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Q. David Bowers: Two Remarkable Finds of US Gold Coins

Q. David Bowers: Two Remarkable Finds of US Gold Coins

By Q. David BowersCo-Founder, Stack’s Bowers …..

A Remarkable Find

In August of 1908, two boys named James McFarland and John May were swimming in the Little Blue River in Thayer County, Nebraska. While resting on a small sandbar near the limestone bluff, John May kicked up a gold coin. It turned out to be a Kellogg and Co. $20 coin minted in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. John, an orphan who lived in Belvidere, was able to rake two more coins from the sand near the bluff.

John lived with a man named Spaulding who confiscated the coins and demanded to know where they were found. According to the Hebron Journal, the boys refused to tell Spaulding and returned to the bluff the next day. James McFarland found a small hole near the old mouth of the cave and retrieved a sack containing $1,100 in Kellogg $20 gold coins. These 1854- and 1855-minted coins apparently had been hidden by William Abernathy, a former California miner who returned to Nebraska to take up ranching and who was killed by the Pawnee in August 1867.

Evidently, the seemingly heartless Spaulding, who was not John May’s legal guardian, kept John’s three Kellogg coins. The whereabouts of the coins are unknown today.

Reports indicate that the remaining $1,100 worth of Kellogg $20 coins was deposited into a bank in Geneva, Nebraska. The coins were received as a cash deposit, so tracing them has become quite difficult.

The site of the find was destroyed years ago for safety reasons. The limestone bluff is fragile, and residents feared a cave-in.

Much is left to be discovered. What happened to the 58 $20 coins? How were they dispersed, and who has them now? Or were they melted years ago? The beauty of research and the enjoyment of numismatics often come not from the actual acquisition of a coin or a bit of information, but from what occurs during the search for discovery. It is through the search that we learn, grow, and share. The contemplation today of an actual specimen of an 1854 or 1855 Kellogg & Co. $20 gold piece becomes all the more interesting when one considers the coin’s history–how it was minted and what its later experiences may have been.

Gold Hidden in a Baltimore Cellar

On August 31, 1934, two young boys were playing in the cellar of a house at 132 South Eden Street, East Baltimore, owned by Elizabeth H. French and Mary Findley and rented by the father of one of the boys.

Henry Grob, age 15, and his companion, Theodore Jones, 16, came upon a cache of gold coins. After a brief discussion as to what should be done, the lads took the treasure to the local police station and turned the find over to the authorities. Later, the boys said that they had “held out” some of the pieces, and these were subsequently added to the first group. One newspaper account put the amount as 3,558 coins with $11,425.50 face value. All were dated before 1857.

(Meanwhile, at the police station some of the patrolmen “tried their hand at cleaning them with coal oil [kerosene] and vinegar,” a procedure definitely not recommended by numismatists!)

How had the coins been hidden and by whom?

One story had it that they were secreted by a sea captain of a ship in the coffee trade between Brazil and the port of Baltimore, who lived in the house with his two sisters. Another story printed in the October 1935 issue of The Numismatist suggested that “the coins may have been buried in April 1861 by a resident who was frightened by the passing of federal [sic] troops through the city; the house is located close to the depot at which the troops landed in Baltimore.”

Multiple claims were filed for ownership. For the rest of 1934 and into May 1935 the matter was in the courts. Meanwhile, although the gold coins were to have remained undisturbed pending the outcomes, the family of one of the finders sold $185 worth for face value. Judge Eugene O’Dunne of the Second Circuit Court of Baltimore eventually awarded proceeds from the entire find to the two teenagers, negating an offer by the two ladies of the house to give the boys 24%.

To finally settle the matter, the court mandated that the coins be sold at auction. The sale was held on May 2, 1935, at the Lord Baltimore Hotel downtown, with Perry W. Fuller serving as auctioneer. About 100 attended including a few out-of-town dealers and many local curiosity seekers. Grouped into 438 lots and casually described (most pieces were simply called “very fine”) in a printed catalog, the hoard realized $19,558.75.

The star of the sale was a “very fine” 1856-O double eagle at $105, which went to a Virginia numismatist. An 1849-O $10, also “very fine,” commanded $45. An 1841 $5, “fine, scratch on date,” found a buyer at $26, and an 1847-O of the same denomination graded “fine” fetched $22.

In an era in which there was very little numismatic interest in gold coins of higher denominations, most pieces sold for double face value.

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