George T. Morgan's Lady Liberty

Posted by Toby Adkins, Numismatic Scholar for International Currency, L.L.C. on May 29th 2019

I hope you had a great Memorial Day! My two teenage daughters had to "put up" with Dad this weekend when I made sure they understood the significance of Memorial Day. Among significant eye rolling, it turns out they understood completely and it felt good to realize how much they knew. It had me thinking of how much has changed in our society since the first mint was constructed back in 1792. With my coin background, I was reminded of young Anna Willess Williams. Most of you probably won't recognize who she is but she was the inspiration for Lady Liberty on the famous Morgan Silver Dollar and lost her job because of it! Things sure have changed...

Lady Liberty

Lady Liberty has been portrayed in our coinage in almost every way possible in the past 200+ years.  Not to make this a long diatribe about the degradation of our society but today it seems we put the criminal and the boastful on a pedestal in place of our own teachers and moral leadership.  OK, enough of that!  However, back in the time of George T. Morgan, there were definite injustices going on then as well.  If you didn't know, Morgan was the designer of one of the most hailed coins in United States coinage, the Morgan Silver Dollar.  Morgan was a respected designer and engraver in the U.S. Mint and was tasked with designing our Country's new silver dollar to be released in 1878.  When looking for inspiration he came across a young school teacher who he considered to have the most perfect profile to represent Lady Liberty... Miss Anna Willess Williams.

Morgan approached her explaining who he was and his intentions.  And received in return a flat out NO!  today, all of us would consider it an honor to represent such any iconic semblance such as Lady Liberty.  However, things were different in the 1870's.  Back then, respectable ladies did not model for artists.  Morgan had a good friend who is considered to be one of the most important artists in American Art history, one Thomas Eakins.  Already a famous painter, Eakins and Morgan finally convinced Anna to sit for 5 sessions in the home of Eakins.  Anna's only caveat is that she wanted full secrecy of her sittings.  Morgan agreed and her profile is now a part of history.  However, the story would not end there.

As the Morgan Silver Dollar went into circulation and being considered such a beautiful design, people were soon questioning Morgan on how he came up with such a design.  Morgan announced that his inspiration came from the "Greek figures" in the Philadelphia Academy of Art and kept the secret of Anna to himself.  Like most secrets, eventually the truth would come out.  It took a few years but eventually a newspaper man recognized Anna and published the story that she was the inspiration for Morgan's Liberty.  It didn't take long, Anna was soon let go from her job.

Soon, Anna was famous as Lady Liberty and received thousands of letters and was even urged to become an actress.  She refused and it wasn't long for people to realize the error of their ways.  Anna began teaching girl's kindergarten and retired from teaching in 1924.  Today, the Morgan Silver Dollars are some of the most collected coins ever and the visage of Anna Willess Williams is known all over the world.