ST. LOUIS – An Illinois woman who set out on a treasure hunt for buried gold coins after finding a cryptic note in an antique rocking chair may have been the victim of a prolific prankster who died more than 30 years ago.
With help of a donated backhoe, Patty Henken recently tore up a vacant lot in Springfield, Ill., where a typewritten note signed by "Chauncey Wolcott" — found in an old chair she bought at auction last November — suggested she would find a chest containing more than $250 in U.S. gold coins.
The dig turned up nothing but bricks and old bottles. Henken planned to return Tuesday with the donated services of a man with ground-penetrating radar meant to detect any buried items, but the treasure note's promise may already be debunked.
An Iowa woman who read news accounts of the hunt said she knows Wolcott's true identity: John "Jay" Slaven, a notorious practical joker and coin collector who often used a typewriter in his pranks.
Slaven used the pen name "Chauncey Wolcott" and lived for decades at the location where the dig took place, until his 1976 death, according to Betty Atkinson Ryan of Mason City, Iowa. She e-mailed a columnist for the State Journal-Register of Springfield to set the record straight.
Atkinson Ryan told the newspaper that Slaven was her boss in the Journal-Register's classified advertising department decades ago. She said Slaven often used a typewriter to compose some of his jokes and signed them "Chauncey Wolcott." The newspaper said archived news articles described Slaven as an actor with a "booming voice" that he used in television appearances, about 50 radio shows and to narrate the annual Illinois State Fair film.
Ryan does not have a listed home telephone number and could not be reached by The Associated Press on Sunday.
Henken's life got interesting in May when, while prying off the seat of a rickety rocking chair she bought at auction five months earlier, she discovered a small envelope with "Finders Keepers" typewritten on it. Inside, a key was taped to a typed note.
"This DEXTER key (number sign) 50644T will unlock a lead chest," the note began, before spelling out a location in Springfield — 1028 N. Fifth St. — where a chest containing more than $250 in U.S. gold coins supposedly was buried 12 feet below ground.
The stash, the note claimed, included eight $20 gold pieces, six $10 gold pieces, five $5 gold pieces, three $2 1/2 dollar gold pieces and two $1 gold pieces.
The undated note, signed by a "Chauncey Wolcott," included a request to contact the Springfield newspaper if the chest was ever found.
Henken, of Mount Sterling, Ill., said Sunday that she was disappointed there's no closure but still was hopeful Slaven may have left something to unearth.
"My friends feel like I was cheated out of finalizing this," said the 48-year-old Henken, a window clerk at the post office in Mount Sterling. "There's something down there. He wouldn't play a practical joke without leaving me something."
That property's current owners gave Henken permission to tear up the site in search of the supposed booty if they got an equal share of any find. But they pulled the plug on any more digging now that Slaven may have pulled one over on everyone.
"It's done, other than me fixing up their (torn-up) yard," Henken said. "It's been fun, though. I'd do it again tomorrow. I just hope my life isn't so boring from now on."
She's not averse to a copycat caper.
"I fully expect to do something like this before I die," she said. "But I would leave them something to find, a clue to who I was and not leave them wondering what kind of sick person would make them do this."