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The Coinage of Emperor Maximilian

by Ricardo de León Tallavas

An Arab proverb states “The enemy of my enemy is my friend”. This was true for the defeated Mexican conservative party which allied itself immediately with the French invaders and those who supported them as soon as they set foot in Mexico City on 10 June 1863. A Regency (provisional Council) comprised exclusively of members of the Mexican conservative party was established in Mexico City on 10 July, an exact month after the invaders took over the city. There exists a small medal commemorating the establishment of this Regency. This first numismatic product of Imperial Mexico had several inconsistencies, the most noticeable being the imaginary bust of Maximilian and an erroneous date (6 July). The earlier date suggests that this medal was designed in advance of the establishments of the Regency, before it could be known that there would be a four day delay in the Regency taking political powerNew York Library. Bulletin of the New York Library. New York. NY. 1909. p. 661; Prantl, Adolfo. La Ciudad de México. Librería Madrileña. México. 1901. p. 681..

Maximilian was chosen by the French to become the ruler of Mexico for several reasons. He was a member of the House of Hapsburg and the brother of the Austrian Emperor. He was married to the sister of the Belgian King so Napoleon III knew how politically important Maximilian could be. The French Emperor thought he could manage him easily. A ticking clock was running fast because the invaders knew that once the US Civil War was over the Americans would confront any European presence in Mexico. If there were an alliance of countries invading then it would be more difficult diplomatically to kick them out of Mexico. However Franz Joseph realized that and imposed a condition on his brother that if he accepted the Mexican throne he would have to renounce not just his rights to the Austrian throne but also his nationality as an Austrian.

The first coin struck on behalf of the alien invading European government was made by the resented members of the Mexican conservative party who opposed Juárez. The one centavo coinage of 1863, did not bear the name of the Empire but of the “Republic”. Many numismatists believe that the Regency kept producing the decimal coins previously authorized by Juárez but changed the design into the flat top numeral 3 to differentiate them. This theory is supported by the fact that the one centavo coins made by Juárez in San Luis Potosí bear a curved 3.

Style of dates of a curled numeral 3 coined at Mexico City and the one used at San Luis Potosí

The Regency supported the decimalization of the Mexican monetary system because the French used itKrause, Chester et al. op. cit. p. 365.

Contrary to modern opinion, Maximilian did not immediately accept the idea of coming to Mexico as Emperor and required a referendum to make sure that he was indeed a popular candidate to take over the nation. Without hesitation a document was sent to Maximilian signed by several of the “most prominent families of Mexico”. A treaty was signed at Miramar Castle, Italy, on 10 April 1864 establishing Maximilian’s power, and providing for European troops to remain in Mexico until 1874. Additionally, France helped Mexico issue bonds totaling 270 million francs. French investors quickly snapped up the bonds, recognizing that repayment was assured not just by Mexico’s ample supply of silver, but by the newly installed government and troops. Weeks before the Emperor Maximilian and Empress Charlotte arrived in Mexico, the Regency decided on 8 April to issue the first decimal silver coinage successfully placed in public hands, bearing the denomination of five and ten centavos. This coinage showed for the first time a crowned eagle and the wording of Imperio Mexicano surrounding itGarcía Pérez, Antonio. Estudio Político Militar de la Campaña de Méjico. 1861 – 1867. Avrial. Madrid. España. 1901. pp. 122 – 125; Bazán, Achillie. La Intervención Francesa en México. Vda. de Charles Bouret. México. 1908. Vol. V. pp. 86 – 111; Iglesias, José María. Revistas Históricas sobre la Intervención Francesa en México. Impr. del Gobierno. México. 1868. Vol. II. pp. 377 – 378..

A decree of 10 April 1865El Diario del Imperio, Tomo 1, Núm. 84, 11 April 1865 also called for coins of half a centavo and one centavo in copper and in silver for 25 and 50 centavos and one peso. Gold was set for the values of 5, 10 and 20 pesos, the latter to be called The Mexican Imperial.

