Profiles: Brenner of Baranauskas?: Unraveling the Mystery of the Name and Origin of the Designer of the Lincoln Penny

By Edward W. Baranauskas


Unraveling the mystery of the name and origin of the designer of the Lincoln penny

Many of us think of the penny as having more nuisance value than any monetary worth, as it clutters up our pockets and purses, and seems to buy very little. Since its first appearance ninety years ago, the Lincoln penny sparked a great interest in its design and designer, and both were favorably reviewed by the early press.

The penny’s designer, Lithuanian-born Victor David Brenner, was a famous sculptor and medalist who received many prestigious awards and accolades worldwide for his artistic talents. An article by Francis J. Jancius in the February 1952 issue of the Marian, a journal published in Chicago by the Marian Fathers, stated that the real name of the designer was Victor Baranauskas. Similar stories appeared in other publications. Being a Baranauskas myself, I was proud to learn that a Baranauskas was the designer of the famous coin.

Imagine my shock when I read in the July 1992 issue of the American Baltic Times (a paper no longer in existence) an article by Frank Fassic of the Lithuanian Numismatic Association in which he emphatically stated that the Baranauskas story was a fabrication. I decided to check it out for myself.

The one cent piece, or penny as it is usually called, is the lowest denomination of United States coins, and was the first one to have a portrait of an ex-president. Com m only called the “Lincoln penny,” it made its appearance in 1909 and replaced the popular 60-year-old Indian Head cent. Over one hundred million were out in circulation the first year. It became the m ost popular coin ever made and the longest-lived series in U.S. coinage history. The bust of Lincoln it bears holds the honor of being the most reproduced work of art in the world.

Who designed such a popular coin honoring one of America’s most famous and beloved presidents? Was his birth name Brenner, or was it Baranauskas? The designer did not leave an autobiography or authorize a biography, and in some interviews in which he tells of his early years, he did not talk about his ethnic or religious origin, or his original name. Because of that, most of the information about him is second-hand.

Victor David Brenner was born on June 12, 1871, the son of George and Sarah (Margolis) Brenner in the town of Šiauliai (known as Shavli when Lithuania was part of Czarist Russia). The Brenner family was Jewish, and part of the Yiddish-speaking community. His grandfather was a blacksmith, and his father was skilled in ornamental carving and engraving. David was trained at the early age of thirteen to master the trade. At the age of nineteen he left his homeland and arrived in New York in 1890. Eight years later, saving enough money, we went to Paris to study more creative work with metals under several famous designers. After returning home, his talents did not go unnoticed. In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt visited his studio to pose for a Panama Canal medal. The President was so captivated by a bronze plaque of Lincoln on the studio wall, that he immediately commissioned Brenner to make a similar one for the new U.S. penny in honor of the centennial of Lincoln’s birth.

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Victor David Brenner works on a sculpture of President Lincoln in his New York City studio.

Victor David Brenner, and his initials V.D.B., are well known in the numismatic world, and the coin is his most famous creation. How, then, did the name Viktoras Baranauskas begin to appear in numismatic publications and various journals, and acquired so much respectability over the years?

Five years after Brenner’s death, in 1929, Dr. Alexander M. Rackus, a prominent Lithuanian American physician, ethnographer, historian and numismatist, gave his version of the designer’s biography at a convention of the American Numismatic Association in Chicago. He gave an eloquent presentation to honor Brenner’s memory, titled: “The Twentieth Anniversary of the Lincoln Cent.” Unfortunately, he could not substantiate much of what he said, as we later learned.

Briefly, he stated that Brenner’s real birth name was Viktoras Barnauskas (later he changed the spelling to Baranauskas, the name of the well-known bishop and poet). He learned the trade of engraving from his father, his competitors despised him and told the Russian police that he was a counterfeiter. He was arrested, and after learning he was going to be sent to Siberia, he escaped and fled to America. He then changed his name to Brenner, Dr. Rackus continued, because it was more convenient for Americans to spell it, and also because he did not want to be bothered by Russian spies. W hy Dr. Rackus created such a story without having any proof, was known only to himself. Thus, the name of Viktoras Baranauskas found its way into the numismatic world, and, unfortunately that fable was accepted by many as fact.

Jonas K. Karys, dean of Lithuanian numismatics who served as director o f the Lithuanian m int from 1936 to 1939, dismissed the story and spent many years exposing the Baranauskas tale as a fabrication.

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The registry of the ship Gellert lists watchmaker Abraham Chaimschen(?) and “graver” David Brenner, both from “Schaulen.”

I must admit, in all honesty, I was impressed with the story after reading about him in a Lithuanian American journal, a numismatic publication, and a book on coins. Imagine my surprise when I later read in another Lithuanian American newspaper that the story about Brenner was not true, but invented. I could not understand why such a highly respected person as Dr. Rackus would do such a thing.

I decided to do a little investigative work on my own, no matter how long it would take, and how much it would cost. I just had to get to the truth, if I was fortunate enough.

I wrote a letter to the Lithuanian State Historical Archives in Vilnius, and requested an examination of the Šiauliai Church Archives to see if there was such a person named Viktoras Baranauskas born on June 12, 1871. If not, then perhaps a search of the Jewish Com ­ m unity Archives for a record of Victor David Brenner. I received their reply several months later. An examination of the parish records for Šiauliai and its neighboring churches from 1865 to 1877 found no birth record of a Viktoras Baranauskas, and since the Jewish Com ­ munity Archives o f the Šiauliai region for the years 1860- 1915 were not in their possession, any help on Brenner or his family members was not possible.

