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The Mysterious 1844 Dime
By Tom LaMarre
August 17, 2007
Fact or hype. It's hard to tell whether the 1844 Seated Liberty dime struck at the Philadelphia Mint is a great rarity or a somewhat elusive coin that has been promoted for the purpose of making a profit. As the debate goes on, however, so does the dime's rise in market value.

Engraver Christian Gobrecht's Seated Liberty design first appeared on the dime in 1837. A sketch by famous portrait artist Thomas Sully served as the model for the obverse. The reverse had the inscription "ONE DIME" in a wreath, unlike the eagle and shield on the other silver denominations.

Annual mintages of dimes were impressive for the time, topping 2 million in 1838 and approaching 4 million by 1842. In 1843, the Philadelphia and New Orleans mints struck about 1.5 million dimes. But 1844 was a different story. Dimes were produced only at Philadelphia that year, and only 72,500 were minted.

An unrelated incident in New York seemed to symbolize the dime's setback in 1844. George D. Prentice acquired The Daily Dime newspaper on a debt, and in June that year changed the name to The Morning Courier. In the case of the newspaper, the original name never did return. But the dime coin made a comeback in 1845 when nearly 2 million were struck.

The dime had its ups and downs from then until 1875. Then it really took off. In 1876, the centennial year, more than 30 million were minted. The Seated Liberty design remained on the dime through 1891. In 1892 it gave way to Charles Barber's Liberty Head.

Despite its low mintage, the 1844 dime failed to receive special recognition from collectors until 1930. According to an item published in The Numismatist years ago, Frank C. Ross of Kansas City discovered the rarity of the 1844 dime after nearly 90 years of its existence.

Ross was a one-man band. He reportedly nicknamed the 1844 Philadelphia 10-cent the "Orphan Annie dime" because it "had no buyers and was just an orphan in the coin world."

Ross may have had a hand in spreading improbable stories about the 1844 dime in order to get collectors' attention -- and bump up the price. As with many legends, however, it is difficult if not impossible to trace their origins.

According to one tale, during the great California Gold Rush the forty-niners asked government officials for small change, preferably dimes, which were desperately needed. Nearly the entire mintage of 1844 dimes was supposedly shipped by train to St. Louis, and from there to Westport landing in Kansas City. Then the dimes were transferred to a covered wagon to continue their journey to California.

The story did not end there. Indians were said to have attacked the wagon with its cargo of dimes on the Overland Route, killing the white men, burning the wagon and burying the dimes for safe keeping. Soon after that the Indians themselves were killed, and with them went the secret of the dimes' hiding place. "For over a century now, the dimes have remained 'coins in hiding,'" Harry Bosley wrote in The Numismatist in the 1940s.

However, there were other stories about the fate of the 1844 dimes. One was that most of them were lost at sea. A New Orleans bank supposedly requested $5,000 in dimes from Washington. But the ship was lost in a storm and the 50,000 1844 dimes went to the bottom of the ocean.

Another story claimed the coins were lost in the Johnstown Flood of 1889, which claimed 2,000 lives and destroyed $10 million in property.

Still another legend was that the dimes were melted in the Chicago Fire of 1871. It raged for 24 hours and left 90,000 homeless.

Not all of the explanations of the 1844 dime's scarcity involved natural disasters. According to one legend, the paymaster carried 50,000 dimes when U.S. troops crossed the border during the Mexican War in the 1840s.

They were distributed to the troops and made into bracelets or necklaces by one of the soldiers who was a jeweler. They were then exchanged for sexual favors.

But as "Bill the Coin Man" of radio station WTRC, Elkhart, Ind., wrote in the October 1935 issue of The Numismatist, "No acceptable reason for the disappearance of this now famous dime has ever been offered and probably never will be."

The 1844 dime returned to the spotlight in the 1950s. An article in the Hillsboro, Ohio Press Gazette said the dime in general represented the decimal system for which Thomas Jefferson fought and which faced strong opposition. But there was a shortage of 1844 dimes, and no one knew why. "They seem to have vanished," said the newspaper.

Hoarding may have been partly responsible. Several collectors reportedly accumulated large numbers of 1844 dimes. In 2003, Heritage Numismatic Auctions' Baltimore Signature Sale included an amazing hoard of more than 600. They ranged in grade from Poor to About Uncirculated-53.

Their dispersal, however, did not result in lower market values. The 2001 A Guide Book of United States Coins listed the 1844 dime at $150 in Good-4. Today Coin Prices lists it at values ranging from $275 in G-4 to $3,000 in Mint State-60. The space in the MS-65 column is blank.

Although circulated 1844 dimes may not be as rare as has been suggested, mint-state and proof specimens definitely qualify for the classification. At the Eliasberg sale in May 1996, an 1844 dime graded Proof-65 realized $88,000. It's estimated only 10 proofs were struck.

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