DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 33: Rub The Buddha For Money

By Ray Schultz

The real threat in the list business was a device that took up an entire room, with wires and tubes sticking out of it, that needed to be constantly cooled. In his novel, The End Of The Battle, Evelyn Waugh, satirically described an early version of this machine being used in World War II. “It’s been flown in from America,” Mr. Oates, a bureaucrat explains to Captain Guy Crouchback, an officer desperately seeking a war assignment. “It took 560 man-hours to install. The mechanics came from America, too. There isn’t another like in the country.”

“But what is it?”
 “An Electronic Personnel Selector.”
Mr. Oates demonstrated it. “Now here—“ he picked up a chit from his tray—“is a genuine enquiry. I’ve been asked to find an officer for special employment; under forty, with a university degree, who has lived in Italy and has Commando training—one, two, three, four, five—“ Whirr, click, click, click, click, click. “’Here we are. Now that is a remarkable coincidence.’”

“The card he held bore the name A/TY. Captain Crouchback, G, R.C.H., att H.O.O. HQ.”

This wasn’t as much of a joke as it seemed. In 1945, the New York Times revealed one of “the war’s top secrets,” a system that applied “electronic speeds for the first time to mathematical tasks hitherto too difficult and cumbersome for solution.”

That was the computer. At first, it was mostly used by the military. Only a few companies owned one—others had to rent timeshares, and work through the night at the mercy of unbathed technicians. But when used with a printer and mailing lists stored on tapes, the computer could spit out junk mail letters by the thousands.

John Stevenson bought one for $700,000 in 1958. “The computer didn’t create great growth or even save us a lot of money,” he said. “You had to go from low-paid help to more expensive help.” He admitted, though, that “If it wasn’t for the computer, I would have run the risk of being in jail. There were so many mistakes.”

But many hard-headed people didn’t get it. The DMMA, the brainchild of the convicted killer Victor Louis Eytinge, held a seminar on the computer in 1965, but “It wasn’t very well attended,” admitted Robert Delay, the wavy-haired Midwesterner who led the association from 1959 to 1984. “We ran it about three times, then we couldn’t afford to run it any longer, we didn’t have enough participants. The cost began to be picked up by computer manufacturers.”

Around this time, the Post Office introduced the Zip Code, the postal coding system that helped postmen sort mail and would allow businesses to hone their geographic targeting to a very fine level. It was a gift. But once again, junk mailers opposed it.

“The ZIP code was terribly important. we wouldn’t have had mail delivered otherwise,” DeLay said. “We had a series of meetings around the country to explain it. We lost a lot of members. Pete Hoke (son of the Nazi fighter Henry Hoke)) used to editorialize against it every week. It would kill all the vendors, it was too costly. And it meant that lettershops had to change to computerization. A few said they would never change, and of course they aren’t in business.”

Fueled by constant media coverage, the public was growing ever-more tired of junk mail. So in 1971, Delay and his part-time Washington person James Daly, formulated a brilliant PR stunt called the Mail Preference Service. Consumers could send their name in to opt out of receiving all direct mail. DMMA members had to subscribe to the service, which provided them with frequent updates. Later, this was extended to telemarketing with the Telephone Preference Service.

It took awhile to take off. DeLay was called to testify before Congress. Then-Congressman Ed Koch said, ‘Mr. DeLay, I understand that the biggest member of your association doesn’t use the Mail Preference Service.’ DeLay recalled, “I was gonna have to admit that was true, then a guy by the name of Gertz from Donnelley stood up and said, ‘Sir, if you don’t mind, I can answer that question. We decided at a board meeting last week that we were going to adhere to the Mail Preference Service.’


Ed Proctor, the veteran list broker whose father had started in 1899, labored on into his 90s, serving a few loyal clients from his office in Haworth, New Jersey, and enjoying lunches at his nearby club. But he was ousted shortly before he died in 2000, and by this time, new players had taken over, like Robert Castle, a man who wrote software and could discuss De Kooning as easily as he could lists. In 1974, Castle used the Freedom of Information Act to buy bought a list of 1.9 million people who had purchased Carson City silver dollars. It cost him only $515. Even better, “a truck pulled up with boxes that contained the magic words: ‘master tape,’” Castle said. “I had the only copy.”

Castle scored another coup in landing the list brokerage account of National Liberty, a mail order insurance company run by Arthur De Moss and staffed largely by religious missionaries. Castle helped sell many programs, including veteran’s insurance to policies for non-drinkers.

How would you verify that they didn’t drink?

“It was phony,” Castle laughed. “You couldn’t prove it.

Another upstart was Marty Lerner, an aeronautical engineer who had run a school called the Institute of Computer Technology. He found that colleges were desperate for names of high school students to whom they could send junk mail. So he started a company called American Student List, and made some money renting lists to them. He also did some commendable, pro bono work, using his database to locate missing children.

But a certain hubris crept in. The Educational Testing Service Inc., which tested college hopefuls, and the Student Union refused to rent him their own lists of names. Lerner sued in 1979, claiming anti-trust issues, and probably regretted it, for his deposition shed light on the tactics he used to create lists.”When you started your company, did you have any training at that time in computers?” the opposing lawyer asked in a deposition.


“Or the direct mail business?”


“Or marketing of any sort?”


Lerner’s credentials having been established, the lawyer moved on to the delicate subject of where he got the names of college-bound high school seniors.

“The largest source is the motor vehicle bureaus throughout the country,” Lerner said..

“Are there any other sources?”

“Schools,   school   directories   and   lists   that   guidance counselors may have.”

He refused to be more specific, and the lawyer said, “Let the record show that he is refusing to give the names of sources.”

Lerner then conceded that he also obtained names from school ring companies, and from students themselves.

