On the Water

Joseph Francis Congressional Gold Medal

The 19th-century American inventor Joseph Francis received many honors after his metallic life-car rescued 200 stranded passengers from the Ayrshire shipwreck in 1850 and subsequently saved thousands more just from wrecks off the New Jersey shore. He was knighted by kings, emperors, and czars, and received numerous valuable gifts from all over the world. Despite these accolades, decades passed before Francis’ own country recognized his accomplishments.

In 1859, a Captain Douglass Ottinger of the U.S Revenue Cutter Service had applied for a relief grant from Congress for unspecified, unverified and unsupported lifecar inventions. Joseph Francis was in Europe at the time and unaware of Ottinger’s claim. With no information to the contrary, Congress granted Ottinger $10,000 for inventing the lifecar. Francis returned from Europe in 1862, too late to address Ottinger’s claims.

In February 1886, a Congressional resolution for a gold medal for Francis was proposed, but Ottinger’s senator stonewalled the resolution on behalf of his constituent. This delayed debate long enough to prevent a presidential signature on the action. Later, Senator William M. Evarts of New York introduced legislation to award Francis with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian honor bestowed by the legislative branch upon a particular person. The bill passed without opposition on August 27, 1888, signaling to the U.S. Mint that it should begin creating the medal.

Each Congressional Gold Medal is unique, crafted to specifically commemorate the honoree, and Francis’ was designed by Zeleima Bruff Jackson and modeled by the famous American sculptor Louis St. Gaudens. St. Gaudens is best known for his monumental statuary, which may be locally seen at Washington’s Union Station and the Library of Congress. He was also interested in the art of medals and coins.

Francis’s three-pound medal was forged in solid gold, and valued at $6,000 in 1889. When President Benjamin Harrison presented Joseph Francis with the award in the White House’s Blue Room, he spoke of the thousands of people rescued by Francis’ devotion to improving life-saving equipment. “Not many of these have been able to know or thank the man who saved them,” the President said in his address. “But the nation today voices the gratitude of these and many thousands more who will owe their deliverance to you.”

In 1890, Francis donated his medal to the Smithsonian, together with a diamond-encrusted snuff box from French emperor Napoleon III. Here, they joined his lifecar and associated lifesavings materials given earlier to the people of the United States.

ID Number:
Obverse engraver:
Saint-Gaudens, Louis
Reverse engraver:
Saint-Gaudens, Louis
United States Congress, 51st
United States Mint
Obverse designer:
Jackson, Zeleima
Reverse designer:
Jackson, Zeleima
Place Made:
United States
105.00 mm; 1142.320 g
Joseph Francis

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