During sweltering weather in the foothills of western North Carolina, I was doing indoor chores, such as cleaning out drawers and cubbyholes. I asked my son if he would like to have a $1,000 Confederate bill I found in my grandfather's ragged Bible. His eyes grew round as bowling balls. "Mom," he gasped. "If it's authentic, it's worth $50,000!"
I said, "Oh, no. Confederate money is worthless." After Googling, he assured me of its worth. Yes, all the markings matched. Dated May 28, 1861. Proper signatures. Printed in Montgomery, Ala., first capital of the Confederacy; therefore more valuable than had it been printed in Richmond, Va., where the capital moved to later.
Weak-kneed and trembling, I went to the bank and told the head teller I had a $50,000 article in my purse. Eyes popping, she asked, "Do you want to invest it?" When she saw the crisp Confederate States of America bill she carefully wrapped it in tissue, placed it in a bank envelope, and gave me the name of a trustworthy dealer in a tiny town just a few minutes from my home.
When I went to his establishment I did not tell him it was on my person but that I would go and get it when I knew what procedure to follow. He called a currency specialist in the neighboring town who said he could meet me in half an hour, after he had gone to his bank. And depending on the condition of the bill, he would be prepared to pay between $10,000 and $30,000.
I left the shop, drove around in my car – doors locked – and finally parked behind a huge oak tree, looking all around to make sure no one could see the lady who had a $50,000 artifact in her purse. I had already decided I would not accept $30,000; I would hold out for $50,000. I had asked the dealer, "What if it's counterfeit?" He had explained that if it were dated to just after the cessation of the War Between the States (which we Southerners sometimes call the "Wa-ah" of Northern Aggression), it would be worth even more. He said that the United States government at the time had redeemed Confederate money to help the impoverished South, thereby engendering a few counterfeit attempts.
As I sat hidden behind the oak tree waiting out the half hour, I began to spend the anticipated windfall: $5,000 each to my two sons and three college-age grand-daughters; the remainder to buy a Toyota Prius. Then I supposed I would have to pay income taxes and would have to drop the amounts to family, buy the Prius, and distribute what was left. But a tithe would have to go to my church. Or should I give it all to charity?
When I returned to the shop, I arrived before the buyer. When he came in we went into a backroom where it took only two seconds for his face to fall – just from the weight of the bill. He explained that it was printed on the wrong kind of paper, dating to a Woolworth's promotion in which they had printed replicas of different Confederate denominations, packaged them in plastic envelopes, and sold them for a dollar.
The really funny thing is that I felt so relieved. I'm not made to deal with $50,000 of unexpected income.
I told this story at a church potluck supper for 13 people at my house. My guests were in stitches, especially when our pastor pointed out that in one short hour I had been guilty of avarice, paranoia, and covetousness.
When I went back to the bank to tell my friend there that the bill was fake, she laughed and said, "Well, Maryneal, you were rich for an hour."
I replied, "Yes, and it very nearly ruined me."