The conversation turned to the fact that Motor Vehicle files have little real information on them.

“There is nothing you can get from a motor vehicle department other than the name and address,” Lerner said. ”That’s the only thing they supply us.”

“You don’t try to find out which of those students intend to go to college, and which do not?

“No, we don’t want to find out anything about them.”

“Did   you ever   at any   time consider   putting on   your advertising brochure a statement to the effect that these were not all the names of high school students?”

“No, I never considered doing that.”

“Or giving any indication in your circulars and brochures that many of these people were simply people of the right age?”

“No, I never considered doing that.”

“And the reason you refer to this as a list of high school seniors is that you feel you had leeway to puff, is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“Did you tell the Securities and Exchange commission that your list was a list of high school seniors?”


“Were you puffing them, too?”

“No, I don’t think I was puffing them.”

“Have you ever tried to ascertain whether or not   HS students have to legal capacity to consent to their use of names?

“No, I never did.”

“You never looked into that?”


The lawyer asked if it was true that some of the Student Union’s names had ended up on Lerner’s list without permission.

“I believe we were supplied with a tape,” Lerner said. “That tape was probably taken and selected with our own file, so that the names could be merged in and de-duplicated.”

“Is it a fact that if some other (fitm) were to request a list by that category, he would get those Student Union names?”

“Ultimately, that’s what did happen.”

“Did you know that these names would become part of your

general list?”

“Yes, that’s right.”

“Isn’t that against the rules?”

“Well, I don’t know what you’re referring to by rules right at the present time.”

Lerner qualiied his answer by saying it was a mistake.

Despite the fact that this lawsuit went nowhere, Lerner prospered as the 1980s went on, and so did a host of other list peddlers—people who took a 20% commission as broker on list rentals and 10% as manager, and prospered as the business boomed. One of them, Jack Oldstein, expressed it perfectly on a promotional button he sent to clients in 1983: “Rub the Buddha for money.”

Chapter 34: Junk Mail Babylon

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 31: Eros

By Ray Schultz

In 1954, The New York Daily News ran the headline, “Hello, Sucker! We’re all on Mail Lists. From Cradle to Grave You Can’t Get Off.” The term “junk mail” gradually came into use, and the word “junk” was applied to food, bonds and other things.

In 1962, the junk mail business attracted the notice of Congressman Clement J. Zablocki a mustachioed Democrat from Milwaukee. What led him to it was not a genuine outrage that might have required legwork to uncover, but an episode served up by a man who was looking for trouble.

Ralph J. Ginzburg didn’t start out looking for trouble. His first brush with the mail order business came at age 10 in 1939, when he ordered the book, How to Win Friends and Influence People from an ad in Boy’s Life. “I recall riding back and forth to Manhattan from my home in the Borough Park section of Brooklyn on what used to be called the Brooklyn-Manhattan Transit Subway line, which then cost a nickel to ride — pouring over every syllable of that book, committing it to memory. Of course, reading the book in that way I didn’t finish it until I was 19.”

Ginzburg served in the Army, then worked as a writer and photographer. In 1962, after a varied career, he started Eros, which he described as “an intellectual magazine on love and sex.” Eros was a graphically lavish periodical designed by the revered art director Herb Leballin, hard-bound in the manner of American Heritage, and not at all prurient by later standards. The Ginzburgs launched it with a $400 mailing, and published the first issue only after they had enough subscribers to support it.

Later, Ginzburg argued, that, “America, from Benjamin Franklin’s time, enjoyed a tradition of allowing publishers to solicit prepaid subscriptions for a magazine that had not ye appeared in just this very way. The word subscribe derives from the Latin for “underwrite” and Americans were allowed to underwrite, that is, to subsidize the launching of the new magazines whose editorial purposes, as described in prospectuses they supported.”

The idea of offering a magazine that had not yet been published would not be litigated at that time. What would be litigated was the idea of Eros, which in its fourth issue featured a four-color photo spread of a nude, mixed-race couple. Ginzburg believed that this is what really got him into trouble, although he was never prosecuted for the magazine itself, but for the junk mail that supported it.

Ginzburg’s mistake was mailing a brochure for the Housewife’s Handbook on Selective Promiscuity, to doctors of all people. Their sensibilities violated, several MDs complained, and postal inspectors were sent out to track down  how the pornographer had found them. It wasn’t hard: he had rented the American Medical Association mailing list for $3.50 a name. Ginzburg probably should have let it alone, but he by now a cause celebre, and a skilled publicity seeker. When denied further access to the AMA list, he used the list anyway and sent ou a second mailing to physicians, proclaiming, “The AMA does not want you to open this envelope.”

In 1963, Ginzburg was indicted on federal obscenity charges. He showed up or the first of the big show trials of the 1960s wearing a straw boater and boutaneer. He was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. The appeals went up to the U.S. Supreme Court, where Justice William Brennan wrote, the “leer of the sensualist also permeates the advertising for these publications.”

In 1971, all appeals dashed, Ginzburg reported for his prison sentence at Allensburg Federal Penitentiary, where he served eight months. His wife Shoshana would later say, “It was so much fun. We had no idea in our wildest dreams that it would cause this kind of trouble.”

And now Zablocki  and several smirking  legislators passed Ginzburg’s mailing piece around and used it to butress the argument that mailing list brokers should be forced to register with the post office. Zablocki was able to come up with a charge that Boy Scout’s names had been used for pandering. BuZablocki had more on his mind than pornography,   complaining that “individuals and organizations who rent their lists often have no idea of how they ultimately will be used.”

So-called legitimate direct mailers had to pretend that Ginzburg, who rented hundreds of thousands of names a year from mainstream companies, was not a part of the “industry.” Red Dembner of Newsweek, who had himself bought millions of names of unknown origin from Herb Ozda, testified, “It is a trying problem to apprehend and convict smut peddlers and yet it is one about which all of us are deeply concerned.”

