Lost and Found: 18th C Mail Bag

Irish letter sealAs I have frequently mentioned, I love stories of lost letters being found bricked up in an old fireplace or hidden in the back of a drawer. But imagine discovering the contents of an entire 18th century mailbag. That’s what historian Thomas Truxes unearthed in an uncatalogued box at the British National Archives.

During the Seven Years War, the British navy captured an Irish trading vessel named the Two Sisters of Dublin off the coast of France in 1757, sending the ship’s contents to London as “evidence.” That included a mail bag full of 125 letters, the majority written by Irish expatriates living in France.

No one had ever studied the letters taken from the mailbag. In fact, most of the letters still had intact wax seals. They had remained unopened and unread for 250 years.

Unlike many of the carefully preserved letters we find in archives, these weren’t the erudite constructions of the elite, who anticipated that their letters might be saved by the recipients. No one wrote these messages for posterity. Instead, the mailbag carried chitchat of everyday life from a cross section of society, housewives and teenagers, maids and parents, rich and poor, literate and not so much.

Irish letterMary Dennis wrote to her sea captain husband, “My Dr I beg you will not omit Riting as it is ye onely Pleasure I Can have in yr abstance I beg you may take care of your self & I beg of the Allmyty God to Preserve you from all Eavill…” [My dear, I beg you will not omit writing as it is the only pleasure I can have in your absence. I beg you take care of yourself and I beg of the all mighty god to preserve you from all evil]

But in the same letter she proved her practical nature, requesting that he bring back olives and pepper to sell at the shop because such wares fetched a good price during the embargo.

A father warned his apprentice son: “I learned that you are a great libertine and that you pay no attention to what Mr. Pearl tells you. Watch out what you do. I am writing to him that if you do not return to your duty to give you some good strokes of the rod.”

And a young maid, in almost unreadable run-on sentences, told her sister about fixing pancakes, complained about being stuck inside and gossiped over how much Mrs. Beab liked their Uncle Frank, asking him over for supper and dancing until midnight.

Read more great excerpts from the letters of an 18th century mailbag.

Lost and Found: At an Estate Sale

Kenney 2I used to visit a lot of yard and estate sales. Most of the time, I just browsed through someone else’s bric-a-brac, searching for pieces that were a good fit for me. But sometimes I ran across old photos or postcards, and was saddened that someone’s memories were selling for a quarter or two.

So I love this story with a happy ending for a family memory.

Jim Kenney wrote to his sweetheart Mary from onboard the U.S.S. Arogonne on November 7, 1942. Three years later they eloped, and were married for 64 years.

Kenney 3

Kenney 1Somehow the letter ended up at an estate sale in Missouri, and an anonymous buyer sent it to Jim Kenney’s grandson in Pennsylvania with a post-it note: “Hello, found this in an estate I purchased and thought you might want it back.”

Jim passed away just a year ago, and his obituary listed the family business to which the letter was addressed. For Jim’s son and grandson, it’s an amazing gift from the past.

Watch their story on the news here (note that the embedded link does not show up with all versions of the Safari browser):

Lost and Found: Mary Shelley Letters

Mary-Shelleys-sealAs the author of Frankenstein, not to mention the wife of Percy Shelley, Mary Shelley holds a justifiably famous place in English literature. Biographers have poured over her correspondence and studied in minute detail what contemporaries wrote about her.

Frankenstein has been adapted to numerous movies and plays, the Creature is now a stock element of Halloween, and the concept of man playing God has become an archetype of the mad scientist in western literature and film.

Considering this intense scrutiny, it’s amazing that Professor Nora Crook of Anglia Ruskin University discovered 13 previously unpublished letters of Mary Shelley just last year.

Mary shelleyWhile the letters have not yielded great revelations, they do offer another peek into Mary’s personal life, her pride in her teenaged son and her friendship with the recipient, Horace Smith, a stockbroker friend of the family.

Plus, several missives still have affixed blobs of crimson wax stamped with Mary’s previously unknown (and surprisingly modern) seal.

As I wrote a couple of weeks ago, I love Letterdipity!

Lost and Found: Letterdipity

David John Phillips Lost LetterEvery once in a while, I do a Google News search on the term “lost letter” because I enjoy the serendipity — let’s call it Letterdipity — of what pops out, everything from an 1800 letter from an Egyptian soldier to a World War I-era letter discovered behind an Orkney fireplace.

Letters arrive mysteriously in the mail decades after they are sent, are discovered tucked inside books and occasionally leave behind only their envelopes.

We even sometimes deliberately lose letters, dropping a message in a bottle into the water or an envelope on the ground like P.G. Wodehouse to see if strangers really are kind enough to mail found letters.

Whatever their origins, whatever their hiding places, lost letters connect us with the past: our own, our ancestors’ or a small slice of someone else’s life story.