Not to be discouraged, I then wrote to the Kaunas Regional Archives to see if they had any records of the Šiauliai Jewish community in their possession. They were sorry to inform me that the vital records I requested cannot be found in any archives in Lithuania. They raised the possibility that perhaps they may have been destroyed during the two world wars and the evacuation periods.

I then began to wonder if it were possible to find out when, and where, Victor David Brenner, or this mythical Viktoras Baranauskas, arrived in the United States, and aboard what ship. I was very fortunate to learn from a good friend of mine about the National Archives and Records Administration in Pittsfield, Mass., about an hour’s drive from my home. Here, microfilm holdings include ship manifests of passengers arriving in the port of New York from 1820-1957, as well as many other ports. I was elated to know that my friend was able to learn about his grandfather’s entry into the United States, the name of the ship and the date.

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David Brenner’s passport application shows him to be a “medalleur” born in “Shafley, Russia” who emigrated to the United States on the ship Gellert in 1889 (in reality he arrived in 1890, as shown by the ship’s passenger manifest on the preceding page).

I shall always be indebted to the Archives specialist who helped me in locating some of Brenner’s microfilms. W ithout going too much into detail, we found the arrival record of a gentleman named David Brenner (not Victor David Brenner) into the port of New York, vessel Gellert, on May 17, 1890, and when and where he obtained his United States citizenship, which was April 27, 1896. The Gellert alien passenger manifest listed David Brenner as passenger number 613, leaving H am ­ burg, Germany for the United States; age 20; occupation, graver; citizen of Poland (which seemed rather unusual because Poland did not exist at that time), and his place of starting as Schaulen, which was the German name for Shavli, which in turn was the Russian name for the Lithuanian town of Šiauliai.

David Brenner applied for, and received, his citizenship at the U.S. District Court, N.Y. Southern District. At the advice of the Archives specialist at Pittsfield, I wrote to the National Archives office in New York City requesting copies of his naturalization records, giving the volume and page numbers of his file. After receiving them, it was apparent to me that David was the legal name he used at that time instead of Victor David. His intention for naturalization was filed on April 13, 1892, and he renounced forever all allegiance to the Emperor of Russia.

He was sworn in as a citizen on April 27, 1896. He gave his occupation as an engraver, his date of birth as June 12, 1871, and his date of landing at the Port of New York on or about May 17, 1890. Testifying on his behalf as a witness, a gentleman named Victor J. Shear, a salesman, swore that he knew David for six years, and verified his date of birth and arrival date in New York. It is possible he met David when the ship docked, and took him to stay at his residence until he was able to support himself financially.

I could not figure out when David decided, instead, to use the name of Victor David Brenner in his professional career. I felt I just had to go back to Pittsfield to do a little more research on him.

I obtained a microfilm reel that listed all those who applied for U.S. passports up until the year 1900. Luck was on my side, because I came upon the date of April 5, 1898 that showed five people with the names of Brenner, and one of them had the initials V.D., with the passport application number of 13595. I had to write to the National Archives in W ashington, D.C., as this was the only place that had the applications for U.S. passports on file. They located his application, and requested a payment of $10 for it, which I gladly submitted.

I found the information on it very interesting. He swore that he was Victor David Brenner, a naturalized and loyal citizen of the United States; that he was born at Shafley (Note: that’s the way it was spelled), Russia on June 12, 1871; his occupation was a medalleur, and that he wanted to go abroad and would return within two years. His age was 27, and his height was 5 ft. 6 in. His witness was his attorney, Simon O. Pollock.

Between the years when he became a citizen and applied for his passport, is it possible David decided to legally change his name to Victor David Brenner with the help of his attorney? W hy did he choose the name of Victor? Perhaps he may have done so in loving memory of his dear friend, Victor J. Shear, but we may never know.

2000-03-15-LHERITAGE 5There has been so much disinformation written about Brenner over the years that it makes one question what the true facts are.

Another unverified and probably inaccurate myth which has been associated with him, according to the letter I received from the American Numismatic Society in New York City last year, is that his parents were Americans living in Šiauliai. This appears for the first time in a publication in London in 1904, and was picked up by other biographies.

Collier’s Encyclopedia (1994), book 4, page 522, stated that he was born in Shavli, Russia of American parents. I then decided to go to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints Family History Center in Loudonville, New York to see what information they had, if any, on Brenner. According to their International Genealogical Index, Victor David Brenner was born of American parents in Shavli, Byelo., USSR. The source of information was Collier’s Encyclopedia. Any student of European history knows that the USSR did not exist in 1871. Just who, and when, will correct these inaccuracies?

In the publication, The Numismatist, October 1993, there appeared a story titled “V.D.B.: Behind the Initials.” The author wrote that Victor David Brenner was born Victoras Barnauskaus (Note: that is the way it was spelled) in Shavli, Lithuania. He was arrested in 1889 of counterfeiting, the author continued, and before he was to be transported to the Siberian frontier, Victoras, his brother and sister fled to America. Shortly afterwards he applied for U.S. citizenship under the name of Victor David Brenner. None of this, of course, is true.
Although this article deals primarily with the Lincoln penny and its designer, it was not Brenner’s only work. At the time he designed the famous coin, Brenner was a respected medallist with more than 70 coins, medals, and plaquettes to his credit. He continued to produce exceptional work, but his last years were marked by a long, draining disease that left him very little energy for engraving. Sad to say, he was a very poor money manager and died, virtually destitute, in New York City on April 5, 1924 at the age of 53.

I am happy that the effort I spent on researching the origins of Victor David Brenner has finally ended the myth about Viktoras Baranauskas. Now, the American Numismatic Society will have to do some soul-searching and rewrite some of the information. But, I will leave that up to the Lithuanian Numismatic Association to put the wheels in motion.