Depredators of the Mail: 1

Mailbags rampantBeing a condensed version of Chapter One, with an ample serving of the wit and wisdom, of P.H. Woodward’s The Secret Service of the Post Office Department.

“The Exile” opens on the bucolic Ohio countryside where young Otho Hinton, underpaid yet happy mail carrier, enlivened his mail route “with songs as cheery as the carols of the birds…”

Several years and promotions later, Hinton served as general agent of the Ohio Stage Company, which operated important mail routes throughout the state. The book’s description of Hinton changed along with his job title: “Those well-cut features wore at times a sinister expression far from pleasing.” Foreshadowing perchance?

From 1849-1850, large sums of money sent by the State Bank of Ohio disappeared from stagecoaches. No one physically robbed the mail; the money just “vanished.” Special Agent Thomas P. Shallcross suspected General Hinton, but his post office superiors did not agree. I suppose no one had yet told them that Shallcross possessed uncanny “skill in detection which was soon to render his name a terror to evil-doers.”

When money disappeared August 22, 1850 during a run from Zanesville, Ohio to Wheeling, West Virginia, Shallcross was finally sent to investigate—and, as long as he was there, instill terror in any evil-doers he chanced upon.

Postal Secret Service 2Shallcross discovered that General Hinton rode part of the way with the stagecoach, sitting beside the driver. Feigning tiredness, Hinton had said, “I believe I will get up on top of the coach under the canvas and take a nap. Hand me one of the mail-bags out of the front boot for a pillow. Don’t give me the way mail, but a through pouch, for I don’t wish to be waked up at every post office.” Hmmm, let me have a pouch containing money while I lie here hidden from view. Nothing suspicious there.

Hinton got off at a hotel before the coach reached Wheeling, so Shallcross searched his room and found in the fireplace bits of burnt letters, string and sealing wax.

P.H. Woodward could not resist inserting a homily for the day: “When the moorings that bind one to honesty are cut, the day of safety is passed.”

Sure enough, Hinton’s day of safety had passed; he was captured trying to buy bonds with stolen money. But wait, maybe his day of safety hadn’t passed. Hinton outwitted the men set to guard him (not Shallcross) and escaped.

“Without sitting down to chew the cud of mortification” (there’s a phrase to remember the next time someone does something embarrassing), the guards began scouring the city. Officials distributed reward posters offering $1000, a sum “well-suited to open the optics.”

Postal Secret Service 1Shallcross pursued Hinton across Ohio. Eventually, Hinton fell off his horse while crossing a river at night. The soaked general agent tried to sneak into a hotel window, but his wet socks dripped on Caspar the hostler, who lay sleeping on the kitchen floor. Caspar caught and held him for Shallcross to arrest. “Meester Heenton…Yer puts yer fut een eet dis time…”

I wonder if Caspar received the $1,000 reward and was able to afford an actual bed from then on?

Hinton was remanded to Columbus for trial, but friends posted his bond and he skipped town again, fleeing first to Cuba for a couple of years, then Oregon, the Sandwich Islands and finally Australia. Although Shallcross never again caught the fugitive, the chapter ends on the comforting note that Hinton “…is believed to have led an obscure and wretched life, dreading to meet men, if not dreaded by them.”

Remember, I read the book so you don’t have to!

3 thoughts on “Depredators of the Mail: 1

    • Susan Lendroth says:

      Even better, if these stories are actually true as promised, the names were in part “chosen” by their parents!

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