In June of 1926, readers of the News-Democrat in Paducah—and of newspapers across Kentucky, thanks to an Associated Press syndicated dispatch—learned about a very fortunate citizen of the Bluegrass State.
Gaius Whitfield III lived in Middlesboro, Kentucky, the only American city built entirely within the crater of a meteor impact. Middlesboro has other claims to fame. Many fans of ragtime call it the music’s home, having (possibly!) been the birthplace of Ben Harney, the “Father of Ragtime” who helped popularize the genre and move it from comic minstrel-show entertainment to legitimate theaters and vaudeville. Nature lovers know Middlesboro for its proximity to Cumberland Gap National Historic Park. It’s also home to the oldest continuously played golf course in the Eastern United States.
Although Gaius Whitfield lived in this beautiful spot in Kentucky, most of his kin were in Alabama. The influential family he belonged to was one of the South’s most aristocratic—if Americans can hold such a distinction. Among them, the Whitfields counted a number of generals, state governors, U.S. senators, and other important personalities. Important and wealthy; it was said that before the Civil War the Whitfield name was synonymous with “gold and slaves.”
After the war, from time to time a stray gold coin would be found on the old family farm near Demopolis, Alabama. Old-timers talked of a pot of gold that had been unearthed after the war and returned to the family. Rumor had it even more gold was still hidden on the estate. Few people knew there really was another, larger hoard buried there.
In May of 1926, Gaius Whitfield traveled from Middlesboro 400 miles southwest to Demopolis. There he hired 35 men to search and uncover a boundary stake on the Shady Grove Farm, a productive property still operated by his cousins. Whitfield was following an “ancient map” that was among the papers left behind by his father when he died nearly 50 years earlier. It was, to use a romantic but in this case factually accurate term, a treasure map.
After a day of labor, Whitfield’s men struck gold—quite literally. In a swampy section of the farm, they unearthed a powder can of $20 gold coins, “double eagles,” as they’re known. The treasure had been buried by Gaius’s grandfather, the wealthy Boaz Whitfield, during the Civil War. Locals opined he hid the gold to keep it from the Union Army. Boaz died during the war. Why Boaz’s son never dug up the family fortune after the war is a mystery. Maybe he didn’t realize his father’s treasure map was among the family papers. But his son recognized it for what it was.
The Kentucky Whitfield didn’t keep the entire hoard for himself. He was already a millionaire and could afford to share. Nine heirs were named from among the offspring of Boaz Whitfield and his three brothers. In addition to Kentucky grandson Gaius Whitfield, there were seven relations in Demopolis, Alabama, and one in Taft, Florida. The coins were placed for safekeeping in the Robertson Banking Company of Demopolis—Henry Whitfield, vice president.
How much was the golden windfall worth? In 1926 the numismatic value of the gold coins was estimated at $200,000. Today that equates to more than $3 million. The family kept precise details of the coins secret, so we don’t know what dates and mintmarks were represented, or what grades they were in (although newspaper accounts described some of the coins as “remarkably bright”). Remarks by Gaius Whitfield at the time suggest the face value of the coins was “less than $15,000,” which would be 750 coins or fewer.
Double eagles were first minted for circulation in 1850, so by the end of the Civil War, the oldest coins would have been only 15 years old. Newer coins might have gone straight from the mint to a bank and then, courtesy of Boaz Whitfield, straight into the ground for safekeeping, nearly as fresh and lustrous as the day they were struck.
The 75th edition of the Guide Book of United States Coins (2021) values a single 1858 $20 gold coin in Choice Uncirculated condition at $45,000 if it was minted in Philadelphia, or $165,000 if it was from the much scarcer New Orleans mintage. Some of the coins described in the news as “blackened” were probably spent as cash at face value. Others were undoubtedly sold as choice rarities, and sit in fine collections today.
A writer for the Miami Herald, June 3, 1926, used the Whitfield treasure to warn against idle money and to promote stock-market investment. This was the Roaring Twenties, after all. If the gold had been “safely invested” at six percent interest compounded annually, he wrote, it would be an even more respectable sum today. “It might have been put in some lands or stocks or enterprises, and jumped to many millions by this time.” He did inject a note of caution, though: “Again it might be worth 30 cents. Active fortunes have a habit of performing in contrasting manners, expanding or disappearing.” But he closed with an oblique criticism of Boaz Whitfield and a warning to gold hoarders: “Buried gold . . . just slumbers away the years, while causing possible heirs sleepless nights, worries, and ceaseless searching.”
On March 23, 2021, Governor Andy Beshear commissioned Whitman Publishing’s Dennis Tucker as a Kentucky Colonel—the highest honor awarded by the Commonwealth—in recognition of his career in book publishing and for promoting knowledge of Kentucky’s status as an important subject within American numismatics. Tucker’s column “From the Colonel’s Desk” explores the rich history of Kentucky embodied in coins, tokens, medals, paper money, private currency, and related artifacts of material culture.