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!

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!

Depredators of the Mail!

Secret Service annotatedWhen my grandfather was a child, someone named E.S. Harding gave him a copy of The Secret Service of the Post Office Department. (Or, on the book’s spine, the Post Oiffice Department—nothing like an extra i to add symmetry.)

At 583 pages, the tome is chock full of “the wonderful exploits of special agents or inspectors in the detection, pursuit and capture of depredators upon the mails.”

I love this book, from the cover’s crossed mailbags rampant to the 162 engravings of stage coaches and wily depredators with captions like, “With guilt pictured upon every lineament, he answered, ‘I have not got the letter.'”

The U.S. Postal Inspection Service is still active, of course. One of  America’s most venerable law enforcement agencies, 2000 postal inspectors pursue criminals who tamper with our mail.

If you live near Washington, D.C. you might still catch the special exhibit “Postal Inspectors: The Silent Service” at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum before it ends April 8, 2014. Or visit online to read about Public Enemy #1 or to try your hand at solving a case.

The Secret Service of the Post Office Department was already decades old when Harding gave it to Grampa. Perhaps it was a favorite book or perhaps he thought the tales of derring-do just the thing for a young boy. Harding chose well because that book became one of the few possessions my grandfather brought with him when he moved from Maryland to California.

So it’s high time I finally read it. Look for the occasional future post about the “complicated contrivances of the wily and unscrupulous to defraud the public.” I promise that the stories will be both hair-raising and condensed. In other words, I’ll read the book so you don’t have to!