The medals of Soho near Birmingham - The assassination of King Gustavus III of Sweden

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Here is another sneak peek of a new NGC custom registry set that I am working on. Please feel free to share anything related!

This is one of the more interesting medals in my collection. In my opinion, the medal itself is rather attractive, and the reverse design is nothing short of stunning when considering the immense amount of detail throughout. As is usually the case, the historical context that gave rise to its existence also makes for a great story, but unlike the other pieces I have shared thus far, this medal purportedly has a link back to the 5th U.S. Mint Director, Dr. Samuel Moore.

Contemporary records indicate that Küchler started working on the dies by March 1st, 1793, as he explicitly says so in a letter to Boulton (Pollard, 1970). From this letter, we can be sure the bust of King Gustav III was engraved using a likeness of his majesty painted by Mr. Carl von Breda as a model. We learn from subsequent letters that Küchler consulted Breda to improve his engraving after Boulton received some feedback from several Swedish visitors. All of which commented on the quality of the work but agreed that it was not a good likeness of the deceased King. The legend also proved difficult, as neither Boulton nor Küchler were adequately acquainted with Gustav III to suggest an appropriate inscription. Boulton suggested that Küchler consult Mr. Planta of the British Museum, which seemingly did the trick. According to Pollard (1970), the dies seem to have been completed by October 7th, 1793, as this is the date reported by Küchler in an invoice dated January 21st, 1796. A total of 423 of these medals were struck, in mostly bronzed copper, but it appears that several tin examples may also exist (Pollard, 1970; Tungate, 2010). It is interesting to note that the dies and collar for this medal appeared as lot 210 when the contents, machinery, and other articles of the Soho Mint were auctioned off on April 30th, 1850. If these dies were to be released into the hands of the general public, restrikes might exist. Although it is more likely that the campaign launched by Matthew Piers Watt Boulton to sabotage the sale of dies prevented this from occurring (Vice, 1995). To any extent, restrikes in the typical sense (i.e., medals struck after the demise of the Soho Mint) are not known to me.

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Historical Context:

The assassination of Gustav III of Sweden is a somewhat bewildering story full of deception, toxic egos, and controversy. Even the details surrounding the events that transpired are shrouded in mystery, which for a good number of years afforded a false narrative published by Sierakowski in 1797 to be accepted as truth. At least in part, it appears the truth was not fully discovered until the late 19th century (Bain, 1887). This is the story that I have decided to reiterate here, but for those interested, I encourage you to read the sources I cite for yourself as they can tell a far more interesting story than I can.

The assassination of King Gustav III of Sweden was hatched by three men and supported by countless others. The main conspirator, Jakob Johan Anckarströn, was a fanatic hell-bent on the King's demise and had on several occasions stalked him armed and ready to act. Although his initial plans never progressed beyond intent, he now found strength in his two new partners, Count Clas Frederik Horn, and Count A. L. Ribbing. According to Bain (1887), an extensive network of conspiracy cast much doubt on the validity of perceived threats to the King's life and left those investigating none the wiser to the seriousness of the claims. In other words, the large degree of misinformation set a perfect smoke-filled stage to carry out the nefarious operations of those who wished to rid the country of Gustav III. The principal of which was General Pechin, who used his considerable influence to disguise his intentions and his fellow conspirators, which by this time involved over half of the aristocracy. As noted by Bain (1887), nothing happened within the confines of the conspiracy without his involvement, but in this instance, he is not the man who pulled the trigger, but more so the man that allowed it to happen.

It appears the plan between the three main conspirators was to attack the King at a masquerade. Bain (1887) notes that plots were made for the March 2nd and 6th masquerades, but both were abandoned. The last masquerade of the season was to take place on the 16th, making it the last assassination attempt that could be carried out. Evidently, they were less than secretive and voiced their intentions to numerous perceived allies. Their indiscretion added a new level of urgency to the situation, as waiting until the next season would likely end in their discovery and subsequent death. As such, the men fortified their plan, determined against all odds to carry it out. Ribbing went to discuss the matter with Pechin, who arranged for the masquerade to be packed with co-conspirators, thus avoiding the issue that prevented the March 2nd plot (i.e., there were not enough people to reasonably curtail suspicion). The most prominent of which were Johan Engeström, Major Hartmannsdorf, and Captain Pontus Lilliehorn. According to Bain (1887), Anckarströn was so excited for the upcoming slaughter that he spent his time before the masquerade preparing his weapons.

