Mail Madness

Shocking but true stories of those "sprightly men in gray."


I love mail. It's absolutely my favorite form of clothed social intercourse. In an era in which editorials regularly decry the lost art of letter-writing, I write letters that resemble Tolstoy novels. What I don't love is the checkered history of the U.S. Postal Service.

Throughout its existence, this country's mail has been lost, stolen, confiscated, photographed, banned, burned, shredded, mishandled, and otherwise abused. The Postal Service itself has frequently been torn with dissension, wracked by money problems, and staffed with political patronage boobs, bribe taking scalawags, blue-nosed moral morons, and assorted bureaucratic nincompoops. As you're about to see.

1775: Two letters written by John Adams to his wife Abigail are intercepted en route and published in hopes of embarrassing Adams. Two years later, on March 8, Abigail writes to John: "The Post Office has been in such a Situation that there has been no confiding in it."

1798: Thomas Jefferson writes a letter to John Taylor and makes these truths self-evident: "The infidelities of the post office and the circumstances of the times are against my writing fully and freely." Later, Jefferson took to sending out unsigned letters, explaining the omission as a habit caused "by the curiosity of the post office."

1835: Official snooping begins, on August 4 (for those who wish to celebrate). Postmaster General Amos Kendall openly makes censorship of the mail a function of individual post offices, ruling against distribution of abolitionist pamphlets.

1853: The Los Angeles Star reports: "The mail rider comes and goes regularly but the mail bags do not. One time he says the mail is not landed in San Diego; another time there was so much of it the donkey could not bring it, and he sent it to San Pedro on the steamer—which carried it up to San Francisco. Thus it goes wandering up and down the ocean."

1857: Secretary of War Jefferson Davis—demonstrating the gift for prior planning that helped him lose the Civil War—creates the U.S. Army Camel Corps. The 75 one-humped dromedaries are imported (complete with a Syrian camel driver named Hadji Ali) to carry mail from El Paso to Los Angeles. This bizarre experiment lasts eight years.

1858: Mailboxes begin appearing on street corners. This cultural development proves to be a boon to sitcom plots of the 1950s, as comedians from Lou Costello and Joan Davis to Lucille Ball get their arms stuck in them trying to retrieve letters. (They also provide concealment for numerous federal agents, as evidenced by a 1970 FBI memo that suggests making suspects feel as if "there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.")

1862: Rail mail begins, a method of transport that has the related consequence, in 1866, of providing a means of gainful employment to a small-business entrepreneur named Jesse Woodson James, a believer in self-help projects and being his own boss. (When the railroads can't lose mail to legitimate, hardworking robbers, they have to manage on their own: in 1972 a mail car "disappeared" between Philadelphia and Washington on its way to Atlanta. Two years later it was found on an "obscure siding" in Perryville, Maryland.)

1865: Among items not permitted in the mail are "scurrilous epithets" on the outside of envelopes (where, one assumes, they might offend the mailman) and anything "liable to destroy, deface, or otherwise injure the contents of the mailbag, or harm the person of anyone engaged in the postal service."

Among these are "obscene books." This inclusion is curious, for surely a dirty book could not harm the mailbag or its contents and certainly could not harm the postman—unless he read it on his rounds and fell off his horse.

1873: Thanks to the crusading efforts of Anthony Comstock—whose objections helped make a hit out of September Morn—a law is passed banning from the mail all "lewd and lascivious books," as well as all contraception information. Maximum penalty: $5,000 and 10 years' hard labor.

Three days later Comstock gets himself named Special Agent of the Post Office, a zealot who serves without pay. (A much later target, H.L. Mencken, called the Comstock Postal Act "the heavy hand of Puritan authority [which] constitutes a sinister and ever-present menace to all men of ideas; it affrights the publisher and paralyzes the author.")

1887: Mark Twain calls the post office an "asylum," though he admits it isn't worse than other government agencies "for the breeding and nourishing of incredible lunatics."

