The best source for information on this story is the book Treasure in the Cellar: A Tale of Gold in Depression-Era Baltimore by Leonard Augsburger. (2008)
Useless Information Podcast Script
Original Podcast Air Date: March 15, 2014
And now for today’s story titled Baltimore’s Buried Treasure, which caused me to have one of those “I wonder what the odds of that happening were?” moments. That’s because I started researching this story on found treasure in mid-January and had finally finished the last of my notes when I looked up at my computer and saw a pile of gold coins staring right back at me.
Now, if you have been following the news recently, you probably are familiar with the story of a northern California couple that found five cans filled with $27,000 in gold coins buried on their land. Experts have estimated that sale of these rare coins could bring in an estimated $10 million at auction.
I was ready to toss all of my research in the garbage, but my wife convinced me that I have a much better story to tell. As you will soon find out, in this story there may have been a pot of gold, but it wasn’t at the end of any rainbow, nor did a leprechaun bring the finders any luck.
So let’s zoom back to August 31, 1934, which was a Friday, and see what was going on at 132 South Eden Street in Baltimore, Maryland. In the basement of this long-neglected 3-story house we find two teenage boys – they are 14-year-old Theodore Jones and 15-year-old Henry Grob. The two lads had just decided to start a new boys club that they called the Rinky-Dinky-Doos. Dues in the club were set at 5-cents each, not that either of them had a single penny to contribute themselves.
In a far corner of the cellar, the boys started digging a hole in the dirt floor to hide a cigar box that they intended to use to hold any dues that were collected by the club. Their tools were crude – all they had was an axe, a corn knife, and a flashlight.
They chose a spot near a brick wall and started their excavation. They quickly hit a layer of oyster shell and then, at about a 1-foot or 30-centimeters depth, the axe came down and something shiny popped out of the ground.
Theodore said “Look! Here’s a medal.” Henry took a quick look and replied “You’re crazy. That’s a $20 gold piece.” For two boys that were living in poverty during the Great Depression, this was like hitting the jackpot. That’s because $20 back in 1934 would be like finding $340 today.
They wondered if there could be more gold below their feet. The boys quickly dropped to their knees and continued to dig until they uncovered an old boot that had been split lengthwise and wrapped around what appeared to be the corroded remnants of an old copper pot.
The boys pulled the pot out of the ground and placed it upon an old mattress that had been lying on the dirt floor of the cellar. Theodore smashed the pot open and the unbelievable occured. Thousands of gold coins poured out of that old copper vessel.
To divy it up, each boy took half of the larger denomination coins, but there were so many $1 gold coins that they didn’t bother to count. They simply split it up by the handful. Theodore lived upstairs, so getting his share of the coins home was no big deal. But Henry lived about 1-1/2 blocks away at 227 South Caroline and was forced to fill his shoes with the gold and walk home barefoot.
Their original plan was to take the coins to the local bank and cash them in, but Henry’s brother-in-law Paul warned against doing this. That’s because the United States had just come off of the gold standard and required that all gold currency had to be turned over to the government by May 1st of 1933. They were sixteen months beyond that deadline and anyone who possessed more than $100 worth of gold coins could be subject to a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to 10-years in prison.
There was an exception to the gold recall in that it allowed for gold coins “having a recognized special value to collectors of rare and unusual coins.” These coins were clearly very old and Paul thought that they could be worth significantly more than the face value that a bank would give for turning them in. He suggested that they turn the hoard over to the police. The boys agreed.
So imagine this. Henry, Theodore, and Paul walked over to the Eastern police station, which was a few blocks away, and told Sergeant Harry R. Hill that they had over $7,000 in gold coins that they wanted to turn over to him. He must have thought that they were crazy, but that idea couldn't have lasted long. Hill, along with a couple of other officers counted up the loot and placed $7882 in a safe.
But, it turns out that the boys had been holding out because they didn’t know if they could trust the police. The officers must have been in shock when the boys strolled in a couple of hours later with an additional $3542 in coins? Adjusted for inflation, that $11,424 would be just shy of $200,000 today.
