Indian Head nickel reverse: Which bison was the model?

There is serious disagreement as to which Native American modeled for the obverse of James Earle Fraser’s Indian Head nickel, but what about the bison on the reverse — is it an animal named Black Diamond? Well, despite the best intentions of numismatists to get this story straight, it’s just about as twisted as any in the fable-strewn numismatic stable.

Fine specimen?

First, who was Black Diamond? By some accounts he was the finest specimen of a bison in captivity. By others, he was a mangy, droopy-headed, suicide-prone animal who made a timely trip to the dinner table as a high-priced steak.

Depending on which account you read, he was housed either at the Central Park Corral, Garden City Zoological Gardens, the Bronx Zoological Park, the New York Central Zoo, the Central Park Corral or the Bronx Park Zoo.

Unfortunately, as with the story of the models for the Indian on the obverse, the artist hasn’t been much help. Fraser said of the animal:

“He was not a plains buffalo, but none other than Black Diamond, the contrariest animal in the Bronx Park. I stood for hours watching and catching his form and mood in plastic clay. Black Diamond was less conscious of the honor being conferred on him than of the annoyance which he suffered from insistent gazing upon him. He refused point blank to permit me to get side views of him, and stubbornly showed his front face most of the time.”

Fraser’s reference to a Bronx Park Zoo would cause confusion for some time to come. Add to that the Jan. 27, 1913, issue of the New York Herald which made a similar observation, noting that the animal was a typical specimen found grazing in the New York Zoological Park (more commonly known as the Bronx Zoo).

Under the traditional story, however, Black Diamond was born in the Central Park Zoo, not the Bronx Zoo, in 1893 from Barnum & Bailey stock and lived until 1915. Or, in a slightly different version, he was a Barnum & Bailey circus buffalo, retired to the Central Park Zoo.

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The December 1915 issue of The Numismatist also placed Black Diamond at Central Park. Reporting on the bison’s death, the journal said:

“Black Diamond, the aged buffalo, whose likeness is printed on our $10 legal tender notes and is stamped on the last issue of five-cent pieces, was put to death in New York on November 17. He was about 20 years old and the largest bison in captivity. He had been an inmate of the Central Park corral for many years. Black Diamond’s hide, which measured 13 by 13 feet, will be made into an automobile robe. The bison weighed 1,550 pounds, from which 750 pounds dressed meat was obtained. The teeth were in a remarkable state of preservation. The head, which will be mounted, sold for a considerable amount of money. The bison was killed because of old age. He was sold in the surplus live-stock auction last summer and was left at the park subject to the call of his purchaser.”

The price, by some accounts, was $700, with the carcass sold to A. Silz Poultry and Game. Silz had the head mounted and sold the meat as Black Diamond Steaks at good prices.

The head later came into the possession of Benjamin H. Mayer, an employee of Hoffman & Mayer Inc., the firm that took over from Silz. It remained on display at the firm until Hoffman & Mayer closed its doors in 1978. In 1985, the head was shown at the American Numismatic Association convention in Baltimore.

It may just be a case of a mixed-up identification by the artist and the Herald between the Bronx Zoo, a full-scale zoo, and the Central Park Menagerie (or corral), a small, penned-in display of animals, but even into the 1970s, when William Bridges (then curator of publications at the New York Zoological Society) wrote “Gathering of Animals: An Unconventional History of the New York Zoological Society,” the Bronx Zoo was still receiving queries as to Black Diamond, but could find no record of the zoo ever owning an animal by that name.

A sad failure

The confusion, Bridges said, could be traced as far back as William T. Hornaday, first director of the New York Zoological Park. Hornaday was responsible for bringing a herd of bison to the park to graze on a special 20-acre range.

In November 1915 one correspondent wrote to Hornaday:

I see in the paper a notice of the death of the big bison ‘Black Diamond,’ or ‘Toby’ as he was familiarly known. It has been stated that Black Diamond was the model for the buffalo on the ten dollar bill, also the five-cent nickle [sic.] If that is so it does not do him justice and was enough to make him ill. Was Black Diamond in the Central Park collection of animals or was he in the Zoological Park? The paper stated he was confined in Central Park.

