Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Who Was Henry Morgan? Perhaps Now We Know

The Mystery of Henry Morgan
(A Numismatic Detective Story)
by Andrew Wager
Barkham’s Press, 2007, paperbound

Henry Morgan stands vilified by numismatists for his “evil work.” Deservedly so? Was there in fact any such person to hang accusations upon? Andrew Wager takes us back to the early 1800s in England on a quest for the truth.

At the time, with a poor harvest, silver was going to the continent to buy grain to feed British troops fighting Napoleon. The lack of coin of the realm prompted merchants and bankers to issue their own coin or tokens. These were not imitations of crown money as that would have been a hanging offense, as some offenders learned.

The issuance of legitimate tokens redeemable for merchandise or precious metal invited counterfeiters and other fakers. At least one purveyor of legitimate tokens, Henry Morgan or so-called, seems to have worked both sides of that street. He seems to have produced quality work and also “junk” – poor quality imitations of legitimate tokens.

Morgan was denounced in a newspaper advertisement for “infamous deception.” His accusers were the backers of the genuine tokens he supposedly imitated. His tactic, apparently, was to produce legitimate tokens on order and then to make similar though not exact copies, changing a few words or letters, and in some cases dropping all but the design. In an age of limited literacy, of course, the image might be the primary identifier for many who accepted the tokens.

The book’s first four chapter explain in great detail what was going on in the token market at the time. One really needs to have a thirst for details on the subject to pay close attention, I suppose. It is in Chapter 5 that we begin to see the value of Wager’s expertise in the field of genealogy as just the ticket for tracking this Morgan fellow.

In London at the time there were, as might well be imagined, a great many people by the name Henry Morgan. But rather than rely on Google with its 300,000 possibly relevant offerings, Wager turned to census, birth, death, marriage and other records for clues. Rewards were not immediate as he waded through candle-makers, cooks, hosiers and so on.

In the end the case against the suspect does come down to the old Scots verdict, “not proven.” But one is fairly convinced that Wager gets his man. And the author is the first to admit to remaining questions.

What is proven beyond doubt is that the genealogical researcher has much to offer regarding the investigation of numismatic mysteries where relevant records may exist.

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