I’m sure that most folks have heard the expression, “I was just joshing you”. Did you know that old chestnut has numismatic origins? It came from a guy named Josh Tatum. The story goes like this.
In 1883, the design of the nickel was changed from the Shield design to the Liberty. The first design had the familiar obverse, but the first reverse was revolutionary, by coin standards. Nowhere on the coin, obverse or reverse, did the denomination appear. The Shield nickels had 5 Cents spelled out clearly on the reverse, but the Liberty nickels didn’t. Instead, the reverse had a large Roman numeral V to denote 5, but it didn’t say V cents. Today we call them 1883 no cents nickels. This became popular amongst the more unsavory people of the time, namely con artists. The physical size of a nickel and a $5 gold coin is very similar. The nickel is thicker, and has a plain edge. The $5 has a reeded edge. So these hoaxters took the new nickels with a large Roman V on the reverse, filed the reeding on the edge, had them gold plated, and started passing them as $5 gold coins.
A number of people were prosecuted for this activity. A prominent dentist in Philadelphia had increased the value of a few nickels into $27,000. The problem with putting these folks away was that the only law they had violated was that they had committed fraud. There was no Federal law otherwise to convict them on. The Congress corrected that error quickly, and the nickel design was changed to include the word Cents.
Josh Tatum (remember him? Just Joshin?) was one of the aforementioned con men. He filed the edge of some of those new nickels, had them gold plated, and passed them as $5. He was caught, arrested and tried for fraud. It was hard to find witnesses against him because not many people wanted to admit that they were duped, but enough came forward to testify in court. When the witnesses were asked, none could say that Mr. Tatum had ever bought anything that cost more than 5 cents, and he had never asked for any change. He simply bought an item for 5 cents, paid with what appeared to be a $5 gold coin, and accepted the change of $4.95. What I haven’t told you about Mr. Tatum is that he was a deaf-mute, and could not ask for any change, or tell the vendor that he had made a mistake. He was exonerated for the most part. One story says he walked out of court a free man. Another report says he spent 2 weeks in jail, presumably for an unrelated charge.
Is this a true story? I could be Joshin’ you.
(Written by Tom Matthews of the USA Coin Group)