By Tyler Rossi for CoinWeek …..
A few years ago, I decided to start coin roll hunting, and with $25 I opened an account at the nearest bank that had a coin counting machine. After becoming friendly with the tellers, I began buying boxes of coins, pennies, nickels, dimes, and quarters to search. While I was mostly looking for 90% junk silver coins and early wheat pennies, I always kept my eyes open for any interesting errors and oddities.
To my astonishment, I found several extreme error coins. While I did find a decent quantity of junk silver coins, the most interesting pieces I pulled were a 75% delaminated state quarter and a blank pre-’82 95% copper planchet.
But one day, as I was sitting at my desk going through a pile of nickels, I found a war nickel dated from 1944 but without the standard large “P” mintmark over Monticello on the reverse. Unsure if I had found an error, I consulted the internet.
It turned out that I had found a counterfeit Henning nickel.
This led me to search for additional information. Who was Henning? How could I be sure that my piece was actually a Henning nickel? What was the story behind these counterfeit coins?
Here is what I found.
Francis Leroy Henning was born in Erial, New Jersey on September 18, 1891. By the 1930s, Henning began his counterfeiting career by printing fake $5 bills, which at the time had almost the same purchasing power as modern $100 bills. Therefore, this was quite a serious counterfeiting threat. The appropriate authorities caught up to him relatively quickly, and Henning was tried, convicted, and sentenced to three years in prison. It is unknown (“accounts vary”) whether this jail time was served in Boston or Buffalo.
It is known, however, that by his release in 1939, Henning had already begun to plan his next counterfeiting scheme.
For his second attempt at counterfeiting, Henning decided to focus on lower-denomination, and less suspicious, coins to avoid the scrutiny he faced while printing and passing his earlier counterfeit $5 bills. Fully in business by 1953, Henning rented a building in his hometown of Erial to house his DIY coin press. This new operation was disguised as the “Child’s Plastic Moulded Products Company”. While conducting his counterfeiting activities, Henning was fully employed by the firm Day & Zimmermann, Engineers in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Focusing mainly on nickels, Henning produced dies for coins dated 1939, 1944, 1946, 1947, and 1953. Since all Henning nickels “appear in circulated grades”, this means the dies were made via the transfer process.
Henning’s problems stemmed from his coins dated 1944, since it seems he either didn’t know or didn’t care that the wartime nickels had a different mint mark. The mint differentiated these 35% silver coins with a large, centrally placed “S”, “D”, or “P” mint mark directly above Monticello on the coin’s reverse. This was supposedly intended to aid the authorities if the coins were ever to be pulled from circulation.
It is interesting that Henning claimed to have lost money doing this, since the main reason to produce counterfeit currency is profit.
According to his testimony, Henning purchased almost $6,800 of Monel (an alloy of 79.1 % copper, 20.5 % nickel, and 0.4 % iron) in early 1954 from the Scoville Manufacturing Company. Even before labor, the production costs of his counterfeit nickels cost Henning between 3-3.5 cents per coin. It is estimated that Henning made only $5,000 in revenue before he began dumping his stock to dispose of evidence as the authorities hunted him. After throwing hundreds of thousands of coins with a face value of approximately $20,000 into New Jersey’s Cooper Creek and Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill River, Henning was “still about $2,000 short of just his metal costs”.
On top of that loss, the government imposed a three-year prison term and a $5,000 fine on Henning.
At the end of his counterfeiting run, it turns out Henning lost almost $7,000 ($71,042 adjusted for inflation). I can almost imagine Henning running around Jersey and Pennsylvania to the Benny Hill theme song throwing his coins away all frazzled.
By 1955, the authorities had arrested Henning. Also, the United States Mint had returned to the cupronickel standard for nickels and was able to melt and refine a large number of blanks recover from Henning’s Erial facility as well as approximately 40,000 coins ($2,000 face value) salvaged from the Cooper Creek for use in striking authentic coins that year.
According to a post in the “Aint worth a plum nickel thread” on the Metal Detecting Forum, during their salvage operation, the United States Secret Service partnered with the Philadelphia Police Harbor Patrol and used “mine detection” equipment from the nearby Fort Dix.
So, how did Henning get found out?
Henning’s very first deposit of counterfeit nickels at the bank raised eyebrows because all the coins were of the same date. While Henning claimed to be a “vending machine operator”, the incident spooked him. As a result, he claimed to have created 12 dies (six obverse and six reverse) of various dates. Later, local New Jersey numismatist Harmen K. Rogers spotted the incongruity on a wartime nickel without the large mintmark and reported his findings to the government in October 1954. The Secret Service finally took serious notice when a teller at the Pennsauken National Bank in Pennsauken, New Jersey reported a few months later that he had “$2.40 in suspected counterfeit nickels” from Henning. Incidentally, this bank was “located between” Erial and downtown Philadelphia, meaning that Henning must have deposited the coins during his daily commute.
Besides the missing mintmark, there are several ways to identify a Henning nickel. Firstly, many of the coins dated 1944 are too heavy and weigh 5.40 grams instead of the official five grams. This is despite the coins all being struck from dies simulating circulation. Other examples average 4.85 grams, which is “well within the weight tolerance of moderately circulated mint-struck nickels.” Another main way to identify these counterfeits is the “low spot” or “void” on the left-hand leg in the “r” on “Pluribus”. While this defect is “very distinct[ive]”, it does not appear on all of Henning’s reverse dies.
Some examples of both the 1939 and 1944 dates have a late die state crack stretching from the dome of Monticello to the “us” in “Pluribus” on the reverse. This crack means that Henning’s dies must have been poorly made and began to crack partway through production, and since Henning stated it “only took four hours” for him to create each die, this makes sense.
Additionally, there are a series of raised dots on both sides of many specimens. Examples include a raised dot between the obverse “GOD” and “WE” as well below Jefferson’s cheek and in the field above the left side of Monticello. One type also has a “raised area” directly in front of Jefferson’s collar.
Today, Henning nickels are relatively rare. The 1944 dated type is usually the only example available to collectors. Winston Zack, the author of Bad Metal: Copper and Nickel Circulating Contemporary Counterfeit United States Coins (2019), states that any other type is extremely “difficult to locate.” In his book, Zack values the common examples at between $30 and $50, and the rare varieties at $100. That being said, examples of the common 1944 variety are currently being sold for $100 or more.
It is important to note that it is technically illegal to own any counterfeit currency, but it is highly unlikely that the Secret Service will be knocking on your door for owning one of these pieces.
* * *
Zack, Winston. Bad Metal: Copper and Nickel Circulating Contemporary Counterfeit United States Coins. (2019)
* * *
About the Author
Tyler Rossi is currently a graduate student at Brandeis University’s Heller School of Social Policy and Management and studies Sustainable International Development and Conflict Resolution. Before graduating from American University in Washington D.C., he worked for Save the Children creating and running international development projects. Recently, Tyler returned to the US from living abroad in the Republic of North Macedonia, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer for three years. Tyler is an avid numismatist and for over a decade has cultivated a deep interest in pre-modern and ancient coinage from around the world. He is a member of the American Numismatic Association (ANA).