"He loaded each of his pistols with two bullets and fourteen pieces of lead of various shapes and sizes, and filed the blade of the huge butcher's knife with which he intended to complete his crime to a razor like sharpness, besides carefully barbing the point."

The men were intent upon assassinating the King, and at 12:30, they, as well as their fellow conspirators, went to the masquerade dressed in what Bain (1887) describes as black dominoes with white masks.

            Before the masquerade, the King was lounging in his private room when he received a letter hurriedly written in pencil. If Bain's (1878) account is correct, the King read the letter twice before dismissing all but Baron Essen, his chief equerry, from the room. The letter was a warning, supposedly from a stranger, informing the King that an attempt would be made on his life that night. Much speculation exists about the contents of the letter as it was not saved, but the King informed Essen of the situation. Dismissing Essen's concerns, the King was determined to attend the masquerade but decided to spend at least fifteen minutes in his private box quietly observing the crowd before joining his guests. Purportedly, the King looked to Essen and said:

"They have lost a good opportunity of shooting me. Come, let us go down; the masquerade seems bright and gay. Let us see if they will dare to kill me!".

This incredibly bold, if not entirely arrogant, decision ultimately led to his attack. The King, escorted by Essen, progressed through the crowd. His mask barely covered his face, and the decorations on his chest made him very easy to spot. It was not long until assassins surrounded him in their white masks and black dominoes. According to Bain (1887), a male voice said "Bonjour, beau masque", which I deduct was spoken by Count Clas Frederik Horn. Apparently, he had arranged for this to be the code word for Anckarströn to draw his weapon and shoot the King. Without hesitation, Anckarströn fired his weapon into the King's back. According to Anckarströn, the King did not fall when shot, and this shock provoked him to drop his weapons and disperse into the crowd. By this time, Gustaf Löwenhjelm, the Captain of the King's Watch and close companion of the King, noticed the incident. Going to investigate, he found the King surrounded by Black Dominoes, who were quick to disperse once Essen proclaimed, "Some villain has shot the King!". Surprised, Löwenhjelm drew his sword and, with the help of a guard, cleared an area around the King, who was still standing with the support of Essen's arm.

Alarmed by the sudden realization that they needed to escape, the assassins enacted the next part of their plan and screamed "Fire" to create confusion. Unfortunately for them, Captain Pollet ordered the doors sealed, and the area inspected. The wounded King was then moved back to his private room, where he instructed Löwenhjelm that the assassin was to be caught but not harmed and report to anyone who asked that his wound was nothing more than a scratch (Bain, 1887). Löwenhjelm immediately jumped to action and ordered all gates to Stockholm closed until further notice.  During the commotion, Ribbing supposedly approached Löwenhjelm and asked about the King. When informed that it was merely a scratch, he purportedly exclaimed, "Thank God!". The King wounded and bleeding as he rested in his private room still received numerous visitors, including his brother, Duke Charles. It is here that he expressed his displeasure with the recent set of events, exclaiming:

"How unfortunate that, after having braved in warfare the fire of the enemy, I should have been wounded in the back in the midst of my own people."

Despite his displeasure, Bain (1887) notes that the King kept his composure and at times consoled visitors distraught by his current condition. For instance, when Gustaf Maurits Armfelt began to cry in despair, the King supposedly told him:

"Be a man, Armfelt! You know from personal experience that wounds can heal!"

All of the commotion was eventually settled, and the Minister of Police, Liljensparre, actively recorded the names of every guest as they filed out of the main room two at a time. Horn had already escaped by this point, and the others were allowed to leave without suspicion. According to Bain (1887), Anckarströn, on the other hand, suffered a different fate. By his account, Anckarströn was the last to leave and remarked to Liljensparre, "You won't suspect me, I hope!", to which Liljensparre responded, "Why you more than others?". I can only imagine how awkward that exchange must have been between the two, and even more awkward when Liljensparre came to arrest him soon after. Anckarströn had dropped his weapons after the first shot, which were soon identified as belonging to him. This was more than sufficient evidence for his arrest. As it turns out, the mysterious note warning the King was written by Lilliehorn, who was overcome with a sudden bout of conscientiousness. He passed the note to a baker boy who then passed it up the chain of command and into the King's hands. This witness trail led investigators back to him, and he was soon arrested. Likewise, Pechin and Ribbing were also arrested.

