheldon scale lived on solely because it was the only game in town, familiar to many collectors if imperfectly understood by most. It was therefore adapted by the first third-party grading services and applied to all series of U.S. coins.

When Early American Cents appeared, all of these “hobby-industry” developments were still far in the undreamed future and took center stage only after Sheldon had died. The book itself, though superseded by later writings, remains a classic in 2020. Pervading it was Sheldon’s subtle distaste for numismatic “merchants” (dealers) and for those collectors who are just in it for the money.

Far from being a bare-bones listing of dates and varieties, the new book was graced by substantial warmth and deep human interest as Sheldon described the birth of his lifelong interest in early American coinage. He shed a mellow light on his New England childhood and also included hints about his later life interests and philosophical positions for any reader astute enough to have spotted them (there were few).

Particularly arresting is Sheldon’s description of winter evenings in his family’s Rhode Island country farmhouse, gathered around the open fire or kitchen table by lamplight, experiencing the “halo of mystery and enchantment” that came with examining and re-examining his father’s carefully preserved collection of some one hundred circulated copper cents.

These well-circulated coins were gone over again and again with a magnifier and a few “dog-eared, well-thumbed coin books.” This scene is so vivid that generations of readers have wished that they might somehow be able to join that old family circle. His love of early copper was linked to a dissatisfaction with the modern world that emerges in his statement:

The early cents carry the memory and an indelible impress of a little stretch of human time that was fragrant with a high hope. It was a flowering period for what might have become a great people in a land of unmatched beauty.

We always live in a valley lying between the nostalgic past and an unknown future. To own a family of the early cents is in some measure to command a causeway between what for Americans is becoming a dearly remembered island of the past, and the grim urban mainland of the future.

This grim today, he might have specified, was the result of letting in all those foreigners and of the national expansion and industrial growth that created the America in which he himself had lived all of his life. Less troubling are his memories elsewhere in Early American Cents of the collecting world of 1890-1920, and his vivid personal reminiscences of such colorful events as the “Old Cent Whist” played by rival copper-collecting giants of that vanished era.

Recording an epic unfinished game of 1918 between Dr. George French and Howard R. Newcomb in the Philadelphia office of Henry Chapman gave Sheldon an opportunity to wax philosophical about humanity and time:

“Dr. French and Mr. Newcomb will never meet in the little Chapman office again. Perhaps their game of old cent whist that was never finished still goes on. Or perhaps the game was only a dream and Dr. French and Mr. Newcomb themselves (are) but shifting shadows in a changing dream. We know so little of the nature of time and consciousness…”

On a more terrestrial plane, Sheldon’s distaste for dealers did not prevent him from accepting the invitation of professional New York numismatist Joseph B. Stack to catalog the “Anderson DuPont collection” of large cents and write an introduction to that sale, which took place on Sept. 24-25, 1954. This sale’s name was a dealer creation, as there was no collector of this name, nor has the actual collector ever been positively identified.

The catalog opened with “An important message from D. William H. Sheldon,” citing his book and introducing his grading concept: “Sensing this widely felt need for standardization of grading, Mr. Stack asked me to catalogue the cents in the present collection in somewhat the spirit in which one might prepare a laboratory manual to accompany a textbook. The textbook in this case is EAC (my cent book).” There, in plain language, Sheldon described his work in the large cent field.

Perhaps significantly, that was the only such “laboratory Manual” commercial catalog he ever wrote.

Penny Whimsy and Walter Breen

In 1958, both the methodology and variety listings in Early American Cents were expanded in its revision as Penny Whimsy, which listed Dorothy I. Pascal and Walter Breen as collaborators. Some purists objected to this new title, pointing out that no coin bearing the denomination “Penny” was ever struck at the United States Mint.

The term Early American Coppers Club (EAC) was adopted by an influential specialty group founded in 1967, dedicated to the intricacies of America’s early copper coinage, but is almost never referred to as “Club” by its votaries. A later objector to “Penny” was Walter Breen himself, now emerging as a leading light in the early copper field.

If Sheldon maintained his distance from the throng of collectors, the ever-colorful Breen did the opposite. What were said to be the facts of his life appeared in an “Autobiography” published in Penny Wise, the journal of EAC. It is known today that this was a tissue of falsehoods. His published birth date, status as a foundling, events in early life, his academic achievements… all have been shown to be of dubious accuracy. What did emerge with crystal clarity was Breen’s initial admiration and adulation of William H. Sheldon.

