Black Diamond: The Mystery, the Legend, and the Demise

The legacy of some of America’s best-known coins, including the Five Cent Indian Head (better known as the Buffalo Nickel) and the series that is based on it, the American Gold Buffalo, remain shrouded in mystery.


In a world of Facebook check-ins, selfies, and a constant flow of information, it becomes more difficult by the day to imagine a world in which basic facts are unclear and simple mistakes can result in permanent mystery and confusion. Today, though, some of America’s best-known coins, including the Five Cent Indian Head (better known as the Buffalo Nickel) and the series that is based on it, the American Gold Buffalo, provide immediate connections to just such a time. In fact, it is all but certain that the history of these famous coins will remain a mystery forever. 

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The designs for the Buffalo Nickel were the work of James Earle Fraser, who studied under Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Fraser said categorically that his model for the coin’s reverse was Black Diamond. The trouble is that Fraser also said that he did his sketching for the coin at the Bronx Zoo, and Black Diamond lived in the Central Park Menagerie. Central Park was much closer to Fraser’s home, lending credence to the notion that he was more likely to have mistaken the location than the model. Fraser was clearly mistaken about one point of fact, though, whether he was mistaken about the location or the model remains a mystery. If Fraser did indeed do his sketching at the Bronx Zoo, the model bison will forever be unidentified.


While either serving as the model for one of America’s most famous coins or becoming famous in a case of mistaken identity would surely be enough for most bison, Black Diamond’s fame exceeds even that. The bison was also the model for the $10 U.S. Banknote, Series 1901… or was he? While long thought to be the model for this second unit of currency, findings in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution indicate that another bison, which lived at the National Zoological Park’s Buffalo House, was the model.


Black Diamond’s fame, whether earned or imagined, could not save him from the grisly fate that awaited him. On June 28, 1915, Black Diamond was put up for auction. In spite of his fame, not a single bid was made. Instead, A. Silz, Inc. purchased him for $300 in a private sale. Five months later, he met his earthly demise when he was slaughtered. His fame carried on after his death, as “Black Diamond Steaks,” which were made from his 750 lbs. of usable meat fetched the princely sum of $2/pound. Taxidermist Fred Santer ensured that his legend would live on in other forms as well, mounting the bison’s head and making a 13-foot automobile robe out of the hide. (Automobile robes were a carryover from horse-drawn carriages. They were used to keep people warm in open, unheated vehicles.)


The mystery surrounding Black Diamond’s life and the violent nature of his death make Buffalo nickels and American Gold Buffaloes the perfect coins for Halloween. While the coins themselves do not bear the chilling admonition, they can offer it to those who are aware of the story behind them: Memento Mori. Happy Halloween!


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