Apparently, the opposition from the Mexican Government toward having the face of the Emperor on coins was such that the Empress had to intervene, by asking some Congressmen to join her on a scheduled trip to Yucatán in December of 1865 so they would not be in the way. That was why the profile of Maximilian did not appear on a coin until 1866. The first strike of a coin weighing an ounce of silver bearing the word peso and also his likeness finally happened at Mexico City’s mint in the middle of 1866. This does not mean that silver and gold coins were not struck at the Mexico City mint after 31 May 1863 when Juaráz departed from Mexico City. However, their design was exactly as the one used by the Republic and the coinage was backdated as 1863 to avoid any political problems. The numeral on the silver coinage had been flat since colonial times, while there was no written design for copper coins on or after 1821Pruneda, Pedro. Historia de la Guerra de Méjico. Elizalde y Cía. Madrid. España. 1867. p. 284; Frías y Soto, Hilarión. México. Francia y Maximiliano, dentro de Elevación y Caída del Emperador Maximiliano. Impr. del Comercio. México. 1870. p. 488; Muñoz, Miguel L. Numismática Mexicana. Libros de México. México. 1977. pp. 148. 155 ; Krause, Chester et al. Standard Catalog of Spain, Portugal and the New World. Krause Publications, Iola, WI. 2002. p. 365; Muñoz, Miguel L. op. cit. pp. 148 – 149; Betts, Benjamín. Mexican Imperial Coinage. Privately Printed. 1899. pp. 34 – 36 (available in USMexNA Online Library.

The extraordinary engraver Navalón and his most distinguished pupils, Spíritu and Ocampo, created a design fit for an Emperor. However these coins did not appear in Mexico City until the middle of the year 1866. From all the denominations approved, just the one centavo copper coin was produced, as well as the five, ten and fifty centavos and one peso in silver and only the 20 pesos in gold.

This gold coin was produced with the 28 kilos of gold on hand that remained at the Mint through the end of 1866. It would have a unique story attached to it very shortly after its release, when the Empire started its painful agony.

The Mexican conservative supporters were annoyed at Maximilian because of his approval of many of the rulings defined in the Constitution of 1857 which affected their status quo. The Catholic Church was upset when it discovered that the Emperor granted the confiscation of their property. The Empire was being consumed from within and its economic resources drained quickly as the government faced the threat of an enemy that was very much alive in the rest of the country. To make things worse the US finally had come out of their Civil War and was aiming at MaximilianMuñoz, Miguel L. op. cit. pp. 148 – 149; Bruce, Colin II. Standard Catalog of Mexican Coins. Paper Money. Stocks. Bonds and Medals. Krause Publications. Iola Wisconsin. 1981. p. 112; Ruíz, Eduardo. Historia de la Guerra de Intervención en Michoacán. Tip. de Fomento. México. 1896. p. 218.

The French adventure in Mexico had a tragic end for those who were principally involved. The main reason for the crushing of this adventure was the recalling of the French troops by Napoleon III who foresaw a confrontation with Prussia. Charlotte went to Europe trying unsuccessfully to change Napoleon’s mind. Then she turned to Pope Pius IX, to no avail mainly because Maximilian tolerated the right of protestant religions in Mexico. Through this ordeal she lost her mind and was out of reality for the next 60 years, dying on 19 January 1927 at the age of 87. Let us return to Mexico in the key year of 1867. Maximilian had realized that it was useless to continue the Empire and tried to abdicate, but two events changed his mind: 1, the begging of the Mexican conservative party for him to stay in power and 2, a letter from his mother commanding it, saying that it would be better for him to get buried in the rubble of Mexico than to abdicate. She finished her lines with a friendly “I’d rather see you dead and honourable than alive and in disgrace”. His mother would be granted her wish. He abandoned Mexico City and made Querétaro his last fortressZayaz, Enríquez. Rafael. Benito Juárez. su vida. su obra. Tip. Vda. de Díaz de León. México. 1906. pp. 232 – 233; Arrangoiz y Berzábal, Francisco de Paula. Méjico desde 1808 hasta 1867.Imprenta de Estrada. Vol. IV. Madrid. 1872. p. 190; Cardona S., Adalberto de. México y sus Capitales. Tip. y Lit. La Europea. México. 1900. pp. 500 – 512; De las Torres, Martín. El Archiduque Maximiliano de Austria en Méjico. De San Martín. Madrid España. 1867. pp. 380 – 396.

The first coin bearing the wording “UN PESO” was minted under the authority of Maximilian in 1866.