Zablocki asked Dembner if he would rent the Newsweek list to the likes of Ralph Ginzburg. Denmber weaseled his way out of it this way: “If I were to say, ‘I am going to use this list for sending out a solicitation,’ If they were to say that to me, Newsweek would not rent that list to this user.”

Zablocki’s committee, satisfied that great eveil was lurking, created something called “the pandering file”—a list of people who did not want to receive sexually oriented solicitations. All direct mailers had to match their lists against this file, and eliminate the names of the people who wanted out.

Ginzburg went on to publish a number of magazines, including a muckraking journal called Fact. Senator Barry Goldwater sued him for libel–and won–when Fact alleged he was mentally unfit. Later, it seemed that Ginzburg started magazines, offering lifetime subscriptions, only to generate mailing lists that he could rent out. In 1984, he made news again by running a full-page ad in The New York Times for a save-the-eagle charity, showing a dead eagle with its wings spread out. He said he paid for the ad himself as a “personal contribution.” He was unfairly demonized at times. Gizburg in his later years became a photographer for the NewYork Post. And in 1994, the legendary publisher entertained a meeting of junk mailers by showing slides of his gorgeous bird photos.

Chapter 33: Rub The Buddha For Money


DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 35: The Manhattan Shuffle

By Ray Schultz

Housed in a former social services building, the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Brooklyn, New York lacked ornamentation and anything describable as a courtroom. Still, it served for the drama that took place three days before Christmas in 1992. Lawyers gathered in a low-ceilinged room to decided who would get an asset that was depreciating in value even as the price was going up: A mailing list of 28 million American households, including intimate details on bodily functions.

Computerized Marketing Technologies had been the work of Barry Wolf, an affable man with a gravely voice. The son of an ex-prizefighter, himself the veteran of several club fights, Wolf never went higher than eighth grade in school. But he rose from a job as trucker in his home town of Los Angeles to an assistantship in the back room of an advertising agency, and finally to an executive position with Nielson, the surveying company. Then Wolf went into business for himself, building a nationwide network of penny saver newspapers and a private system that not only distributed the papers but also took on side jobs like delivering product samples for manufacturers.

Doing so,  he realized something that had eluded the geniuses on Madison Avenue: That non-smokers resent having cigarettes dropped on their doorsteps. Wolf devised the idea of putting little signs on houses the day before a big sample drop, asking them if they wanted the cigarettes.

By the early 80s, R.J. Reynolds was paying 50 cents for the name of each smoker. To find them—and dog owners—Barry relied on a home truth: that to find out the most personal details on people, you only have to ask.

In the fall of 1982, several hundred thousand housewives opened their Sunday newspapers to find a new insert packet called Select ‘N Save, filled with discount coupons. Wolf financed this with the proceeds from a real estate deal and the sale of his newspaper company. Those who rifled through the insert found a questionnaire, advising them that they could get free samples by answering a few simple questions. Roughly 20 percent of the people who got it filled out the form, and it apparently didn’t bother them that they had put on a stamp to pay for the return postage.

Soon, Wolf  had enough names to start regular direct mailings. The mailings fed the surveys that fed the list that fed the mailings.

“Not only did we know who had a dog, we had it down to who had a Rottweiler,” bragged the late Bart Loring, the mailing list manager of CMT.

The mailing list, which soon included 20-million families, was too valuable to be wasted on Select ‘N Save mailings. Wolf decided to see if they could make a buck through the traditional list rental channels, at first assigning management to Bob Castle, then bringing it in-house, under the trade name Behaviorbank.

The pharmaceutical houses wanted to reach these consumers, too, but they needed to know more about them, so CMT started loading up the survey forms with medical questions. Soon, they had “suffer from” data on 15-million households, as in “suffer from heart disease, suffer from diabetes.” Some of the numbers were:

  • Bladder control and incontinence—1.8-million
  • Diabetes—980,000
  • High blood pressure—1.2-million…
  • High cholesterol—2.7-million
  • Heart disease—870,000
  • Alzheimer’s—165,000
  • Bronchitis—165,000

Unfortunately, the company started having cash-flow problems–lots of them. To secure a berth in a Select ‘N Save package, even the biggest clients had to pay postage in advance, but CMT apparently was not a good manager of such monies. Quaker Oats filed a lawsuit, alleging that “Quaker funds may have been converted to CMT’s own use and comingled with CMT’s own funds.”

CMT had to settle that suit for $844,000, and to give Quaker a security interest in 18-million of “the most recently added consumer names, with mailing addresses and appended demographic, psychographic and product usage data”–in essence, its mailing list.  Then CMT decided it might as well do the same thing with its printer, Webcraft, to which it owed $1.4-million: it gave the printer a copy of the database. Webcraft filed suit, seeking to turn its physical possession of the database into full legal possession. Why not? It was paying storage charges on 97 tractor-trailers filled with tons of CMT circulars.

CMT could well argue that the people on the list had volunteered their family information. But those parties couldn’t have known that their data would also be handed to Quaker and Webcraft.

But things got even worse. At one point, CMT also owed $434,000 to Campbell’s Soup; $229,360 to Coca Cola; $491,800 to General Mills; $505,079 to General Foods; $321,950 to Philip Morris; $489,266 to Pillsbury; and $558,233 to Miles Inc.

Despite having a copy of the list, Quaker sued, claiming it had never gotten the survey responses it deserved. “The loss of data (totals) at least $1.50 per each respondent,” it said. “Quaker believes one-million respondents returned surveys, therefore Quaker is damaged to the extent of at least $1.5-million plus interest.”

