U.S. Coins

Where’s the Gold? (Part 2)

Published June 3, 2024 | 5 min read

By David McCarthy

Last month’s column examined the tension at the Philadelphia Mint in 1849 between Chief Engraver James B. Longacre and Chief Coiner Franklin Peale. As Longacre prepared dies for a newly approved denomination, the gold dollar, Peale (or one of his supporters at the mint) began criticizing the chief engraver in interviews with—and letters written to—a Philadelphia newspaper, the Public Ledger.

These attacks could not have been a surprise to Longacre. He later wrote that he had been “informed by a gentleman in the Mint, that he feared measures would be taken in relation thereto prejudicial to my position, intimating that a purpose existed on the part of another officer to have the engraving of the dies executed elsewhere and by some other hand than mine.”

Public demand for gold dollars began almost as soon as Congress had passed legislation calling for the new denomination. The pressure to release the new coins resulted in Longacre claiming that by the time the first dies were prepared, he had “tasked [himself] too severely for [his] health.” The rushed release didn’t just take its toll on Longacre; it also resulted in the mint striking and releasing coins from dies that ordinarily would have been used only to create patterns. 

In Longacre’s words: 

There is a peculiar difficulty to be met in engraving for the coinage of the Mint, unknown to the mere medalist or die-sinker, consisting in the very limited power of the press used in striking the coin; the extent of which can only be ascertained by very careful and repeated trials of the work on every change in the diameter of the piece to be struck. The utmost elevation of the relief of which it seems capable in the present instance, on either die, is less than one-hundredth part of an inch; consequently, it is within this limit the whole power and skill of the artist must be employed.

Die Varieties

Unlike many other denominations that the mint produced over the years, the very first pair of dies Longacre created was used to strike a handful of proof gold dollars (perhaps better understood as patterns than as ordinary proof coins), before striking 1,000 coins that were released on May 8, 1849. These pieces, now known as “No L” gold dollars, evidently did not pass muster. Soon a new obverse die, with its stars relocated and an “L” for Longacre added to the truncation of the bust, was paired with a reverse like that of the original. A sizable number of coins, known as “Open Wreath” gold dollars, were struck before the reverse design was reworked. The “Closed Wreath” design features additional berries and leaves at the top of the wreath on either side of the numeral “1.” The latter design accounts for most of the coins known today.

Even within these three major Philadelphia-issued 1849 gold dollar varieties, minor variations appear in the size and placement of stars on the obverse. This suggests that Longacre made basic design changes through the end of the calendar year. These coins are physical evidence of the problems that Longacre was dealing with. He had to juggle keeping his job in the face of Peale’s attempts to have him terminated with the public’s demand for a new, much-needed denomination.

Open Wreath variety. (Photos: PCGS CoinFacts)
“No L” variety in proof. (Photos: PCGS CoinFacts)

McCulloh’s Exposé

Peale’s grudge against Longacre would eventually contribute to his own undoing. Peale didn’t just conspire against Longacre; he also clashed with U.S. Mint Melter and Refiner Richard Sears McCulloh. McCulloh worked at the coining facility from 1846 until his resignation in 1850. The former melter and refiner wrote a scathing article about Peale in the New York Evening Express. In it, he claimed that Peale, who operated a side business striking medals at the mint, had transformed the institution into “a workshop for [his own] gain.” The Treasury Department soon investigated the claims, which exposed both Peale’s shady business dealings and his abuse of Longacre. The ensuing scandal led to Peale’s dismissal from his position by President Franklin Pierce in December 1854.

A version of this article appears in the July 2024 issue of The Numismatist (money.org).