Depredators of the Mail: 2

Mailbags rampantI think it’s time for another serving of the wit and wisdom, of P.H. Woodward’s The Secret Service of the Post Office Department, so herewith is a condensed version of Chapter Two.

Woodward opens the second chapter with his opinion of his fellow special agents. Not high. “An exceedingly small percentage of the men, commissioned from time to time as special agents of the post office department, grow into efficient and valuable officers.”

On the other hand, Woodward’s requirements for a special agent are a wee bit lofty: “In addition to a kind of clairvoyant insight into the operations of a guilty soul, a master in the art of detection must possess a keenness of attention that permits nothing, however minute, to escape its observation…and often courage that triumphs over danger by a quality of transcendent heroism.”

But if such a man exists, will he even deign to work for the post office? “A character so well furnished with the essential attributes of a detective usually finds more congenial and remunerative employment.” As a superhero, perhaps, or technical security for a software giant. Sorry, wrong century.

Fortunately for the continuation of our story, one such remarkable man occasionally bubbles to the surface. In chapter two, that man is John B. Furay of Omaha, Nebraska, appointed special agent in 1870.

A modest man, Furay describes his early unsuccessful attempts to apprehend wrongdoers: “Although I had plenty of opportunity, a perfect surfeit of good cases, and my district full of good thieves as active and saucy as mosquitoes, and although I worked hard enough, still I could not not capture anybody.”

mail robber 4But Furay soon learned the ropes. His first big break concerned 50 registered packages that went missing on the mail routes of three brothers. Which was guilty? Let’s just say it was a family affair. Caught red-handed, one brother showed where he had dumped the mail: “The rifled packages, hidden in hollow trees and under old stumps, were scattered along the road for the distance of 35 miles…”

Although two brothers were convicted, they escaped from prison and joined the third as outlaws in the Lone Star State — where, no doubt, the Texas Rangers entered the picture.

The second case dealt with more registered mail shenanigans, this time involving a postmaster’s assistant named Smythe, who cooked the books.

smytheBecause that investigation consisted primarily of examining ledgers and lacked action, Woodward spent a lot of ink on the inner turmoil Smythe must have felt as the net closed and he “seethed like the caldron of Macbeth’s witches.”

He also described Smythe and his “diminutive repellent eyes that sparkled with a peculiar snakish luster…”

Dealing with such a character, Furay “thanked God that he was there to protect the right and unmask the wrong.” And once he unmasked Smythe, the law forced the villain to surrender his personal property to pay back the stolen money and sentenced him to ten years in jail. Take that, Snake Eyes!

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

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