The only option for CMT was bankruptcy. Albert Togut, the lawyer assigned by the creditor’s committee, had to unravel it all, and there was little precedent to go on because the courts were not used to evaluating the value of “data assets.” Fortunately, the CMT leaders were willing to assist in the setting of a price. They presented as an impartial expert, Donald W. Binns, who sent a resume to the court saying that “I possess the necessary skills and expertise which have developed over the last 15 years.”

There is no question that the charming, smooth-talking Arkansan was an expert on CMT’s assets: He had, through his company Infomedia, placed millions of inserts in the Select ‘N Save packages on behalf of the mail order insurance company Colonial Penn. Binns was one the great hidden movers of Data Land. His resume stated he was responsible for “Development and construction and ownership of one of the first multi-source national consumer databases which totaled over 100-million consumers..” He worked for the Jimmy Carter campaign in 1976, and through his company DataTron did direct mail work for the Democratic National Committee and gubernatorial races in Louisiana and Florida.

In addition, Binns helped the National Rifle Association build its database. And he and a partner put together the JC Penney Age File, with exact dates of birth on 45-million people. JC Penney itself made crude use of this asset, sending a birthday mailing saying, “It’s your 41st birthday.”

Thus credentialed before the court, Binns came up with a price for the CMT database $3.5-million. That price was tendered to the most likely buyer: Metromail, formerly known as O.E. McIntyre Co.

That firm had been founded in 1947 by O..E. McIntyre. And it was known for legendary direct mail feats. In one campaign, for Reader’s Digest (“If thou hast two pennies, spend one for bread, and with the other buy hyacinths for the soul”), McIntyre had to acquire 100 million pennies and insert two each into each of the mailing pieces. The sheer weight almost collapsed the floor of its Long Island plant.

In 1966, McIntyre’s sons, who were now running the company, were approached by John Kluge, the German-born founder of the Medtromeia TV network, who was trying to create a multi-media empire. They sold it to him, and he renamed it. Later, Metromail was spun off and became one of the Big Three data compilers, the others being Donnelley Marketing and R.L. Polk.  It was now eager to buy the remains of CMT at a good price. The $3.5 million deal had lucrative employment contracts thrown in for Wolf and Andrew Goldstein.

Togut objected, saying the offer was ” ridiculously low”—the creditors would take a “bath while the debtors’ principals had found the pot of gold,” he argued. By December, the Metromail offer was up to $5.6-million, and the company put up $600,000 as a down payment. It looked like a sale, and there was a holiday atmosphere in the court.

“What happened to you?” Togut asked Kelly Cornish, an attorney for Metromail.

“I lost my voice.”

“Oh, I hate that.”

But there was one party who wanted to disrupt this joyous set piece: Leslie A. Plaskon, a lawyer for Metromail’s competitor Donnelley Marketing. Hilton sensed the minute she stood up that there was a problem.

“Do we have a buyer willing to buy and a seller willing to sell?” the judge demanded.

“We sure as hell did,” Togut said.

“What more do I have to hear?”

Plaskon tried to state her case. And yet even she could not say what was on her mind.

“I would rather not go into the details of the claim,” she said. “I think the debtor would rather I did not.”

“No, no, no, I have nothing before me regard to that claim. I have no pleadings,” the judge countered. “Nobody has witnesses.”

It would not have been easy for the judge to understand. Despite competing, Metromail and Donnelley cooperated with each other and there was a steady flow of data back and forth. For example, there was the Age Consortium, an arrangement through which the companies shared the costs of gathering age data from driver’s records–each firm took certain states, and all received the data. And they were forming a Children’s Consortium.

Donnelley had been around in some firm since 1917. It 1946, it published a demographic map of Philadelphia, in which the “colored” area was shown in brown.

Donnelley, aware that the sale CMT was going to give its arch-rival Metromail a database with a dimension it now lacked, started pondering a counter-offer for an asset it didn’t want. But it now had a more serious problem, and Plaskon finally got it out.

Donnelley had found, through an employee who had worked for Don Binns, that part of its own Share Force database had ended up in CMT’s database, and it now claimed an ownership stake in the asset being sold. The deal was coming apart at the seams.

The alarmed Metromail people countered that this claim could “cost this estate a substantial amount of money from a competitor who we believe would like nothing better than to, in my best French, screw up the sale.”

“That is not a resolution,” said the judge of the Donnelley claim. “That gives Donnelley a $6.2-million stick. I am not going to give anybody that size stick.”

He added that unless it could be resolved, the matter would have to be litigated. And the earliest possible date would be the following March.

“I am planning on being in hits courthouse about another hour and a half,” the judge added. “If you have a proposed order for me within that time I will be happy to consider it; if not I am simply going to adjourn this hearing.”

With millions riding on it, the parties recessed briefly to work it out. Donnelley, still convinced that its data was misused, was aware, of course, that some of angry creditors were clients or potential clients.

For his part, Togut had said, “We want their money, you bet.” He knew that the value of the CMT database was declining by the day—it had not been updated in two years. Cornish, too, hoarsely stated that she wanted to resolve it. So they brought Andrew Goldstein to the stand when court was resumed, and he was ready with answers.

“Did you obtain a file from Infomedia?” he was asked.

“We obtained  a file containing   names and addresses of consumers of about 40 to 50 million and we were told by the president of Infomedia, Don Binns, that this was a list that was compiled from many sources, including names from Share Force by Donnelley Marketing.

“Share Force was a database?”


“That database was owned by Donnelley Marketing?”


“Mr. Binns was in court this morning?”


“And Mr. Binns made these   representations to you this morning; correct?”


“At the time you got   the 40 or 50-million names   from Infomedia it was over a period of time, wasn’t it?”

