The Liberty Head nickel is a 5-cent coin that was produced by the United States mint starting in 1883 until it was replaced by the Buffalo nickel starting in 1913. It has a simple design with the portrait of Liberty wearing a coronet and wreath on the obverse while the reverse has the Roman Numeral V surrounded by a wreath on the reverse.
In 1883, the coin had a word missing from its design—the word CENTS (it only had the V on the obverse designating the denomination of the coin). Another problem that this coin had was that close in size to the $5 gold piece. To top it off, the two coins had a similar design as well.
The racketeer nickel came about soon after the U.S. mint issued the Liberty nickel in 1883. What happened was this nickel got a gold plating on it to make it look like the $5 gold piece even more.
There are stories about the gold-plated coin being pawned off as the legitimate $5 gold piece at stores or even poker games.
There is even a story of a man named Josh Tatum. One version states that he could not speak, and I have even heard that he was deaf and could not speak. In the story, Josh would walk into a store and get a 5-cent cigar. He then would pay with the gold-plated coin and get $4.95 back in change.
After doing this a few times, Josh was arrested and tried in a court of law for his actions. Josh was exonerated since no one heard him speak—they didn’t know if he knew if it was a 5-cent coin or the $5 gold piece.
The United States mint halted the production of the Liberty Head nickels as the design was changed with the addition of the word CENTS on the reverse—the revised nickel was issued on June 26, 1883.
When you run across an 1883 Liberty Head nickel you need to see it has the word CENTS or not. Out of the two different varieties (one is called WITH CENTS and the other is called WITHOUT CENTS)—the WITH CENTS variety costs a little more. What kinds of stories like the “racketeer nickel” have you heard?