Bridges could find no record of Hornaday’s response. However, to a similar inquiry, wanting to know how the animal came by its name, Hornaday replied that the buffalo named Black Diamond was a Central Park animal, which the Bronx Zoo had nothing to do with. Hornaday added that it was possible the name had been bestowed on an animal by Billy Snyder, Central Park’s head keeper.

Yet, he wondered, “if ‘Black Diamond’ was as fine an animal as we are asked to believe, then I cannot understand why he should be sold to a butcher at a cut price.”

Hornaday was certain, however, that Black Diamond was not the animal that served as the model for the $10 bill. Hornaday said he visited the Smithsonian Institution when the glass front of an exhibit of bison (which he mounted in the 1880s while chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian) was removed so that photographs could be taken in preparation of the new $10 bill.

Bridges also quoted a Jan. 7, 1918, letter from Martin S. Garretson, secretary of the Bison Society, to Hornaday in which the secretary was looking for a good picture of Black Diamond, the animal formerly in the Central Park Menagerie and believed to have been used on the Indian Head nickel.

Hornaday replied that the zoo had no information on the animal, but “judging from the character of the buffalo on the nickel, I should say from its dejected appearance” that the animal was likely an inmate of a small menagerie, having lived all of its life in a small enclosure.

“Its head droops as if it had lost all hope in the world, and even the sculptor was not able to raise it,” Hornaday wrote. “I regard the bison on the nickel as a sad failure, considered as a work of art.” Garretson, however, attributed the drooping head and tail to the sculptor’s need to compress the animal in the coin design. Similarly, Edgar Adams, editor of The Numismatist, who placed Black Diamond as a specimen of the New York Zoological Garden, said:

We have no doubt that the original enlarged model of this design was of a handsome character, but that it would not allow for the great reduction to the size of a five-cent piece is quite apparent.

Bridges said additional confusion as to the possible location of a bison named Black Diamond is found in the aforementioned New York Tribune article, where the reporter observed that the animal was “grazing.” Grazing, he said, would have been possible on the New York Zoological Park’s 20 acres, but not at the Central Park Menagerie, which displayed its animals penned in, with no access to grass.

Bridges’ theory was that Fraser may have inspected Black Diamond at the Central Park Menagerie, and, after finding him unsuitable, found a better animal at the Bronx Zoo — the dramatic name Black Diamond sticking in his mind when he talked of the model for the coin.

A Bronx tale

Alas, the story should have but didn’t end there. Slightly more than a decade after the announcement of Black Diamond’s death, collectors were told that a different animal, ironically named Bronx, served as the model.

The August 1926 issue of The Numismatist  strangely reported:

Bronx, the buffalo whose portrait adorns the buffalo nickel, is no longer king of the Bronx Zoological Park herd, says a press dispatch. His thirty-five year reign ended recently when Cheyenne, a younger bull, challenged his leadership and, after a terrific battle, gored his right side and knocked off one of his horns. After the keepers separated the animals the deposed monarch was exiled to a separate pen and Cheyenne was left to lead the herd. ?

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Missing a leg

There are many error/variety coins that bring premiums from collectors. One of those long sought after by nickel collectors is the 1937-D “three-legged” Buffalo nickel. In this instance, the bison on the coin’s reverse appears to have only three legs, as the bottom of the bison’s right leg was inadvertently ground off the die that struck the coins. Genuine examples sell for several hundreds of dollars even in low grades. There are other dates that sport partial legs, and bring premiums, such as the 1936-D 3 1/2-legged coin, but none is more famous than the 1937-D three-legged coin.

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Missing flag

Where’s the missing flag? When the Jefferson nickel was released, in 1938, a rumor spread quickly that the depiction of the White House on the coin’s reverse was missing the U.S. flag. The coins would, no doubt, be recalled. The rush to obtain Jefferson nickels was on.

Problem was, the building is Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, not the White House.

The rumor apparently started, and was circulated by a prominent radio commentator, after the winning designs were released to the press.

This wasn’t the only rumor linked to the Jefferson nickel’s release; another claimed the coins were too wide to fit into subway slots and were being recalled.

Robert R. Van Ryzin serves as editor of Coins magazine, Coin Prices magazine and Bank Note Reporter for Krause Publications. Van Ryzin’s prior books for Krause Publications include Striking Impressions: A Visual Guide to Collecting U.S. Coins (1992) and Crime of 1873: The Comstock Connection (2001).

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