Liljensparre wasted no time in his investigation, and through cross-examination, he received the names of more than a hundred accomplices from Ribbing and Horn (Bain, 1887). The two alone had implicated over half of the nobility, but their word likely had little value. A postbag marked from March 16th was later retrieved with letters addressed to many of the nobility. The letter was short and read, "A minuit il ne sera plus; arrangez-vous sur cela" (At midnight, he will be gone; arrange on this). The nobility, suddenly concerned for their safety, tried to make peace with the injured King. To quell the political and social unease of the country, the Council of Regency ordered that no further arrests should be made. There is no telling how widespread Liljensparre's investigation would have become if the council did not muzzle him; however, it appears the King wanted the investigation to end as well.

By now, the King was well aware of the massive plot against his life, the numerous planned attempts made, and the widespread deceit that ran rampant throughout the nobility. Surprisingly, he urged for peace instead of vengeance. He stated that he wanted tranquility if he were to survive and if he were to die, that the past be forgotten to keep the peace. He urged his brother to conceal the names of those involved (Bain, 1887). More specifically, he justified his request to his brother as it related to the young crowned prince:

"As destined to rule this people, I do not wish the seeds of hatred and vengeance to be sown in his youthful mind"

I can only assume that he wished to restore peace to his kingdom and stabilize what might have otherwise been an unsafe environment for his son. Eventually, the King did succumb to his wounds. The doctors were only able to remove a single nail, and it appears extensive damage was done to his liver, kidneys, and spine. Even on his death bed, the King pleaded for peace and commanded that his brother not seek to hold all members of the nobility accountable. He passed away at 10:55 AM on March 29th, 1792.

Upon his death, his brother honored his final wish. He focused his wrath primarily upon the man who pulled the trigger, Anckarströn. For his crime, he was forced to stand for three days straight in the pillory, publicly lashed, his right hand was chopped off, followed by his head, and then he was quartered. Anckarströn's punishment was most severe, followed by that of Baron Bjelke. He had committed suicide by poisoning before Liljensparre arrested him, but his body was hung at the scaffold before being buried below it (Bain, 1887). Pechin died in confinement four years after the King was assassinated. Ribbing, Horn, Engeström, Ehrensvärd, and Lilliehorn were all banished from the kingdom.

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Obverse: The obverse depicts the bust of King Gustav III facing right. He is dressed in armor, with ornate detail surrounding the rivets just around the collar, across the peripheral of the breastplate, and the junction between his right shoulder and chest. Tufts of loose fabric can be seen protruding out beneath the armor around his neck and right shoulder. Three large rivets appear to secure the breastplate with the side of his armor. His bust is draped with a fur-lined fleece, clasped on his right breast by an oval clip. A piece of freely flowing cloth appears between the armor and the fleece covering most of the left side of his chest. A large but indistinguishable badge appears on the upper right-hand side portion of his chest. Another decoration appears below his bust, protruding into the rim and bisecting the engravers mark, which reads "C·H·KÜCHLER" on one side and "FEC·" on the other. The King's hair comes to a neatly formed mass at the top of his forehead, tightly secured behind his head by a ribbon wrapped around twice to form a tie. The tie has two bows and seemingly one loose end. The loose hair protruding from this tie falls below his neck ending in large, tightly wrapped curls that rest behind his right shoulder. The furthest of which nearly touches the rim. A series of relatively large curls appear above his ear in two rows. An interesting die crack originates at his right shoulder, protruding through the curls above his ear and bisecting another die crack at the top of his head. A similar but unconnected die crack protrudes from the uppermost curl above his ear, across the forehead, and dissipates into the detail of his hair just above his forehead. The legend "GUSTAVUS III · D : G · REX SVECIAE" appears wrapped around the inner part of the rim above the bust. All of which is contained within an inner circle surrounded by a moderately wide rim.

