Here’s another of those weird sidelights that form part of the tapestry of fringe history. Today’s example comes from Charles Fort’s Book of the Damned (1919) where the unsystematic compiler of the strange recorded the following paragraph based on a passage from the journal Records of the Past that he had chanced upon:
That, early in 1913, a coin, said to be a Roman coin, was reported as discovered in an Illinois mound. It was sent to Dr. Emerson, of the Art Institute, of Chicago. His opinion was that the coin is “of the rare mintage of Domitius Domitianus, Emperor in Egypt.” As to its discovery in an Illinois mound, Dr. Emerson disclaims responsibility. But what strikes me here is that a joker should not have been satisfied with an ordinary Roman coin. Where did he get a rare coin, and why was it not missed from some collection? I have looked over numismatic journals enough to accept that the whereabouts of every rare coin in anyone’s possession is known to coin-collectors. Seems to me nothing left but to call this another “identification.”
Domitius Domitianus was a usurper against Diocletian who declared himself Roman Emperor in Alexandria during a revolt in that city in 297 CE. He died in December of that year as Diocletian approached to retake the city, which he did in March 298 CE.
This particular incident caused a little flap in the press around the time of the supposed discovery, and reporters began to quote Alfred Emerson, the archaeologist and curator of antiquities at the Art Institute of Chicago, as supporting a Roman discovery of America. (Emerson should not be confused with his son, Cornell professor and zoologist Alfred E. Emerson.) Emerson became outraged that reporters were using his credibility and prestige and promote goofy claims about Roman voyages to America, and he wrote a letter to the journal Records of the Past (vol. 12, 1913, p. 183) hoping to set the record straight:
Dear Sir: The indications are that the coin is of the rare mintage of Domitius Domitianus, emperor in Egypt. As to its discovery in an Illinois mound the responsibility for that lies with the discoverer and owner. For my part I consider the find to show that the mound was either posterior to white ranging of this continent, or that the coin reached the mound after its erection. Having expressed myself pretty clearly in this sense to reporters I was not surprised to be quoted as an illustrious person holding the opposite view. ... It will be a pleasure to clear myself of the foolishness imputed to me by these irresponsibles by a short notice in RECORDS OF THE PAST.
This is Fort’s source, and you can see that he has seized on Emerson’s identification of the coin as “rare” to declare that a hoax or a lost piece from a collection was unlikely. The trouble is that what Emerson meant by rare isn’t quite what Fort took it to mean. The coins of Domitius Domitianus are not so rare that they are precious, or even particularly poorly represented on the antiquities market. Images of his coins were well represented in nineteenth century texts, such as Samuel Sharpe’s The History of Egypt (1859).
In fact, because the ancient records are scarce on his reign, the coins are the best testimony to the usurper’s time as pseudo-emperor. The coins are “rare” in the sense that Domitius Domitianus reigned only a few months, and his coins were largely confined to Alexandria and the surrounding parts of Egypt, and therefore are largely unknown in European contexts. They are correspondingly fewer in number than those of long-lasting emperors, but not so rare as to be particularly valuable or noteworthy. Today, you can by dozens of them online if you are so inclined.
Fort, though, took “rare” to mean that the specific coin itself was virtually unknown—a museum piece—and therefore a poor choice for faking a Roman find. But Alexandria was in the nineteenth century a common port for tourists (particularly those on tour of the Mediterranean and the Holy Land), and it was a hotbed of antiquities trade at the time. There is therefore nothing in the discovery of this particular coin that would argue against Emerson’s evaluation that the coin was a recent traveler to the United States. Its deposition in the mound need not even be attributed to intent; whoever did so may have lost it by accident, and even if a hoax, the hoaxer need not be assumed to have known who Domitius Domitianus was, only that he picked up a Roman coin on a trip to Alexandria or in a coin shop and recognized it as Roman. The Romans were among the many people alleged to have been the “true” builders of America’s mounds in the 1800s and therefore an appropriate group to use in a hoax to discredit the scientific view that the Mound Builders were Native Americans.
But it’s interesting to see the way claims carry on through the decades. Fort failed to understand Emerson’s adjective in 1919, and in 1977 Vincent Gaddis—the mystery-monger who coined the phrase “Bermuda Triangle”—recycled Fort’s claims in his book American Indian Myths and Mysteries, stating as fact (as opposed to Fort’s speculation) that “[a] hoaxer would hardly have used a rare coin when a common Roman one would have been as satisfactory.”
It is fun to see the way that not just facts but even dismissive anger at academia is copied and recycled from author to author and repackaged for new generations.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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