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The Man With the Golden Leg, Pt. 2: A Theft of Gold From the Denver Mint

The Man with the Golden Leg, Part 2

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

Part I | Part 2

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Who Was Orville Harrington?

  • Born: November 12, 1878
  • Died: March 30, 1950
  • Sister: Ruth Harrington (b. 1872, died before maturity)
  • Brother: Emil Harrington (December 9, 1975 – April 24, 1953), jeweler in Denver and later Los Angeles
  • Sister: Helen Ruth Harrington (February 25, 1891–May 19, 1967), M.D. degree (1920) from Johns Hopkins University Medical School and later Professor of Clinical Pediatrics, Cornell University Medical College.

Much of what we know about Orville Harrington’s youth comes from a letter written in April 1921 to the warden at Leavenworth Prison by Denver dentist Dr. John M. Norman:

April 6, 1921
Hon. A.V. Anderson, Warden,
Leavenworth, Kansas,

My Dear Sir;

I have been thinking of writing you for some time in regard to Orville Harrington formerly of Denver, who is now one of your wards.

It has been my pleasure to have known him from the time he was a little boy. His father was a prominent citizen of our city as well as a leading lawyer, having been on the bench for a number of years.

Orville was a boy of good habits and a bright mind—he grew to manhood in Denver highly respected and honored by all of his associates. His home life was ideal, and no one ever dreamed that he could be guilty of anything wrong, and all of his friends were shocked at the one mistake he made which resulted in placing him under your care.

He was a great friend and companion of my boy. They grew up together, graduated at the Colorado School of Mines in the same class, and I am naturally interested in him.

My object in writing you is to bespeak for him some little kindly office, and courtesy on your part. I assure you such would be appreciated by Mrs. Harrington, and his many friends in this city.

Publications of the Colorado School of Mines show that Harrington graduated on June 9, 1898, his degree thesis being “Report on the Saratoga Mine of Gilpin County”. While attending the school he was a leader in his classes, serving as assistant secretary and treasurer of the Alumni Association, manager and editor of the School of Mines magazine, and manager of the Capability Exchange.

From graduation through 1905, Harrington sought employment as a mining engineer with a small office in the city. He lived with his parents at 1650 Grant Avenue until 1903. However, his paralyzed right ankle and use of crutches limited his ability to walk through rough mining claims and tunnels. He commented, “I never got very high salaries because my leg hampered me. I walked on crutches for five months and for two years was in a hospital.” But there was also the pervasive rejection of a “cripple” within society and this was to gnaw at every opportunity that came his way.

It was expressed this way by his wife Lydia:

Mr. Harrington has always been troubled with is leg. He has suffered a great deal of pain and it has hampered him in other ways. He could never command the salary his education and brains entitled him to, and it has been very hard for him to bear.

Still, he earned enough to buy two small lots on South University St. and move forward with a family. Orville and Lydia were married on January 12, 1904, at Trinity Church Rectory, and in October 1905, they bought the two lots for $700 and secured a building permit for a one-story and basement brick residence costing $1,000.

To secure a steady income, Orville applied to the new Denver Mint and was hired on February 20, 1906, as an ingot roller pending the securement of a bond. The bond was $3,000, which was several thousand less than other workmen doing the same job and receiving the same $3.25 per day pay. The lower bond was likely due to the presumption that a college-educated man was a lower embezzlement risk than a common workman with a ninth-grade education.

Image: Adobe Stock / CoinWeek.
Image: Adobe Stock / CoinWeek.

Orville left the Mint in mid-1908 in favor of self-employed mining work. He added to his earnings by accepting a “staff of one” position with the Colorado School of Mines magazine, Asst. Sec’y and Treas.; Editor and Manager Colorado School of Mines Magazine; Manager of Capability Exchange. Although he received only $50 a month, he and Lydia bought lots 31-32, block 9, Washington Park Addition, on July 14, 1911, from Myrtle Hill Land and Improvement Co. for $400. Daughter Mary Ruth was born March 22, 1915, and for the next seven years Orville is listed in city directories as “editor,” “teacher,” and “mining engineer.” But that changed shortly before February 1918.

World War I placed increased demands on mines for copper. A recently discovered large copper ore deposit in Pinar del Rio province, about ninety miles (145 km) west of Havana in northwest Cuba, offered a welcome opportunity. Orville, Lydia, and little Mary left for Cuba in March where he would be Superintendent of Port Santa Lucia, Pinar del Rio Province, Cuba. He was employed by Manuel Luciano Diaz, owner of Minas de Matahambre, a wealthy and politically connected civil engineer in Havana.