Reverse: The reverse design of this medal is intense, with so many fine details, which I would struggle to describe accurately. I opted to provide a general sense of the design, highlighting the most crucial parts. At the center is a tomb, on which the assassination is depicted on the outfacing panel. The scene shows the King walking, with a man close behind firing a pistol while others observe. Immediately below is a ribbon with the legend "HEU MALE PEREMPTUS". Resting upon and behind the tomb are a host of armaments and allegorical symbols, with a crowned urn front and center. Immediately above the crowned urn is a series of rays, as the sun is often depicted, but in this instance, thirteen stars formed together in an oval make up the center of the rays. On the left of the tomb is a putto standing on a partially concealed cannon and pointing toward the scene on the panel. An intricate scene of armaments, banners, tools and allegorical symbols appear in the background behind him. To the right of the tomb is the allegorical figure of fame, with an outstretched arm holding a wreath toward the rays. A pillar appears to her left, behind which appears a closed book, a cartouche, and an open bag spilling the contents of money onto the foreground. Upon the exergual line appears "C·H·K . FEC". In exergue, a legend separated into four lines appears. "NATUS D · XXIIII JAN · MDCCXXXXVI. SUCC · D · XII FEB · MDCCLXXI. TRUCID : D · XVI MART · MDCCXCII. OB · D · XXIX SUP · MENS · ET AN.".  The main legend is divided between the rays around the primary devices and reads "TAM MARTE" on one side and "QUAM MERCURIO." on the other. All of which is contained within an inner circle surrounded by a moderately wide rim.

Edge: Plain

Size: 56mm

Notes: I find the design of this medal to be very intriguing, and the high relief makes this piece really pop in hand. The fact that this medal has retained the silver-lined brass shells over the last two centuries further attests to its originality. Beyond these characteristics, this piece came with an interesting note, which appears to have been written by Nelson Thorson, the 19th president of the ANA and an avid collector of Swedish medals. The note reads, "One of a number of medals sent by Mr. Bolton, President of the English Mint to Dr. Samuel Moore, President of the United States Mint in return for a collection of American coin and medals sent by Dr. Moore to Mr. Bolton". A quick google search revealed that Dr. Samuel Moore was the 5th U.S. Mint Director and served between 1824 and 1835. Matthew Boulton passed away in 1809, meaning the Boulton referenced in the letter must be Matthew Robinson Boulton. Given the research I have done on the silver-lined brass shells produced at the Soho Mint, this period would make sense for the medal to be paired with the shells. None of this was mentioned to me when I purchased the item, so the extra details were a complete surprise. Excited, I took what I thought to be the next logical step. I went to the archives to find anything that would corroborate the details of the note.

Initially, I struggled to find anything remotely useful, but I reached out to Roger Burdette, who was kind enough to guide me where I needed to look. Thanks to Doty (1998), I knew that Dr. Moore was in communication with Matthew Robinson Boulton about the bronzing process used on medals at the Soho Mint in mid-February of 1825 (MBP245, Letter Box M2: Samuel Moore to Matthew Robinson Boulton, February 16th, 1825). Looking over the Boulton correspondence uploaded to NNP, I could not locate any mention of this, meaning that additional documents must exist that are not included in those files. The first bit of correspondence from Dr. Moore to Boulton was dated 1829, so there was a substantial gap in the documentation that spanned several years. Roger suggested several other sources to check that had been processed and uploaded to NNP, and it is here that I finally had some luck!

I decided to start by finding a copy of the correspondence discussing the bronzing process used at Soho. Given that this process, as discussed by Doty (1998), was centered on the production of medals, it seemed logical that the trade mentioned in the note may have organically come up during those conversations. Sure enough, I located a letter dated June 18th, 1825, in which Dr. Moore agrees to accept Matthew Boulton's offer to send him a small packet of bronzing powder for their experimentation. It appears the bronzing powder arrived at the Philadelphia Mint on either August 24th or September 23rd, as detailed in a letter from Dr. Moore to Boulton dated November 19th, 1825. The first bit of the letter acknowledges and thanks Boulton for his favors and the specimens of bronze powder. The letter discusses an experiment the two were conducting as it relates to the shipping of copper planchets (this will be an interesting story for another day), but of most interest to the current topic is the final paragraph.

