A 57-Year Mystery’s Solved, Kind Of

Tom Poland, who for years thought a classmate pinched his coin collection, found his lost treasure in his mom’s attic.

After 57 years, a case of missing rare objects, priceless to me, at least, closes. And yet it remains a mystery. When I was in the sixth grade, I took my coin collection to school, a foolish thing to do because human nature being what it is that collection risked being stolen, and that’s what happened.

After showing the collection to my friends I stowed it in my desk. Remember those desks with the large opening where you kept your books? That’s where I placed the small leather pouch, one I had made at 4-H camp with a Lowcountry marsh duck-hunting scene tooled into the leather.

Off to lunch we went. When I returned my collection had vanished. That theft exposed me to crime for the first time in my life and it sickened me. Among those coins was a Seated Liberty quarter, 1861, and an Indian Head penny, 1898. Each of those two coins had been a gift from my grandmothers, and losing those old coins wounded me. It felt like the death of a pet.

When I got home I said nothing about the loss of my collection. Dad would not have been happy that I did such a foolish thing. I acted if all were well and suffered in silence. Back at school, I peered into the eyes of classmates seeking signs of betrayal. I suspected one boy in particular. He had the makings of a career criminal. No one, however, acted guilty. Stupidity had cost me my collection.

The years rolled by, but I never got over the loss. When I began writing columns for my hometown newspaper, I almost wrote a column that pleaded: “If you stole my coin collection back in 1961 in Mrs. Turner’s class, please ship it to me. No questions asked.”

After Mom died in 2015, my sisters and I began the sad task of going through our late parents’ possessions. One Sunday afternoon up in the attic, I was going through boxes of what I best describe as “stuff.” There, in a box, sat my coin collection. It had not been stolen after all. Just how did this miracle come to pass? It stunned me. I sure didn’t have a case of childhood amnesia. I clearly remember the last time I touched that leather pouch, and it was the day I put it in that desk.

Here’s what must have happened. Mrs. Turner saw me put that collection in my desk. As we lined up to go to the lunchroom, she took a moment to get my collection from that desk, knowing it was at risk. Later, she gave it to Dad, an easy thing to do since he drove a school bus. Dad brought my coin collection home and waited for me to confess what I’d done. I never did.

He must have forgotten that he had put it in that box, and the years rolled on. Then, 57 years after it went missing, I found it in the attic. After 57 years, that nagging suspicion I held about a classmate had been put to rest. That’s the best explanation I can come up with. The people who know the truth — Dad, Mom and Mrs. Turner — are no more, and so the mystery will forever remain a mystery.

Now none of my coins will fetch much money, but having that Seated Liberty quarter and Indian Head penny back sure mean a lot. Gifts from my grandmothers mean more than ever. Now, it’s my turn to hand these coins down.

Tom Poland is the author of 12 books and more than 1,000 magazine features. He writes a weekly column for newspapers in Georgia and South Carolina about the South, its people, traditions, lifestyle, and changing culture and speaks often to groups across South Carolina and Georgia, “Georgialina.” Visit Poland’s website at tompoland.net or email him at tompol@earthlink.net.