Maximilian was betrayed and the Mexican republicans took Querétaro. Maximilian surrendered to the first officer of rank that he could find, General Corona. Corona then escorted Maximilian to his boss General Mariano Escobedo who took the Emperor’s sword, thereby ending the Empire on 15 May 1867. Maximilian faced a trial that he chose not to attend. Several attempts were made to spare his life, even by the United States government, but he was sentenced to die. A couple of times his execution was stopped at the very last minute, but he finally faced the squadron on the morning of 19 June 1867Historia de la Guerra en México desde 1861 a 1867. Elizalde y Cía. Madrid. España. pp. 432 – 436’ Rivera, Agustín. Anales Mexicanos. La Reforma i el Segundo Imperio. Taller de Tipografía. Guadalajara. Jal. 1897. p. 393.

On that day he pardoned his executioners. A blank and six bullets were placed in the rifles as was the tradition, but Maximilian then made his gold ounces famous by using them as souvenirs for the soldiers who were to fire against him. Maximilian requested that he would not be shot in his face because he did not want to shock his mother once his cadaver arrived in Vienna. Ever since that day in June of 1867 many numismatists and historians have wondered about those historically significant seven gold coins. If you ask almost any seller or auctioneer he might attempt to say that the 20 gold pesos coin for sale could be one of that famous group of seven. My personal belief is that none of the seven coins given that day were kept by the recipients. More likely, this gold was spent immediately in Querétaro on a nice bath, grooming, alcohol and señoritas. Alternatively, the coins may have been sent back to the shooters’ families in Nuevo León. Most of them came from the region of Galeana, in the southern part of my home state. Bottom line, one way or the other I seriously doubt that anyone would have saved such a small fortune for the sake of History or a personal memoir and that they were quickly spentCorrespondencia de la Legación Mexicana en Washington sobre la Captura y Juicio de Maximiliano. Impr. del Gobierno. México. 1868. Vol. I. p. 108; De las Torres. Martín. op. cit. p. 490; Egón, César. Maximiliano y Carlota. una Tragedia Romántica. México. Fondo de Cultura Económica. 1944. p. 618.

If you think Maximilian’s troubles were over you are wrong. Once the cadaver of Maximilian was taken to the Convent of Capuchinas in Querétaro, escorted with a profuse sound of bells everywhere, an autopsy was performed. It was determined that six shots ended Maximilian’s life, one across the heart from left to right, two more in the abdomen and three shattered his groin. The soldiers had kept their promise as Maximilian’s head was intact. Doctor Licea, one of the members of this team, sold bloody towels and locks of Maximilian’s hair to the high class ladies who considered the late Emperor a saint. Licea was quoted as having said that his hands had never dreamed on getting inside the loins of a European monarch. Needless to say he faced a juicy trial for the following three years of his life. He spent most of it trying to clear his name, alleging that the Mexican Government owed him the price of the first embalming so he had to do whatever it took to have that money.

The embalmed body had a small service in a chapel at the convent, and was sent afterwards to Mexico City to be shipped to Europe via Veracruz. The coffin was too small for the body and Maximilian’s legs hung outside of it. While the coffin was transported the carriage suffered a major blow. The carriage and Maximilian’s casket slipped on a muddy road and fell into a river. The body and the casket had to be fished out of the river once they were found several hours after the accidentDaran, Víctor. El General Miramón. Imp. El Tiempo. México. 1887. Vol. I. pp. 201. nota I; Noriega, Eduardo. Geografía de la República Mexicana. México. Imp. De la Viuda. pp. 423.

With all of these misfortunes to Maximilian’s body it was not surprising that another embalming procedure had to take place in Mexico City, so it was sent to San Hipólito’s Hospital. Juárez had had a triumphal return to Mexico City on 15 July 1867 and by the time the former Emperor’s body arrived the Republic had formally set in. Minister Iglesias persuaded Juárez to visit the cadaver of the man who had been their foremost enemy.

It was the only time that both leaders were face to face. Juárez looked at the naked body of Maximilian and said: This gentleman had rather long and very white legs. Maximilian suffered the last irony when the frigate Novara took his lifeless body back to Europe: it was the same ship that brought the Emperor and Empress to Veracruz from Italy in 1864Rivera. Agustín. op. cit. p. 393; De las Torres. Martín. op. cit. p. 768.