“When Early American Cents finally appeared in 1949… I was startled and overjoyed. I had read the Crosby, Frossard-Hays, Chapman, Clapp and Newcomb monographs on particular dates… and I wondered why nobody had combined their findings with later discoveries to produce a single unified volume on large cents. Now here it was… I could see that Sheldon was an authentic polymath… someone who could write scientific books readably.”

Breen worked for a number of years for New Netherlands Rare Coins in Manhattan as a protégé of the firm’s dynamo John J. Ford Jr. and spent innumerable hours with Sheldon at Columbia and in “the Riverside Drive apartment he shared with Dorothy Pascal.” He was aware of from an early date and approved of Sheldon’s ongoing nude photography program and shared his beliefs about somatotypes that propelled it.

During this interlude, Breen solicited from his hero a letter of recommendation for medical school, hoping to enter the field as a diagnostician. Years later, he claimed, he became aware that the letter was “a covert, between-the-lines attack, guaranteeing that I would not be admitted.” The idea of the unkempt, bearded, and malodorous Breen succeeding as a med student in pre-beatnik and pre-hippie days is inherently ludicrous. However, personal pique and festering resentment over this incident must be understood as having propelled most of his later anti-Sheldon bias.

This was encapsulated in Breen’s “Head of Copper, Feet of Clay, Dr. Sheldon after 35 Years” run in Penny Wise XVIII, pp 106 ff. In this amazing effort, Breen assailed every facet of his one-time hero, from his psychological researches to his taste in music. Breen’s diatribe generated vast controversy in EAC, nearly all of it hostile to Breen. Most telling in retrospect was John A. Fettinger’s assertion that “it was in bad taste to speak ill of the dead.” With considerable prescience he added, “As for FEET OF CLAY, that epitaph can be reserved for another day.”

Breed had migrated to the West Coast in 1960, ostensibly to begin graduate studies in sociology in the vastly more tolerant world of Berkeley but actually to avoid prosecution for sexual offenses that would continue throughout his life. He and his wife Marion Zimmer Bradley were giants in the world of science fiction and such fields as sexology.

Breen himself continued his involvement in the field of early copper, creating a masterwork on U.S. half cents and nearly finishing “the new book to replace Penny Whimsy,” edited by Mark Borckardt and published by Bowers and Merena Galleries in 2000 as Walter Breen’s Encyclopedia of Early United States Cents, 1793-1814. This title appeared after his life imploded, and ended, in the 1990s.

Atlas of Women

Sheldon had preceded him in death by 16 years, in eclipse after the scandals that had disrupted his ongoing network of nude photography. He was never accused of sexual offenses, and publication of his Atlas of Men had proceeded without a hitch in 1952. Generations of elite college freshmen had undergone the bizarre process that was supposed to have continued with the publication of a companion effort to be entitled Atlas of Women.

A fatal bump in the road was provided by the University of Washington in Seattle in 1950 when a female freshman complained vigorously to her parents at having to undergo a nude photo session. Well-connected and thoroughly perturbed, her parents raised a firestorm of angry protest that resulted in Sheldon’s ouster from campus and the burning of his assembled photos. Soon school after school joined in, though several colleges continued the process through the 1970s, photographing such subjects as the youthful Hillary Rodham (later Clinton), Nora Ephron, George W. Bush, George Pataki, and Diane Sawyer.

Soon the photo program was terminated everywhere, and Sheldon was largely discredited. Though noted only feebly by Breen, Sheldon’s rabidly anti-Semitic attitudes received publicity and the whole somatotype concept was debunked. Nevertheless, it might be somewhat premature to regard his work as wholly discredited in certain circles.

In the meantime, Sheldon’s contributions to serious numismatics continued to be highly regarded and his death in 1977 was greeted by highly sympathetic obituary-appreciations by such well-regarded numismatists as Ray Williamson and Boston’s early copper giant John W. Adams. Breen’s fulminations against his one-time hero may have recalled for them the cynical 1824 observation of 19th-century New York politician Thurlow Weed: “There’s such a thing as killing a man too dead!”

