STEVENS, SILAS CURTIS
Copyright © 2000-2019 John N. Lupia III
Silas Curtis Stevens is one of the hallowed old time coin, stamp and curio dealers. He ran a coin dealership and published a 32-page coin catalogue, which was expanded to 48 pages in 1906, and 64 pages in 1909. Those familiar with him in American numismatic history probably think of him much the same as I do, with a romantic view holding him in high esteem as one of the old time greats. He was one of the early full time dealers in Chicago starting his trade in coins, paper money, stamps and curios about 1877. Numismatic literature collectors are familiar with the old fixed price coin books he published with S. C. Stevens & Co., Chicago, Illinois printed on the front covers. We peruse these antiques with fondness and affection and impart the same sentiments to "old Stevens" thinking of the venerable dealer who died at age eighty-two with tender devotion as we would our own grandad. Most American numismatists will recall and also agree with this very same term of endearment popularized by Farran Zerbe in his August 1906 essay in The Numismatist, "A Jaunt Across the Continent", where he calls Stevens "the grand-dad of the dealers". O, but how deceived we are! Research will show that concealed beneath his benevolent surface lies a man capable of willful corruption and criminal behavior. What emerges is a puzzling man, i.e., puzzling to us since he appears to have had two sides to him; on the one hand, he was always known to be kind, supportive, and gracious within the ANA; on the other, in his private life, a ruthless scam artist. What perplexes us most is that he never seems to have done these bad things to become rich as one might assume, leaving us puzzled about his motives. Historians and archaeologists can only uncover facts and artifacts and attempt, the best they can, to reconstruct the context, lives, customs, cultures, communities, and behaviors based upon our current knowledge in order to bring the facts and artifacts to life with meaning and appreciation of what they are and represent. Silas Curtis Stevens is one of those people who surprise us and at times disappoints us since we see in him something better, having far greater capability of worthy deeds than some of the things he had done. On closer examination we shall attempt to peer into the mind, heart and soul of Stevens in a sincere effort to learn what made him behave badly when he did.
Silas Curtis Stevens (1837-1919) coin, stamp and curio dealer.
He was born near Dover, Maine, on October 21, 1837, son of Sylvanus (Sylvester) Boardman Stevens (1804-1870) and Rebecca Proctor Bunker (1802-1886). He was born into an old colonial American family with ancestors who fought in the Revolutionary War.
Figs. 1 & 2. Silas Curtis Stevens parents : Sylvanus Boardman Stevens (1804-1870) and Rebecca Proctor Bunker (1802-1886)
His father was a native of Maine and his mother a native of New Hampshire. He had a younger sister Maria Ellen Stevens (1839-1914), and three older brothers : Sylvanus Harlow Stevens (1827-1902), Enoch Bunker Stevens (1830-1922), and Joshua Stillman Stevens (1832-1928). In 1843 his parents moved by covered wagon to a farm near Quincy, Illinois. In the 1850 U.S. Census his father’s farm in the town of Ellington was valued at $2,000. He was a resident of Chicago from 1855 to his death in 1919, though his obituary in The Numismatist claims it was from 1857 on. He attended the local district school and also two years of high school. He was then educated at Sloan's Commercial College, Chicago. Afterwards he attended the newly founded Hillsdale College, Michigan, established in 1844 with the cornerstone laid in 1853 at Hillsdale. When it opened its doors in November 1855 young Stevens was one of the first students to grace its halls in January 1856.
Fig. 3. Hillsdale College as it appeared when Silas Curtis Stevens was a student there registered from Quincy, Illinois.
During the Civil War he enlisted as a member of the Regiment, Chicago Board of Trade Battery, Light Artillery, in July 1862, and served as a private. He joined the militia at the outbreak of the Civil War and was assigned the post of chief-clerk for General Crook. Unwittingly, years later Stevens was to become a general crook himself. Nevertheless, in 1864, he was transferred to the same post under General Garrard. The following year he was detailed to General J. H. Wilson, Calvary Corp, Army of the Mississippi, as chief clerk for Major McBurney. After the surrender of Lee, he mustered out on July 1865.
Considering that Stevens was born and raised in a noble New England God fearing family it seems that the horrors of war had a very ill effect on the subject of our biographical sketch. War sometimes, and sadly, frequently, destroys many lives in may ways, and Stevens was no exception. We can only attribute his negative behaviors to the great injury he surely suffered and endured through the fierce and desolating tragedies he lived through. Perhaps, Stevens is our heirloom as a nation to bring us to the conscious awareness of all veterans of war who have suffered such traumas that have altered their lives in so many ways. Though Stevens is certainly guilty of fraud and deceit we cannot help but be moved by compassion to forgive his peccadillos.
