ANAStaff's Blog

15 Mar 2013

Why does Black Diamond shine? A look at the bison that may have been the model for the buffalo nickel

News | ANAStaff

Written by: Brandon Ortega

Its is believed by many that most famous living American buffalo in the United States is Ralphie, the live buffalo mascot for the University of Colorado. Nearly every Saturday during the college football season, cameras zoom in on the massive buffalo and the handlers who lead the university's football team onto the gridiron (full disclosure: I'm a student at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and a big fan of CU athletics).   


Even with Ralphie's prestigious accolades as college football's best mascot, the question of the most famous American buffalo of all-time remains up for debate. Ralphie's top-ranked competitor is none other than Black Diamond.  


Black Diamond was given to the Central Park Menagerie (now the Central Park Zoo) by the world-renowned Barnum and Bailey. Once the buffalo became full size, 6 foot tall and 2,000 pounds, it was claimed to be the largest buffalo in captivity, according to the New York Times. Many painters used the buffalo as the subject of their art work. Artist and sculptor James Earl Fraser was tasked with designing a new United States nickel. His plan was to design a coin that would be 100 percent American, and the buffalo fit perfectly into that design.

Nickel _buffalo _1913_r

(1913 Buffalo Nickel)

Black Diamond is alleged to be the buffalo model on Fraser's Buffalo nickel design. However, some have argued Black Diamond is not the true model; the horns on the buffalo's head are noticeably different than those on the coin design. Additionally, Fraser was quoted that the buffalo he used was from the Bronx Zoo; however, Black Diamond was never a resident of the Bronx Zoo - he resided in the Central Park Zoo, which was noted in the December 1915 issue of The Numismatist. Some believe the coin was truly modeled after Bronx, the buffalo who was the bison herd leader at the Bronx Zoo.


Black Diamond remained at the Central Park Zoo until 1915, which is when the zoo put him up for auction. Since nobody purchased the aging buffalo, Bill Synder, the buffalo's keeper, decided to sell Black Diamond to August Sliz, a New York City butcher, for $300. Synder sold the buffalo for business purposes: He preferred to sell the buffalo to the butcher rather than allow it to die on his grounds, which would cost the zoo $25 to cart him away.


The New York Times reported Silz's stood to make $1,725 off of the meat, head and hide of the buffalo. Buffalo meat was scarce in New York City, which allowed Silz to sell the meat for the lofty price of $2 per pound. The hide was turned into a 13-foot automobile robe and the head was placed in Sliz's office.


Whether or not Black Diamond is the true model for the buffalo nickel or not, the fame the buffalo gained from the coin, paintings and notoriety as the largest buffalo in captivity was unprecedented for any buffalo at that time. 


Nearly 98 years since Black Diamond was butchered, it is difficult to declare who the all-time most famous buffalo is, Ralphie or Black Diamond. But my guess is that during National Coin Week from April 22-27, there will be no dispute - Black Diamond will shine above all else. 






Level 7

N.Y. honor student. Black Diamond. I remember when I first found out he was in the Central Park Zoo. I was very happy. Something from N.Y. immortal on a nickel. I thought that was great. Thanks for your blog.

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