The 1883 "No Cents" Liberty Head nickel is a genuine US coin, but the term also refers to an old confidence game developed by con artists that electroplated Liberty Head nickels, intending to make storeowners believe that the gold-plated nickel was a $5 coin. In other words, a form of Goldbricking.
In early 1883, the Liberty Head nickel was first struck for circulation. The first 5.4 million pieces struck contained the Roman numeral V on the reverse, but did not contain the word "CENTS". Con artists quickly noted this, as well as the fact that the coin was roughly the same size as a five-dollar gold coin, and began gold-plating the new nickels and attempting to pass them as gold pieces. According to numismatic legend, one of the perpetrators of this fraud was a deaf-mute named Josh Tatum, whose name is allegedly the origin of the verb "joshing". Supposedly, Tatum was not convicted because, being unable to speak, he did not actually make any fraudulent verbal claims regarding the coins, but merely accepted the change handed to him by the storekeeper. This tale, however, may be apocryphal. Whatever the truth of the case, what is known is that the US Mint decided to add the word "CENTS" to the reverse design of the Liberty Head nickel in the middle of the 1883 striking, and this change remained until the coin was discontinued.
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Game and Story Use
- The party returns from a dungeon expedition with a big haul of treasure, which they start spending like gold pieces. It's some time before the locals figure out these old coins have only a thin gold plating, and a copper or nickel core. Now the villagers are motivated to run the PCs out of town.
- A contact who owes the PCs reward money pays them in coins as mentioned above. It only takes the PCs a few days to figure out that their reward is not only useless, but may get them accused of counterfeiting. When they track the contact down again, he claims to have not known - he got that treasure as his share of a dungeon haul years ago in his adventuring days. Is he telling the truth, or is this just a deception to escape their vengeance?
- Perhaps the coins have been enchanted to look like they're worth more than they are. Perhaps people with only a certain Wisdom score, class level, or "the sight" can pierce the illusion and recognize the worthless tin or copper coins for what they are.
- How wide spread is the problem? Is the local economy set to collapse when word gets out? Will the peasants care if they can't tell the difference themselves anyway?
- This could be an easy form of income for any competent illusionist.
- One kingdom takes to issuing low-denomination coins that look a lot like a high-denomination coin in another (for instance, issuing brass pieces, or copper pieces with a similar design to the people next door's gold pieces). Can the PCs find a way to stop people from using crooked arbitrage? And was this just an accident, or a deliberate attempt at causing hyperinflation?
- Rather than conning store owners, a better grift might be to try and sell the gold-plated coins to gullible tourists - sort of like the Thai gem scam. Even better if you persuade the tourists that they're getting a grey market discount and will be liable for tax if the government find out … that way, they collude with you to cover up the fraud.