Allegations of Theft

Vastly more troubling was the major numismatic scandal that erupted after his death, a huge problem with roots in Sheldon’s years of open access to the collections of the venerable American Numismatic Society (ANS), then located at Broadway and 155 Street in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan not far from Sheldon’s Riverside Drive apartment.

Ted Naftzger

Among the many marvels reposing on ANS shelves were the amazing large cents of the George Clapp collection that Sheldon used extensively in compiling his books. Four years before his death, Sheldon had sold his own large cent collection to Roy E. “Ted” Naftzger of California who had already bought the great collection of T. James Clarke in 1954. Large cents are as individually distinguishable as fingerprints to the cognoscenti and Naftzger soon noted discrepancies when he examined the collections side by side.

The sharply detailed descriptions of cents in each collection revealed that the coins actually being examined did not match their meticulously detailed documentation and holders. A careful study of Clapp cents still at the ANS revealed that 129 rare pieces had either been switched or were simply missing. When asked about these discrepancies in 1976, Naftzger said that a tendency to “shoplift” had to be understood as a “quirk” of Sheldon’s personality.

Naftzger declined to cooperate in the emerging ANS probe directed by John Kleeberg. He refused to provide access to his own cents or to discuss the whereabouts of 129 cents that had been recorded in the Society collection but could not now be accounted for. The matter then went to the law in Southern California.

Eric P. Newman and a 1794 cent.
Eric P. Newman and a 1794 cent.

The author of this article attended the American Numismatic Association’s 1995 convention in Anaheim and was at the EAC meeting where famed numismatist Eric P. Newman spoke vigorously of the ongoing Naftzger matter, concluding with “[T]he ANS takes its fiduciary responsibilities very seriously!”

No mention was made of the laudatory copper plaque hailing Sheldon that had been awarded to the ANS in the late 1990s.

The next speaker, resplendently attired in a dark three-piece suit, rose to announce that he was Ted Naftzger’s attorney and he pointedly advised caution on any EAC members who might wish to discuss his client. There the matter rested until 1993 when Naftzger sold most of his own collection for $7.3 million USD, minus 38 large cents he retained.

After reviewing papers filed by the ANS and Naftzger, Superior County Judge Aviva K. Bobb ruled in November 1997 for the Society, awarding it the title to 38 cents still in Naftzger’s possession and ordering him to pay the ANS $229,500 for the 20 large cents he had already sold. Only 65 remained missing. The judge held Sheldon guilty of the thefts and denounced him from the bench for his abuse of the trust of the ANS and, earlier, of the Clarke estate in 1954. There the matter has rested.

No other matter has been as thoroughly argued as the history of William Herbert Sheldon and Walter Breen. The story retains its fascination within the numismatic world and might be described as an unequaled lesson in the study of human foibles, the fleeting nature of fame, and the temptations surrounding objects of value.

* * *


[1] http://www.yankeeclassic.com/miskatonic/library/stacks/literature/lovecraft/stories/terrible.htm

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_James

[3] The organization still exists today under a different, less obviously sinister name.

* * *

David Alexander
David Alexander
David Alexander has been an avid coin enthusiast since the age of nine. He has spent most of his professional life immersed in numismatics, writing for Coin World for several decades, and is an expert cataloger with a specialty in world coins and medals. A Life Member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA), Alexander has received numerous accolades over the course of his career, including the ANA's Glenn B. Smedley Award and the Silver Medal of Merit. In 2013, Alexander was named ANA Numismatist of the Year. Alexander is also the founder of the Medal Collectors of America and is a Fellow of the American Numismatic Society (ANS).

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  1. Absolutely brilliant composition !
    I agree with James

    Although having all the books and collecting these for over 30 years ,
    I was completely unaware prior to reading is that so much controversy existed.

    Thank you

  2. Harvey Stack perhaps 2 decades ago over the Stacks 57th St counter
    related to me that in 1954 at a Stacks office desk either Morton or Joseph
    ( I forget which ) approached Sheldon over the fact that many of the Anderson DuPont large cents looked “ different “ from those initially recd on consignment. Sheldon replied that he’d oiled and changed their appearance and that explained this discrepancy. In hindsight, this occasion would suggest WHS had switched A-D large cents for pieces in his collection.

  3. Is there proof of Sheldon’s anti-Semitic attitudes besides what Walter Breen noted recounted? Are there writings of Sheldon disparaging the Jews?


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