Big Joe’s Little Box of Coins and the French Comet

This story comes from Red Henry, a fellow Early American Coppers member. Red and I each had a coin collecting grandfather who passed a love for the hobby on to us. Enjoy, and thanks, Red, for the great story.

My grandfather Arthur Joseph Henry was born in 1891 in Lake City, Florida. Known as Joe Henry all his life, he was called “Big Joe” by the family. (This distinguished him from his oldest son and namesake, who was called Joe Baby, then Little Joe, then Doctor Joe.). Big Joe attended the University of Florida, studying accounting, engineering, and law.

As a young man, Big Joe enjoyed an active life. He entered the U.S. Army during World War I, and was sent to France and Germany. In the early 1920s, as a member of the Corps of Engineers, he surveyed for railroad lines in the jungles of Central America, and then walked across the State of Florida twice, doing survey work for a cross-Florida barge canal. Finally he left the army for good and married my grandmother, Evelyn Whitfield, in 1923.

Big Joe and Eve moved around quite a bit early in his working career, but they settled down in the mid-1930s, living with her parents in their spacious old frame house on Calhoun Street in Tallahassee. Built in 1901 with several bedrooms and called (naturally) the Big House, the place had been enlarged over the years. One addition included a bedroom and bath at the rear of the second floor. There Big Joe and Eve lived as they raised their three sons, cared for her parents, and spent the last 30 years of their lives, while Big Joe worked as an accountant for the State of Florida.

The Big House was a large and mysterious place for me to explore when I was small, but nothing there was more fascinating than what I found on a sleeping porch off my grandparents’ bedroom. There, in the top drawer of a large old-fashioned dresser, was a small cardboard jewelry-store box which contained dozens of coins. After I began collecting in 1959, my grandmother Eve gave me the wonderful box.

Those coins were small round souvenirs which Big Joe had acquired during his youth and work in many countries. Apparently he just picked up whatever caught his fancy, and the sources of several of them are mysterious. The oldest coin was a small Roman bronze from the early 300s A.D., the “Constantinople commemorative” (Seaby-3890), with a nice glossy green patina. There were small, nearly-uncirculated copper and bronze pieces from the 1800s, issued by the German states. There were several small coins from Italy, France, and Austria, along with a gold ducat from Holland, dated in the 1770s.

There were farthings or halfpennies from every British monarch beginning with George IV, who came to the throne in 1820, down to George V, who reigned during World War I. There were handsome nickel Cuban pennies in the box, along with small-denomination coins from the Dominican Republic. (These were badly worn, bringing to mind the desperate condition of the people there.) There was a nice silver Mexican dime with a neat rim cud. Among the U.S. coins were three copper-nickel Indian-head pennies, saved as curiosities.

All these coins interested me as a youngster, for I had seen nothing like them. But none of them holds more fascination for me now than three old pieces of copper.

Perhaps the most important coin in the box, by today’s standards, was an 1834 small-date cent, Newcomb-1. There is little or no wear on the coin, and it is a semi-glossy medium brown, but on the reverse there was a little residue, easily removed, of some whitish, granular stuff—perhaps the little boys, my father and his brothers, shined the coin up for fun back in the 1930s. I value it none the less for that.

Another copper item in the box had a story behind it, though I did not learn so for many years. Conder collectors will recognize this 1793 Inverness Halfpenny. The lettered edge on this example reads PAYABLE AT MACKINTOSH, INGLIS, & WILSON’S. I wondered for a long time just why Big Joe had kept this coin. Then, later in my life, I learned that among his Georgia ancestors were a family named Mackintosh, from Inverness-shire, far to the north in the rugged mountains of Scotland. “Our” Mackintoshes came to this country in Revolutionary times. Big Joe must have felt confident that some distant cousin of his had issued that copper token, although he never talked much to me either about his ancestry or about any of the coins.

Now we come to a case of parallel phenomena. First, let’s delve into Early American Copper for a bit, and discuss the 1807 Sheldon-271, the famous Comet Variety large cent.

The “American Comet,” as we may call it, is remarkable for its die break behind Ms. Liberty’s head, which looks much like a comet in the sky. (For more details about this variety and how it got its name, see my article Which Comet was It? in the January, 1999 Penny-Wise.) At top right is a photo of that distinctive die break. Note how the break extends from Ms. Liberty’s hair all the way to the rim at about 10:00, angling down slightly from left to right.

Now we come to a third item from the little box. Slightly larger than a half cent, it’s a Half Sol of the French king Louis XV, who enjoyed a long and magnificently forgettable reign long ago. The coin’s reverse bears the royal arms along with the date, 1721. The obverse features a bust of the king, his long hair elaborately styled, and the legend LUDOVICUS XV DEI gratia. So far, so good—this was all I noticed about the coin for a long time. But if we pay close attention, we will see a die break on the obverse—and suddenly it is deja vu, for we have seen nearly the same die break before.
This die break extends from the king’s hair all the way to the rim at about 10:00, angling down slightly from left to right. The position and size of the break resemble the break on our familiar S-271 so much that we could say that this is, indeed, a French Comet!

Time never stands still. Big Joe and Eve both died in the 1960s, and the vacant house was torn down. The lot was sold a few years later. Now a huge, modern brick residence stands among my great-grandparents’ gardens. But I kept a few things from the house. That little box of coins stayed with me through school and life, even as (in the customary way) I stopped collecting while college and work kept me over-occupied for 25 years. After I began collecting again at age 41, I incautiously sold the gold ducat and a few other items from the box to finance early copper purchases.

Most of Big Joe’s coins, however, are still with me, and here they will stay. The little cardboard box is gone now, but the coins rest on a tray all their own in my coin cabinet. There are 39 of them, ranging in size from the little Roman bronze to a big piece of Chinese “cash”. Few of the coins have much value in this day and age, but there’s at least one exception. I do sometimes wonder what Big Joe himself would say if he could learn of that 1834 cent’s market value today. That must be the only item from the box that is worth much now. But sometimes personal importance and market value are a long way apart, and nothing numismatic I own has fascinated me more, or taught me more over the years, than Big Joe’s little box of coins.

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