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Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972, April 15, 1906, Image 41

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Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1906-04-15/ed-1/seq-41/

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Trials of the Dead-Letter Office
A FACETIOUS letter written
a quarter of a century ago K "\7
by Henry Ward Beecher *
m furnishes food for thought
on the subject of epistolary
mortality, howbeit in this case the
epistle is clearly a highly promising candidate for im
mortality. A note written by Mr. Beecher containing
a check for one hundred and fifty dollars was re
turned from the Dead-Letter Office in Washington,
and when he received the usual notice he sent this to
the postmaster:
Oct. 28, 1880.
Colonel McLeer Dear Sir.?Your notice that a
letter of mine was dead and subject to my order is before
We must all die! And though the premature decease
of my poor letter should excite a proper sympathy (and
1 hope it does), yet I am greatly sustained under the
What was the date of its death? Of what did it die?
Had it in its last hours proper attention and such con
solation as befits the melancholy occasion? Did it leave
any effects?
Will you kindly see to its funeral? I am strongly in
clined to cremation.
May I ask if any other letters of mine are sick?danger
ously sick? If any departs this life hereafter don't notify
me until after the funeral. Affectionately,
Henry Ward Beecher.
On learning that the letter contained a check,
Mr. Beecher called at the office and withdrew the
request for its cremation.
The simulated misconception of the status of a
"dead letter" by the famous clergyman had its
counterpart in the genuine alarm of the Irish
domestic who, when told by the postman that
he had a dead letter for her, fell into paroxysms
of terror at the thought that it had come direct
from her dear ould mother in purgatory. Some
people who really ought to know better have an
almost equally flagrant and inexcusable misunder
standing as to the functions of the bureau in Wash
ington where the electrocution of the delinquent
epistles is presumably administered.
Office Finds a Trunk
"^TOT long ago the Post-Office Department received
notice from a man in Pennsylvania that his wife
had lost her trunk, which he desired the authorities
to look up. Upon speaking of the matter to one of
his friends, it was waggishly suggested to the loser
that the trunk might be located by communicating
with the Dead-Letter Office, to which he promptly
wrote. This letter struck a newspaper correspondent
as being so humorous that he printed it in his paper,
which, it was thought, closed the incident. Ridicule
was turned to amazement, however, when a letter
came from the same man, which stated that the
trunk had been found, and expressed thanks for
the interest taken by the department in tracing
the lost baggage. He had seen the publication
in the paper, and supposed it had been made for the
purpose of aiding in the search.
The Dead-Letter Office is neither a medium for
the transmission of intelligence from souls immured
in purgatory, nor a tribunal for the reclamation of
lost luggage. It is a branch of the department at
Washington to which are sent from all the post-offices
of the country mail matter that is for any reason
undeliverable to the persons addressed.
This undeliverable mail falls naturally into two
classes: unmailable and unclaimed. The unmail
able class consists of the matter that is not suffi
ciently prepaid, or is so incorrectly or illegibly
addressed that its destination cannot be ascertained.
It comprises twenty per cent, of the whole mass of
undeliverable, and is not "dead" at all, having
never gone be
yond the mail
ing office till it
was forwarded
to the morgue
at the capital.
The unclaimed
class comprises
those letters,
etc., that being
properly ad
dressed and
prepaid reach
ed the office
of destination,
but were not
called for and
could not be
The report
for the offi
cial year 1904
shows that the
receipts of un
delivered mat
ter from all
sources was
nearly eleven
million pieces,
an increase of
seven and one
half per cent. Of
Former Auditor for the Post-Office Department
these, three million pieces were restored to the
owners. Over fifty thousand sealed letters without
any address were turned in, besides nearly seventy
thousand packages and parcels. There were sixty
five thousand letters that contained money, aggre
gating fifty-three thousand dollars, and sixty-four
thousand that contained drafts, checks, money
orders, and notes of a face value of two million dollars.
The fatal disorders which struggle for suprem
acy in furnishing work for the undertakers at the
Dead-Letter Office may be classified under two
heads: carelessness and ignorance. In the more
excusable cases of fatal ignorance we may place
the pathetic efforts of foreigners to compass the
mysteries of our geographic names.
At the Chicago post-office a record is kept of the
different ways of spelling the name of that city on
mail addresses. At last accounts three hundred
and forty-seven varieties had been tabulated.
Among the less intricate of these were Zizazo,
Jagjago, Hipaho, Jajijo and Chahicho.
Work for " Blind Readers "
A FEW examples of difficult addresses on foreign
letters, deciphered by the "blind readers" are:
" Sirianostrit Tomsville" (Sarah Ann Street, Tomp
kinsville); "Merryone" (Matteawan, New York);
" Istochinchistommo " (East Kingston, New York);
"Soccioples" (Scotch Plains). A letter addressed
"Lost Soldier" was properly delivered at Lost
Cabin, Rawlins County, Wyoming. A correspondent
in Tennessee addressed a friend in Texas at "Calf
City," and the letter was delivered, through the
agency of the Dead-Letter Office, at Wolfe City.
A writer in Minneapolis addressed a Catholic divine
at "Greatbrook, Conn.," but as there is no such
post-office in existence, it was delivered correctly at
Waterbury, Connecticut.
As the prime object of writing a letter is to get
it to its destination and have it read by the person
to whom it is written, it would seem natural that a
little thought should be given to the one thing
necessary to that end, namely, putting the proper
address upon it. Every day thousands of letters are
mailed, conveying important messages and even
containing inclosures of large value, which are com
plete in every respect except that their addresses
are incomplete, or illegible, or confused. Many letters
are dropped into the mails without any address
