Several years ago, a visitor to Monticello emailed me and asked about something they'd seen in the Jefferson family graveyard, just a short walk down from Mulberry Row: Thomas Jefferson's gravestone seemed to be covered with coins. What's that about? (one might well ask). Colleagues here quickly informed me that visitors routinely throw them onto Jefferson's gravestone. Nobody knows why - they just do. I created a mini-article on it in our Encyclopedia, in case anybody asked about it again, and then forgot about it.
Well, as it happens, yesterday I looked through every single Monticello Association Annual Report between 1969 and 2006 (don't ask) - specifically at the graveyard custodian's reports contained therein - and found something interesting. In 1978, the custodian first reported an odd phenomenon: visitors seemed to be throwing coins onto Jefferson's gravestone (accidentally landing on some other lucky dead people as well). The custodian was puzzled by this, but in the end simply took a philosophical stance and collected the small amount of money "donated" and added it to the fund to help maintain the graveyard. The following year, the custodian reported the same thing, only more, necessitating frequent bouts of combing through the grass on her hands and knees, while the tourists looked on in puzzlement. No further mentions of this are made until 1984, when the custodian remarked that "Mr. Jefferson's grave is used as a wishing well." Apparently at this point this activity was feeding on its own momentum; the custodian mentioned that "donations" seemed to increase around Jefferson's birthday, when the graveyard was decorated conspicuously with wreaths. And it wasn't just nickels, which seem most appropriate; all kinds of coins were recovered from the graveyard. The volume got to be such that the custodian had to get herself an electric coin-sorting and -rolling machine. Some visitors got creative with their donations; the custodian reported finding "a dead watch battery, a Canadian quarter, a small polished stone, a stamped copper oval and one orange M&M candy" in 1998.
The odd but sweet donations continue; what began with just a few dollars a year in 1978 has steadily grown over the years. Why do people do this? The graveyard custodian's comment about a "wishing well" is interesting - is this some kind of weird cultural vestige, the modern-day equivalent to pleading your case with the gods by throwing something shiny into the water? Maybe or maybe not, but I happen to have empirical evidence that it's also self-perpetuating. I was up at the graveyard not too long ago, and as I stood outside the fence near Jefferson's gravestone, I heard a young boy ask his mother, "Mommy, why are there coins on his grave?" And without waiting for her answer, he asked, "Can I have a coin to throw?"
I'm sure there's an awesome dissertation in there somewhere.