Saturday, May 18, 2013

Two Indian-Head Nickles Handed Down To Me

The photo shows two slightly worn "Indian head", or "buffalo" nickles. These two piece of U.S. currency date from 1917 and 1923, and apparently from the smoothed features, they were used quite a bit during their lifetimes.

These, so-called, Indian head nickles are relatively inexpensive by modern-day numismatic standards. They were minted between 1913 and 1938. And, because the images have become smoothed over quite a bit, the mint marks are not readable. The 1917 nickle, having been circulated, would be worth between $4.10 and $50.00. The 1923, being a bit more common, would fetch between $4.00 and $40.00.

I have no interest, though, in trying to get a fortune out of these two pieces of 75% copper and 25% nickel. I have no interest in the coins' numismatic value because their value lies in the job they fulfilled during their lifetimes. Yes, these coins performed a duty that most coins cannot aspire to.

These two small, round pieces of copper/nickel metal paid for my great-grandfather's soul to pass into Heaven.

Prior to the 1900s, people were superstitious in a world that was just beginning to have its secrets explained by science. Various superstitions involved death and the dead body, two of which are here noted because they have to do with coins. The first of them was that if the eyes of a dead person opened during the 'wake', the first person on whom the eyes glanced would be doomed to death soon. In other words, the belief was that the dead person would be looking for someone to accompany them to Heaven. To avoid such a fate from happening, the deceased one's surviving relatives would place something over the eyes to keep them shut. Most often that something was a coin. The second superstition regarding coins and the dead recalled a belief held long ago by the Greeks. The Greeks and their cultural descendants believed that the souls of the dead traveled to Hades, the underworld. And to get there, the soul had to cross over the river Styx. The only way to safely get across the river Styx was by riding a ferry boat operated by the ferryman, Charon. And the only way that Charon would allow the soul to board his ferry boat was to pay him with a couple coins. For that reason, when a person died, a coin or two were placed inside the dead person's mouth to ensure that their soul would have the required payment for Charon. Much later, perhaps in the Sixteenth or Seventeenth Centuries, the practice of placing the coins on the dead person's eyes was found to, as it were, 'kill two birds with one stone'. The coins were there to pay the ferryman, and the eyes could be kept from opening.

The practice of placing coins either in the mouth or over the eyes of a dead person continued to be popular in the Western World and among Christians up to the 1900s. And in some places, such as in the Appalachians, where German and Ulster Scot families resided for generations, the practice continued even into the 20th Century. And that is where we come to the death of my great-grandfather, Aaron Bowser. He died in 1945 in the region of Blair County, Pennsylvania known as Smith Corner. Aaron and his wife Linnie spoke German in private, and a form of 'dutchified English' in public. Their family was neither well-to-do nor dirt-poor. Their habits and customs were those handed down from their Eighteenth Century immigrant ancestors.

And so, when Aaron died in 1945, these two buffalo nickles were placed over his eyes out of habit and custom. But new superstitious beliefs must have induced a family member to remove the coins from Aaron's eyes before his casket was consigned to the grave.

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