Here’s my latest find, a woman discovering a letter Roald Dahl (author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) sent to her son 35 years ago.

Of course, the best part of lost letters is finding one ourselves. Have you ever found a lost letter?

Roald Dahl Letter

Write to Me

Egyptian letter“Write to me…” penned a young soldier of the Roman legions named Aurelus Polion to his family 1,800 years ago.

Plaintively, he asks his mother, brother and sister to respond to one of the six unanswered letters he has sent them.

“I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind. But I do my part writing to you always and do not cease bearing you (in mind) and having you in my heart. But you never wrote to me concerning your health, how you are doing. I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you … while away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger … I departed … and you are glad that(?) … the army. I did not … you a … for the army, but I … departed from you. I sent six letters to you. ”

Tebtunis 2Grant Adamson, a graduate student at Rice University, recently translated the fragile papyrus that an 1899 expedition unearthed in Tebtunis, Egypt, about 90 miles south of Cairo. Buried in the sand a millennium ago, Tebtunis has yielded tens of thousands of papyri, recording life in the cross-cultural city that melded Greek, Roman and Egyptian lifestyles.

Did Polion argue with his family before he joined the army? Was joining the army the reason he was at outs with his family? Whatever the cause of the breach, the young recruit sounds both upset and worried, writing from far away Pannonia, a central European region that spread across modern day Hungary, eastern Austria, northern Croatia, north-western Serbia, northern Slovenia, western Slovakia and northern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

While Polion’s name Aurelius is Roman, he may still have been Egyptian by birth. After 212 ACE, Rome began granting more widespread Roman citizenship to provincial inhabitants of the empire, and they often adopted Roman names.

tebtunis 3Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the first woman Regent of the University of California, Berkeley, funded the archaeological expedition that unearthed the papyri. The archaeologists recovered texts from the ruins of private homes, government offices and the temple of Soknebtunis as well as from human and crocodile mummies in two cemeteries. The soldier’s letter was recovered from the town, not from a mummy. But about those crocodile mummies…

Tebtunis 4Soknebtunis, the crocodile god — Sobek, Lord of Tebtunis — was the chief deity worshipped in the city. A large cache of papyri was unearthed at his temple, and more were found recycled in the mummy wrappings of sacred crocodiles.

Tebtunis 6

Adult crocodile with babies on back.

Expedition leaders Bernard Grenfell and Arthur Hunt, unfortunately, considered the crocodile mummies expendable. Knowing that priests and funeral officials often recycled old papyrus in mummy wrappings, they pulled apart about 1,000 crocodile mummies in their search for ancient texts, but only 31 of the mummies yielded any papyrus fragments. On a few crocodiles they discovered rolls of papyrus wound around the creatures with additional scraps stuffed in their mouths and body cavities. Just a handful of Tebtunis crocodile mummies remain, whether still wrapped in intricate bindings and painted masks or as shriveled husks stripped bare. Researchers at UC Berkeley are now scanning the remaining mummies to unlock more secrets of the sacred crocodiles.

Tebtunis 5Excavators also discovered Tebtunis papyri in an ancient garbage dump and surmised the priests at the temple of of Soknebtunis occasionally emptied the archives to make room for new material.

Read the full text of the letter below and here’s an article about the letter with more information.


legion-xiiii-at-verulamium-museum-credit-enjoystalbansAurelius Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix, to Heron his brother and Ploutou his sister and his mother Seinouphis the bread seller and lady(?), very many greetings. I pray that you are in good health night and day, and I always make obeisance before all the gods on your behalf. I do not cease writing to you, but you do not have me in mind. But I do my part writing to you always and do not cease bearing you (in mind) and having you in my heart. But you never wrote to me concerning your health, how you are doing. I am worried about you because although you received letters from me often, you never wrote back to me so that I may know how you … while away in Pannonia I sent (letters) to you, but you treat me so as a stranger … I departed … and you are glad that(?) … the army. I did not … you a … for the army, but I … departed from you. I sent six letters to you. The moment you have(?) me in mind, I shall obtain leave from the consular (commander), and I shall come to you so that you may know that I am your brother. For I demanded(?) nothing from you for the army, but I fault you because although I write to you, none of you(?) … has consideration. Look, your(?) neighbor … I am your brother. You also, write back to me … write to me. Whoever of you …, send his … to me. Greet my(?) father(?) Aphrodisios and Atesios my(?) uncle(?) … his daughter … and her husband and Orsinouphis and the sons of the sister of his mother, Xenophon and Ouenophis also known as Protas(?) … the Aurelii … (left margin) … the letter …

to the sons and Seinouphis the bread seller … from(?) Aurelius(?) Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix … from(?) Pan- nonia Inferior(?) … Deliver to Acutius(?) Leon(?), veteran of legio …, from Aurelius Polion, soldier of legio II Adiutrix, so that he may send it home …”

Tebtunis 7

Lost and Found: Medal from Napoleon

tumblr_n19ee5k5zH1soj7s4o1_500Lost: one medal. Found: one envelope.

