In the 1880s, the U.S. Mint tried an experiment: it created a 5-cent coin, made of nickel, that featured the head of Liberty in its design. The nickel wasn’t the only coin at the time to feature that design—the gold one dollar coin had it, too.
In fact, the new nickel looked a lot like the dollar coin, so much so that clever hucksters realized they might be able to inflate the value of the nickel 100-fold. There was a roman numeral, V, on the coin, indicating that it was worth five cents. But the coin didn’t actually say “cents” on it. To increase the coin’s apparent value, people would plate the nickel with gold and try to convince their marks that the V meant it was worth 5 dollars, not 5 cents.
There was a gold $5 coin at the time, so it wasn’t such a huge stretch to try to convince people these coins were just a new design. But not everyone was easily fooled by these “Racketeer Nickels,” especially in a place like the infamous Deadwood, South Dakota, the gambling frontier town where residents tended to have creative views of the law to begin with.
In Deadwood, some young men didn’t use the trumped up coins to buy goods, but used them as a fashion statement, reports the Rapid City Journal. As a local paper wrote at the time, “A number of the tony young men about town are wearing cuff buttons made of the new nickels… They are highly plated with gold, and to the uninitiated look for all the world like genuine five-dollar gold pieces.”
Back in 2001, the city dug up one of these fashion statements with a bunch of other coins during an archaeological study. But they only just realized what they had found, when coin experts came in to examine a separate haul of Chinese coins. The experts immediately recognized the Racketeer Nickel in the city’s coin collection. It’s not in particularly good shape or worth that much: Racketeer Nickel are not uncommon and are easily faked. What makes this one special is that it was found in situ—it’s an archaeological treasure, rather than a numismatic one.