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Dead Letter Office Mysteries

Today we send an e-mail, and if the address is invalid, the message bounces back. It’s annoying, but at least we know the information was not received. 

The Post Office established the Dead Letter Office to manage misdirected letters or those with insufficient—or no—postage. Among the most baffling letters were those with absolutely no address at all.  

Black and white photo probably from about 1950 with women at desks working on letters and a man standing examining a letter in front of bags and bags of mail.
The Dead Letter Office

But the postal service took great pride in locating recipients, so when a letter arrived at the Dead Letter Office the work began.

Staffing For The Dead Letter Office

While effort was made by the early post office to deliver the mail, the Dead Letter Office was not officially established until 1825. By that time, administrators observed that money and valuables were often among the items that needed re-routing. For that reason, the early staff members were retired clergymen. It was felt that they would be both diligent and honest.

When the Civil War occurred, the post office hired women to help with undeliverable mail. The administrators quickly saw that women were patient and very dedicated to puzzling out where a letter needed to go. As a result, their success rate was high.

Recipient or Sender?

Effort was made to identify the recipient, but if that person couldn’t be found, the search was on for the sender so the letter or package could be returned.

Stock color photo showing a stack of letters tied together with string.
Stack of letters to be sorted.

If the task was proving impossible, the employees were legally permitted to open the letter to sleuth out more clues. Then the letter was repackaged, and with luck, it was sent on its way to the correct destination.

Undeliverable Packages

Many packages end up in the Dead Letter Offices. One reporter noted that these packages contained everything from ivory miniatures and false teeth to wedding cakes, pistols and human skulls. Horned frogs and small alligators were often found having escaped their boxes. Since reptiles are not permitted to be mailed, the solution there was to take them to a nearby river to let them go.

Bu the late 19th century, the only live things that could be mailed were “caged and wrapped” shipments of bees. But the reporter pointed out that these were not popular with postal workers. If the packages were damaged, the bees escaped and stung those who got in their way of finding freedom.

Unwrapped Packages

As much as $10,000 in cash (bills and coins) was often found floating loose in the mail. The money was to be turned in at the Treasury.

An illustration of a man sorting the mail, probably 1890s.
Mail sorting

Newspaper wrappers often slipped off making the newspapers undeliverable. Much more unusual items also appeared unwrapped. A news story in the L’Anse Sentinel in northwest Michigan (January 5, 1895) described the mailing of a glass chimney lamp. The item was unwrapped, but the address was attached.

When the chimney glass arrived unbroken, it was clear that postal workers had gone above and beyond their job to deliver it.  The reporter wrote that in the same shipment there were other much sturdier items broken to pieces.

Amazing Routes

In 1885, the New York Times re-printed an item from Colorado’s Greeley Sun:  Reverend Alexander Reid received a letter that had been sent to him, but it took several months. Based on the markings on the envelope, Reid was able to trace where it had been.

The letter was mailed from Spencerport, New York, on March 7, 1885, addressed to Reverend Reid in “Spencer, Ind. Ter.”  It was soon discovered there was no such post office in Indian Territory [Oklahoma]. The letter was sent to the dead letter office in Washington where it was channeled to the “inquiry office” in St. Louis. 

On April 13, a clerk there struck out “Ter.” so the letter was directed to Spencer, Indiana.  The post office in Spencer knew of no Reverend Reid, so the letter was again returned to the dead letter office in D.C.  

At that point, the letter was opened. Inside was a clipping and a note that indicated it should go to Indian Territory so the line through “Ter.” was erased. The clerk addressed it to “Goodland, Ind. Ter.”

When the letter arrived in Goodland, the postal workers recalled that the reverend to whom it was addressed had moved to Colorado.  Postal rules at that time stated that the letter first needed to go back to Washington so the proper destination could be recorded. 

It was then sent to Greeley, Colorado, where the letter was properly received by Reverend Reid on June 2–three months after it was sent.  

Sometimes the post office staff was so proud of their work they attached a note requesting the envelope be returned to them after its final delivery. Since the envelope showed the the notations of where the letter had been, it was a fun curiosity. Some were put on display in the local post office. Others were preserved in albums.


stock  photo of  mailbags

Missing People

If the postal service could find places where letters could be delivered, some people reasoned they should be able to help locate missing people. One mother had not heard from her son in 13 years. Using the post office, she addressed a letter to:

“Mr. James Gunn, Power-Loom Shuttle Maker, Massachusetts, America.”

