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Explosion in the Chief Coiner’s Vault at the U.S. Mint

Explosion in the Chief Coiner’s Vault at the U.S. Mint. Image: CoinWeek.
Explosion in the Coiner’s Vault. Image: CoinWeek.

By Roger W. Burdette, special to CoinWeek …..

It was business as usual on a sultry Monday morning at the Philadelphia Mint. Heavy rain was expected in the afternoon and many workers hoped to catch their homeward streetcar before they got soaked. Boiler fires were lit at 5 am and full steam power was available by 6:30. Early hours were normal during the summer months; it was one of the few ways Mint workmen had to mitigate stifling heat in poorly ventilated rooms.

At about 8 am, Martin V. Davis, the Coiner’s Assistant, entered the Chief Coiner’s rooms on the first floor and found indications of escaping gas. In the absence of Coiner Snowden, he immediately unlocked and opened the Coiner’s vault, through which ran a gas line. The door was opened as wide as possible and Davis sent for a gas fitter, William W. Horner, who arrived within half an hour.

Presumably to better see in the darkened vault, Horner asked “for a match which was handed him by Mr. Davis. The explosion followed immediately,” after Davis had returned to his nearby desk.

The furniture in the room was overturned and scattered about. A very heavy door leading to the hall was torn from its hinges and hurled across the passage-way, against the opposite wall… Dr. H. R. Linderman, the Director, who was seated in a chair in his [second floor] room directly over that of the Chief Coiner, was thrown from his chair.

Horner, the gas fitter, was thrown out a window by the blast. He was severely burned and cut on the head, and he died later that day. Assistant Weigher Andrew Steif, who was standing close to Horner, had his hair and whiskers burnt off, and his face and arms were severely burned. Davis, who was seated at his desk in the same room with his back to the vault, had his face burned and his desk overturned. The injured men were taken to their homes to recover. Mint Director Linderman immediately closed the building and sent a telegram to Chief Coiner Snowden.

Western Union Telegraph Company

August 31, 1868
10:10 AM

To: Postmaster
   Send messenger to A. L. Snowden [at] Hogestown telling him that Davis
   and Steif both severely injured by gas explosion in his vault.

H. R. Linderman,
Director of the Mint

Later that afternoon, Melter and Refiner James Booth and Chief Engineer Isaac Cassin examined the vault in an attempt to determine the causes of the gas explosion.

The undersigned have examined the Chief Coiner’s vault, where the explosion occurred and herewith offer their opinion: that it was caused by the escape of city gas into the vault, either from a leakage in the pipe or from neglect in turning off the gas at night. Upon opening the door in the morning and leaving it open for three-quarters of an hour, the outer air, and the gas in the vault, have become so mixed as to form the most explosive mixture, which could not escape spontaneously in so short a time, because of the large space in the vaulted arch above the door of the vault, and the levity of the gaseous mixture, which retained it there. Hence the first flame would and did cause it to ignite instantaneously through the whole mixture, and hence the disastrous effects of the explosion.

The remedy is simple and can be made perfect without impairing the burglar-proof character of a vault. It is, to make tubular openings in the arches beneath the vault, and corresponding ones above, these last especially to open into the chimney. We suggest that the remedy be applied to all the vaults of the Mint.

The vault had been closed since the previous Friday evening, which allowed time for gas to build up in the upper part of the vault. If the gas valve had been accidentally left open over Saturday afternoon and Sunday, then enough had been collected to create an explosive mixture when the vault was opened on Monday.

The death of Horner and the injuries to Steif and Davis–plus the physical damage–were well beyond the experience of Mint employees and officers. But there was another unexpected surprise awaiting Snowden on his return from Hogestown, Pennsylvania. The force of the blast had dislodged a large box on top of a cabinet at the back of the vault. This was discovered during the cleanup and repair following the explosion, and many dies and hubs for older coins and patterns were inside.