whatever; some are addressed to a certain town in
one State, when they are meant for a town of the
same name in another; some are mailed with
a street address, but with no town; some with
a town, but without a State, and so on up and
down the gamut of possible deficiencies. Post
office employees, who are endowed with extra
ordinary patience as well as unusual intelligence,
consult directories and gazetteers and contrive
by lucky guesses to save a considerable part
of this flotsam and jetsam of the mails from the
Dead-Letter Office; but much of it gets there, and
where any clue is afforded to the sender it is returned
to him, usually after it has ceased to have any value.
Terrors of Chinese Phonetics
'T'HIS feature of exerting every possible effort to
deliver unclaimed mail before sending it to the
Dead-Letter Office is something original with the
American postal system. Great persistence is shown
in the "try" line. A letter came to this country
from Russia, bearing the simple address, "F.
Simon, America," and the postal authorities de
livered it to the man for whom it was intended. It
traveled five thousand three hundred and seventy
miles to reach the New York post-office, but no F.
Simon was known there. Then the letter went to
Washington, and then to North Dakota, where there
are many Finns. Some one out there had heard of
an F. Simon in Jamestown, New York, and sent it
east again, and P. P. Simon of Jamestown said that
it was his.
Some of the most difficult of the blind addresses
on letters which perplex the post-office clerks are
those which appear on the correspondence of the
enterprising citizens of the Flowery Kingdom who
sojourn among us. When a Chinaman in New York
writes to a friend in Kalamazoo, he places the
address, as he understands it, plainly written in
orthodox national hieroglyphics, in the upper left
hand corner, and takes it to some fellow-countryman
supposed to be skilled in the English tongue,' who
for a small fee transcribes it in our vernacular as
ne.'.rly as he can or cares to and starts it on its way.
As the Chinese characters are phonetic, the fearful
and wonderful work usually made by the half
indifferent and wholly ignorant translator in writing
out the name of the town may be left to a vivid
imagination. The post-office clerk must do the rest;
but, strange to say, ingenuity and intelligence so
come to the rescue of stupidity that ninetv
per cent, of even these densely obscure ad
dresses are correctly deciphered or guessed at, and
the missives are properly delivered.
One experienced postmaster has
alleged that a vast majority of the
letters which go astray are those
which never were written. It would
V.? _ 1 - * - i -I ' ? - ' - 1
to enumerate the multitude of cases where alleged
remittances are claimed or the receipt of real
remittances is denied, without a shadow of founda
tion in truth. The mail system is now so nearly
perfect in its departments of collection, forwarding
and delivery, that the failure of a letter to arrive
is prima facie proof that it was not sent. And
the fact that a letter was sent is practically conclu
sive evidence that it was duly received.
In connection with the Dead-Letter Office the
department maintains a museum, in which may be
found all sorts of curiosities that find their way into
the mails. The lizard, snake, and horned toad, fiowie
knife and pistols, toys and many queer devices go to
make up this well-equipped museum. In this dis
lay may be seen Benjamin Franklin's account -
ook. in which in his own hand he kept the accounts
of the few post-offices in existence during his long
term as Colonial Postmaster-General.
The grotesque, the beautiful, the tragic, the comic,
the infernal machine, and dynamite bomb of the
anarchist, and the most inane achievements of the
practical joker, are all jumbled together, as it were.
One of the most startling things received by the
museum was a perforated tin can containing three
rattlesnakes, very much alive and in fighting trim.
At each of the division headquarters of the Rail
way Mail Service throughout the country there is
established in the city post-office what is called an
inquiry or "nixie" division. This division is com
posed of clerks of the local post-office, carried on the
rolls and paid as other clerks, subject to the regular
discipline and to occasional detail or transfer to
other local-office work. Their principal duty, how
ever, consists in handling the undecipherable or
misdirected mail which is turned in to them daily
from the several railway mail routes converging in the
cities referred to. These inquiry divisions are to all
intents and purposes branches of the Dead-Letter
Office at Washington. They are performing duties
similar to those performed there, and the eighty
per cent, of mail handled therein which thev for
ward to its destination direct would otherwise go
to the Dead-Letter Office for treatment. The
work of these inquiry divisions is important, re
quiring a high degree of skill and patience. It has
never commanded recognition from the department
in proportion to its merits, and the general public
seldom hears of it.
Educate the Children
nPH E daily experiences in each of these branches is
similar to that of the central office, but on a
smaller scale. Here are some specimen puzzles that
were correctly solved:'' Brigded Livingston no 16 post
office city Hartford, State of Canada or three-ways
to No. 39 America." "To Mr. Leedfara, who runs the
ferry over across to Long Island for Mary Maguire
New York." A piece of mail matter once came to the
St. Paul post-office directed: "nelsonnoot corfener
senpol." This was quickly translated by the inquiry
division experts into " Knute Nelson, Governor, St.
Paul," and delivered at the State Capitol to the then
chief executive, now the senior United States
Senator from Minnesota.
The National Association of Postmasters for the
past few years has advocated the plan of having
instruction given in the public schools on the proper
method of addressing letters. This is being done
in some of the large cities and is an admirable
plan. Eighteen
million chil
dren attend
the schools of
the country. If
writing and
mailing letters
was made a
part of the dai
ly instruction,
there would be
little work for
the Dead-Let
ter Office. The
children who
go to school
in the German
Empire are
compelled to
know how to
use the mails.
They are re
quired to pass
before gradu
ating from the
schools, and it
is rarely that
a person ad
dresses a letter
improperly in
that country.

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