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The Man With the Golden Leg, Pt. 1: A Theft of Gold From the Denver Mint

The Man with the Golden Leg, Part I: A Theft of Gold From the Denver Mint

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

Part I | Part 2

* * *

Orville Harrington trudged from work at the Denver Mint to a nearby tramway car stop. It was late – too late, thought the 42-year-old – to be heading home to a wife and two sick children, but he was on the refinery’s second shift that night and had no choice. He stopped at the corner of Colfax and Delaware to wait for the next Route 72 tramway car.

“Hello, Mr. Harrington,” said an unfamiliar male voice. It was past 11:30, and Denver was quiet on this cold February night. The voice surprised Harrington and he turned toward the speaker.

“Well, good evening to you, sir. Uh, do I know you?”

A firm hand gently grasped Orville’s shoulder.

“I’m Rowland Goddard, Mr. Harrington, Chief of the U.S. Secret Service in Denver. Walk with me back to the Mint, I want to talk to you.”

Guided back as though he were a spirit-broken horse, Orville returned to the Mint. Once there, the two sat down at a small table in the superintendent’s office. Goddard got right to the point.

“Mr. Harrington, do you not work in the electrolytic refinery; is that correct?”


Figure 1. U. S. Secret Service agent Rowland K.Goddard photographed in 1930. (“30 Eventful
Years with Secret Service Observed,” Rocky Mountain
News, August 3, 1930.) Colorized by CoinWeek.
Figure 1. U. S. Secret Service agent Rowland K.
Goddard photographed in 1930. (“30 Eventful
Years with Secret Service Observed,” Rocky Mountain
News, August 3, 1930.) Colorized by CoinWeek.

“For some time now the refinery has been showing an unusual loss of gold, all in the form of what are called ‘anodes.’ Do you understand?”[1]


“I think you know about these missing anodes, and this evening we arranged a little test. A small anode weighing about 30 ounces was ‘accidentally’ left on a workbench in the refinery near where you worked[2]. When the second shift ended everyone, including you, was searched and then left the Mint. When I checked the refinery the anode was gone.”

There was a long pause, louder than any words Goddard could speak.

“You’ve been seen at home, digging in the garden late at night. Why is that, Mr. Harrington?” A shorter pause as Goddard fixed his stare on a nervous Harrington.

“What was there in the garden that needed digging – hiding – alone – in darkness? Something valuable, perhaps?”

Another pause.

“Perhaps gold?”

Orville looked away, fidgeting in his chair. His face itched, then his legs. Hands folded, fingers twitching. Goddard knew he had his man.

“Why did you take the gold anode tonight? Where is it? Did you hide it in the Mint in some secret place, or do you have it now? Where is it? Tell me,” the agent demanded.

Orville Harrington paused, reached into his vest pocket, and withdrew a dull triangle of gold. There was no glitter of freshly minted coin or glowing, just-melted bullion – only a pebble-surfaced deposit more a dull yellow-brown than golden. But it was gold.

Goddard attacked.

“That explains today, but what of other days?” He couldn’t believe that such a prominently carried piece of gold could have evaded daily searches by guards and his own trained agents[3].

Orville leaned forward with a deep sigh and stood. Goddard tensed. Would his man try to run, or become violent? Did he have a knife? A gun?

The broken man put his right leg on the chair and raised its pant leg to the knee, revealing a prosthetic made of machined and carved hardwood covered with leather. Orville had a pronounced limp and leaned a little forward and to the side when he walked. As a boy, he was hunting with a friend when the other boy’s gun exploded. A piece of metal struck Orville’s right hip, damaging the sciatic nerve. He walked with crutches for five months and was in and out of a hospital for over two years. As Orville grew to adulthood, circulation in the injured leg diminished. The nerves grew sensitive and pain increased in his right foot and lower leg until complete numbness set in. Eventually, amputation was required.

The inside of the prosthetic where the stump of his lower leg fit was lined with cork coated with soft rubber and fabric. Orville unbuckled the harness and removed his leg, placed it on the table, and sat back down. Working deftly, he pulled down a thin strip of leather covering the calf section to reveal a slot about nine inches long, half an inch wide, and deep enough to hold a three-inch used anode.

