• When you click on links to various merchants on this site and make a purchase, this can result in this site earning a commission. Affiliate programs and affiliations include, but are not limited to, the eBay Partner Network.


This topic is now archived and is closed to further replies.

Mark Twain's Turkish Penny and the Gold Napoleon

8 posts in this topic

The United States plans to issue commemorative coins in 2016 to honor writer Mark Twain.

The coins planned are a silver dollar and a five-dollar gold coin.

United States (US) Mint photographs:



In 1867 Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) joined a ship excursion to Europe and the Middle East

and published a very popular book about his travels, The Innocents Abroad, in 1869.

He made several trips to Europe and published another travel book, A Tramp Abroad, in 1880.


In A Tramp Abroad, he writes about an incident which occurred during his 1867 trip when he

accidently gave a blind beggar a gold coin instead of a copper coin and his attempts to retrieve

the gold coin.


The episode with the showman reminds me of a dark chapter in my history. I once robbed an

aged and blind beggar-woman of four dollars—in a church. It happened this way. When I was out with the

Innocents Abroad, the ship stopped in the Russian port of Odessa and I went ashore, with others,

to view the town. I got separated from the rest, and wandered about alone, until late in the afternoon,

when I entered a Greek church to see what it was like. When I was ready to leave, I observed two

wrinkled old women standing stiffly upright against the inner wall, near the door, with their brown

palms open to receive alms. I contributed to the nearer one, and passed out.


I had gone fifty yards, perhaps, when it occurred to me that I must remain ashore all night,

as I had heard that the ship's business would carry her away at four o'clock and keep her away

until morning. It was a little after four now. I had come ashore with only two pieces of money,

both about the same size, but differing largely in value — one was a French gold piece worth

four dollars, the other a Turkish coin worth two cents and a half. With a sudden and horrified

misgiving, I put my hand in my pocket, now, and sure enough, I fetched out that Turkish penny!

The "French gold piece worth four dollars" had to be a French 20 Franc coin, commonly called a

"Napoleon", as it had a portrait of the French king Napoleon III on it.

It was 21mm in diameter and weighed around 6.40gm.

Napoleons circulated widely as trade coins in the Middle East at the time.



France gold 20 Francs 1863 "Napoleon" 21mm


The "Turkish penny", "Turkish coin worth two cents and a half", "both about the same size",

is harder to identify.


Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire then, had a monetary system based on the Piastre or Qirsh

which was worth around US five cents. A Piastre was divided into 40 Paras.


The Innocents Abroad mentions the worth of a Piastre in this description of a guide:


...he called for remuneration -- said he hoped the gentlemen would give him a trifle

in the way of a few piastres (equivalent to a few five cent pieces).

A Turkish coin worth 2-1/2 cents would be a 20 Para coin worth one-half of a Piastre.

Turkey made two types of 20 Para coin then, a very small silver coin (14mm) and a

large copper coin (32mm).

Neither coin would be close in size to the 21mm French gold coin.



Turkey silver 20 Para AH 1277 Abdul Aziz regnal year 2 (1862) 14mm

This coin is smaller than the US three-cent coin.



Turkey copper 20 Para AH 1277 Abdul Aziz regnal year 4 (1864) 32mm

This coin is the size of a British Penny and close in size to a US Large Cent.


Turkey did make a 23mm copper 5 Para coin which was close in size to the 21mm Napoleon

and was worth around one-half of a US cent.



Turkey copper 5 Para AH 1277 Abdul Aziz regnal year 4 (1864) 23mm


Could Mark Twain's recollection of the "Turkish penny" have been a 5 Para coin?




Link to comment
Share on other sites

Well....I'm no Mark Twain expert, or even fan, but I'm an Ottoman Empire expert ( I have a M.A. in Middle Eastern History and Culture) and collector. Judging by the story, the coins mixed up and the time it took place, it would have had to have been the 5 para. It's the only Ottoman coin it could have been. The 20 para was just too big or too small, depending on the version. And by that time, the copper 20 para was relatively rare in circulation as the silver version was much easier to handle (and easier to lose as well, sadly!) I think Mr. Clemens mixed up the true values of the denominations, which was easy to do as the Ottoman monetary system was rather complex and often confusing to foreign travelers. A gold coin the size of a copper 20 Para would have been worth quite a bit more than four dollars, even then, and one the size of a tiny silver 20 Para would be worth a lot less.


