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The Świętokrzyska Exploration Group at the site of the discovery. (Świętokrzyska Exploration Group)

SCIENCE & TECH: Coin Hoard Found Near Mountain Hideaway of 18th Century Polish Conman

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In early 18th century Poland, a religious hustler named Antoni Jaczewiczar created quite the stir with his claims of having the power to heal, an ability he said had been gifted to him directly by the Virgin Mary. Before being discredited, Jaczewiczar managed to trick his gullible followers out of a small fortune, some of which he buried in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains of south-central Poland to hide them from the authorities. This is known because a team of treasure hunters exploring near Jaczewiczar’s mountain lair recently recovered a valuable hoard of gold and silver coins that were undoubtedly collected and buried by the notorious conman himself.

Hunt for the Illicit Fortune of Jaczewiczar

Fascinated by the legend of Antoni Jaczewiczar, a team of metal detectorists affiliated with the Świętokrzyska Exploration Group decided to launch a search for the famed fake healer’s hidden buried treasure. They hadn’t actually heard claims that such a treasure existed, but they believed it might since the man’s impressive fortune had never been fully recovered once he’d been arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1712.

With the permission of the Świętokrzyskie Provincial Monument Conservator, the detectorists began their explorations in the vicinity of Jaczewiczar’s remote mountain fortress, where he had received visitors seeking his healing services.

The Świętokrzyska Exploration Group at the site of the discovery. (Świętokrzyska Exploration Group)

Much to their delight the instincts of the detectorists turned out to be correct, and they experienced the thrill of their lives when they found and dug up a collection of gold and silver coins that had been minted in the 17th and 18th centuries in Poland and in surrounding states.

The coins would have been acquired by Jaczewiczar in the form of donations from his patrons and his “patients,” the latter of whom believed his stories of being in regular contact with the Virgin Mary and came to him desperate for cures to the various ailments they were experiencing.

While he was widely considered to be a charlatan even in his own times, Jaczewiczar managed to con his victims out of enormous quantities of cash before he was exposed, much of it denominated in the various types of metal coins that were in distribution in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1700s.

Out of all the coins included in the hoard, the Świętokrzyska Exploration Group detectorists were most impressed by a gold ducat minted in 1648 in Hamburg, Germany, which featured an image of the Madonna holding her child. This coin was likely worn around someone’s neck as a medallion, as evidenced by the tiny hole that had been drilled into its top so it could be suspended from a string.

Gold ducat with impression of Mary and Child. (Świętokrzyska Exploration Group)

Gold ducat with impression of Mary and Child. (Świętokrzyska Exploration Group)

The Incredible Story of Antoni Jaczewiczar, Poland’s Most Infamous Scam Artist

Antoni Jaczewiczar’s rise to prominence coincided with the outbreak of the Great Northern War (1700—1721). This regional conflict pitted a coalition of states led by the Tsardom of Russia against the powerful Swedish Empire, which had jurisdiction over large sections of Northern, Central and Eastern Europe.

At the beginning of the war, the Russian coalition enjoyed the support of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a joint state headed by the Germanic king Augustus II the Strong. But a civil war broke out in Poland in 1704, and opposition forces united under the banner of the Warsaw Confederation overthrew Augustus and installed their leader Stanisław Leszczyński (Stanislaw I) as the new king in 1706.

After this coup, military forces loyal to Augustus continued to fight on his and Russia’s behalf, while the part of the army that supported the new king fought on the side of the Swedish Empire, which had backed the Warsaw Commonwealth during the civil war. In 1709 Augustus II’s army reversed the result of the coup and restored their king to his former position, and Augustus II remained in that position for the duration of the Great Northern War.

A selection of the silver coins. (Świętokrzyska Exploration Group)

A selection of the silver coins. (Świętokrzyska Exploration Group)

Creating even more turmoil for the embattled Polish people during this time of internal strife and division, the country experienced an outbreak of the plague that peaked during the period from 1708 to 1712. Taking advantage of the chaos and panic, Antoni Jaczewiczar emerged from his mountain hideaway to claim miraculous powers of healing, which he said he could use to cure the plague along with anything else anyone might be suffering. People flocked to his hermitage in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains seeking his services, which were offered exclusively to those who were willing to make a generous donation to support Jaczewiczar’s “ministry.”

Antoni Jaczewiczar’s choice of the Świętokrzyskie Mountains as the location of his hermitage was strategic and smart. These mountains had been considered sacred for many generations, dating far back into ancient times. They have long been known as the “Holy Cross Mountains” in Christian circles, gaining that designation because of the presence of a piece of wood said to be from Jesus Christ’s cross of crucifixion that has been kept at a Benedictine monastery in the region.

As a consequence of this history, Jaczewiczar’s claims that the Virgin Mary visited him here likely seemed legitimate to a lot of people. This was exactly the place they’d expect her to visit if she wanted to offer her blessings to the faithful in times of great trouble.

Unsurprisingly, Antoni Jaczewiczar’s ruse captured the attention of local religious authorities, who intervened to have him arrested and tried for fraud in the Krakow episcopal court. But before his trial was finished Jaczewiczar managed to escape from custody, after which he returned to his mountain fortress to continue his lucrative faith healing scam. He was taken into custody again in 1712, and this time tried and convicted by the court of the Bishop of Krakow and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison.

Some of the money he collected from his victims was recovered. But much of it had disappeared, either having been spent or having been hidden away for future use, should Antoni Jaczewiczar ever manage to escape his captors again (which he never did).

Is There More Buried Treasure in the Świętokrzyska Mountains of Poland?

There is no way to tell exactly when Antoni Jaczewiczar chose to protect some of his ill-gotten gains by burying them in the surrounding forest. But if he did this at least once there’s a chance he did it other times as well, and now that they’ve discovered one buried treasure the detectorists from the Świętokrzyska Exploration Group are eager to continue searching to see if they can find more.

In the meantime, the hoard they’ve already recovered has been transferred to the Historical and Archaeological Museum in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski. Here it will be studied further by experts, to see what can be discovered about the value and history of each individual coin. Once this research is finished the hoard will be put on permanent display, which will likely rekindle interest in the astonishing story of the rise and fall of Antoni Jaczewiczar. 

Top image: Coins found in the Świętokrzyskie Mountains, Poland, presumed hoard of Antoni Jaczewiczar. Source: Świętokrzyska Exploration Group

By Nathan Falde





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