“Clever. Very clever, Mr. Harrington. Now, tell me, where is this gold? It will be better for you to confess all – right now.”

“At home. In the garden. In the basement. I guess that’s all. I’ll show you,” said Harrington in a quiet voice.

“Orville Harrington,” said Goddard, “You are under arrest for embezzlement from the United States Mint at Denver, Colorado. Put on your leg, and hold out your hands.” The cold steel handcuffs were hard and tight on Orville’s wrists and seemed to get tighter as Goddard led him to a waiting car, escorted by the elbows by two other agents.

Wedged between agents in the back seat, Orville wished that he would wake up from this nightmare. His wife was at home with their sick children and there was no way to warn her of what was going to happen.

Once home, the same official escort showed the admitted thief into the small parlor. Orville’s wife of 16 years, Lydia Melton Harrington, was awake, watching over their four-year-old daughter Mary Ruth and their 11-month-old son Robert Kingsley, both of whom had pneumonia. As her eyes met his, all Orville could do was raise his handcuffed wrists and bury his face in his shoulder.

Figure 2. Left, a new gold anode, and right the same anode after use. Dark rectangle approximates the original anode size.The black line on the left photo is the maximum height of electrolyte solution on a new anode. If the liquid is higher, there is
a risk of the copper electrodes contaminating the solution. (Courtesy: sreetips,
“Electrolytic Gold Cell, Part II”
Figure 2. The Left is a new gold anode, and the right is the same one after use. The dark rectangle approximates the original anode size. The black line on the left photo is the maximum height of the electrolyte solution on a new anode. If the liquid is higher, there is a risk of the copper electrodes contaminating the solution. (Courtesy: sreetips, “Electrolytic Gold Cell, Part II”)

Goddard explained the situation to Lydia. He told her about the Mint refinery. He told her about the slot in Orville’s prosthetic leg. He told her about the arrest. And he told her that his agents were going to recover the stolen gold.

The Harringtons were married on January 12, 1904[4], while Orville was a patient at St. Luke’s Hospital receiving treatment for his paralyzed ankle and foot; Lydia was one of his nurses. The couple lived in a small, one-story brick house with a concrete block foundation and a full basement. It was built in the autumn of 1906 while Orville was working at the Denver Mint, at a cost of about $1,000[5] on one of two adjoining lots purchased the previous year for $700[6].

In 1911, the Harringtons began purchasing additional lots until they had accumulated 10[7] – all of which were for sale at the time of Orville’s arrest[8]. They planned to buy a farm with the proceeds, or possibly move to Cuba[9] where they had lived in 1918 while Orville was manager of the Minas de Matahambre copper mine in Santa Luca[10].

But now those plans had vanished.

Orville showed the agents to a basement wall and a spot he had carefully patched just weeks before. A few deft hammer blows shattered the wall and inside, wrapped in old cloths, were dozens of gold anodes that still looked fresh from the refining tanks at the Mint[11]. In his written confession, Orville explained that after returning from work each evening, he would hide anodes in a hole in the basement wall. When that was full, he cemented over the hole and began hiding gold under a concrete walk in the small orchard behind his house. It was this last hiding place that attracted special attention from the Secret Service. An agent observed him digging in the same spot several days in a row, and covering the hole each day[12]. Working in a garden was nothing of particular note, but to dig in the same place and fill it back in each day was unusual.

Agents quickly uncovered the remaining stolen anodes from the garden. There were 90 bars in all[13], with an estimated total value of $80,000 to $110,000. Charging documents would state $81,400 – likely based on Mint weighing[14].

After recovering the gold, two cars left the Harrington home. One, carrying the gold, went to the Mint, where the evidence was locked in a vault pending cleaning and further investigation[15]. The other, carrying Orville, his two protective agents, and Goddard, headed five blocks west of the Mint to the Denver County Jail.

Figure 3. The main rotunda of the Denver City Jail showing four tiers of cells. (Courtesy DPL Western History CollectionC352.078883 D4373mu.)
Figure 3. The main rotunda of the Denver City Jail showing four tiers of cells. (Courtesy DPL Western History Collection
C352.078883 D4373mu.)