There is a collection of correspondence between him and his older brother Enoch, a resident in Southport, North Carolina comprising mainly reminiscences about the Civil War, now in the Chicago History Museum. After the death of his father he lived in San Diego, California, probably with his friend Charles Hulster until 1872 returning to Chicago. On May 5, 1872 he married Hattie A. Hansell at Chicago. At this time Stevens was already involved in real estate fraud schemes with his partners that caught up with them six years later in 1878.
He was a frequent dinner guest of his nephew Russell Houston Stevens.
In 1877 he purportedly began business as a coin and stamp dealer. However, young Stevens also engaged in other less noble pursuits, one of them cheating and defrauding people out of their money. On October 24, 1878, he was one of the principals in a land scam. He and his partners sold land at a high price which turned out to be swamp land. The partner acting as the salesman was a well-known minister, Monroe N. Lord, apparently like an infamous type of the TV era, who knew the fine art of bilking the public out of money. He apparently reformed since in later life Rev. Lord was a friend of President Garfield.
Fig. 4. Court report finding Silas Curtis Stevens of Chicago guilty of real estate fraud. We know it is not another Silas C. Stevens, but our very own since he is grouped together in other reports with the same people including his brother Enoch. Daily Inter Ocean, Thursday, October 24, 1878, page 6
Though he claims to have begun coin dealing in 1877 no records of him as a dealer at that time have surfaced at this time. We do read in Numisma, November 1881, "How They Conduct Coin Sales in Chicago" based on a letter Frossard received from a member of the original Chicago Numismatic Society signed C. M., probably Charles Markus (1857-1936), who at that time was twenty-four and avidly buying coins. However, no mention of Silas C. Stevens is to be found. Curiously we wonder how Stevens conducted business in the coin trade in his early years.
In 1880 he formed a partnership with Louis F. Lindsay under the firm Stevens & Co., with offices at 30 Tribune Building, Chicago. Lindsay had been buying and selling coins as evidence is found in the Lupia Numismatic Library, Special Collection, The Chapman Family Correspondence Archive, beginning in November 1881. Later the firm moved to 90 Randolph Street, Chicago. Since we know that is his address we also know that Randolph Street is the well-known auction store district of the Pawnbrokers. Consequently, we can infer that Stevens & Co., in the early years was a pawnbroker firm. The sale of coins sold at auction in 1881 reported to Frossard by Markus was most probably that held by Stevens himself. Sadly, this is another series of coin auction sales now lost and missed to numismatic historians.
Stevens was always up to some scam and was sometimes brought to court and refunds demanded.
Fig. 5. Court Order, Judgment against Silas Curtis Stevens in favor of the plaintiff Emma J. Vanderveer for the amount of $1,446.64. Daily Inter Ocean, Monday, April 11, 1881, page 6
According to his obituary in The Numismatist, in 1883, Stevens bought out his partner. However, the record in the Lupia Numismatic Library, Special Collection, The Chapman Family Correspondence Archive suggests a later date at 1885. The last piece of correspondence with Lindsay to the Chapman Brothers written while he lived in Chicago is dated in November 1885.
The earliest correspondence of Stevens with the Chapman Brothers buying and selling coins found in the Lupia Numismatic Library, Special Collection, The Chapman Family Correspondence Archive, dates to May 22, 1885.
Fig. 6. Stevens & Company correspondence with the Chapman Brothers buying and selling coins found in the Lupia Numismatic Library, Special Collection, The Chapman Family Correspondence Archive, postmarked, Chicago, Illinois, May 22, 1885, cancelled by a duplex stamp No. 9.
Consequently, is seems that Stevens began to deal with the Chapman Brothers after buying out Louis F. Lindsay. There are at least 100 pieces of correspondence between Stevens and the Chapman Brothers in all in the Lupia Collection.
In 1887 he moved to 69 Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois.
Fig. 7. Stevens & Company advertisement published in the Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, September 25, 1888, page 6.
His final move was to 143 Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois.
He is ANA Member No. 22 (62). 69 Dearborn Street, Chicago, Illinois. Librarian and Curator of the ANA.
He applied for membership to the ANA in 1892 and is member no. 62. His name appears in the February 1892 issue of The Numismatist in list no. 14 as no. 364.
Fig. 8. Stevens advertisement in the December 1892 issue of The Numismatist, page 109.
