Money Man

For more than 30 years chemist James Curtis Booth successfully oversaw quality and minimized waste at the U.S. Mint. Then three bars of silver bullion disappeared.

By Andrew Mangravite | July 9, 2011

In the early 1850s James Curtis Booth, a respected chemist and an educator in the Philadelphia area, bid farewell to his students to focus his attention on his newest role: melter and refiner of the U.S. Mint. Booth’s major duties were to prevent anyone from cheating the government on the weight and purity of the materials used for creating coinage and to minimize waste in the minting process itself. Booth held his post ably for many years. Then, in 1884, three bars of silver bullion disappeared on his watch.

Money Man

Letter to James Curtis Booth while working at U.S. Mint

James Curtis Booth received this letter on the importation of gold bars while employed as melter and refiner of the U.S. Mint.

Science History Institute/Gregory Tobias.

Booth’s contract required him to offset the loss with his own money, despite the fact that James P. Kimball, director of the Mint, considered him blameless. Kimball even asked Pennsylvania congressman Charles O’Neill to put forward a bill relieving Booth of his financial responsibilities. These efforts had no effect. The missing 1,980.12 ounces of silver bullion—with a value of $1,936.62, or about $44,000 in today’s currency—were replaced on Booth’s dime.

The incident caused Booth considerable grief. On July 27, 1887, in a letter addressed to President Grover Cleveland, he resigned his position as melter and refiner, stating that “it is a source of great satisfaction to me that the performance of [my] duties has been approved by those under whom my official course has been passed.” A letter dated February 2, 1888, from R. E. Preston, a Washington lawyer working for Booth on the relief bill, mentioned Booth’s feeble health. On March 10 Preston wrote to Mrs. Booth: “I am making progress with the bill for Mr. Booth’s relief in the matter of the stolen silver bars and . . . I feel certain of getting the bill through both Houses of Congress this session and without any further expense to you.”

Booth died on March 21, 1888. His wife continued their efforts to recoup the losses, but in a letter dated April 20, 1889, Preston’s earlier hopes were gone: “I am very sorry to say that notwithstanding all my efforts I was unable to get the bill through to return to your husband’s estate the value of the silver bars which he was so unjustly called upon by the Director of the Mint to make good.”

After two fruitless years success appeared certain in 1890, when the relief bill passed the Senate—only to stall in the House. Booth’s vindication arrived when the relief bill finally passed on August 8, 1894—ten years after the bars originally disappeared.

All quotations from the Papers of James Curtis Booth, Special Collections, Science History Institute.