Here, amid stark iron bars, Orville wrote and signed his confession to embezzlement. The next morning he was arraigned before United States Commissioner Wilbur F. Stone[16]. Commissioner Stone informed Orville of the charges in a written indictment and asked whether he pleaded “Guilty” or “Not Guilty”. Orville entered a plea of “Not Guilty” to avoid summary judgment.

Bond was set at $20,000 for Orville Harrington, confessed thief of thousands of dollars in gold from the United States mint, to appear at the opening day of the next term of United States District Court by Commissioner Wilbur F. Stone. At the arraignment of the defendant yesterday, Counsel objected vigorously to the amount asked by United States District Attorney Harry B. Tedrow, but the commissioner ruled that it will not be exorbitant. Arrangements will be made within a few days to furnish the bond, the defendant’s counsel said.

Harrington entered a technical plea of not guilty and waived formal preliminary hearing. The next term of United States District Court opens in this city May 4.

The maximum penalty provided by the statutes for robbing the mint as Harrington is charged with doing is 15 years’ imprisonment and a fine of $5,000. All three departments interested – the mint, the secret service, and the district attorney’s office – have declared that they will strive to obtain imposition of the maximum sentence as an example to any other mint employee who may be tempted to tamper with metal or coins at the Mint.

As Harrington… entered the courtroom, he was told that his baby, who has been seriously ill, was improving [according to] a telephone message from the mother received by a secret service man[17].

Orville’s brother Emil Harington, a jeweler with a shop on Fourteenth Street, and Clyde Osborne, Orville’s attorney, were unable to obtain a bond of $20,000, which was required to free him from jail pending trial. Osborne denied that insanity would be the defense offered at trial[18].

A newspaper article published not long after his arrest quoted Mint Superintendent Thomas Annear as saying, “Harrington earned $4 a day, was thrifty and apparently had everything that a man could ask for to make him content.”[19]

Yet Orville’s theft of gold from the Denver Mint was premeditated, according to newspapers[20]:

Harrington said the idea of taking small amounts of gold from the mint in the hole in his leg suggested itself several months ago, but he did not try out the idea until early in January, 1920 [sic – sometime after August 1919][21].

While sitting in his jail cell, Harrington gave a short interview to an Associated Press reporter who asked, “Why did you attempt to rob the Denver Mint of gold worth $100,000?”

“Well, I was earning but $4 a day working at the mint and one can’t enjoy life on such limited funds. I had been having lots of trouble with my leg and had been compelled to wear a false limb and to submit to a number of operations since having my foot amputated several years ago. I shot myself in the foot and that started the trouble.

“I have a wife and family and hoped to get enough money to buy a farm for them and to be independent. I can’t say just when the impulse to steal first came to me. I was constantly in touch with great stores of gold and silver, valued at hundreds of thousands of dollars; and well–it just looked too easy. That is all.

“My wife knew nothing of my dishonesty until Officer Goddard brought me home this morning and explained the situation to her. I don’t care to discuss the case anymore at present. There isn’t much that can be said.”[22]

This clarified Orville’s motive but didn’t touch on the long years of discrimination and disillusionment he had endured. It was a superficial reply to what could have been a much deeper question – but it was all there was.

Orville was dismissed from the Mint for theft effective February 5[23]. A federal grand jury’s spring term began on April 6 and passed a bill of indictment against him[24]. The trial was set for May 12 in the United States District Court[25].


On May 12, 1920, after pleading guilty to the crime, Orville Harrington was sentenced to five consecutive two-year terms in Leavenworth Penitentiary by Judge Robert E. Lewis[26]. With advance credit of 1,200 days for good behavior, he would be eligible for parole on September 25, 1923[27]. While in prison, he was assigned the job of “Printer”, meaning that he worked in the “Printer’s Office” library[28] in charge of the fiction department supervised by prison chaplain Allen[29]. There were also occasional diversions to the prison laundry.

