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VINTAGE ST. PETE: The richest man in the world

Bill DeYoung

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March 27, 1961: St. Petersburg Beach Mayor Grover C. Criswell, Jr. appears TV's "To Tell the Truth," facing panelists Betty White, Don Ameche, Pat Carroll and Tom Poston.

In the wee hours of Feb. 1, 1964, thieves cut a hole in the roof of 401-405 Corey Avenue in St. Petersburg Beach, squeezed into an air conditioning duct and worked their way into the building, bypassing an elaborate Brinks alarm system.

Inside, they pried open display cases and made off with $297,000 worth of rare gold and silver coins from Criswell’s Money Museum.

“The guys that did this are real pros,” proprietor Grover C. Criswell, Jr. told the local newspaper. “They didn’t take anything that wasn’t worth a lot. They should be able to get rid of what they took fairly quickly.”

Criswell, who’d opened his museum less than two months earlier, was a St. Petersburg Beach City Commissioner from 1957 to ’60, and subsequently served a two-year term as mayor.

He also happened to be an internationally-known collector and dealer in obsolete Confederate money, which contrary to popular belief, was not all worthless. An acknowledged expert, he served on the United States Civil War Centennial Advisory Council from 1961 to 1965.

Heavily promoted as a tourist attraction by the St. Pete Chamber of Commerce, the money museum was the ambitious Criswell’s way of not only displaying his vast collection of Confederate and other forms of currency, but of making sure people remembered his name.

He enjoyed the attention, appearing on TV’s What’s My Line in ’59, and then – while still holding down the mayor’s job – on To Tell the Truth:

I, Grover C. Criswell, am the mayor of St. Petersburg Beach, Florida. My profession, however, is buying and selling Confederate money. And the book I have authored is now considered the standard catalog on the subject. The twenty-five million dollars that I own makes me the richest man in the world in Confederate money. Signed, Grover C. Criswell.

Watch the episode here.

Aug. 10, 1960: During a visit to Washington, D.C. Mayor Criswell is greeted by Democratic Presidential nominee John F. Kennedy. In a 1978 profile in People Magazine, Criswell repeated his claim that JFK once offered him directorship of the U.S. Mint, which he declined. “I sure would have liked those keys to Fort Knox!” Criswell told the magazine.

At 25, he was the youngest elected mayor in American history. He ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1962, as a Democrat, and lost to Bill Cramer. Criswell enjoyed saying that President John F. Kennedy offered him directorship of the U.S. Mint, and he turned it down to make a bid for Congress.

At Criswell’s Money Museum, you could ogle whale tooth money (“Used to buy wives in the Fiji Islands!”), World War I-era German wooden dollars, rai stone currency from the Island of Yap and, of course, examples of that Confederate “funny money” from Criswell’s own, extensive collection. An actor in full Confederate military dress greeted you at the entrance.

The “real pros” that broke in, however, ignored the Civil War loot and took something more tangible: A good percentage of silver and gold coins on loan from Detroit collector Irving Moskowitz.

Moskowitz immediately recalled the remainder of his collection, and this action – along with the attendant bad publicity – was cited by Criswell as one of the main reasons he was forced to close the attraction in 1966.

“The museum,” believes Criswell’s brother Clarence, 84, “just never had enough traffic to pay the overhead. That happens. It was kind of a nifty place, if you liked to look at money.”

The Moskowitz coins were never recovered, and Criswell’s suit against Brinks lingered in the courts for another five years. The security company was ultimately found liable, but that decision was overturned on appeal.

Grover Cleveland Criswell Jr. was, above and beyond his addiction to publicity, a serious collector and scholar. When he died of a heart attack in 1999, at age 65, he had served on the Board of Governors of the American Numismatic Association for 22 years, including a two-year term as president.

“I stand on the shoulders of giants, including his,” says Pierre Fricke, author of Collecting Confederate Paper Money – Comprehensive Edition and other volumes. “He was a pretty significant leader. He was into Southern States money, too, and both Confederate and Southern States bonds, obsolete bank notes going back to the late 1700s. Those were his mainstays.”