1892: The annual report of Comstock's New York Society for the Suppression of Vice is a lengthy litany of 19th-century lasciviousness, covering such topics as "Books and sheet stock seized and destroyed" (48,599 pounds); "Obscene pictures and photos" (812,992); "Microscopic pictures for charms, knives, etc." (7,768); "Articles for Immoral Use" (92,670); "Indecent playing cards destroyed" (6,176 decks); "Open letters seized in possession of person arrested" (114,983); and "Obscene pictures framed on walls of saloons" (194).

1893: Marshall Cushing writes an authorized postal paean called The Story of Our Post-Office, subtitled, "The Greatest Government Department in all its Phases." It consumes 1,026 pages. Chapters include "The Carriers, the Sprightly Men in Gray," "The Inspectors, the Eyes and Ears," and (my favorite) "The Curse of Obscene Literature." In this chapter Cushing goes after the "fiends" who "poison the innocent" with "vile advertisements." Cushing tells of one "mere girl of thirteen" who had her home searched by an agent, who found "a quantity of the most debasing matter" in her undies drawer.

1902: April Fool's Day (surely a coincidence?) a new postal code adds to the list of banned mail "dead (and not stuffed) animals…guano, or any article exhaling a bad odor." No mention is made of perfumed love letters. Suspicious letters are nosed out and set aside for the addressee to open in front of a frowning postal employee.

1933: The Honorable John M. Woolsey lifts the mail ban on James Joyce's Ulysses. He notes: "I have read Ulysses once in its entirety and I have read those passages of which the Government particularly complains several times [a man after my own heart].…In spite of its unusual frankness, I do not detect anywhere the leer of the sensualist.…My considered opinion, after long reflection, is that whilst in many places the effect of Ulysses on the reader undoubtedly is somewhat emetic nowhere does it tend to be an aphrodisiac. Ulysses may, therefore, be admitted into the United States." In other words, a book is okay if it only induces you to vomit ("emetic"); all other emotions and criteria need not apply.

1939: A total mail ban is placed on every "letter, card, circular, advertisement giving information how a divorce might be secured in a foreign country."

1944: Postmaster General Frank C. Walker bars Esquire from using second-class rates for being obscene. It takes two years and the Supreme Court to overturn that edict. Justice William O. Douglas denounces Walker's move, calling postal censorship "abhorrent to our tradition." (As we've seen, it really wasn't, but it was nice of him to think so.)

1953: It's Hugh Hefner's turn in court as the Post Office contests Playboy's second-class mailing privileges on obscenity grounds. This dauntless righteousness on the part of the Post Office prompts Wyoming Sen. Gale McGee to vow, "I am going to introduce a resolution to have the Postmaster General stop reading dirty books and deliver the mail!"

1954: With typical bureaucratic childishness, the CIA has to have what the FBI has, so Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield gives his approval to a new CIA mail-opening operation dubbed HT LINGUAL.

Meanwhile, the Post Office tries to improve its public image with some inspired propaganda. It cooperates with ABC-TV in the production of a weekly half-hour series, "The Mail Story," subtitled, "Handle With Care" (which could be seen as a warning to the writers). There are no stories about slow service or clandestine letter openings. Tales of efficiency and the capture of felons dominate the show. (It appears on Thursday nights at 8:30, sandwiched between "The Lone Ranger" and another government PR series, "Treasury Men in Action.") The series barely lasts three months.

1959: The Post Office seizes 164 copies of D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover for use in an obscenity trial. According to Lawrence scholar Ronald Friedland, "Postal authorities were beginning to hold the books up and then sell them secretly for exorbitant prices." Don't ever let it be said that censorship doesn't pay.

That same year, the Post Office stands up to the Red scare of the Cold War by starting a new service: people who are sent mail from foreign countries are notified that their mail has been impounded and will be destroyed unless a card is signed (sort of like a confession of subversion) and returned in 15 days requesting delivery.

1963: Ralph Ginzburg is sentenced to five years in jail and a $42,000 fine for mailing an issue of Eros to a paid subscriber. During a press conference in front of a statue of Ben Franklin, Ginzburg argues that "no form of censorship should be tolerated by the American people." They go on tolerating it and Ralph goes to the pokey.