“No, we got the list basically all at one time.”

“Were there other so-called databases besides the Share Force database in those 40- to 50-million names?

“On tape.”

“Have you returned all those  copies of those computer tapes?”


“What did you use the information on the computer tapes for, and make the assumption that encompassed in the information as part of the Share Force database?”

“We took that database along with several other databases and used them for verification of names and addresses. The purpose being that if a name and address appeared on more than one list it was more likely to be a correct name and address.”

“Did Mr. Binns (or Infomedia) represent to the debtor that you had the right to use the tape — i.e., the database, the 40 or 50-million names, to do a verification of the names and addresses?”


“Did you use it for anything else?”


That one word settled it. Donnelley realized it had allowed its own data out the door—and it soon stopped doing so.

“Your honor,  in consideration  of the   receipt of   this testimony Donnelley Marketing Inc. hereby on behalf of Donnelley Marketing hereby relinquishes any and all claims against the assets being sold and withdraws its objections to the sale of assets so the assets maybe be sold free and clear of any and all claims,” the Donnelley lawyer stated.

That nailed it. Everyone thanked the court.

A data business insider referred to such shenanigans as “the Manhattan shufle,” although none of this took place in Manhattan. Binns continued in the trade: A few years later during a trade convention, an acquaintance commented, “He’s not down here on the floor, but I bet he’s in a room somewhere in this hotel, doing business.”

Metromail ran into trouble when a client named Aristotle Industries sued it for illegally using the voter registration lists Aristotle had hired Metromail to enhance.. As exposed by the Wall Street Journal, the company had incorporated voter information into its database from states that prohibited commercial use. And it lied to consumers during telephone calls, saying it was conducting a survey on ice cream preferences. There was no survey—this was strictly a way of confirming names and addresses. John Aristotle Phillips, the owner of Aristotle Industries, owned a few shares in Metromail and started showing up at shareholder meetings and hectoring the firm about its privacy violations. For instance, he teamed up with the father of the murdered child Polly Klass, and Mr. Klass  claimed that lists such as Metromail’s helped fiends like his daughter’s killer find their victims. And Metromail utilized prison workers to call people at home, one of whom allegedly made suggestive comments to a female consumer. Metromail, its dirty underbelly exposed, was gobbled up by another company. But all that was a few years in the future.

As for CMT, the formal closing of the bankruptcy sale took place on Dec. 30, 1992 at Metromail’s offices outside of Chicago. Some $5.6-mllion was wire-transferred into a special interest-bearing account. On Jan. 26, 1993, several hundred magnetic tapes—the entire CMT database—were shipped to Metromail’s data facility in Lincoln, Nebraska. Later, they threw in CMT’s office furniture for $26,000.

Chapter 35:  The Godfather Of Spam

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 2: Of Honesty And Virtue

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.

Chapter 3: ‘We Accidentally Met With Your Address…’

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 19: The Great War

By Ray Schultz

Homer Buckley, said to be father of direct mail, was not proud of his offspring. It was, he charged, “an orphan medium of advertising abused and misused on all sides, with a stigma of cheapness attached to it.” And he would have known, for he had baeen sending it since 1902, while still an advertising clerk at the Marshall Fields department store:

“The development of this direct by mail solicitation fell into my hands,” he wrote. Sensing an opportunity, he left the store and with a partner, Merritt H. Dement, opened a lettershop, a firm for handling “the entire mechanical function of a mass mailing.”

Buckley, who had the face of an impish choir boy, was credited with inventing the term “direct mail,” although a British writer had used the phrase in 1897. In 1916, though, acting on an idea by Louis Victor Eytinge, he announced the start of the Direct Mail Advertising Association (the DMMA, later known as the DMA), and incorporated it the following year. And things rolled along until the night of April 2, 1917, when President Woodrow Wilson asked a joint session of Congress for a declaration of war against Germany.

At first, Buckley saw the war as good for business. Salesmen would be drafted, and companies would replace “man power with mail power,” he exulted. But it wasn’t that simple. Men were drafted, all right, almost three million, and their names disappeared from mailing lists. Worse, the government started seizing trains for military use. In the fall of 1917, 180,000 railroad cars sat idle on sidings. Merchants blamed the Post Office.

Meanwhile, the public mood deteriorated, and it wasn’t helped by “the colossal waste of public money, the savage persecution of all opponents and critics of the war…the half-insane reviling of the enemy,” in H.L. Mencken’s words. Even the charities got combative with each other. “We have been advised to abandon these American families until after the war is over,” wrote the Caney Creek Community Center of Kentucky in a letter requesting donations for homes for the poor. “Is this consistent? None hesitates to affirm that each French baby ought to be and must be saved. Why is it not equally important that Lincoln’s people should be rescued?”

Still, business had to go on, and Buckley decided it was time for the DMMA to hold its first convention. It opened on Oct. 4, 1918 at the Sherman Hotel in Chicago.

Many guests had fortified themselves with spirits, if only to ward off the Spanish flu then kiliing people. Buckley greeted them. This was his show, and he was careful to project the right image. There would be no speeches in absentia by the convicted killer Louis Victor Eytinge.

Buckley had that morning received a threatening letter from the War Industries Board, an oversight agency run by the financier Bernard Baruch. “We understand that there is going to be a conference of direct mail advertisers on October 9th to 12th to consider the use of mail power to replace man power,” Dr. E.O. Merchant wrote, using Buckley’s phrase.

The Board didn’t approve. To save paper, it wanted to “greatly reduce, or entirely eliminate direct circulation advertising,” for the duration, Merchant wrote, adding this sidewise swipe: That direct mail letters created “an unfavorable impression in the minds of the persons to whom they are addressed.”