Figure 4. Orville Harrington June 1920 inmate #15271. (NARA Kansas City. Record Group 129 (Bureau of Prisons), Series:Inmate Case Files. “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 1 .)
Figure 4. Orville Harrington June 1920 inmate #15271. (NARA Kansas City. Record Group 129 (Bureau of Prisons), Series:
Inmate Case Files. “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 1 .)

Visits from his brother Emil from Denver were few. Sparser still were meetings with his younger sister, Helen Harrington, M.D., who had just received her medical degree from Johns Hopkins University Medical School in Baltimore[30].

Lydia wrote every few days (and Orville replied once or twice a week), but she did not visit Leavenworth[31].

Beginning in 1922, her letters came from their home in Denver plus RFD #3 Box 124 in Sherman, Texas, and 2121 8th Avenue in Fort Worth. In 1923, the return address for Lydia and daughter Mary Ruth was 1933 W. 39th Avenue in Denver[32], the residence of William and Alice Mackintosh, clerk/salesman for “John Thompson Grocery Co.”[33].

On March 11, 1922, Orville petitioned for early release from Leavenworth based on serving 10 years for embezzlement rather than robbing the Mint, but Judge John C. Pollock refused[34]. It was not until November 8, 1923, that he was paroled under the supervision of Dr. John M. Norman, a dentist and family friend in Denver[35].

The prison years were over but not the punishment.

* * *


[1] In electrolytic refining at the Denver Mint, an anode was a small bar of 85% gold about 8-1/4 in. long, 3½ in. wide, and ¼ in. thick. It was the source of gold that was then deposited on the cathode as 0.999 to 0.9999 fine gold. Anodes were replaced before completely used up so that proper current would flow between the anodes and cathodes. See: RG104 Denver E-23 Box 1 Vol 3. Letter dated October 18, 1920, to Annear from Hetrick for specifications and details.

[2] Thirty (30) troy ounces is equal to about 2.05 avoirdupois pounds.

[3] “Retired Secret Service Man Recalls Theft of Gold From Mint,” The Sacramento Bee, October 29, 1945. 20. In this article, Goddard stated that “[t]he case has always been misrepresented. Newspapers at the time said Harrington concealed the heavy gold bars in his wooden leg to take them out of the Mint. Actually, the wooden leg caused him to walk with a decided forward pitch, and the resultant sag in his clothing made it possible for him to carry a bar at a time in his vest without detection.” This author’s question is: If men were searched daily on leaving, it seems improbable that the extra sag of a 30-ounce (2 lb.) bar would be ignored nearly 100 times. We don’t have details of U.S. Mint exit searches, but it must have been more than a cursory tip of the hat.

[4] Marriage Record Report No. 32858. State of Colorado, Division of Vital Statistics.

[5] “Building Permits”, The Rocky Mountain News, October 19, 1906. Colorado State Library.

[6] “Nearly Seventy Thousand A Day”, The Rocky Mountain News, October 24, 1905. Colorado State Library.

[7] “Real Estate Transfers”, The Rocky Mountain News, July 15, 1911. Colorado State Library.

[8] Black, “Harrington Household”.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Application for passport, U. S. Department of State. Photo attached.

[11] “$81,400 Stolen from Denver Mint Found Hidden at Home of Employee”, The Rocky Mountain News, February 6, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Marranzino, Pasquale. “They Won’t Uncover Any More Gold Bars”, The Rocky Mountain News, August 4, 1954. Colorado State Library. One secondary source (Oliver and Kelly) states that 53 bars were recovered from the basement. The average weight of a new anode was about 80 oz of 0.850 gold, worth about $1,405 ($1,653 fine gold x 0.850 = $1,405). If 53 bars were found and their total value was $81,400, then each anode would have been worth $1,535.85 or only as little more than $120 less than the original weight. This would mean the process was either very slow and anodes changed frequently, or the count of stolen anodes was wrong.

If 90 anodes were stolen and had the same $81,400 value, each was worth about $768.78 in fine gold. This means an average used anode weighed about 43.8 gross ounces or that almost 36.2 ounces went into solution to be captured on the cathode or sink to the tank bottom as sludge. This is consistent with electrolytic refining practices in the Wohlwill process in use at Denver in 1919.

