What you may not know about the U.S. Secret Service

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U.S. Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy after stopping an assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan.

Most people know that the Secret Service protects the President of the United States and other politicians.

But the original purpose of the Secret Service was the suppression of counterfeit currency.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, an estimated one-third of U.S. currency in circulation was counterfeit.  So on July 5, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln – in his last official act – signed the Secret Service into law as a branch of the United States Department of the Treasury.

It wasn’t until almost 30 years after its founding, however, that the Secret Service began protecting President Grover Cleveland.  And even then it was only on an informal, part-time basis whenever the president traveled. Not until 1902, following the assassination of President William McKinley, did the agency assume the responsibility of protecting the president around the clock.

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The 20-Cent Flop That Costs $400,00

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The time: the 1870s.  The place: Virginia City, Nevada.  Some 100 saloons dotted the town.  Most of these were “bit” houses, where silver miners working on the Comstock Lode could purchase drinks and cigars for 12 ½ cents.

But in the post-civil war years, there was a shortage of coins in circulation.  Miners paying for their drinks with a quarter (two bits) were likely to get only a dime (a “short bit”) back.

Allegedly to remedy this situation, a group of mining magnates — backed by Nevada Sen. John Percival Jones — persuaded the U.S. government to begin minting a 20-cent silver coin. The 20-cent piece began production in 1875 and was an instant bomb.  Like the Susan B. Anthony dollar a century later, it was difficult to distinguish from a quarter.

Ironically, the coins proved especially unpopular in Nevada.  The Carson City mint – which produced just 10,000 in 1876 — was still doling out coins from 1875 when orders came in to melt the entire remaining inventory.  Only a small number from 1876 were to be spared and shipped back to the Assay office in Washington for record keeping.

Today, these 20-cent coins have a melt value of just $2.83.  But experts generally agreed that fewer than two-dozen 1876-CC (for Carson City) 20-cent coins still exist. So if you want one, you’d better start saving some serious coin of your own.  A mint condition 1876-CC sells for over $400,000 – assuming, that is, that you can find one.

Not too shabby for a flop.