Within a couple of days, the two boys were instant celebrities. When asked by the press what they intended to do with their sudden wealth, Henry stated that he wanted to purchase a house for his mother and then give her the rest of the fortune. Theodore planned to purchase a washing machine for his mom and get himself a new suit. Like Henry, Theodore said that his mom could have the remainder.
But the real question was who owned the loot? Was it the property of the boys or the owners of the land? Or did it belong to another resident of the house or possibly someone who had lived there many years prior? As you would expect, once the news spread of their incredible find, a large number of people came forward to claim the hoard.
There was only one solution. Yes, this was a job for Superman. But, he wasn’t available at that moment, so ownership of the gold had to be decided by the next best thing – a court of law.
That meant that the boys needed to get a lawyer and, as you know, they don’t come cheap. They hired attorney Henry O. Levin in exchange for 1/3 of anything that the court awarded them.
A 90-day window was given for any party to come forward and stake their claim for the pot of gold. A number were almost immediately out of the running because their claims were either fraudulent or too farfetched. At the end of the 90-day period, 10-parties had joined in the suit, but that was quickly whittled down to four by the judge.
Here’s a quick summary of who was involved:
First, and most obvious, were the two boys: Henry Grob and Theodore Jones, represented by Henry O. Levin.
Second were the landowners, two elderly sisters named Elizabeth French and Mary Pillar Boyd Findlay. Oddly, they only owned the land and not the house built upon it. The building was owned by Benjamin Kalis who paid a monthly “land rent” to the sisters. Kalis was not part of the suit because he had only recently purchased the house after the previous owners had passed away and the land rent payments had ceased.
Next was the family of the Harry Chenven, who had occupied one of the six apartments in the building. He had died twelve days prior to the discovery of the gold. Harry had been a very successful jeweler until he went off his rocker back in 1915 and ended up in a sanitarium. He had supposedly lost everything at the time, but there were rumors that he still had a large fortune stashed away somewhere.
And the last party to the lawsuit was me. I just wanted the money and had no reason to really claim it. Actually, the last party were descendants of the late Andrew Saulsbury. He was an incredibly wealthy man who had owned the home at 132 South Eden from June 1865 until his sudden death on November 28, 1873. He was known to have handed out gold coins as gifts to both staff and family.
So, there you have it, the four players in the suit. Who do you think should have been rewarded with the pot of gold? Was it the boys because they found it? Or the two sisters because they owned the land that the gold was found on? Or did it belong to the former jeweler who may have hidden his fortune in the basement? Or did it belong to the wealthy homeowner who had suddenly died?
Now, before I continue, I must admit that I have always assumed that anything found on land that I owned was my property. But, it turns out that is not always the case. There are what are known as Treasure Trove laws, which vary greatly from state to state and country to country. In most cases, if someone finds a stash of valuables on your land and you can’t prove that they were trespassing or that you really own the treasure, it belongs to the finder.
It was left to Judge Eugene O’Dunne figure this one out. He quickly ruled out the family of Harry Chenven. It was clear that the pot of gold had been buried many years prior with the newest coin dated 1856. Since Chenven was living in Russia until 1908 and the family had no proof that he really did have a secret stash of gold, they were dropped from the case.
In February of 1935, O’Dunne handed down his decision on the Saulsbury claim. He felt that it was certainly plausible that Andrew Saulsbury had buried the gold – after all, he was a wealthy man who lived in the house around the time the coins may have been hidden – but the family could offer no proof of ownership. Their argument was purely circumstantial, so the judge ruled against them.
So, it was down to either the two sisters or the two boys being awarded ownership. Since Maryland did not have a treasure trove law at the time, the judge had to make his decision based on previous court rulings. This really boiled down to answering one question – had the boys trespassed or not? There had been a door in the basement that sealed off the room in which the gold was found, but there was conflicting testimony as to whether the door had been locked when the boys made their discovery.
On February 16 of 1935, O’Dunne issued his ruling. “I award the whole contents of the copper pot of some $11,427 face value, to the infant defendants as finders of the treasure trove.”