Buckley and his fellow leaders discussed the letter that night. An outright ban would put them all out of business, not that Merchant had that kind of power. What had the Board accomplished, anyway? The garment industry had shortened women’s skirt lengths to save fabric. Ha! Still, they had to respond. Could anything be said in their favor? Well, yes. For one, they supported the war effort by selling Liberty Loans by mail; Even the convict Louis Victor Eytinge wrote Liberty Loan copy.

The Liberty Loan provides what is perhaps the first opportunity the average man has had to definitely serve his country, said Harry T. Ramsdell, president of the Manufacturers and Traders National Bank of Buffalo, in a typical letter. If, as Ramsdell boasted, there was no sacrifice in a subscription to the Liberty Loan, there was even less for the banks or the mail houses: Liberty Loan mailings went out free under government frank.

Then there was Postage magazine’s campaign to send tobacco to the boys overseas. “Do you know what it means to find yourself at the end of a good, hard day’s work with nothing to smoke?” it asked in an ad. “Now think of Uncle Sam’s fighters in France, out there in the thick of things fighting your battles…Don’t let them go smoke-hungry.” Buckley had to know this poignant message wouldn’t sway anyone, nor would an honest review of the direct mail business, for even some practitioners had doubts about the uses to which it was put.

For example, the Boston copywriter E.M. Dunbar had refused to work for mail order liquor houses. “I am a writer of advertising, and sometimes I take a drink when I want to, but I don’t write booze advertisements,” he wrote. Dunbar, for his “soul’s safety,” did not want to be party to a tragedy like one that had occurred in Georgia, when a man drunk on mail order liquor shot his own brother to death.

If Chicago was home to the great mail order houses and New York the center of publishing, Kansas City was in the early 1900s the mail order liquor capital of the United States, home to over 100 firms selling mostly to dry counties.

They didn’t need Dunbar, not when they had writers like Elmer Davis, age 21, from Kansas City. Dear Friend: Did you ever wake up in the morning, head buzzing `round like a Kansas cyclone, a dark brown taste in your mouth, and a desire to lick the living daylights out of everything that got in your way? Davis wrote in one letter, or so he later claimed. Fortunately, Congress outlawed mail order liquor sales in 1917.

Buckley and company turned to their biggest dilemma: mail fraud. There were more brazen examples of it every day. Every time they opened an newspaper, it seemed, there was a story about some miscreant selling a cure for “weak manhood.” Worse, the papers regularly published statistics on how much money was stolen by mail—$183 million from 1909 to 1912.

The list of frauds was staggering:

  • Promoting and sale of worthless mining or other stocks
  • Inducing betting on fake horse races and athletic contests
  • Fake land schemes
  • Commission merchant swindles
  • Selling worthless goods through misrepresentations.
  • Obtaining commissions on fraudulent order
  • Work at home schemes
  • Failure to furnish goods ordered
  • False correspondence school
  • Sale of cheap books and dividing rods for locating minerals
  • Phone guarantee of stocks and bonds
  • Forged bills of lading
  • Selling diplomas and requiring little or no study before granting them
  • Fake trance mediums
  • Green-goods swindles
  • Sales of fake recipes
  • Obtaining money to assist in securing fake inheritances
  • Obtaining payments from relatives of deceased persons for goods supposed to have been ordered before death
  • Selling interest in non-existing moving picture theaters
  • Obtaining subscriptions for charitable institutions
  • Fake employment bureaus

Some of these promotions are being used online today.

Anyone who had forgotten about fraud was reminded of it on Sept. 21, 1915, when Anthony Comstock died at age 71. The New York Times praised the old warrior for “the almost innumerable convictions of counterfeiters and green goods men,” and his fight against the Louisiana Lottery.

Some at the table must have thought it was hopeless. But Buckley rallied them, and after another sniifter of brandy or two, they drafted a response to the Board, pledging a “savings of 25% in the total tonnage of paper used.” This would be achieved by reducing paper size and limiting print runs. This document was submitted to the membership the next day, and the convention ended with a banquet on Friday night. E. St. Elmo Lewis, of Detroit, spoke on the subject of “Beating the Hun with Bigger Business.”

Chapter 20: Peace

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 18: Selling in America

By Ray Schultz

By day, Eytinge ran the gang that cleaned the prison yard. At night, he wrote articles and edited copy. His editor’s photo in Postage showed him in a suit with tie and vest, seated next to a desk. And trapped inside, he imagined scenes that he could not have seen.

“Secretary W.H. Loomis Jr., of the Southwestern Blau-Gas Company, Kansas City, shook his head. He felt the pressure of the rising tide of electric lighting systems designed for farm use, although he had nothing to fear from the natural gas, acetylene or gasoline systems.”

And there was no way Eytinge had witnessed this (at least not recently):

“He was standing on the platform of a trolley, with some half dozen other smokers, when he noticed a newcomer step forward and deliver a sounding whack on the back of one of the men in the group. Accompanying the slap went a hearty ‘Bill, you old rascal, how’s things?’”

Eytinge also imagined women’s clothing, comparing it to direct mail design: “She dresses with variety because the changes make her more attractive, more alluring, more certain of ‘landing her prospect’—the winning of a mate,” he wrote. “And she dresses according to program and purpose, never wearing a décolleté gown riding after hounds.”

As often happened with Eytinge, this success didn’t last.

“For several months the issues of this magazine have been mailed from two weeks to a month behind schedule,” Publisher Lewis Hovey wrote when the September issue of Postage failed to appear. “Every month these ‘intentions’ to get it out ‘on time’ were the best, but one thing and another has interfered and it has been impossible to ‘catch up.’

In December, Hovey announced that Eytinge was stepping down. “It is needless for me to say that Postage has not been a success financially,” he wrote.

