The Mystery of the Talking Dollar Bill (2024)

By WDTV News Staff

Published: Jun. 6, 2024 at 6:15 PM EDT

BRIDGEPORT, W.Va. (WDTV) - “D-Day, June 1944. The Allies storm France to take the fight to Nazi Germany.”

That’s an example of a World War II newsreel shown at movie theaters all across the country, like The Robey here in Spencer, West Virginia. The Robey is the longest continuously playing theater in the state and it’s where our story begins.

Many years ago at this ticket window, theatre owner Frances Robey noticed that the money being used to purchase a ticket was speaking to her.

This is the talking dollar bill. It can’t actually speak, of course, but if you are observant like Frances, you’ll know that it has quite a story to tell.

“Today is June 7, 1944. We are going today to hit France. We are setting here wondering how long we will last after we land and who will be the first to go.”

On the dollar bill is written a soldier’s first-hand account of D-Day +1 as narrated by this man, Orton Jones. The bill has been passed down to Orton over the years, and he realizes it’s importance.

“It speaks to a situation that we all owe our lives to today and our freedom today,” Jones said.

Turn the bill over and there you see the name John, last name obscured, and the address 301 Milford Street, Clarksburg, WV. Our assignment? Find the soldier that wrote that first-hand account. We had so many questions. Was John the intended recipient at 301 Milford or was he the author? If so, to whom was he writing?

We began our research at the West Virginia University forensics lab to see if technicians could learn more about the obscured last name. WVU Assistant Professor of Forensic and Investigative Science Tatiana Trejos and graduate research assistant Zach Andrews used advanced technology to magnify the writing on the bill using different sources and filters of light to try to determine the obscured writing. Despite being inconclusive for the time being, their research did offer some clues.

“We’re essentially able to figure out some of these letters, so we’re getting closer,” said Andrews. “Even finding the confirmation of just one letter is going to really help us and help you guys narrow down those possibilities of likely suspects that this dollar bill could have been addressed to.”

The next stop was the Harrison County Courthouse to learn more about the address on the back of the dollar bill.

This is approximately where the house at 301 Milford Street once stood, right at the entrance to the Stealey community of Clarksburg. In 1944, this property was owned by Frederick and Maylissa Ott. The Ott’s had no children and no family connection to the war. And that’s where our investigation stood - for weeks. Until we learned of the Clarksburg City Directory. It could tell us not who owned the property in 1944 but who actually lived here.

That led us to the Waldomore building in Clarksburg and this man, historian David Houchin. David helped us find the 1944 City Directory, which produced the name “Fred Paul Robinson” and wife Wilma.

Here’s where our story takes a strange turn. For weeks we researched the family of Paul and Wilma Hart Robinson, only to discover they had no ties to the address in question. Their family always lived in neighboring Doddridge County. So why the confusion? Would you believe that in 1944, there was another Paul Robinson also with a wife named Wilma that lived in the area? So, we started over. This time with research that revealed that the residents of 301 Milford Street were Paul and Wilma Shreves Robinson.

In June 1944, the Robinson’s daughter was preparing to marry this man – John Franklin Hannah – Private John Franklin Hannah. Could this be our author? We began to learn as much as we could about Pvt. Hannah. He was born in 1923 in Upshur County, West Virginia. As detailed in this 1944 newspaper article, he was one of six brothers and a cousin that all fought in and made it home safely from World War II. He also served tours in Japan and Korea and died in West Columbia, South Carolina in 1986. He was the only member of his family to spell his last name with the final ‘H’. Even his newspaper obituary spelled his last name H-a-n-n-a.

We would have to go back nearly forty years for the handwriting samples needed by WVU Forensics. For that we turned to West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History library manager Debra Basham. She helped us find five handwriting samples, all signatures, from military papers and marriage licenses. We then went back to WVU Forensics to compare the signatures to the handwriting on the bill.

“You can see that there are some striking similarities between the way that this person their uppercase ‘H’s and the one on the dollar bill. With this very distinct curve and loop here as well as the ‘F’ with the distinctive kind of curve in the upper portion of the ‘F’. Where the ‘Hs line up, the uppercase ‘Hs here, where the lowercase ‘Hs line up, the ‘As, the two ‘Ns, presumably here, there’s a very substantial similarity in terms of spacing between those letters, which is something that we look for when we are comparing handwriting samples,” Andrews said. “So, the spacing between the letters, the really unique letter form of this uppercase ‘H’, the uppercase ‘F’, the ‘A’ and the ‘H’ here and the two ‘N’s, make it very, very possible that this is the donor or author of that dollar bill. We can’t find any evidence to suggest otherwise.”

We then turned to a nationally known handwriting expert from Detroit, Michigan.

“My name is Ruth Holmes. Like Sherlock, I solve mysteries using handwriting.”

Ruth explains her comparison analysis.

“We came up with five significant similarities and one of the most unique letters in this whole examination was the way the ‘J’ is made in the word ‘June’. The man actually goes up and he puts a figure eight at the top of the ‘J’, then comes down and makes a big loop. In John’s signature, he makes the ‘J’, again it is that figure eight at the top and a large loop at the bottom. My favorite letter on this whole place is the ‘F’ in France. It looks like a reverse ‘C’. It’s a motion that he makes when he does a ‘W’ as in ‘we’ and it’s also a motion that we see in ‘Hannah’, of course, in his own name,” Holmes said. “So, it is really quite thrilling when you look at that.”

Ruth’s final analysis?

“I felt very strong, with these five identifying characteristics, that we were doing very well in terms of identifying this handwriting on the dollar bill as being that of John F. Hannah,” Holmes said. “Put the pieces together and you have solved this mystery.”

Debra says our discovery is historically important.

“To get something like that, that you know was there in France on that day, it’s a piece of history and you just can’t reproduce something like that,” she said.

Orton summed up his reaction in just two words.

“Utterly remarkable.”

When you are trying to solve an eighty-year-old puzzle, there are bound to be pieces missing. Unfortunately, and due in large part to the 1973 St. Louis fire that destroyed millions of military service records, it appears that the unit in which Private Hannah served has been lost to history.

For months we researched the bumper markings on this truck on which Private Hannah is pictured. We spoke with historians from Fort Bragg, the U.S. Army Transportation Museum, even two historians in England. But all agreed that the truck markings did not relate to Private Hannah’s unit. So, that’s what we don’t know. But here’s what we do. Over 16 million U.S. soldiers served or fought during World War II. We honor their service and their sacrifice by telling the story of one. Private John Franklin Hannah, author of the talking dollar bill. For 5News, I’m Alan Dye.

Editor’s note: A very special thank you to our friends Clara McGill and Mark Hart for their help in finding the correct Paul Robinson… Many thanks to both! WDTV would also like to thank the following people for their kind assistance with “The Mystery of The Talking Dollar Bill”: Orton Jones, Aaron and Tammy Hanna, Mabel McKnight, Tatiana Trejos & Zach Andrews - WVU Forensics, Ruth Holmes, Debra Basham – WV Division of Arts, Culture and History, David Houchin, Clara McGill, Mark Hart, Elijah Palmer – U.S. Quartermaster Museum, Euan Withersby, Keri Donohoo & Hattie Hearn – American Air Museum in Britain, George Fuller – NARA, Roy Williams, Scott Daubert – National Infantry Museum, Amy Allen and Richland Library Staff – Columbia, SC, Matthew Fraas – U.S. Transportation Museum

Copyright 2024 WDTV. All rights reserved.

The Mystery of the Talking Dollar Bill (2024)
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