Her son was found living at 4 Barrington Street in Lowell, Massachusetts. After that, mother and son never lost touch.

The Blind Reader

In the late 19th century, a woman named Patti Lyle Collins (ca. 1945-1913) became head of the Dead Letter Office. She was nicknamed the “Blind Reader,” although her vision was clearly just fine. The nickname was to honor her for her ability to puzzle through difficult-to-decipher addresses.

In 1908, The Saturday Evening Post described her as “unquestionably the most highly skilled expert living.” Her knowledge of the United States and so many other things was vast. One letter was directed to a particular person but the only address given was “Island.” Collins immediately suggested that the letter be sent to West Virginia. There was a portion of the state that was known as “The Island.”

In another case, a letter was addressed to a man on President Street. Collins’s job was simplified because she knew there was only one street in the United States that was called President Street. It was located in Baltimore. Again, the proper recipient was found.

Newspaper clipping of Patti Lyle Collins, called "The Blind Reader"

Magazine Readers Loved Her Stories

Patti Collins was often asked to contribute articles to magazines. Readers loved reading about the postal victories as well as defeats. Collins noted that 32,000 letters are sent each year with no address at all.

In a Ladies Home Journal article written by Collins (September 1899), she presented a list of the hopeful way in which Americans addressed some of the letters. One mother wrote to her son. The address given on the envelope was: “To my Son he lives out West he drives a red ox the rale rode goes by Thar.”

Without the internet and sometimes without easy access to a library, people also hoped the postal service would help them out in other ways. Collins writes that letters were frequently addressed to specific cities where people hoped certain experts could be located:

“Kindly address to largest dealer of old medical books;” [Boston, for example]

“To reliable dealer in old and rare coins;”

“To any Fur Dealer;”

“To Editor of the Best Paper;”

“To Hand Laundry Outfitters;”

“To any dealer in leaf tobacco.”

Collins also examined many of the letters that were sent without addresses. She reported that many of them were from businessmen. Her guess was that they were busy, got interrupted, and before the letter was addressed by the secretary, an office boy wandered through thinking that the letters were ready to go.

The Dedication Is Still There

And I’m here to testify that postal workers have maintained the same can-do spirit of 100 years ago.  In the 1980s I ran a small mail order business from my apartment in New York City. On more than one occasion, there appeared in my mail box an envelope with nothing more than my company’s name, and “New York, NY 10024.”

And one more postscript: On a recent Saturday, I waited in the lobby of an apartment building where I was to meet my daughter.  The postal worker came out from the mail room with several letters to review with the doorman.  They discussed where the former residents had moved. If the building was on the postal worker’s route, he was going to drop it off, even though the person’s forwarding order had expired.  Impressive. 

To read about how the 6888th Central Postal Battalion sorted and delivered the mail during World War II, click here. Morale went up when the soldiers got their mail.

You might also want to visit the Smithsonian National Postal Museum online or in Washington, D.C.

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5 thoughts on “Dead Letter Office Mysteries”

  1. One reader wrote fondly of memories of her long-time letter carrier, George. I’ll let her tell the story:

    “Then there was George. 2016 was a year of many changes – losing a job I loved, good friends moving away, and even George, for many years our intrepid neighborhood mailman, was transferred from our hilly foot route to a well- deserved and easier truck route. Losing George seemed like losing so much more than a letter carrier. We always felt safe with him as our mailman, like the way in which something familiar is a comfort. You just knew he would be just the type to notice if the mail piled up and make sure that nothing was wrong. After he was transferred we seemed to have a slew of different letter carriers, none of them ever recapturing that feeling of home, neighborhood, and the familiar, that we seemed to have with George. The year ended with me having to sell my beloved house and move to an apartment. I was sad about it since it wasn’t a choice, just something I had to do. One day I arrived at the mailbox station just as the truck approached. When the letter carrier stepped out of the truck we looked at each other and laughed out loud – yes, it was George. It was so good to have a touch of the familiar in my new surroundings.”

    Over the years, letter carriers have meant a lot to people! Thanks for sharing this.

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