What Not To Do With Coins: A Historical Perspective

By Gerald Tebben

This silver denarius of Tiberius (AD 14-37) grades good very fine and realized $528.75 at a 2013 auction. (Image: HeritageAuctions.com)

Here are some things not to do with coins:

Do not put them in your mouth

In the late 1990s, the University of California at San Francisco microbiology lab tested 40 coins picked up in change. Researchers placed the coins in petri dishes and incubated the resulting cultures for 48 hours. They found that 18 percent of the coins had disease-causing bacteria, mostly Staphylococcus aureus, the leading cause of food poisoning.

While it’s unlikely that the germs on a coin will actually harm you, in a worst-case scenario—gobs of potent germs on a fresh, open wound—they could cause fatal blood poisoning.

Do not eat them

In 2004, a Frenchman was hospitalized with stomach distress. An X-ray revealed 350 coins with a face value of 4,050 francs. The mass was the size of a bowling ball and weighed a dozen pounds. Surgery solved the problem.

Do not place them on the railroad tracks while drinking

Smashed coins were a great favorite when I was a kid, though we worried that we’d cause the train to flip over (I didn’t hang out with a very bright crowd).

In February, an Arizona man was hit by a speeding train while he was trying to put coins on a track. Since the nonfatal accident happened at 2 a.m. near a bunch of bars, alcohol was suspected.

Do not take them into a bathroom or brothel

Suetonius, in his famous “The Lives of the Caesars” says that during the reign of Emperor Tiberius, insulting the majesty of the emperor could have fatal consequences.

Suetonius wrote:

”It was at about this time that a praetor asked him (Tiberius) whether he should have the courts convened to consider cases of lese-majesty; to which he replied that the laws must be enforced, and he did enforce them most rigorously. … One man had removed the head from a statue of Augustus, to substitute that of another; the case was tried in the senate, and since the evidence was conflicting, the witnesses were examined by torture. … After the defendant had been condemned, this kind of accusation gradually went so far that even such acts as these were regarded as capital crimes: to beat a slave near a statue of Augustus, or to change one’s clothes there; to carry a ring or coin stamped with his image into a privy or a brothel, or to criticize any word or act of his.”

Do not debase them

Mints throughout England issued debased or lightweight coins to such an extent that King Henry took drastic measures in 1124 and 1125.

“The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle” reports:

“In this year sent the King Henry, before Christmas, from Normandy to England, and bade that all the mint-men that were in England should be mutilated in their limbs; that was, that they should lose each of them the right hand, and their testicles beneath. This was because the man that had a pound could not lay out a penny at a market. And the Bishop Roger of Salisbury sent over all England, and bade them all that they should come to Winchester at Christmas. When they came thither, then were they taken one by one, and deprived each of the right hand and the testicles beneath. All this was done within the twelfth-night.”

Gerald Tebben, a longtime numismatist, is editor of the Central States Numismatic Society’s Centinel and a contributing writer to Coin World.

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