According to Andrew Steif, the dies were in a “sort of a wooden closet arrangement with doors.” Henry Cochran said that when Snowden mentioned the dies to him, he said that they found a lot of old dies in his vault somewhere. He called them “rusty” and brought them to the attention of Dr. Linderman. The director looked them over and proposed that three pieces should be struck from each pair. Snowden said some very rare pieces [could be] manufactured, and he said it would be a very profitable thing for someone to restrike copies. Planchets were prepared and dies evidently selected, but the pieces were never struck. Linderman and Snowden appear to have reconsidered and thought they had better not make restrikes. Cochran understood Snowden to say it would not violate the law to strike some pieces.

It was claimed that the cache of dies was unknown because they were out of sight. “The vault is very high and it runs kind of back, and there is [sic] shelves. I never saw up there myself to my knowledge, and I have been here a number of years.”

1804 Class III Dollar. Ex: Berg-Garrett. Image: Stack's Bowers.
1804 Class III Dollar. Ex: Berg-Garrett. Image: Stack’s Bowers.

Many of the dies were casually examined after the explosion, but little note was taken of their dates – at least not by anyone willing to admit it. One was identified as a Flying Eagle reverse die. According to a memorandum kept by Steif, Snowden said that “…on the 19th of December that he knew of dies being in his vault, but that the explosion injured them to such an extent that they could not be used; there had been an 1804 half dollar touched up, but that was all.”

Assistant Weigher Steif recalled the destruction of old dies by order of the director. He first saw them several months after the explosion following his recovery from burns and other injuries and was not aware that Snowden knew of the dies the previous December. He pointed out several boxes that had contained the dies and that they had the words “Experimental Dies” written on them. These were dies from earlier dates up to at least 1834 – including regular coinage dies from 1801, 1807, 1810, 1820, 1821, 1832, 1833, and 1834 – but no notes were kept about denominations or details of each die. Most of the dies were in good condition, although some were damaged by the explosion. They were not really rusty but more soiled and dusty from years of sitting undisturbed.

Sometime during the latter end of March or April 1869, Linderman ordered the dies destroyed. A few days later they were taken to the blacksmith’s shop to be defaced. Henry Cochran and another man took them down from the vault. The blacksmith, Abram B. Corson, superintended the work of his assistants while Cochran and Steif witnessed everything.

Steif kept a record of the number of dies in the boxes and those destroyed. According to his memorandum book, there were 715 dies and hubs and nine collars. These were taken down to the blacksmith’s shop and Steif remained there to witness their destruction. He said, “I counted them before I took them down and counted them down there and tallied them off.” None of them were retained. Steif said the blacksmith selected a small die with an eagle on it and asked to keep it, but was refused.

However, it appears that the “lost” dies were known to Snowden months before the explosion and a year prior to his December 1867 viewing of the dies. An affidavit signed by Albert Downing, Foreman of the Coining Room, says that he was shown the cabinet of old dies soon after Snowden was appointed Chief Coiner.

Albert W. Downing of the City of Philadelphia and State of Pennsylvania, being of full age and being duly sworn according to law, deposes and says that he has been employed in the Coining Room of the United States Mint since 1864; that sometime during the fall of 1866, shortly after Mr. Snowden was appointed Chief Coiner, he took deponent into one of his vaults and showed him a large collection of old dies and hubs that were contained in his closets in the upper part of the vault that none of these dies were ever used with the knowledge of deponent, and they could not have been used without the knowledge of said deponent, unless used upon the screw press under the direction of Robert Jefferson, die sinker; that all of these dies and hubs were destroyed, by order of the Chief Coiner in the spring of 1869.

Robert Jefferson, who was in charge of making medals, patterns, and proof coins, confirmed that old dies, those made before the adoption of Peale’s toggle press, could not be used on equipment in the Mint’s Coining Room.

Robert Jefferson of the City and County of Philadelphia, and State of Pennsylvania, being of full age, and being duly sworn according to law, deposes and says that he has been employed in the United States Mint since 1862, and that he has had entire charge of the manufacture of medals, pattern and proof coins since 1865; he further says that no use of the screw presses could be had unless with his knowledge; that at no time since Mr. Snowden has been Chief Coiner have any dies of previous dates been used, except such dies as were in the custody of the Director Dr. Linderman, and used under his authority and direction; deponent further states that Mr. Snowden had asked him to examine the old dies in his vault, and that he did so sometime during the latter part of 1866; that not one of these dies were ever used with his knowledge to strike a single piece of any description. Nor does he believe it possible that they could have been, or were, used without his knowledge.