Things appeared to be going well, and Orville seemed to enjoy the work and watching men under his charge exceed expectations for loading ore. But problems with his paralyzed foot reappeared in June.

[I had] trouble with my crippled foot and went to Covadonga Hospital in Havana and had the rest of the toes removed. The big toe was infected in the operation and the foot refused to heal entirely… I was back on the job early in July…

However, by December, Orville wrote,

I got discouraged about my foot healing or rather not healing, and started for Denver about the first of December to get good surgical advice and attention. Then, of course, the foot decided to heal up. We were delayed ten days in Havana because of a general strike and the canceling of sailing because of the strike.

Further delays and booking passage on SS Parismina (a United Fruit Company boat) prevented the arrival of the family in New Orleans from Havana until December 22, 1918. By late on Christmas Eve they were all home in Denver, and probably very glad to be there.

Being home did not make anything better for the family. Sometime “on Christmas Day I succeeded in burning my bum foot badly and did what I should have done years ago – had it amputated just five inches below the knee. Now I can get a ‘good’ foot.” Surgery was performed in January 1919 at St. Luke’s Hospital in Denver.

He wrote to School of Mines alumni on January 24, “I hope to be out rustling a job very soon.” It took six months to find something permanent; during this time his son Robert was born on March 7. The new work didn’t pay much, just $4.00 a day, but it was a little something coming in each week. With all the medical expenses, Orville might have felt both relief and “Why me?” envy as he found himself surrounded by gleaming plates of gold at the Denver Mint’s electrolytic refinery.


Image: Adobe Stock.
Image: Adobe Stock.

Following parole on November 8, 1923, Orville found himself unemployed and working at odd jobs that either he or Dr. Norman could find through February 1924. Things were looking up when he was hired by Schwayder Trunk Co. in March and was earning about $78.80 per month, but the job didn’t last and he was laid off during July due to lack of work. In the second week of August 1924, Orville found seasonal work with Denver City inspecting street and sidewalk construction at $125 per month. The job ended on November 30 for winter but with the promise of regular employment in the spring of 1925.

He was unemployed again from December through February 1925 but took a job in mid-March selling seeds and plants for the Colorado Seed Company at $125 per month. On May 1, 1925, he resumed working for Denver City, this time as an asphalt inspector at $150 per month, through November. Harrington’s monthly parole report dated October 1 also includes a change of postal address from the family home at 1485 South University St. to the care of Dr. John M. Norman, Dentist, at 302 Exchange Building in Denver. The implication is that he had moved into the Norman residence. Harrington added a note saying, “Selling house, reason for change of address.”

October 1925 brought a change in his employment and possible promotion to Inspector of the Engineering Department; he remained in this position through May 1926. A promising year of steady employment came to an abrupt end on May 31 when he was fired because “…three higher ups discovered [I] was on parole.” There is no record of complaints about Orville’s work or negative interactions with city employees – only the implication that he was unsuitable because of a criminal record.

Colorized image of Inspiration Mine. Image: Public Domain.
Colorized image of Inspiration Mine. Image: Public Domain.

On July 5, 1926, Orville wrote to the Board of Parole asking to have his location changed from Colorado to Arizona. He had been offered a temporary position as a timekeeper at Inspiration Consolidated Copper Company. The pay was only $137.50 a month, but the job was away from Denver and the discrimination he experienced both as a “cripple” and a parolee. This change required that he find a new advisor and “first friend,” and this was Professor G.M. Butler, Dean of the University of Arizona at Tucson and a consultant to the Arizona Bureau of Mines.

His timekeeper job ended when the regular employee returned from a long vacation and Orville found himself job hunting again. However, Prof. Butler added a more troubling comment:

Harrington lost his job because he has an artificial leg, and the company that employed him [Consolidated Copper Co.] will not permanently employee such a man. He expects to land another job soon.

As before, there was no indication of problems with Orville’s work or relationship with other employees. But here he was, again unemployed from August 1926 through February 1927 when his period of parole review ended.

After 1926

Here, our parole records end – and so does a clear picture of Orville Harrington’s life after parole. What remains are scattered newspaper, city directory, and census records, which we’ll piece together as best we can.

