I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
In June 1953, Jimmy Bozart was on his rounds collecting from customers for his delivery of the now-defunct Brooklyn Eagle newspaper. Among the change he received was a five-cent piece that felt unusual.
The Split Nickel
As Jimmy Bozart was jingling his cash he noticed that one coin sounded a bit odd. When he picked it out it felt light for a nickel, so he dropped it onto the sidewalk. The coin split in half and revealed a weird, tiny photograph hidden between the two sides.
Jimmy showed the broken nickel to friends, one of whom had a New York City detective in their family. The cop decided a call on the Bozart household was in order. Jimmy handed over the nickel and its contents to the police officer who passed it along to an FBI agent.
The Nickel Is Examined
FBI agents noted that the micro-photograph was of a series of typewritten numbers. There were ten columns of numbers in groups of five. Obviously, it was code; but about what and to whom did it belong?
The decision was made to send the mysterious find down to Washington to let the boffins in lab coats have a look at it.
The FBI notes that “Hollow coins, though rarely seen by the ordinary citizen, are occasionally used in magic acts and come to the attention of federal law enforcement agencies from time to time. This was the first time, however, that the FBI had ever encountered a nickel quite like this one.”
The two faces of the nickel came from different mintings and a tiny hole had been drilled into the letter R of “In God we Trust.” The hole was clearly there so that a needle could be inserted to pry the two halves apart.
And, the columns of numbers were defying the best efforts of code breakers to yield their secret. The typewriter used to produce the numbers also proved impossible to identify.
The FBI scooped up rogue coins from all across the country but no light was shed on where Jimmy’s nickel had come from.
Shoulders must have been shrugged and the file set aside for more pressing matters.
A Spy Arrives
In May 1957, a man walked into the American embassy in Paris and announced he was a Soviet espionage agent and he wished to defect. Perhaps, here was somebody who might be able to shed some light on the nickel mystery.
After several years of spying in the United States, Reino Häyhänen was being recalled to Moscow and he didn’t much fancy the idea. Why would he? The Communist paradise of the 1950s was a place of shortages – housing, food, even toilet paper.
He had been recruited into the Soviet spying system in the Baltics and had been given a new identity.
He had masqueraded as Eugene Maki from Idaho so convincingly that the United States even paid for his “return” to America from Finland in October 1952. He made contact with his control, Mikhail, in New York City and began his spying activities.
But, the prospect of returning to the Soviet Union encouraged him to turn on his old employer.
During his debriefing by the FBI, Maki/Häyhänen gave up secrets about Moscow’s tradecraft. He told of how messages were concealed in such things as hollowed out bolts, pencils, and coins. And, someone on the investigating team must have gone “Aha! Jimmy Bozart’s nickel.”
A Spy Network Exposed
Maki/Häyhänen also spilled the beans on the micro-photograph’s code. Was it a mother lode of intel about the Soviet spy network? Was it the plans for an attack on West Germany?
No, it was “Congratulations on your safe arrival,” followed by a few innocuous instructions. The hollow nickel had gone to the defecting spy the FBI now had in its hands. Having not quite mastered the intricacies of his trade, Maki/Häyhänen had spent the coin and sent it into general circulation before it turned up to settle a bill for newspaper delivery.
(Other stories claim the coin never reached its intended recipient and it remains a mystery of how it started settling accounts in New York).
Armed with the information about how the Soviets hid their messages, agents found intelligence in Maki/Häyhänen’s home that helped them catch a couple of spies.
One was Emil R. Goldfus, a photographer, whose real name was Rudolf Abel. When agents raided his apartment they found a treasure trove of missives, fake passports, and identities.
Goldfus/Abel was given a 30-year sentence but only served four. In 1962, he was exchanged for the U.S. spy plane pilot Francis Gary Powers who was in prison in the USSR.
There is no information about whether or not Jimmy Bozart was compensated for the phoney nickel that was confiscated by the FBI. As for Jimmy, he was honoured for his role in the case and, according to The Globe and Mail “A private citizen gave him an Oldsmobile, which he sold for money he used to buy stock options that set him on a path to fortune.”
He built a successful business empire that included bars, restaurants, and hotels.
When the U-2 spy plane of Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Soviet Union in 1960 he had a “good luck charm” silver dollar on a chain around his neck. It had been hollowed out and contained an injection pin laced with poison inside. He did not use the suicide pin; a decision some called cowardly.
With several changes, for artistic license don’t you know, the story appeared in the Jimmy Stewart movie The FBI Story. Jimmy Bozart was written out of the film, with the coin turning up in a laundry.
In 2015, the then-75-year-old Mr. Bozart told The New York Times “I want the nickel.” The newspaper said he was going to be out of luck because it is on display in the FBI’s Newseum in Washington.
- “Hollow Nickel/Rudolph Abel.” FBI, undated.
- “ESPIONAGE: Artist in Brooklyn.” Time, August 19, 1957.
- “Paper Boy’s Discovery Sets off Hollow-Nickel Mystery.” Globe and Mail, June 22, 2019.
- “Sidelight to a Spy Saga: How a Brooklyn Newsboy’s Nickel Would Turn Into a Fortune.” Jim Dwyer, New York Times, November 3, 2015.
- “Odd Uses for coins: Hidden Messages, Hidden Poison.” Coinworld.com, undated.
© 2019 Rupert Taylor
Liz Westwood from UK on June 26, 2019:
This is a fascinating cloak and dagger spy story.