Criswell, Fricke says, “was the great marketer, the great promoter, of the stuff.”

He was a familiar figure at coin shows and auctions, and through his mail-order collector business, where he had taken the name Colonel Criswell.

He and his brother were born and raised in Chicago, where their dad – a native Tennessean – operated a candy-making business (true to form, when Grover got a few drinks in him, he liked to tell folks that it was a front for Al Capone’s bootleg whiskey racket).

The family relocated to Florida, buying a house on Pass-a-Grille Beach, in 1946. The brothers each graduated from The Citadel, a Charleston military college, earning degrees in history before returning to Florida.

“He and I started out together, late ‘40s, early ‘50s, doing coins and stamps together,” younger brother Clarence explains. “Very early on, we did away with the stamps and started to do paper money.”

From the office they shared in the back room of the Pass-a-Grille home, the Criswell brothers published Confederate And Southern State Currency, A Descriptive Listing in 1957, along with a followup volume. Grover would go on to write numerous books on Civil War-era currency; his identification and cataloging system is still the gold standard for the hobby today.

Although he continued to collect, and to write, Clarence Criswell went into real estate and, later, the concrete business. He is the author of a collectors’ book about cast aluminum toy tractors.

In 1963, the siblings’ widowed mother, Helen Criswell, filed a suit alleging Grover borrowed $75,000 from her during his term as St. Pete Beach mayor, for “living expenses.” According to the suit, Grover Criswell gave her certain valuable Confederate bills, and rare coins, as collateral.

Her son and his wife Dolly never repaid her, she alleged, and through “misrepresentation and other means” the items somehow found their way back into Grover’s collection.

“You see that sort of thing all the time with families,” says Clarence Criswell, who admits he had periods of “bad blood” with his smooth-talking older brother, too. He swears he has no memory of the litigation with their mom.

Although Grover and his family moved to Salt Springs, Florida – in the Ocala National Forest – in the late ‘60s, Clarence remained in St. Petersburg. On Jan. 23, 1972 he, too, was robbed. This time, the culprits took a number of Confederate bills with great collector value.

“It was Grover’s collection, which I was holding until he finished paying me because I had loaned him some money,” Clarence Criswell reports. “I had it at the house, and on a Sunday afternoon while I was at church, they broke in the house and stole it.”

It wasn’t the sort of booty one could offload at the neighborhood pawn shop. “Stealing Confederate money,” Clarence says, “at that time, it was well-known that there wasn’t really anybody in the country that could handle it. Because they’d instantaneously know it was stolen.”

The bills were discovered in West Texas, where the thieves had tried to sell them to a dealer. After everything was settled, with the FBI and with his brother, Clarence moved his family to South Carolina, where they reside to this day.

Standing six feet tall and weighing close to 300 pounds, with his Harlan Sanders goatee and omnipresent “Kentucky Colonel” bow tie, Grover Criswell was hard to miss at coin shows and other numismatic events. Although the bulk of his business was through mail order, he traveled often to wheel, deal and otherwise hobnob with fellow currency collectors.

He told a reporter that he carried a .38 revolver in his satchel on road trips.

When asked to evaluate his annual income, Criswell said he didn’t want to be a millionaire, he just wanted to live like one. If living like a millionaire means flying all over the world, consulting with the Smithsonian Institution on numismatic matters, being entertained by the shah of Iran and enjoying a daily diet of caviar, then Criswell is living his dream. “People should enjoy what they are doing and do what they enjoy. I plan to do just that for the rest of my life.”

Karen Nugent, St. Petersburg Times/Aug. 8, 1988

 

Was Grover Cleveland Criswell a good – and honest – businessman? Brother Clarence takes a long pause before answering the question.

“I would say he was a very successful dealer,” he finally replies. “Helped build a lot of collections, helped disperse a lot of collections. Was well known at all the shows. I still meet people at shows, who are older dealers, and sometimes they say ‘Criswell … was Grover Criswell your bother?’

“And I say  … yes, Grover was my well-known brother.”

This story was originally published in the Catalyst in September 2020.

401-405 Corey Avenue today. This was the site of Criswell’s Money Museum. Photo by Bill DeYoung

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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