We don’t know what he did during most of 1927 and 1928. However, in August 1928, Orville’s name turns up as a candidate for Justice of the Peace in the village of Ruby (aka Montana Camp) near Tucson. He was the Republican Party candidate for the Third Precinct and ran unopposed. The position was for two years and paid a small salary determined by the local Board of Supervisors, but there was a certain prestige. Ruby, or Montana Camp as it was previously known, was a largely lawless outpost frequented by Mexican bandits and known for a history of murders. By 1928, it was slowly developing thanks to local mining using Mexican labor.

Harrington must have taken his duties seriously, at least as far as licenses and permits went. In October 1929, he took out a marriage license in Tucson, went back to Ruby, and officiated at his own wedding to Mary L. Moss, 34, of nearby Bisbee. As we shall see, this did not turn out well.

By the end of his term as Justice of the Peace, Hartington was still living in Ruby in a rented house valued at $15. He was the accountant for Ruby Mercantile (a local merchandise store), an emporium that was notable for several murders.

Sometime later, wife Mary became suspicious that the marriage was not all it seemed to be. In July 1933, Mary L. Moss filed for an annulment of marriage. Seeking relief on grounds that Harrington, then a Justice of the Peace in Ruby, Arizona, in 1929 was not legally authorized to perform the ceremony. A license was issued but the marriage was not recorded. To the Clerk of the Circuit Court, the marriage did not exist and never had. It didn’t take long for the Superior Court to act and on September 16 it granted judgment for Mary L. Moss and annulled the marriage.

November 1933 opened employment opportunities under the Roosevelt Administration’s Works Progress Administration (WPA). Orville was appointed to a teaching position of basic subjects in the Flowing Wells youth transient camp that housed 100 youths. This program also offered employment opportunities for unemployed teachers as the program was expanded.

Sometime between 1933 and 1936, Harrington met and married widow Algenia Trude Gould Kieth, originally from Chicago. In early 1936, the couple was living on Oracle Road near Pastime Park, Route 1, Box 204, Tucson (Ruby), and Orville was now a statistician from the WPA. The only local news article was printed in the Tucson Citizen on September 22, 1936. George Bailey was giving Mrs. Orville Harrington a driving lesson when the car she was driving failed to stop before entering a larger street from a small road (aka, “boulevard stop”). Mr. Bailey suffered several deep cuts and was taken to Southern Methodist Hospital, where he was treated and released. No one else was injured.

In mid-1937, WPA staff in Tucson was reduced by transfers, but Orville Harrington was mentioned in newspapers as being retained in the Tucson office as clerk of social work. During Congressional hearings on WPA expenses, a local news article titled “78 On Arizona WPA Get Over $125 Pay” included Orville as receiving a clerical salary of $150 per month ($1,800 annually).

In the 1940 census, Orville and Algenia were living at 2923 Palm Lane, Franklin Village (near Tucson), Maricopa County, Arizona, He had a job as Supervisor, Receiving Clerk for a WPA street project at an annual salary of $1,196. This was a considerable reduction from his previous clerk’s monthly pay and he was evidently in the same position in 1941 when Orville registered for the Selective Service draft.

Our final information about Orville Harrington is his death on March 30, 1950. The medical examiner stated, “Paralytic stroke, apparent cardiac failure, no evidence of foul play or external injury.” Algenia lived in Tucson until her death on May 17, 1961.

Who Was Lydia Mary (Melton) Harrington?

  • Born: July 9, 1878
  • Died: October 20, 1964?

Lydia Harrington was a poised, attractive woman about five feet and five inches tall, with graying brown hair and blue eyes. She trained in nursing at a Denver hospital and was a nurse at St. Luke’s Hospital from 1902-1903 until marrying Orville Harrington on January 12, 1904. She and her future husband met at the hospital while he was a patient following the amputation of several toes on his right foot.

She put aside a career and devoted herself to home, husband, and two young children. Mary Ruth (March 22, 1915) and Robert Kingsley (March 7, 1919-July 14, 2006). The family home was cozy but always tidy. Out back was a small orchard, vegetable and flower gardens, and a chicken coop for a flock of white chickens.

In October 1917, she had enough extra money to purchase a Liberty Loan bond through The Home Savings & Trust Company of Denver.

Orville’s arrest and confession were a deep shock to Lydia. Events shattered her comfortable, routine world and added to the burden of suddenly being a single parent with two young children.

When interviewed by reporter Helen Black on the day after her husband’s arrest, she felt there was nothing she could say that would be of help to him or aid matters in any way: “I have nothing to say, I have sent for my family and will do nothing until advised by them. He certainly is a splendid man, smart and good to the children and me.”