[14] “Gets Gold from Denver Mint”, Colorado Statesman, February 7, 1920. 7.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “$81,400 Stolen from Denver Mint Found Hidden at Home of Employee”, The Rocky Mountain News, February 6, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[17] “Harrington’s Bond Set at $20,000 by U.S. Commissioner”, The Rocky Mountain News, February 7, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[18] “Harrington Unable To Furnish Bond; Remains In Jail”, The Rocky Mountain News, February 10, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[19] “$81,400 Stolen from Denver Mint Found Hidden at Home of Employee”, The Rocky Mountain News, February 6, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[20] Contemporary newspaper articles indicate that Harrington had been stealing gold anodes for a few weeks. However, that does not correlate with the quantity of about 90 that were necessary to amount to $81,400. If we presume that only one anode could be removed per work day and that Saturday was omitted because it was a half-holiday, then Harrington had to remove one anode every weekday for 90 days. That takes us back to the last week in September. In addition, changes in work might easily have prevented getting an anode or finding the privacy to put one in his leg. Also, basic engineer’s prudence would have dictated that thefts did not occur every day, which would encourage the foreman to overlook minor, seemingly temporary shortages. Harrington did not start work until August 1919.

Unknown to Herrington, Superintendent of the M&R Department, Joseph W. Milsom, and Mint Superintendent Thomas Annear had been discussing persistent losses in the refinery earlier in 1919. See: RG104 Denver E-23 Box 1 Vol 3. Letter dated June 17, 1919, to Annear from Milsom.

[21] “$81,400 Stolen from Denver Mint Found Hidden at Home of Employee”, The Rocky Mountain News, February 6, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[22] “Denver Mint Employee Charged with Stealing Over $100,000 in Gold in False Wooden Leg”, Associated Press in Greeley Daily Tribune (Colorado), February 5, 1920. 1.

[23] NARA. RG104 E-235 Vol 433. Letter dated February 19, 1920, to Secretary of Treasury from Baker.

[24] “Federal Grand Jury to Act on 100 Cases”, The Rocky Mountain News, April 6, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[25] “Trial for Bullion Theft at Mint is Set for May 12”, The Rocky Mountain News, May 8, 1920. Colorado State Library.

[26] NARA Kansas City. Record Group 129 (Bureau of Prisons), Series: Inmate Case Files. “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 158-160. Order of the United States District Court for the District of Colorado dated May 13, 1920.

[27] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 5.

[28] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 75-79. “Individual Daily Labor Record, With Key to Abbreviations, for Year Ending June 30, 192_,”

[29] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 95. Letter dated June 1, 1921, to Warden W.I. Biddle from Harrington. Request for outside pass.

[30] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 92. Letter dated June 18, 1920, to A.V. Anderson, Warden U.S. Penitentiary, from Helen R. Harrington, M.D. Helen was staying with Lydia while in Denver and was asking special permission to visit Orville at the penitentiary on her way back to Baltimore.

[31] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 99-108. “Correspondence list of letters sent and received by name and date.”

[32] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 106-107. “Correspondence list of letters sent and received by name and date.” Mary Ruth’s previous address was Colorado Christian Home.

[33] Denver City Directory, 1923. 1,546.

[34] “Man Who Robbed Mint Must Remain in Prison”, The Rocky Mountain News, March 11, 1922. Colorado State Library.

[35] “117690112_15271-OrvilleHarrington Leavenworth case file.” 69-73.

* * *



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* * *

Roger W. Burdette
Roger W. Burdette
Responsible for much original numismatic research in recent years, Roger Burdette was named the ANA Numismatist of the Year in 2023. Besides CoinWeek, he has written for Coin World and The Numismatist, among others. He is the author of Renaissance of American Coinage 1916-1921 (2005); Renaissance of American Coinage 1905-1908 (2006); Renaissance of American Coinage 1909-1915 (2007); A Guide Book of Peace Dollars (Whitman, 2009); and Fads, Fakes & Foibles (2021). He also co-wrote the NLG award-winning Truth Seeker: The Life of Eric P. Newman (2015) with Len Augsburger and Joel Orosz. Burdette served as a member of the Citizen’s Coinage Advisory Committee (CCAC) from 2008 to 2012.

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