By Ray Schultz
J. Holbrook was an “ear biter,” a name given to postal law agents after one bit off another man’s ear. He spent the early years of his career catching postmasters who pilfered envelopes, and there was plenty of this work to do. “So keen was the scent of the robber, that, like an animated ‘divining rod,’ he could indicate unerringly the existence of gold, or its equivalent beneath the paper surface soil,” he wrote of one such thief.
But Holbrook’s mandate broadened in the 1840s, as the “ear biter” name faded away: He now investigated the growing number of con men who used the post office as their message service. One was a young legal clerk who had stopped not only studying but also obeying the law.
Referred to by Holbrook as “George,” this party needed money. So he turned to The Law Register, a directory of every attorney in the United States. Then he checked off the names of rural lawyers, and those who had no business with his firm, and copied these names. To this list he sent neatly written copies of the following letter:
“Sir: I have received a package of papers for you from Liverpool, England, with six shillings charges thereon — on receipt of which amount the parcel will be sent to you by such conveyance as you may direct. Yours, respectfully, William H. Jolliet.”
Some lawyers saw through the ruse (“let me know if you remain jolly yet”) , but others probably paid without thinking about it, believing that a rich relative in England had died and left them money (a common fantasy at that time).
Complaints about this came to Holbrook’s attention. And he was waiting at the Brooklyn post office one night when George came to pick up his mail. The clerk gave George the letters addressed to “Jolliet;” Then Holbrook put the arm on him.
The young man was prepared. George claimed he was working for “Jolliet,” a man he said he met only on horse cars, and he gave Holbrook a copy of the mailing list. But he was too clever by half. Holbrook visited George’s law firm the next day, and compared the names on George’s list against those checked off in the Law Register. They were identical. The youth confessed, and Holbrook hoped that “the rare talents which he possesses, will be yet be found arry’d on the side of honesty and virtue.” He could have said the same thing of the medium used by George.