She became openly protective of her husband while reading newspaper accounts of the robbery. She denied each accusation and said, “I do not believe they found [gold] anywhere.”

The reporter asked about the “For Sale” sign which greets visitors to the house, and if there was any desperate need for the money because of their children’s illness, she said, “No, except of course, Mr. Harrington has always been troubled with his legs. He has suffered a great deal of pain and it has hampered him in other ways. He could never command the salary his education and brains entitled him to and it has been very hard for him to bear.” They wanted to sell the house and some of the lots they owned in the vicinity and buy a farm. It was something they always wanted, and there was also the possibility of returning to Cuba, where Orville had managed the Matahambre copper mine in 1918.

“We have been in Cuba and were very fond of living there, and only returned here because of Mr. Harrington’s health two years ago,” she said. “There has always been talk of going back someday and staying, but we never knew just when.”

When Orville went to Leavenworth prison, Lydia had to find work to pay the bills. She wanted to keep the house so Orville could return to it–and her–after he’d served his time, but his 10-year sentence was a long time to wait. She moved from her beloved home into the tiny chicken house in the backyard and used the main house for child nursing care.

Lydia wrote to Orville several times a week during 1920 and 1921. Beginning in 1922, her letters came from their home at 1485 South University St. in Denver plus RFD #3 Box 124 in Sherman, Texas, and 2121 8th Avenue in Fort Worth. Mary Ruth seems to have been staying with relatives in Sherman, Texas in 1921.

In January 1923, the return address for Lydia and daughter Mary Ruth was 1933 W. 39th Avenue in Denver, which was the residence of the residence of William and Alice Mackintosh, clerk/salesman for “John Thompson Grocery Co.”.

Orville served three-and-one-half years of his sentence, was released on parole, and returned to Lydia. They moved back into their lovely house with their now healthy children. From the outside, it appeared that the Harringtons’ problems were behind them. Orville resumed his place as head of the family but could not find steady employment until he got a job with Denver City. But even this success was denied him and his family by persistent discrimination against “a cripple,” and the new stigma of being a parolee. The house was sold in September or October 1925 but we don’t know how proceeds were divided or where Lydia and the children lived. It is plausible that Lydia lived with the Mackintosh family, and the children were placed in Clifton Hughes Training School for Girls and Lennox Home for Children.

Likely out of frustration after losing the Denver City job in May 1926, Orville headed to Arizona, leaving Lydia and the children in Denver to fend for themselves. We don’t know if this was a planned temporary separation for economic reasons or an intentional prelude to divorce. Lydia returned to describing herself as a widow, as she had done during Orville’s imprisonment, and there is no evidence the two saw or wrote each other again.

In 1930, Lydia owned and was living at 51 West Fourth Avenue in Denver, valued at $10,000. She was the supervisor of the Church Home for Convalescence (a nursing home) with six patients ranging in age from 31 to 76. Also living in the building were a cook, a housekeeper, and a janitor. This is similar to what she appeared to have done when Orville first went to prison but on a larger scale. We might also presume that the building was paid for out of proceeds from the sale of the family home on South University Street and adjacent lots.

The same census data reveal that 15-year-old Mary Ruth was one of 48 pupils at Clifton Hughes Training School for Girls on East 85th Avenue in Denver. This was described in 1931 as having grades from elementary through high school, and industrial training was stressed to fit students for a practical life. It was reported to have fine buildings and modern equipment. Robert Kingsley was a pupil along with 57 other children at the Lennox Home for Children, 2947 West 37th Street, Denver. Both schools were licensed voluntary agencies supported by private donations and the Methodist Church. They served orphaned and dependent children.

In a 1933 directory for Jefferson County, Colorado, Lydia Harrington is listed as a nurse at the Sands Home Association (a private Methodist children’s home similar to Lennox Home, in Edgewater).

As of 1940, Lydia (aged 62) and her son Robert lived at 2506 Zuni Street, Denver. She reported no income.

After 1940, we have only a little information about Robert, and none about Mary Ruth or their mother Lydia; even her date of death is uncertain.

Handling Gold in the Denver Refinery

The movements of gold and silver were tightly tracked at all U.S. Mints and Assay Offices. At the beginning of the work day, the precious metals were moved from one department to another on four-wheeled wooden trucks. Each bar, ingot, strip, or bin full of metal was accompanied by a weight and assay slip certified by the delivering and receiving departments. Gold and silver were always tracked by weight and fineness, never by piece count, until after coins were struck and accepted from the coiner by the superintendent.

