Thursday 5 December 2013

Pennies From Hell

This pile of pennies was melted together by the fires of the Halifax Explosion. On December 6, 1917 the French ammunition ship Mont-Blanc exploded in Halifax Harbour after a collision with the Norwegian ship Imo. Nearly 2,000 people were killed in the largest man-made explosion prior to the  Atomic Age.

MMA M2013.32.1, Gift of Stephen Innocent in memory of Tom Rodgers
Our Museum tells this story with our web pages about the Halifax Explosion, but most powerfully with objects like these. This stack of melted and fused coins was found on the street somewhere in Halifax's Richmond District by Tom Rodgers, an 18-year-old milk deliveryman. He was not injured by the explosion and used his horse and cart to take wounded people to hospitals and later to collect bodies of victims. His was one of many delivery wagons and slovens (the low heavy cargo wagons commonly used on the Halifax waterfront) which were enlisted in this way by the police and army. For many years Tom Rodgers would tell his family that he could still hear the sound his wagon wheels made as they crunched over the broken glass which covered the streets of Halifax.

These are the large 2.5 mm wide old-style pennies which were often called "coppers". (Canada switched to the smaller 1.9 cm pennies in 1920.) The 1907 penny at the top of the melted stack was minted in Britain for Canada as the Royal Canadian Mint did not open until 1908.

A detail of the top penny, MMA M2013.32.1, photo by Gerry Lunn

The Museum's conservator Chris Lavergne explored how the pennies could have reached this state. These pennies were 95% copper which begins to melt at 1,084 degrees Celcius. House fires reach 1,100 degrees, easily enough to soften and fuse copper coins. The stack was perhaps in a coin holder which held them together. They may have been strewn into the street by the collapse of a burning building.

The pennies would have come from burned-out ruins such as these in Richmond, seen in this photograph looking down from Fort Needham Hill towards the Halifax drydock. Note SS Imo beached on the Dartmouth shore.
Martin Hubley at the Nova Scotia Museum History Collection arranged for Stephen Innocent, the step-grandson of Tom Rodgers, to donate the pennies to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic .  This object joins thousands of other Halifax Explosion artifacts at the Maritime Museum, which has preserved Canada's largest collection of objects from this terrible day in our history.

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