1964: Ignoring a 1939 law against the mailing of extortionate or threatening letters, the FBI sends one to Martin Luther King, Jr. The public, alas, is denied the sight of J. Edgar hauling himself off to the Big House.

Later that year, chagrined postal inspectors find two tons of undelivered mail in the abandoned home of a retired Water Mill, New York, letter carrier. Some of it is 10 years old. (Copycats apparently abound in the Postal Service: In 1972 a former mailman is arrested when a car he once owned is found to have over 3,000 pieces of unopened mail in the trunk. Just 16 days later another trunkful of mail is found in another carrier's car: he says he did not have time to deliver it all.)

1965: A Senate subcommittee orders the Post Office to turn over a list of 24,000 people whose mail is being watched. In testimony meant to be reassuring, Chief Postal Inspector Henry B. Montague explains that only criminals such as suspected tax-evaders and pornographers are targets of this mail surveillance. The Post Office agrees to burn all the lists.

1971:Chief Postal Inspector William J. Cotter announces new mail regulations that will allow U.S. Customs to open first-class letters from outside the country and check them for "contraband." Along with firearms, explosives, and drugs, the moral bloodhounds will also be removing dirty pictures and books. Cotter, by the way, was once an employee of the CIA.

1972: Investigators begin looking into charges that postal employees in the Bronx are "shaking down" the recipients of welfare and Social Security checks, demanding fees to guarantee delivery.

1973: A New York Times editorial excoriates poor mail service, noting that "a letter mailed in Manhattan takes five days to travel a distance of fourteen blocks, or considerably longer than it takes an astronaut to get to the moon." Responding to the challenge, the Postal Service hires the ad agency of Needham, Harper and Steers to help improve its public image. A budget of $4 million is approved.

1974: Not even a PR firm can gloss over the 12 tons of mail found in the attic of Kentucky mailman Frank Sosienski. Officials say it could take a month for six people to sort and deliver the mass of mail.

1975: A former CIA employee, Prof. Melvin Crain of San Diego State, tells the press that federal agents intercepted and copied mail from Americans to the Soviet Union for years. The Postal Service hotly denies this allegation, spokesman Jamison Cain saying they have never been involved in opening private mail.

Six months later, Postmaster General Benjamin Bailar admits that 25 opened letters have just been discovered on the shelf of a CIA office. (In The Lawless State, Morton Halperin and his coauthors report: "Nearly a quarter of a million first-class letters were opened and photographed…producing a computerized index of nearly one and one-half million names.") From Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. "As for sending a letter through the mails, it was out of the question. By a routine that was not even secret, all letters were opened in transit."

1977: The New York Times reports that U.S. Customs agents opened about 270,000 letters in 1976. The Times notes that Customs is the only government agency allowed to open letters without a search warrant or the permission of the sender or addressee.

1982: The Federal Emergency Management Agency reassures anxious citizens that in the event of a nuclear holocaust, survivors will still get their mail. $20,000 has already been spent stockpiling food and medical supplies for postal employees in five regional centers.

1983: Poetic Justice Department: About 500 postal employees in Burlington, Vermont, get their paychecks three days late. The originals were lost in the mail.

1984: The Postal Service enters a float in the annual Rose Bowl Parade at a cost of some $80,000. Not on the float is Tulsa postman Terry Lee Osborne, who is charged with stealing 121,000 pieces of mail meant for Oral Roberts.

1987: Austin, Texas, mail handler Sherro Turner is videotaped concealing envelopes at his work station. He is arrested on his way to his car, carrying a paper sack containing 22 envelopes and $10,517 worth of food stamps. The 42-year-old Turner is earning only $323 a week.

Also in 1987, it is announced that to maintain the Postal Service's longstanding reputation for service (please stop laughing), a hike in first-class postage will be sought in 1988.

Leo N. Miletich's "Rock Me with a Steady Roll " was featured in REASON's March issue.