In the famous essay, "A Tour Among the Dealers," January 1895 issue of The Numismatist, page 11, we read : "Stevens & Co. are found on the third or fourth floor of a large office building in the business center. The Co. we have never seen, but Mr. Stevens is nearly always on deck entranced behind a line of counters and show cases with a big fire-proof [safe] on hand. He is a bearded philosopher of a social type and when stamps and coins and idiotic inquirers are not absorbing his time, is always ready to discuss finance, religion anarchism, or other weighty topic without gloves."
In the 1900 U.S. Census he lived at 126-132 Wabash Avenue, Chicago, in a boarding house run by Harry and Isabel Pierson. He is listed as a widower.
Stevens & Co., circular postal card postmarked Chicago, Illinois, December 6, 1901, with manuscript note "We sold the last XII mark pieces of Frederick V last mail, at the price of $2.75 same as yours." Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library. For sale.
Fig. 9. Stevens caught with obsolete bank bills on valid current banks being used in circulation as currency. Inter Ocean, Sunday, December 8, 1901, page 2
Fig. 10. Stevens caught with obsolete bank bills on valid current banks being used in circulation as currency. Daily Illinois State Register, Tuesday, December 10, 1901, page 1
Fig. 11. Stevens again caught in money schemes. Daily Register Gazette, Saturday, July 22, 1905, page 8
Fig. 12. Pension Payment Card issued by the United States Veterans Administration on February 6, 1907.
Fig. 13. Pursuing Stevens since 1900 the Secret Service finally catches him red-handed. New York Tribune, Sunday, May 24, 1908, page 5.
Fig. 14. Stevens is indicted by a Grand Jury. Bellville News Democrat, July 22, 1908, page 2.
Fig. 15. Stevens again charged with fraud. Inter Ocean, Sunday, May 30, 1909, page 27
Fig. 16. Stevens advertisement in the September 1911 issue of The Numismatist, page 350. Note his new address.
In 1914 he loaned the Chicago Historical Society a collection of Lincolniana for an exhibition on Lincoln’s Birthday February 12th.
Fig. 17. Stevens Illustrated Coin Book, 1914 Edition. Courtesy Lupia Numismatic Library.
In October 1916 Elmer Sears proposed to make Silas C. Stevens an Honorary Member of the ANA, and it was passed unanimously by Wayte Raymond, Henry Chapman, Waldo Moore, Dr. George French, Howland Wood, and other notables. In 1917 he was made a corresponding member of the Chicago Historical Society (CHS). He made several donations to the CHS including a pocket photo album containing nine photographs of his friends during the Civil War.
He died on April 26, 1919, at his home in Chicago. Funeral from the chapel at 2701 N. Clark-st., Monday, April 28, 3 p.m. Burial private at Graceland, Chicago. He was survived by his nephew Russell Stevens.
Sylvanus N. Stevens, Life Sketch (3 page typed manuscript c. 1872) Now in the Chicago Historical Society.
The Stevens Illustrated Coin Book (1880-1906), 32-pages
Historical Sketch of the Chicago Board of Trade Battery, 1862-1865 (Chicago, 1886)
The Stevens Illustrated Coin Book (1906-1909), 48 pages
The Stevens Illustrated Coin Book (1909-1917), 64 pages.
Daily Inter Ocean, Thursday, October 24, 1878, page 6
The Chicago Tribune, Thursday, October 24, 1878, page 7
Daily Inter Ocean, Monday, April 11, 1881, page 6
Chicago Tribune, Tuesday, September 25, 1888, page 6.
The Numismatist, Vol. 4, No. 1, January, (1892) : 15;
The Numismatist, Vol. 4, No.No. 2, February, (1892) ; 23, 26;
The Numismatist, December (1892) : 109.
Inter Ocean, Sunday, December 8, 1901, page 2
Daily Illinois State Register, Tuesday, December 10, 1901, page 1
The Numismatist, Vol. XV, No. 1, January (1902): 20, 30 (advertisement);
The Numismatist, Vol. XV, No. 3, March (1902) : 93 quarter-page advertisement
Daily Register Gazette, Saturday, July 22, 1905, page 8
Farran Zerbe, "A Jaunt Across the Continent" The Numismatist, August 1906
New York Tribune, Sunday, May 24, 1908, page 5.
Bellville News Democrat, July 22, 1908, page 2.
Inter Ocean, Sunday, May 30, 1909, page 27
Chicago Historical Society Annual Report (1914) : 88
McKeels Weekly Stamp News, Vol. 33, May 3 (1919) : 155
Inter Ocean, Tuesday, October 21, 1913, page 6
Chicago Historical Society Annual Report (1917) contains several important references
The Numismatist, Vol. 32, June (1919) : 252 Obit
John Grier Stevens, The Descendants of Samuel Stevens, with Histories of Allied Families. (1968) : 169, 175-177