But people then took up Eytinge’s other idea: To “unite in hearty harmony and for paramount permanency.” Homer J. Buckley, who owned a direct mail print house, founded the Direct Mail Advertising Association (now the Direct Marketing Association). Those who joined automatically got a subscription to Postage.


Eytinge wasn’t the only tortured wordsmith to enter the junk mail business. Another was Sherwood Anderson, Ohio’s Roof-Fix Man. A one-time Chicago copywriter who turned to selling paint and fix-it items by mail, Anderson thought that “most people who buy house paint are, like the people who are sold anything else, at bottom probably yaps,” and he showed it in its copy, which was filled with stock advertising phrases like “guaranteed,” “We will send you absolutely free” and “Write for it today,” according to “Sherwood Anderson: An American Career,” by John E. Bassett. “Let me tell you, Free, how to cure your roof troubles for keeps,” he wrote in one direct mail circular, Bassett reports.

Anderson’s own printer accused him of cynicism. “The truth is, that, as you wrote, you were thinking of someone else,” he said one night as they walked around Elyria, Ohio, Anderson recalled. “I know how it was. You imagined some man getting the paint circular in the mail. He is a man you never saw and never will see. Now you tell me this. At bottom you are not so proud of this business you are in.”

Anderson agreed that his writing talent could be put to better use. “Already for several years I had been doing what I was doing when I wrote the circular,” he remembered. “I had been using the words of our human speech, really to deceive men.

“It was quite true that in writing anything…for example a paint circular…the object sought was some sort of entrance into the confidence of the other man and so, even in such a crude approach to the art of writing, you thought, not of the thing about which you were presumed to be talking, but of the man addressed. ‘Now how can I win his confidence’ you thought and this led inevitably to the secret of watching men.”

Facing an existential crisis, Anderson disappeared in 1912, turning up days later in a Cleveland drug store, his “clothes bedraggled and his appearance unkempt.” He left his family and returned to a job as an ad copywriter in Chicago. And when he returned to his “shabby little hole” every night, he did what he had started doing in Ohio: He wrote fiction.

His first novel, Windy McPherson’s Son, about “a sort of minor captain of industry,” was published in 1916 with the help of Theodore Dreiser. His second, Marching Men, appeared a year later. But neither was a success.

One night, desperate, Anderson wrote a story titled Hands. “Upon the half decayed veranda of a small frame house that stood near the edge of a ravine near the town of Winesburg, Ohio, a fat little old man walked nervously up and down,” it started. He finished it in one sitting, then wept. It was the first of several stories about “the defeated figures of an old American individualistic small town life.”

In April 1919, four years after starting this sequence, Anderson entered his room with the result: a yellow-cloth book titled, “Winesburg, Ohio”–an American classic, and an instant sensation. He soon was friends with Gertrude Stein and his book was said to influence Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos.

But he needed money, so he asked his publisher: “Do I have to go back to advertising? I’ll have go back there, begin again to write of tooth paste, of kidney pills, of how to keep your hair from falling out.”

He didn’t, and that’s just as well, for he had a sour view of his old trade. “In America no one buys anything,” he concluded. “In America everything, even art, is sold to people.”

Chapter 19: The Great War

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 17: The Hard-Luck Writer

By Ray Schultz

Slightly hung over from drinking their way to Chicago, ad men filed into the hall for the opening of the first Direct Mail Advertising Conference in 1915. The keynote speech snapped them out of their torpor.

“We must emit and vomit out the nauseous masses that have been swallowed in our swift growth,” said the copywriter Louis Victor Eytinge. “There are too many specious shysters amongst us, who while they may be within the law are yet foul with filth in the morality of their business methods and we must remove this reek ourselves!”

Well said, but Eytinge didn’t deliver the remarks himself. He was serving a life sentence for murder, and had to speak from “behind the walls that encompass my body.”

It was a sad comentary that the beleaguered direct mail business. had to rely on a felon to speak for it.

Eytinge was a “wastrel” from a family of actors and musicians. Convicted twice of forgery, he drew a five-year sentence in the second case and emerged from that term in 1907 with tuberculosis. Hoping to cure him (and get him out of their sight), his family sent him to Arizona with an allowance of $100 per month.

But he got into trouble there, too. The body of his roommate, a tubercular barber named John Leicht, was found near a ranch after the pair had gone for a buggy ride one Sunday. There was no proof that Leicht was murdered, let alone that Eytinge had done it, but Eytinge fled after passing several bad checks, and that was enough to convince a jury that he had poisoned the barber. Convicted of first degree murder, Eytinge was sentenced to life imprisonment, the court deciding that there was no need to hang a man who was about to die of TB.

Near collapse, the 120-pound Eytinge was dumped in the outdoor ward at Yuma Prison. He hemorrhaged daily, and was too weak even to swat flies. There must have been times when he wished he had been put out of his misery. But as his parents hoped when they sent him west, the desert air did him good and he eventually regained his strength.

Then, as legend has it, he wrote to two Western curio dealers to offer the horsehair souvenirs made by inmates. And he got orders from both. So he wrote more, and the prison lifted its restriction of two letters per month, the belief then being that even killers could be rehabilitated by work.

In time, businessmen noticed that this lifer could write and started giving him freelance copywriting assignments. Granted, his “letters were sophomorically fervent” as the copywriter Henry Hoke described them. In one insinuating letter, Eytinge offered raincoats to Catholic priests:

Dear Father,

Just as I glanced at next month’s calendar my eye caught the warning, ‘Rainy Season Begins,’ and I thought of you and other faithful servants of the Church.

