An engraved Seated Liberty silver half dollar has been reunited with the family of the man who is honored on the coin, more than 120 years after it was made.
Collector Jay DeBoer of Olympia, Washington, purchased the coin at a Northwest Tokens and Medals Show on February 20. He quickly set to work to determine the story behind the engraving on the obverse of the coin, which obliterated the design.
The host coin of the numismatic folk art engraved coin dates from 1843 or 1844, according to experts contacted by World Currency who reviewed an image of the reverse.
The obverse features an inscription that reads EARL MCMAHAN / BORN / SEPT. 21, 1886 / ALBANY, ILL. / DEATH / MAY 16, 1901 / LANSING, IOWA, indicating that the honoree was only 14 years old at the time of his death.
McMahan is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Lansing Township, Iowa, DeBoer would find out, through online genealogy resources. How the coin traveled from Iowa to Washington state may remain a mystery for the ages.
How DeBoer learned the story behind the man on the coin, however, is an object lesson for collectors and researchers.
Find the part
A casual collector since childhood, 56-year-old DeBoer became a hobo nickel carver in January 2012, and his interest in carved pieces really blossomed, leading him to start jayhobo.com.
DeBoer purchased the coin from dealer Lynda Haight, who operates A Coin Shop LLC in Silverdale, Washington, along with her husband Marty Shallow.
The NWTAMS show was the third show in almost as many weeks that DeBoer had attended where he had seen Haight and Shallow, each time buying trade tokens from Haight. DeBoer saved their table for last, “because I knew I would hang out at his table,” he said in a post on The Original Hobo Nickel Society’s Facebook group.
About halfway through the couple’s 10 token binders, he found the coin under discussion.
The hand-engraved piece struck him, and although he looked at the piece and continued to look at other items in the filing cabinets, he said, “I kept coming back to this piece.”
“So many questions crossed my mind as I watched this piece,” DeBoer wrote. “Who commissioned this piece? Was it the father or the mother? Maybe the brother? … These questions will never be answered, but if we had all the answers, would the art of numismatics be so exciting? »
Merchant Shallow said the store had had the piece for around 11 or 12 years, after it just “passed through our doors”.
The limited demand for engraved pieces among his clientele meant that the item remained available for DeBoer to stumble upon.
find the family
The abundance of dates relating to McMahan’s life was key to finding out more, DeBoer said.
“In the world of genealogy, this is the golden ticket to having so much information about an individual,” he wrote. “I thought with all this information about the room, I could probably find this guy on Ancestry.[com].”
“I have a lot of projects going on all the time and I was wondering if I wanted to take on a new one that I really didn’t have time for. As soon as the thought of putting the coin back in my head, I realized that if I put it back, the chance of that coin ever seeing a family member was probably going to be nil… so I decided i had to buy [it].”
When he got home, DeBoer assumed it would be easy to find information about the play’s subject. Interpreting the name as Carl McMahan, however, sent him down the wrong path.
“I checked record after record. Some were pretty obvious it wasn’t a match, but the ones whose names matched perfectly, none of the dates would match and I was starting to lose hope of finding this guy,” he wrote. “I left Ancestry to rest and was examining the engraving on the coin when I remembered Find-A-Grave. I went to their website and typed in Carl McMahan with a birth year of 1886 and a dead year of 1901 and I pressed enter. No result.”
His search was fruitless until he omitted the first name and finally found results for Earl McMahan.
“Ah ha, it wasn’t ‘Carl’ after all – it was Earl, and there was a picture of his tombstone.”
Everything matched except the date of death. The coin reads “May 16” where his tombstone reads “May 15”.
A day is not a big problem in the field of genealogical research, because records are everywhere with different information.
DeBoer offered several scenarios that could explain the discrepancy in a date, including that the headstone could have been commissioned much later after the death, at which time the date was incorrectly remembered.
The artists could have made the mistake — the script for the play sounds more like Carl than Earl, DeBoer said, so maybe the date was another mistake.
Armed with the correct information, DeBoer returned to Ancestry and quickly found four family members linked to McMahan’s online record.
“Once I confirmed that Earl was on each of these family trees, I sent a message to each owner of these trees explaining that I had acquired a piece with their relative’s name at an exhibition of parts and if they were interested in the part to contact me,” DeBoer wrote.
Someone finally answered.
“She said her grandmother was Earl’s sister,” according to DeBoer. “She told me later that Earl was accidentally shot by his brother.”
The woman lives an hour from DeBoer, who offered her the piece for its purchase price, $40, plus $5 shipping.
“I’m a little sad to see this beautiful piece leave my hands, but also thrilled that it’s coming back to Earl’s parents,” he wrote.