One wouldn't expect a mere nickel to have generated such controversy, but the end run of the rare Liberty Head Nickel (1883-1912) did just that. In 1913, the design for the nickel was changed by order of Treasury Secretary Franklin MacVeagh, but five 1913 nickels in the old Liberty Head design were struck anyway and hoarded away by a Mint employee. Those five nickels later found their way into the hands of eccentric investor Colonel Edward Howland Robinson Green, the only son of the infamous Hetty Green, aka "the Witch of Wall Street." The coins have since gone on to pass through various hands and have auctioned at as high a price as $3,737,500.
Those are just some of the shenanigans attached to the Liberty Head nickel. Earlier mintages had the Roman numeral V for 5, but through an oversight, left off the word cents. Enterprising fraud artists immediately took advantage of the ambiguity, painting the nickels gold and passing them off as $5 gold coins. One infamous case was Josh Tatum, a grifter who would go into a store and purchase an item costing five cents or less, silently present the coin, and receive $4.95 in change. Even though he was caught, he couldn't be charged with a crime since he had merely tried to spend five cents and received the change as a gift.
The nickel's design was changed to include the word cents in the first year, but it had already been through numerous design controversies. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber was originally instructed to produce a coin design with "United States of America" on the front side (the obverse) but it was later discovered that the name had to appear on the reverse of the coin. The nickel had already been through several redesigns, such as adding five notches around the edges to help the sight-impaired distinguish the coins. Congressman and former Union General William S. Rosecrans had requested this design, in solidarity with those wounded during the Civil War.
Mintage numbers are spotty for the Liberty Head nickel. The late 1800s saw an economic downturn and a call to save resources by reissuing older, slightly worn coins, so the Liberty Head nickels saw lower mintage. Then at the turn of the century, mintage spiked as the first two decades of the 1900s saw an unprecedented economic boom, as well as the rise in popularity of coin-operated vending machines and simple arcade amusements.
The US Liberty Head Nickel is a stories and well-traveled coin, with a rich heritage of history. To own one is to always have a conversation piece and a tribute paid to the fascinating time period of the early 20th century United States, when the West was almost, but not quite, won. For more information about these coins, talk to a place like Penny Pincher Coins & Jewelry.