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

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.