United States Mint illustration of a coiner operating a Screw Press.
United States Mint illustration of a coiner operating a screw press.

This was a strong statement by the one Mint employee who had direct knowledge of production and patterns and Proofs. But, he omits to explicitly state that old dies might have been used on the screw press in his Medal Department when he was absent. While this seems like a minor point, a summary prepared by Tayler, however, refers to work being done after hours. He also states that, contrary to statements by Cochran and others that no pieces were struck from the explosively discovered dies, Jefferson claimed that, “Three pieces from each die were struck, the whole amounting to ten or twelve pieces.” All of these being under authority of the Treasury Department.

The testimony of some of the employees that during the Directorship of Dr. Linderman they had seen the Chief Coiner, Mr. Thacher the Director’s Chief Clerk and Mr. Jefferson work on a press after hours, and so late that lights were necessary. The witnesses were not in the room where the work was being done, and did not know what it was. They were suspicious and jealous because kept in ignorance of what neither official duty or personal relationship required the Chief Coiner to communicate to them. The is the substance of the testimony on which the charge of “resurgent striking of coins,” at that time, is based; and it proves only, that at an unusual hour, the persons named were seen at work in a room belonging to the business of the Chief Coiner who was assisting at the work, and that the witnesses did not know what that work was. A suspicious and jealous mind might fear that something wrong was being done, but a candid and honorable man would presume that the Chief Coiner was legitimately engaged in the business of his office.

Mr. Jefferson, to whom you referred me in your letter of August 24th as having some knowledge of this subject, was called upon and testified to the work done at the time specified. Mr. Jefferson testifies that at that time alluded to, the Director, not Gov. Pollock, had found some old dies in his vault, and as he understood at the time, by authority of the Treasury Department, directed that some pieces should be struck. Under instructions of the Director. Three pieces from each die were struck, the whole amounting to ten or twelve pieces.

I do not discover any wrong in this. If there were, it does not concern the present Director [Pollock], nor the Chief Coiner, who acted under the instructions of a superior officer. At the time this work was done, work in the Mint was pressing, and the Director instructed the Chief Coiner to do it after regular hours. When the pieces had been struck the dies were destroyed.

If Tayler’s statement of “ten or twelve pieces struck” with three from each pair is believed, then four die pairs must have been restruck between August 31, 1868, and April 1869 when the dies were destroyed. However, if the statements of Cochran and Jefferson are correct, then none were made. The turning point might be after-hours work.

After-Hours Work – 1868-1869

John Clapper was employed at the Philadelphia Mint beginning in June 1861. One day sometime after the explosion, he was passing by the medal room on his way to turn off the gas-light near the rolls. The medal room had a glass door and he saw Snowden, Thacher, and Jefferson in the medal department after working hours. Jefferson was foreman of the Medal Department, Snowden was Chief Coiner and Arthur Thacher, Jr. was Director Linderman’s clerk. The lever press (screw press) was being operated but he could not see who was swinging the levers. There was a light in the room and the men remained there for possibly a half-hour but were not seen to enter or leave on this occasion. The men had their coats off as if prepared for work.

Clapper also said that he saw Snowden and Thacher twice in the medal room. “I never saw Thacher, to my knowledge, but twice. I saw Snowden down there several times, after working hours; whether he was just in the press room or in the [adjacent] wash-room I could not say.” He also reported seeing Jefferson in the medal room during after hours on another occasion.

There is nothing inherently odd about Snowden or Jefferson being in the medal department after hours. The workday ended at about 4:30 during the summer. Letters requesting medals or Proof coins on short notice are not unusual in U.S. Mint correspondence, and extra time might have been required to complete orders. Clapper stated that he saw the screw press operating on several occasions after the date of the explosion, but had no information on what was being done. His comments support some sort of after-hours work, which might or might not have involved restriking some of the newly discovered dies.

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