Remembering the Dead

Article from Enroute*

By James H. Bruns

Volume 1, Issue 3
July–September 1992

In the years before World War I thousands of letters handled by this country's postal service went undelivered. They ended up in the waste bin because they were addressed improperly or incompletely, or were illegible. When local postal workers were stumped about what to do with a letter they couldn't deliver they forwarded the stray mail to the Dead Letter Office.

This wasn't the letter morgue you might imagine. Here, the misguided missives were not simply forgotten. Instead, a group of skilled dead letter detectives set about to discover the correct destinations so that the mail might get delivered.

Basically, dead letter clerks handled three types of mystery mail: Misdirected letters, which were those which had all of the right information necessary to get them delivered, but for some reason were sidetracked, largely either because they weren't handled correctly by postal employees or had been abandoned at the designated post office; "Blind Readings," so called because to the average postal worker the address would appear as though it was read blindfolded; and prank mail.

Only the Dead Letter Office had the authority to open letters which couldn't seem to get delivered. Once opened, the contents of letters were considered sacred, so much so that the dead letter clerks were—and still are—forbidden to read any more of the communications than absolutely necessary to determine where the letters should go.

At the end of the 19th century it was not uncommon for the clerks in the Dead Letter Office to handle as many as 23,000 pieces of "dead" mail daily. Unfortunately, scarcely more than 40 percent of these letters ultimately got to the proper destination, although not for lack of effort. The rest generally were sold as scrap paper.

Why was this mail destroyed? The answer is simple. On an average, over 80,000 of the letters and packages forwarded to the Dead Letter Office at that time didn't contain any address at all, and on much of the rest, the information provided was either incomplete or so poorly written that the addressee could not be found. This was especially true about mail from foreign countries. The dead letter snoops had a real knack for unscrambling the scribbled addresses on overseas mail.

However, before being relegated to the scrap pile, each letter received a thorough going over. The dead letter detectives dug for clues that would reveal where a letter was to go. Frequently, their search paid off. Using such things as published guides and travel brochures, in true Sherlock Holmes fashion they were able to find homes for much of the mangled mail or misdirected letters. This was impressive considering the small amount of information they often had to go on. For example, one letter containing a check for $1,000 was simply addressed to "Dr. Washburn, Roberts College." The experts in the Dead Letter Office knew that Roberts College wasn't located in the United States. It was in Constantinople, Turkey. Within 16 days Dr. Washburn had his letter and money.

Knowing how good the clerks in the Dead Letter Office were at locating people, occasionally friends and relatives turned to that office for help in finding missing people. One woman who had not heard from her son in 13 years mailed a letter addressed to "Mr. James Gunn, Power-Loom Shuttle Maker, Mass., America." Using the little information which was provided the dead letter clerks tracked down Mr. Gunn. He was living at Number 4 Barrington Street, Lowell, Massachusetts. Within a matter of months Mrs. Gunn and her son apparently were exchanging letters on a frequent basis.

By the early 1890s as many as 800 to 3,000 ordinary foreign letters were being forwarded to the foreign division of the Dead Letter Office daily. Frequently misconceptions about America contributed to the problems faced by the foreign division. In one case, for example, an Italian writer in the 1890s addressed a letter to "Chicago, New York," thinking that New York encompassed the entire country.

About six percent of the dead mail handled around the turn of the century contained items of value. In one year, for example, 29,017 letters contained cash amounting to $42,064. Another 71,336 letters contained checks, postal notes, or money orders worth $2,308.046. Luckily with the help of the dead letter detectives, a good deal of this stray mail ultimately found its way home. During another year, 49,683 pieces of mail, including $2,190,422 worth of valuables, were returned.

It should be noted that because of the fact that large amounts of other people's money, and occasionally jewels, were often handled by the Dead Letter Office, that branch of the Post Office Department preferred to employ retired clergy, whom they felt could be trusted with items of value.

Women were hired by the Post Office Department to work in the Dead Letter Office for a different reason. Postal officials felt that women had better analytical powers than men, and could therefore decipher complicated and confusing addresses far easier. There have been many exceptional letter detectives in the Dead Letter Office. The best of them was Mrs. Patti Lyle Collins, who worked for the Post Office Department at the turn of the century.

Considered by her contemporaries to be a charming lady from a fine old Southern family, Mrs. Collins was described in The Saturday Evening Post in 1908 as " . . . unquestionably the most highly skilled expert living."

Around the turn of the century, the Dead Letter Office received about 7 million dead letters annually. Sometimes luck played a part in correcting "ghost" mail, as in the case of a letter marked "Miss Isabel Marbury, Stock." Remembering that Marbury was a common name in Massachusetts, Mrs. Collins directed it to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, which was exactly where it belonged.

Another time she was asked to determine where one item addressed simply to a recipient in "Island" should go. With little hesitation, she corrected the address by adding "West Virginia." She knew that a portion of that state was commonly referred to as "The Island," and she was right.

Although guesswork certainly came in handy, there was no substitute for experience, and Patti Lyle Collins had plenty of that. For example, she knew the names of almost every major corporation in the United States, plus most colleges, government agencies and private institutions. She also knew much of what there was to know about many American cities. Because of her ability, when a letter crossed her desk addressed to "Giuvani Cirelili, Presidente Sterite, Catimoa," she knew exactly where to send it. Although there was no post office in the country named "Catimoa," there apparently was only one city at that time with a "President Street,"—Baltimore, Maryland. Within a matter of days, this letter reached the person for whom it was intended.

She was a skilled decipherer who could quickly translate by sound such destinations as "Reikzhieer, Stiejt Kanedeka" (Roxbury, State of Connecticut) or "Tossy Tanner, Tx." (Corsicana, Texas) or "Cikepu Kornsors, Levynworth Co. (Kickapoo City, Leavenworth County, Kansas).

Clearly some cases were tougher to solve than others. The clerks of the Dead Letter Office made keepsakes of many of the worst letters they handled. When they cracked a really tough address, a card was sent along with the letter to the postmaster asking that the empty envelope be returned once the letter was delivered to the addressee. The Postmaster forwarded the outer wrappers to the Dead Letter Office, where they were retained as curiosities. Collections of such letters were bound together into small leather albums. One such volume is in the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum. Another can be found in the U.S. Postal Service Library in Washington, D.C.

These tiny albums are a vivid reminder of the dedication of America's turn of the century dead letter detectives, a remarkably dedicated group of postal workers devoted to solving this nation's mail mysteries.

*EnRoute was the National Postal Museum's newsletter.