In other words, finders-keepers, losers-weepers.
Appeals to the ruling were immediately filed by the two women and the descendants of Andrew Saulsbury, but all parties agreed that the gold could be sold in the meantime.
On May 2, 1935, 3,558 gold coins were sold in an auction held at the Lord Baltimore Hotel. Various estimates had valued the hoard at between $25,000 and $30,000. The sale fell far short of the predictions, bringing in just under $20,000 in total. That would be about $340,000 in today’s money. Certainly nothing to sneeze at.
Two months later, on July 2nd, the Maryland Court of Appeals issued a split decision. The court was equally divided 4 to 4, which meant that O’Dunne’s opinion was not overturned. The money belonged to the boys.
But there was one catch. O’Dunne had specified in his original decision that neither boy would get one single cent until each turned twenty-one years of age. For two families on public assistance, that would mean more years of struggling.
Yet, somehow both families started acquiring things that only a decent income could afford. The Jones family purchased a car. The Grobs not only purchased a car, but new furniture and were looking to buy a house in a better neighborhood. One had to wonder where they were getting the money to make these purchases. Could it be better jobs, loans against future income or what?
The answer to this question came on September 2nd of 1935. That is when Theodore’s family had gone to look at a house that they were interested in buying. When they returned home around 10 PM that evening, they discovered that their apartment had been robbed.
Theodore’s stepdad, Philip A. Rummel, went to the police and reported the robbery. He claimed that a trunk had been broken into and $3100 in cash and $500 worth of gold coins had been stolen. When asked where all this money had come from, he explained that he had saved it up over his lifetime of hard work.
But the police weren’t buying that story, since this was a guy that never found steady work and had no way of amassing such a fortune. That was when he admitted that the boys had found a second pot of gold coins in the basement of the house the previous June. Just how much did they find? No one knows for sure because a lot had been sold off, but they claimed about $10,000.
The police suspected that there never was a second pot of gold and that the boys simply had not turned over everything that they had originally found.
As soon as the news broke about this supposed second find, the whole thing ended up back in court again. Lawyers for the sisters wanted the first case reopened, since they felt that boys had been fraudulent in their testimony. Henry O’Levin, the boys lawyer, also cried foul, claiming that he was being gipped out of his 1/3 share of the gold. And if ownership of the first pot was being questioned once again, then which party was entitled to the second treasure?
Back to court they all went. On October 2nd, 1935, Judge O’Dunne issued his ruling. Lacking any evidence to prove otherwise, he concluded that there really was a second find by the boys in that basement. He found no reason to overturn his original decision.
As you could probably guess, the two sisters appealed O’Dunne’s ruling. And once again, the Appellate court once again upheld the lower court’s decision. The question of who owned the first pot of gold was once and for all now settled.
The sisters then filed a new suit claiming ownership of the second pot. In December of 1937, Judge Samuel K. Dennis ruled that there was no significant difference between the two gold discoveries and awarded ownership of the second pot of gold to the two boys.
After more than three years of courtroom battles, the legal fight was all over. But it wasn’t all good news. That’s because Henry had lost his life to pneumonia four months earlier. At the time, he had been working at the Panzer Packing Company as a mayonnaise worked earning just $16 a week.
Henry’s mom Ruth was awarded his share of the fortune. After deducting for court fees, Levin’s share of the fortune, paying the inheritance tax, and covering the cost of Henry’s funeral, she was given a check for $3601.70 on April 11th of 1938.
As for Theodore Jones, he married in 1938 using his birth name of Theodore Krik Sines. He received a check for approximately $5,000 in May of 1939. He was nineteen years old. Now if you recall, I mentioned that the two boys couldn’t receive the money until they had turned 21. It turns out that Theodore had always lied about his age and always added on two years. So, even though he was nineteen, the court thought he was 21. Theodore spent his career as a shipyard mechanic at Bethlehem Steel. He passed away in August of 1977. He was 57 years and three months old. And that was his real age.
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