Stalking the Cooper River for thousands of fake nickels

Neil Schwartz with his metal-detecting equipment searches for so-called Henning nickels July 4 on the banks of the Cooper River in Pennypacker Park in Haddonfield, Camden County. STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Neil Schwartz with his metal-detecting equipment searches for so-called Henning nickels July 4 on the banks of the Cooper River in Pennypacker Park in Haddonfield, Camden County. STEVEN M. FALK / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: July 17, 2012

HE WAS an enigma to the authorities and a curiosity to collectors, a man who could have made bundles with his brains.

But not all of Francis L. Henning's plans were foolproof or legal, and he fled South Jersey in 1955 with the feds on his tail, dumping buckets full of shiny evidence in local waterways. On Oct. 28 that year, Henning, looking both distinguished and defeated in a light suit, stood for a mug shot in Cleveland, where he was making $700 a month as a mechanical engineer — more than twice the national average for the era.

Henning was a counterfeiter who strategically dreamed small, it seems, to fly under the radar of the agency he figured would be looking for fakes: the Secret Service. Henning made hundreds of thousands of fake nickels in a machine shop in rural Erial, Camden County, all by himself, using a 250,000-pound press and sheets of cupronickel that cost him thousands of dollars. Then he'd launder the money for real bills at local banks, posing as a vending-machine operator, the Associated Press reported after his arrest.

"He's always been a topic of conversation in the coin-collecting community," said Frank Greenberg, former owner of Delaware Valley Rare Coin in Broomall. "Mostly, people wonder what the hell he was thinking."

Now, almost 60 years later, Henning's name still carries some notoriety in the coin-collecting community — the same eagle-eyed group that first noticed Henning's "slight mistake." A local banker and member of a Camden County coin club alerted authorities after he noticed Henning had omitted a "p" found on 1944 nickels — a mint stamp that indicated the nickel would come from Philadelphia. "He made one slight mistake and it tripped him up," a Secret Service agent told the AP.

The "Henning nickel," as it's known among hobbyists, has become a bit of an obsession for a mild-mannered advertising rep from Cherry Hill who spends most of his free time with a metal detector. Neil Schwartz could buy a Henning nickel, probably for less than $50, but he's looking elsewhere: a stretch of muck in the Cooper River that he asked the Daily News not to divulge.

"It's not for the money," he said over French toast at Ponzio's Diner in Cherry Hill last month. "It's for the thrill of it."

According to the 1957 book The Story of the Secret Service by Ferdinand Kuhn, Henning — who'd been busted years earlier for making counterfeit $1 bills — told the feds he dumped thousands of the bogus nickels into the Cooper River when he learned they were looking for him. The Secret Service eventually recovered 14,000 nickels from the mud there.

Schwartz believes that some Hennings are still down there, though, and he's even heard stories about boys in Haddonfield fishing them out for souvenirs after the G-men left.

"It's probably a rusted mass of metal by now," he said.

Schwartz, founder of the metal-detectors' club West Jersey Detecting, also has prompted a few "what the hell was he thinking?" moments in his "dirt-fishing" escapades, he admits, sometimes from his wife and children and at least once from the Gloucester Township Police Department. He was arrested there earlier this year, he said, after metal-detecting and digging at the historic Gabriel Davies Tavern. He said he diligently filled in each hole he dug, but still it was illegal.

"My wife jokes that I don't carry any pictures of my kids but I have pictures of my finds," he said.

On July 4, only hours before Independence Day parades throughout South Jersey, Schwartz was guiding his water-resistant metal detector through the pungent mud and layers of dead leaves along the banks of the Cooper River near the Haddonfield/Cherry Hill border. Schwartz thinks he knows where Henning's leftover nickels are, but so far he's found only poison ivy, mosquitos and rusted-out aluminum cans and pop tops (the bane of metal detectors).

"I'm going to be covered in poison ivy in a few days," he said.

The stories behind a counterfeit — even Schwartz's rusted-over Henning nickels, if he finds them — are what add value and lore, said Ryanne Scott of the American Numismatic Association.

"It's so rare today to see new counterfeit coins," Scott said. "I've seen statistics that claim as much as 20 percent of the coins in circulation in the 1800s were counterfeit, though."

Coincidentally, one of the most valuable coins in the world is a nickel, Scott said, and it happened to come from the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. In 1913, the Mint was switching from the Liberty Head nickel to the Buffalo nickel, but a Mint employee pressed five 1913 Liberty Heads and kept them. Today they're worth millions.

Henning, according to one old newspaper account, needed to make his nickels to pay off the debts he incurred building the industrial machine that fabricated them."You wasted tremendous talent," a judge told him after he was sentenced to three years in prison.

But Dennis P. Helmer, of the West Jersey Numismatic Society — the same club that tipped off the Secret Service to Henning in 1955 — thinks the counterfeiter made his near-perfect coins for other reasons.

"He was a super-duper inventor, machinist and artist as well," said Helmer, of Collingswood. "My hunch is he was doing it for pride."

Contact Jason Nark at 215-854-5916, narkj@phillynews.com or on Twitter @JasonNark.

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