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Friday, Jan. 30, 2015

Pennies from Heaven

In 1961 in New Madrid, workmen began tearing down the old Smith home next to the Methodist Church on Mill Street to make way for a new parsonage. As they ripped away at one of the walls, money began falling out. It was strange looking money, U. S. currency, but the bills were much larger and there were Indians and buffalos depicted on a number of them.

Who hid the money there? And when?

(Photo)
Ruth Smith purchased her home on Mill Street when she was only 18 and lived there until her death at age 83. She may have built the home. The property purchase price of $300 seems low for a house. [Photo courtesy of Marie Hunter]
The last residents of the home were sisters Josephine and Ruth Smith. They were the end of the line of the Smith family. Josie, the oldest of the pair, was born in 1874; Ruth in 1876. Neither ever married; the pair earned their livings in later life as seamstresses, but Josie had been a school teacher and Ruth worked with her father, W. O. Smith, for the U. S. Weather Service.

Before their deaths both sisters became invalids.

(Photo)
May Hunter undertook the care of the Smith sisters, Josie and Ruth. Ruth deeded her home to May in January 1960. May would later receive an unexpected reward for her kindness. [Photo courtesy of Marie Hunter]
That's when May Hunter became an important part of their lives.

Marie Hunter, May's daughter-in-law, suggests that May probably got involved with the sisters through a church affiliation. The sisters had many medical needs and little resources which consisted mostly of their run-down house and a few personal possessions.

(Photo)
Nettie Patterson with her son Patrick. Nettie assisted May Hunter in caring for the Smith sisters. [Photo courtesy of Marie Hunter]
However she became involved, May undertook the task of caring for Josie and Ruth. She employed Nettie Patterson to help. The Smith sisters were bed-ridden and difficult to care for. Local physician Dr. Charles Reeder frequently stopped in to care for the sisters.

Exactly how long May and Nettie tended to the sisters is lost, but, according to Marie, it was several years. Having no other way to compensate May, Ruth Smith deeded their home to May in January 1960 and retained a life estate.

Ruth died July 1, 1960, and her sister Josie died a few days later on July 6.

Both sisters were buried near their parents and brother in the family plot in the Latham Cemetery across from the Hunter-Dawson Home. May took care of their death expenses. To settle their affairs, she sold the property in February 1961 but retained the right to remove the home and shrubbery before August.

That spring she began the process of having the home torn down and salvaging the materials.

(Photo)
Money hidden in the wall of the Smith home on Mill Street was secreted high enough to avoid the flood waters in this 1927 photo of the home. [Photo courtesy of Marie Hunter]
That's when the money fell out of the wall.

A close examination of the bills and a little family history solved the mystery of who put them there.

All of the bills were National Bank Notes. These notes were issued between 1863 and 1929, and were printed by the U. S. Government Printing Office for charter banks. The bills bore the name of the bank, the state seal, local signatures and the bank's charter number. These bills were larger than present ones and are sometimes referred to as "bed-sheet notes." During the 1870s, 80s and 90s the bills were works of art, many depicting scenes from American history. Descriptions of the bills by Chuck Palmer, then a teller at the Bank of New Madrid, link the bills to this time period. Also, May gave a number of the bills to various family members for birthday gifts, and many still have them.

In 1929 the use of Federal Bank Note of this type was ended and the smaller bills that we use today began to circulate.

Today, the Federal Reserve Notes are quite collectable and may command prices far above their face value, depending on their condition and the bank of origin. Two well worn notes in possession of May's grandson, Shapley Hunter, a Series 1907 $10 Gold Coin Note and a Series 1914 $20 Grover Cleveland Note are today worth only about $30 and $25 respectively due to their condition.

But, back in the early 1961 they were more of a novelty and curiosity. A five dollar note was just a five dollar note--and too big to be of any practical use.

May, needing the money to settle the sisters' obligations, took most of the bills to the Bank of New Madrid.

Chuck Palmer remembers the bills coming into the bank. He purchased several of the notes for face value. One was given to his sister, but the rest he later cashed in because he needed the money. The bank's cashier, W. H. Coats, sent the rest of the money into the Treasury as "mutilated currency" for destruction.

All of the bills predate 1930, and that's the key.

(Photo)
May kept several of the bills that fell from the wall and gave them as presents to a number of family members and relatives. This Series 1918 $5 Federal Reserve Note was a birthday gift to her niece, Betty Belle Sides, who did not know the story about the bill until contacted by the author. This bill is rare and may be now worth about $100 even though in poor condition. [Courtesy of Betty Belle Sides]
As it turns out, W. O. Smith, the sisters' father, died in 1908. He and his wife lived in a home on Davis Street. The mother, Mary Laplant Smith, later moved in with her daughters on Mill Street. It was there that she stuffed the money into the wall until her death in 1929, just before the new smaller bills were issued. But, apparently, she never told her three children about her money hoard and its location in the wall.

After their mother's death, the three children, including son Fritz Smith, lived in the home barely eking out an existence through the Depression and afterward. And, all the while within an arm's reach, there was more than plenty of money in the wall.

(Photo)
Fritz Smith, age 40, with the New Madrid river gauge at high water in 1912. Fritz succeeded his father in this job working for the National Weather Service and the Mississippi River Commission. [Author's collection]
Fritz died in 1944.

The two sisters then lived on the home until their deaths in 1960.

Much of what May Hunter and others did for Ruth and Josie Smith in their final days was done out of friendship and neighborly love. She knew the sisters had little but needed much. She hardly expected much compensation from the impoverished sisters.

(Photo)
This small watch belonged to Ruth L. Smith as indicated by the initials. May kept the watch as a keepsake. [Courtesy of Marie Hunter]
Isn't that when things like this happen?

Sometime it isn't just pennies from heaven.

Behind the scenes

Pennies from Heaven (01/19/15)
In 1961 in New Madrid, workmen began tearing down the old Smith home next to the Methodist Church on Mill Street to make way for a new parsonage. As they ripped away at one of the walls, money began falling out. It was strange looking money, U. S. currency, but the bills were much larger and there were Indians and buffalos depicted on a number of them...