Erik Kwakkel, a medieval book historian at Leiden University, unearthed this old envelope in a box of archival remainders — in other words, very old scraps. The envelope is 19th century rather than medieval like the other papers in the box, and originally contained a medal presented by Napoleon III (who ruled France from 1852 – 1870) to an old soldier who served in the army of that other, more famous Napoleon during the wars that engulfed Europe during the early 1800s.

Erik wrote: “The envelope is really not supposed to exist anymore: it is a miracle that it was not thrown out. I like to think it was received with a shout of surprise, opened up and put aside, while the medal was fixed to the recipient’s coat.”

How it ended up in a box of medieval scrap paper is anyone’s guess, but thank you, Erik, for finding it and sharing it on your blog. Read more about Erik’s find here.

Lost and Found: Happy Birthday from the Past

mm-45-year-old-mail-2014-04-11-bk02_zWouldn’t we all love to receive one last message from a loved one now gone? Susan Heifetz of Brooklyn not only received such a message, but one sealed with a kiss.

A man living in her childhood home called Susan to say he found a letter for her in the mailbox. Postmarked June 26, 1969.

Susan thought the story sounded fishy until he described it. “He said on the back there was a lipstick mark—and that’s something my mother did with letters—seal it with a kiss.”  Continue reading…

Lost and Found: An Irish Letter

Con Shea LetterWhen Curtis Smith began remodeling his 1917 house in Casper, Wyoming, he hoped that he would find something interesting, but who would have expected a letter from Ireland?

Addressed to Con Shea, c/o General Delivery, the letter arrived during WWI, probably in 1914, and ended up behind a wall in a house built three years later. Con’s sister thanked him profusely for a gift he had sent and told him, “You may bet I was delighted when I got your letter for I always know your writing before I opens them.”

Con Shea & John O'Brien

Con Shea on the left and John O’Brien on the right.

And Con must have loved hearing from his family because he saved that letter for at least three years before it was walled in for the next century.

A sheepherder, Con rode the hills and pastures around Casper. The west was still wild in 1914, and the last deadly confrontation between cattlemen and sheep ranchers in the state had taken place just five years previously when masked men attacked a sheep camp, killing three herders and burning their sheep wagons.

Sheep grazing

A few years ago, my parents paid a herder to graze sheep on their California property to thin the grass and lower the risk from fire.

Con himself was gunned down in 1928, but not by a disgruntled cowboy. Fellow herder Frank Bennett killed him after they argued over how much Frank ate for breakfast.

Sheep continue to roam Wyoming, but the number has fallen from millions to 500,000. Peruvian herders watch the flocks now, still riding horseback, so isolated they can’t receive a cell phone signal. Like Con and his family, perhaps they turn to letters.

Read a full transcription of the letter from Ireland and more about both the find and Con Shea in the Casper Journal.


Lost and Found: Hidden in Orkney

David John Phillips Lost LetterNearly a century after it was written by a young sailor in 1916, a letter is finally on its way to members of his family, just not the ones he intended.

David John Phillips was stationed in Orkney, a group of islands off the northern coast of Scotland, during World War I. He fell in love with a local lass named Catherine Isabella Coghill Johnston and brought her home to Wales as his wife after the war.

Catherine’s family lived on Bridge Street in Kirkwall, which is where the letter was discovered behind a fireplace in 1980. An article in Wales Online states: “It is thought the envelope may have been propped up on the mantelpiece ready for posting but slipped down the back unnoticed.” No one indicated David John Phillipswhy it took another 33 years for someone to give the letter to the Orkney Library, which launched the search for David’s descendants.

They found his granddaughter, Mary Hodge, who said, “It’s overwhelming to have a little piece of my beloved grandfather, after all this time.” David signed the letter to his parents Your Blue Jacket Boy and referenced sending them a handkerchief  decorated with a picture of a sailor. Did he also mention Catherine, the girl he knew well enough to leave a letter for the post propped above her fireplace?

The least surprising aspect of this story is that it happened on Orkney, a magical landscape dotted with stone circles, neolithic settlements and heather, all framed by sea and sky. Runes on OrkneyWhen I visited the 4000-year-old Ring of Brodgar—a circle of standing stones less than 10 miles from Kirkwall—I found a message of Viking twig runes carved into one of the monoliths. My father’s family came from Sweden so I could be a descendent of the traveler who left that note a millennium ago, a letter still “propped” on a lichen-covered mantlepiece.