An example might be helpful.

A single (one) gold ingot 0.900 fine and weighing 200 Troy ounces was sent from Melting and Refining to the Rolling Department. It was accompanied by a slip including this information and the signature of a weighing clerk and an assayer certifying the ingot. At the Rolling Dept., a clerk compared the transfer slip to the ingot and then weighed the ingot. If everything were correct, then the ingot was accepted. If something didn’t match (such as weight), then the ingot was returned. Data were recorded in a notebook. Going forward, the ingot was filed and clipped for rolling, then rolled into thin strips of the correct thickness. The strips, filings, clippings, and all other small bits were collected, weighed, and compared with the original ingot weight. This was recorded in the same transfer notebook. Scrap was sent back to Melting and Refining and the strips were weighed and sent forward, again with a transfer slip and signatures, to the Blanking Department, where the entire weighing and comparison process was repeated.

Before leaving each day, every department had to balance its bullion books for the in-and-out movement of gold or silver. If there were a discrepancy, then it had to be corrected before anyone in that department was allowed to leave.

There was one exception: the refinery. Here, precious metals were in an aqueous solution where it was impossible to obtain an accurate weight. The refining process was efficient only when operated continuously, and anodes that still included considerable gold were removed when their surface area became too small. This was also done to prevent accidentally introducing copper wire or other impurities into the gold chloride (AuCl3) electrolyte. It took about 36 hours to exchange 10% of anode weight for pure gold. Lastly, it was common for an electrolytic gold refinery to produce a surplus due to its efficiency. In fiscal year 1917, the Denver Mint’s refinery produced a gain of 0.25 ounces of gold for every 1,000 ounces operated on, or more than 328 ounces during the year.

The size of a new gold anode was 8-1/4 in. long, 3½ in. wide, and ¼ in. thick. It was usually 0.850 to 0.875 fine gold. Its average weight was about 80 Troy oz. Individual anodes might remain in the electrolytic tank for two weeks or longer.

Refinery superintendents relied on gains to offset normal losses elsewhere in the Melting and Refining Department.

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Colorado School of Mines Magazine. Golden, Colorado.

Colorado Statesman. Denver, Colorado. Multiple issues courtesy of Newspapers.com.

Western History Collection, Denver Public Library. Denver, Colorado.

Harrington, Orville. Passport application, U. S. Department of State. Ancestry.com

Homer, Dudley D.. “A Study of the Economic Development of Minas de Matahambre, S.A.”. Thesis to the College of Engineering (1929). University of Nevada, Reno. http://hdl.handle.net/11714/1376.

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Lim, Wan Ngo. “Helen Harrington [Obituary]”, Cornell University Medical College. https://ecommons.cornell.edu/server/api/core/bitstreams/ae7b5d31-3cc6-4d67-bd02-ed9d81d9ee4e/content

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Museo Municipal, Calle 1ra #76, 22300 Minas de Matahambre, Pinar del Río, Tel: +53-48-8-336185. E-mail: [email protected]

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National Archives and Records Administration. Denver CO. Record Group 104 Denver Entry 23 Box 1 Vol 3.

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Noel, John Vavasqour. “Cuba’s New Mining District,” The South American. South American Publishing Co., New York. March 1917.

Pérez-Vázquez, R. G.; J. C. Melgarejo, “El yacimiento Matahambre (Pinar del Río, Cuba): estructura y mineralogía” [The Matahambre ore deposit (Pinar del Río, Cuba): structure and mineralogy], Acta Geológica Hispánica 33(1). 1998. 133-152.

Ring, Bob, Al Ring, and Tallia Pfrimmer Cahoon. “The Private Life of Ruby, Mining Ghost Town,” Arizona History Convention, Safford, Arizona. April 24, 2004.

The Rocky Mountain News. Denver, Colorado. Multiple issues courtesy of the Colorado State Library.

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sreetips, “Electrolytic Gold Cell, Part II

Stauffer, Dave. “Lincoln Park’s Lost Landmarks, Series #1 – Denver County Jail”, Across the Creek. January 5, 2015.

Texas State Historical Association. https://www.tshaonline.org/texas-day-by-day/entry/529

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U.S. Find a Grave Index. https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/235130636/algenia-trude-harrington

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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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