BrianRxm Coin Stories 4/15
Mark Twain's Turkish Penny and the Gold Napoleon
He tries to retrieve a gold coin mistakenly given to a beggar
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The Story:
The United States plans to issue commemorative coins in 2016 to honor writer Mark Twain.
The coins planned are a silver dollar and a five-dollar gold coin.
United States (US) Mint photographs:
In 1867 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) joined a ship excursion to Europe and the Middle East and
published a very popular book about his travels, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869.
He made several trips to Europe and published another travel book, A Tramp Abroad, in 1880.
In A Tramp Abroad, he writes about an incident which occurred during his 1867 trip when
he accidently gave a blind beggar a gold coin instead of a copper coin and his attempts to
retrieve the gold coin.
The episode with the showman reminds me of a dark chapter in my history. I once robbed an aged
and blind beggar-woman of four dollars - in a church. It happened this way. When I was out with
the Innocents Abroad, the ship stopped in the Russian port of Odessa and I went ashore, with
others, to view the town. I got separated from the rest, and wandered about alone, until late
in the afternoon, when I entered a Greek church to see what it was like. When I was ready to
leave, I observed two wrinkled old women standing stiffly upright against the inner wall,
near the door, with their brown palms open to receive alms. I contributed to the nearer one,
and passed out.
I had gone fifty yards, perhaps, when it occurred to me that I must remain ashore all night, as
I had heard that the ship's business would carry her away at four o'clock and keep her away
until morning. It was a little after four now. I had come ashore with only two pieces of money,
both about the same size, but differing largely in value - one was a French gold piece worth
four dollars, the other a Turkish coin worth two cents and a half. With a sudden and horrified
misgiving, I put my hand in my pocket, now, and sure enough, I fetched out that Turkish penny!
Here was a situation. A hotel would require pay in advance - I must walk the street all night,
and perhaps be arrested as a suspicious character. There was but one way out of the difficulty-
I flew back to the church, and softly entered. There stood the old woman yet, and in the palm
of the nearest one still lay my gold piece. I was grateful. I crept close, feeling unspeakably
mean; I got my Turkish penny ready, and was extending a trembling hand to make the nefarious
exchange, when I heard a cough behind me. I jumped back as if I had been accused, and stood
quaking while a worshiper entered and passed up the aisle.
I was there a year trying to steal that money; that is, it seemed a year, though, of course,
it must have been much less. The worshipers went and came; there were hardly ever three in the
church at once, but there was always one or more. Every time I tried to commit my crime somebody
came in or somebody started out, and I was prevented; but at last my opportunity came; for one
moment there was nobody in the church but the two beggar-women and me. I whipped the gold piece
out of the poor old pauper's palm and dropped my Turkish penny in its place. Poor old thing, she
murmured her thanks - they smote me to the heart. Then I sped away in a guilty hurry, and even
when I was a mile from the church I was still glancing back, every moment, to see if I was being
That experience has been of priceless value and benefit to me; for I resolved then, that as long
as I lived I would never again rob a blind beggar-woman in a church; and I have always kept my
word. The most permanent lessons in morals are those which come, not of booky teaching, but of
The French Coin:
The "French gold piece worth four dollars" had to be a French 20 franc coin, commonly called a
"Napoleon", as it had a portrait of the French king Napoleon III on it.
It was 21mm in diameter and weighed around 6.40gm.
Napoleons circulated widely as trade coins in the Middle East at the time.
France 20 Francs 1863
1. France 20 Francs 1863 "Napoleon"
Gold, 21mm, 6.41gm, Strasbourg mint
The Turkish penny:
The "Turkish penny", "Turkish coin worth two cents and a half", "both about the same size",
is harder to identify.
Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire then, had a monetary system based on the piastre or qirsh which
was worth around US five cents. A piastre was divided into 40 Paras.
The Innocents Abroad mentions the worth of a piastre in this description of a guide:
...he called for remuneration -- said he hoped the gentlemen would give him a trifle in the way
of a few piastres (equivalent to a few five cent pieces).
A Turkish coin worth 2-1/2 cents would be a 20 para coin worth one-half of a piastre.
Turkey made two types of 20 para coin then, a very small silver coin (14mm) and a
large copper coin (32mm).
Neither coin would be close in size to the 21mm French gold coin.
Turkey 20 para AH 1277
2. Turkey silver 20 para AH 1277 Abdul Aziz regnal year 2 (1862)
Silver, 13mm, 0.59gm
This coin is smaller than the US three-cent coin.
Turkey 20 para AH 1277
3. Turkey copper 20 para AH 1277 Abdul Aziz regnal year 4 (1864)
Copper, 32mm, 10.16gm
This coin is the size of a British penny and close in size to a US large cent.
Turkey did make a 23mm copper 5 para coin which was close in size to the 21mm Napoleon
and was worth around one-half of a US cent.
Turkey 5 para AH 1277
4. Turkey copper 5 para AH 1277 Abdul Aziz regnal year 4 (1864)
Copper, 23mm, 5.36gm
Mark Twain's "Turkish penny" was probably a Turkish 5 para coin.
He wrote A Tramp Abroad ten years after the 1867 incident and probably didn't remember
the US value of the coin.
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