It was a typical June evening when Ivah Coles, 21, and Richard Cromwell, 20, went for a swim in the reservoir near Benld, Ill.
While attempting to climb up the steep bank, Cromwell fell back into the water and began to sink. From the bank, Coles waded into the water toward Cromwell but sank within two metres of him. The men’s bodies were found in water more than three metres deep; the reports indicated that they were victims of cramps, caused by the chilliness of the water due to springs nearby. That was June 8, 1904.
Though newspaper accounts of the incident gave no stirring account of bravery or heroism on Coles’ part, recognition would follow.
In 1908, Coles’ mother was presented with a silver Carnegie Hero Medal, Coles’ act being among the first few dozen recognized by the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission (CHFC), which since 1904 has recognized nearly 10,000 acts of heroism throughout the U.S. and Canada.
The Coles medal was recently put up for sale on eBay by a jeweler in O’Fallon, Mo., who had acquired it from someone selling it for its five-and-a-half ounces of silver. The medal was purchased by Matthew Campbell, a member of the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists (PAN), of Washington, Penn., who contacted the commission, based nearby in Pittsburgh. Rarely seen for sale, these medals are usually held by the recipients and families and heirlooms. Additionally, of the nearly 10,000 Carnegie medals, only 617 are silver (most were bronze).
When Campbell contacted the Macoupin County Historical Society (MCHS) for research assistance, the society seized on the story, gathering information and locating Coles’ grave at Bunker Hill Cemetery. Finding Coles’ grave site to be unmarked, Campbell, PAN, MCHS, and various individuals contributed funds to install a memorial plaque and a Carnegie Hero grave marker supplied by CHFC.
The plaque will be installed during a ceremony today at Bunker Hill Cemetery.
“Knowing what this medal represented and that it was given to Coles’ mother was very special,” said Campbell, who travelled to Illinois for the ceremony. “That motivated me and all of us at PAN to support the plaque at Coles’ grave and create an exhibit. It’s a tribute to numismatics that an object purchased on eBay brought all of us together for this project 112 years later.”
The Coles medal, which traveled from O’Fallon to Pennsylvania, will return to Illinois to be exhibited at MCHS’s Ruyle Building at a reception. A photographic display will remain at MCHS, while the medal will be displayed at PAN’s semiannual conventions in Pittsburgh and potentially travel nationally for other events.
“We were impressed with the work done by Campbell and the Pennsylvania Association of Numismatists,” said Eric P. Zahren, CHFC executive director, who will also attend the events in Illinois. “We were happy to support this project to honour Coles and make his inspiring story known to the community.”