Just one thing I have to clear up though......from 1844 onward, the Ottoman monetary system wasn't based on the kurush, it was based on the gold Lira, which was a gold coin the size of a U.S. 5 Dollar gold piece. The kurush remained in circulation as a fraction of the lira. Think of it as an Ottoman cent. To avoid confusion with later Turkish Republic issues minted in silver and denominated in liras, Ottoman gold coins are denominated in kurushes in the modern era even though no Ottoman would have called a lira a 100 Kurush. Can you imagine referring to a dollar as a 100 cent? Just something I wanted to clear up.


Cool story though, even if I'm not a fan of Mark Twain.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

And my 2.5 cents worth of info regarding this mysterious coin.


The Ottoman empire was large and ruled over a few of today's modern countries. And apart from the main mint being in what is known today as Istanbul (mint name Kostantiniye) coins were also minted in what is today's Egypt,Tunisia...plus the coinage available from previous rulers (and even more mints in more countries). As he traveled there too he may have picked coins minted from these more exotic and rare mints.


He may have picked the exotic denomination of 2-1/2 Qirsh (minted for first time in Paris in 1863 or AH1277/4 - see KM#-251 - and this coin is 20 mm in diameter with weight of 3.15 g). The later coins with the same denomination are a bit larger (22 mm) and heavier at 3.5 g - but much more scarce (KM#-252) and they were minted in what is known as today's Egypt.

So there is a chance he remembered the denomination of 2.5 "something" that he somehow associated with 2.5 cents worth without being the exact exchange rate....


Or another possibility (if not copper coin) is the 1/2 Kurush (also worth 20 para) minted in Istanbul during the reign of Abdul Mejid (1839-1861 AH1255-AH1277) before the monetary reform.

These coins (KM#-653) were with diameter of 20.5 mm and weight of 1.23-1.63g and they are plentiful even today on Ebay.


Hope that this may help you to identify this "Turkish penny"

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Good catch on the 2-1/2 Qirsh! I forgot all about it when I was typing this and you're absolutely correct, a 2-1/2 Qirsh may be involved in this mystery somewhere. I wouldn't be at all surprised.


Admittedly, I do not know the scope of Mark Twain's travels as I find his work to be absolutely unbearable (This is just my opinion, of course). I had to read Huckleberry Finn in 11th grade English Lit class when we were discussing classic American authors. It consumed precious moments of my youth that I will never get back, and I told my teacher as much. And I'm someone who absolutely loves to read! I would have been much happier with some Edgar Allan Poe. That's a classic American author I can get into!


But the Ottoman coin mentioned in the post got me intrigued, and I definitely think that a 2-1/2 Qirsh was in the mix somewhere. I doubt that the pre-Tanizmat reform coinage played a role in this though. By the time Mr. Clemens would have been wandering around the land of my paternal ancestors, those would have been long gone. From the posts, I gather he was there in 1867. The coinage reform had taken place in 1844, over two decades prior, and most of those coins had either been removed from circulation and remelted to use in making the post-reform coinage or had disappeared into hoards, collections and jewelry. They may have occasionally popped up from time to time, like wheat cents and pre-1964 quarters and dimes do here in the US today, but it would have been quite a rare occurrence. I think that a situation in which a traveler like Mr. Clemens encountered a pre-Tanzimat coin in regular circulation in 1867 would have been almost impossible speaking in a statistical sense. He probably would have had the same odds of getting struck by lightning, or close to it.


Once again, just my 2.5 Kurush on the matter, but since I have a Master's in this stuff and Ottoman descent and a good knowledge of this history and coinage, at least it's an informed 2.5 Kurush


Best Regards




Link to comment
Share on other sites

I still believe that the "Turkish Penny" is the 5 Para.


The 2-1/2 piastres coin KM 251 is an Ottoman Egypt silver coin, and the term "penny"

is used in the United States for a copper coin.


My guess is that Mark Twain, writing A Tramp Abroad 10 years after his experience

with the beggar just got the wrong US value for the coin.



Link to comment
Share on other sites

Oh, I absolutely agree with you about the 5 Para. I'm just saying I believe that a 2-1/2 Qirsh muddied the waters, so to speak, regarding the denomination. It may have been a case of mistaken identity, where Twain recalled the 5 Para as a 2-1/2 Qirsh. I don't know, but it could have happened. I think it's one of those things that the world will never know for sure, but I certainly think that you've solved the mystery!


Now, if only I could get back those moments of my precious youth........



Link to comment
Share on other sites