"I beg leave to prepare a request from Mr. Eckfeldt, Chief Coiner of the Mint to be favored with a few medals in copper if you have impressions in any size of any that you could conveniently part with. He had the pleasure once to receive from your Father a medal of himself finely executed, together with some beautiful specimens of copper coins. I communicate his wish the more freely because I am sure that were he known to you, you would greatly esteem hm, and that he will [do] whatever in his power with much pleasure reciprocate this attention."

 At first, I could not read this entire portion of the letter as the original scans of the document were less than ideal, but once again, Roger was kind enough to help. From this letter, it is clear that some form of trade was proposed, but I did not have enough evidence to suggest that it occurred. I continued my search, and I found another letter dated May 22nd, 1826, in which Dr. Moore goes into detail thanking Boulton for the medals he received. In this letter, he wrote:

"The medals which you were so obliging as to forward were received in perfect order, and present many interesting and pleasing specimens of this method of recording public events and perpetuating the likeness of eminent men. That of your most estimable Father is particularly admired by all who view it. His name has long been familiar here, and numbered among those who have been distinguished as the benefactor of Mankind. Accept sir, from Mr. Eckfeldt and myself, our cordial acknowledgement for this attention, and do us the favor to transmit by the first convenient opportunity, a special amount of xxx xxx incident to the forwarding of those packages."

It is far from an itemized list of the medals received, but it alludes to public events and eminent men. The assassination of Gustav III falls under both categories. It is interesting to note that I have been unable to locate digital scans of the correspondence sent by Boulton to Dr. Moore. I know that this correspondence likely survived. If not in the U.S. Archives, it would have been persevered in the archives held in Birmingham. I am actively pursuing this, and I hope to locate Boulton's side of the correspondence to fill in a few gaps. It is also worthy to note that the record books at Soho were meticulously kept, so it remains possible that an itemized list of the medals sent was recorded. Perhaps just as intriguing is the possibility that Boulton may have written back to Dr. Moore thanking him for the pieces he received from Philadelphia. If I can locate this tidbit of information, it would fully support the notion that a trade between the two took place. Although this is pure speculation, this trade might help make sense of why several high-end early U.S. coins appeared in the auction of Matthew Piers Watt Boulton's collection (the grandson of Matthew Boulton) conducted by Sotheby, Wilkinson, & Hodge of London in 1912 (Lots 50-56). It would be fascinating if these pieces could all be linked together, but for now, I plan to keep searching for clues and update this section as new information is available. 

References:

Bain, R. N. (1887). The Assassination of Gustavus III of Sweden. The English Historical Review, 2(7), 543-552.

Doty, R. (1998). The Soho Mint and the Industrialization of Money. London: National Museum of American History Smithsonian Institution.

Pollard, J. G. (1970). Matthew Boulton and Conrad Heinrich Küchler. The Numismatic Chronicle, 10, 259-318.

Tungate, S. (2010) Matthew Boulton and The Soho Mint: copper to customer (Doctoral Dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I.

Tungate, S. (2020) Matthew Boulton and The Soho Mint: copper to customer. Worcestershire: Brewin Books.

Vice, D. (1995). A fresh insight into Soho Mint restrikes & those responsible for their manufacture. Format Coins, Birmingham, 3-14.

Interesting links:

http://www.unofficialroyalty.com/assassination-of-gustav-iii-king-of-sweden-1792/

https://artsandculture.google.com/exhibit/that-fatal-shot-the-royal-armoury-sweden/SwISevye_fzGJQ?hl=en

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@jgenn I meant to comment on your post earlier, but I have been having issues posting here lately. This journal has been a work in progress, and your recent post provided the little nudge I needed to finish it as I knew at least one forum member would be remotely interested in the story!  

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This is one of the most thorough write-ups I have ever read. Not just concerning this medal but any medal. The read is both enlightening and enjoyable. Generally speaking, a write-up of this length doesn't keep my attention all the way to the end but this one has. This is a well written and enjoyable read. Gary

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