DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 6: The Postmaster

By Ray Schultz

The U.S. Post Office was then headquartered in a two-story building near the War Department in Washington. Opened during the Franklin Pierce administration, the structure was finished with white marble from Maryland and New York, none of which stopped the roof from leaking. Into this setting in 1861 came Montgomery Blair.

Abraham Lincoln had become President in March of that year. In May, partly to pay off a political debt, he appointed Blair, a border-state moderate whose family had a house across the street from the White House and another in Maryland, as postmaster general.

A former U.S. attorney who represented the fugitive slave Dred Scott, Blair was reviled by radical Republicans for his moderation on the slavery issue. To add to his woes, his house in Maryland was burned down by the Confederates led by General Jubal A.Early.. But Lincoln wrote of his service as postmaster that “I remember no single complaint against with you in connection therewith.”

Blair’s first problem was getting the mail to its destination. The dying words of a wounded Pony Express rider—“Get out of the way—of the—United—States—mail,” in no way implied certainty of delivery. In many areas, service was only nominally better that it was in Franklin’s time, when the main conveyance was the horse. Some rural towns got no mail at all during high water.

Things were worse out west. Jefferson Davis, the secretary of War for Franklin Pierce, had tested camels in the Southwest, but they proved unsuitable, being used to the soft desert sand of the Middle East, not the hard-scrabble ground in the West. All this bred a certain cynicism: Mark Twain expected the stage driver taking him to Utah to “unload the most of our mail matter somewhere on the Plains and leave it to the Indians or whosoever wanted it.”

In 1862, largely thanks to Blair, the post office started operating mail cars on the growing national railroad system. Crews of men, “eyeshaded gnomes in shirt sleeves,” stood on their feet overnight, sorting mail by destination and dropping it into pouches.

One year later, mailmen started delivering to the door in the 49 largest cities. “Little can I tell how my life has been interwoven with those to whom I have carried mail,” said Morris Church, of Worchester, Mass. when he retired decades later. “Their joys and sorrows have taken a deep hold upon my life.”

And in November 1864, the post office started selling money orders so that families could send money to soldiers at the front without fear of theft. (Registered letters had been around since 1855, but the New York Times had argued that the system facilitated “fraud on the part of Post office officials, by pointing out the letters which contain money.”)

Finally, postage was now affordable. Advance payment had been mandatory since 1855, but Congress now sweetened it by lowering the rates and dividing mail into three classes: First class (regular letter mail); second class (periodicals); and third class (circulars).

The lottery men noted all this. And by the time Blair, who had offered to resign when it suited the President, was told by Lincoln, “The time has come,” they were taking full advantage of it.

Chapter 7: Ode To A Crook

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