My mind’s eye pictured you thrashing your way thru wind and rain, to administer the Holy Oils to some dying one, going about your duty despite the dirty weather. Saw you standing beside the open grave, giving your benediction not seeming to mind the bluster that bespattered your beloved Breviary. I saw you, too, hurrying to some sadly stirred soul, with the rain soaking into your black clothes. And then, I began to really understand what is meant to take Holy Orders.

But Father, there’s little need spoiling your good black overcoat…

Not many raincoats were sold. “I made the thing too personal for a printed letter and talked more about weather than weatherproofs,” Eytinge admitted.

But he learned. By 1915, the Eytinge Service was pulling in $5,000 a year, and his ideas were taken seriously. In his Chicago speech, Eytinge called for the start of a direct mail magazine. Postage appeared six months later, and the jailbird Eytinge was soon named editor of it.

Chapter 18: Selling In America

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 16: Paper Bullets

By Ray Schultz

John P. Cramer was another small businessman who found a way to make a dollar off junk mail around  the turn of the 20th century. He owned the Multi-Mailing Co., a lettershop that performed “the entire mechanical function of a mass mailing.” Located on Park Row, this outfit printed circulars and stuffed them into envelopes. And it compiled mailing lists out of telephone directories. “The rural telephone sorts out the influential classes in every community, and lists of names made up from telephones are excellent for high-class propositions,” Cramer said. “I should call such names the very best that could be secured for investment advertising.

“Here are the telephone directories of the country around Akron, Ohio. Some of the little independent lines built by farmers for their own communities are only fifteen miles long. They have perhaps 100 subscribers. The subscribers’ list of such a line gives names that have been hard to get heretofore, as they are in no directory.”

Firms like Cramer’s drew legitimate clients. For instance, the Metropolitan Telephone and Telegraph Company sent circulars printed on tinted paper to names taken from the Elite Directory or Blue Book: HAVE YOU EVER THOUGHT OF HAVING A TELEPHONE IN YOUR HOUSE? Those little worries and annoyances that cause so much friction in household affairs are abolished by the telephone, which makes the householder independent of distance, weather and promises.

In Chicago, the Irene How Sanitarium asked physicians to refer women who wish to seclude themselves until they have passed what might be an embarrassing confinement, and offered a liberal percentage for referrals. And it added, Where the mother wishes to dispose of her infant we find it a home with respectable people.

Other letters, those sent by charities, achieved a divine eloquence:

Dear Friend:

The Bowery Mission and its famous Bread Line are favorably known throughout the length and breath of our beloved land. In every State and in every county may be found those who, once stranded in the great Metropolis, homeless, friendless, and penniless, found, in the time of their direst need, and in the Bowery Mission a City of Refuge and a Haven of Rest…Think of a thousand homeless men and boys, in line every midnight for coffee and rolls. Think of the clothing, the shoes, the underwear, and the linen necessary to give the shabby men a respectable appearance that they may have a better show when seeking work! Think of the thousands of aged and feeble ones who must be sheltered from the wintry blasts in clean and wholesome beds!

All this requires funds. Give what you can, and give quickly, and may the blessing of Him who says, ‘Inasmuch as ye do it unto one of the least of these, my brethren, ye do it unto me,’ be your recompense and your reward.

Not everyone liked getting letters from strangers, though. “If a man or woman utterly unknown to you should stop you in the street, and, after tapping you on the shoulder, begin to tell you a story about his or her affairs—what he or she has to sell and how good it is—you would consider it a great impertinence,” wrote a young businessman. “But is it any the less an impertinence for that strange man or woman to take advantage of the mails to do the same thing?

He complained that he was “the target of scores of paper bullets which are shot at me every morning. Here, for instance, is a good woman who has imported a lot of baby clothes, and stops me to tell me of it, or another boasts of her woman’s underwear…Another person brings a school to my attention; a second his meats and groceries; a third his unparalleled landaus or other carriages; a fourth his hotel in Florida.; another his pickles and other things in which I have no more interest than I have in the man in the moon, yet every day I am compelled to listen for several minutes to their ranting, when I want to be off about my own business.”

The astute consumer could tell an advertising circular mile away, so even the most honest firms tried to disguise them. It started with type. People so distrusted the “type writer” at first that Richard Sears sent only handwritten letters. By the late 1890s it was accepted. Printers had perfected a process by which they could print thousands of letters so that each looked as if were individually typed. “Experts can scarcely tell it from genuine typewriting,” said one.

The arts of camouflage were also applied to the envelope. A new device, Belknap’s Rapid Addressing Machine, operated with stencils—it fed the names in a continuous roll, and printed them on the envelopes or periodicals. But these spotted addresses were fit only for magazines. “They give a circular away at once,” said Cramer. “All addressing in this office is done either by hand or on typewriters.”

Another giveaway was a cheap envelope and stamp. For a single cent in postage, a company could mail a letter in a so-called patent envelope, leaving one flap unopened for inspection by the post office. The drawback was that “after a man has seen one he is seldom fooled,” said Cramer.

No matter. Legitimate companies were now studying these developments, and trying to determine if they could use the medium.

Chapter 17: The Hard-Luck Writer

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 10: Green Goods

By Ray Schultz

In 1875, in a article titled, “Fancy Advertising,” the New York Times reported a man whose letter and Post Office boxes were “daily ‘made the recipients’… of a lot of envelopes, which he is put to the trouble of opening, and which he finds contain only advertisements of articles that he does not want to buy, or of companies or professional persons that he does not wish to employ.”

Some of these doubtless came from the City Novelty Co. of Philadelphia, established in 1860. At the height of the Depression in 1873, it mailed a brochure in a hand-written envelope. “The Crisis that has so suddenly burst upon the Country and so rapidly extended to every branch of Business, has particularly affected manufacturers of Jewlery, and we find ourselves carrying a very etxensive stock of FINE GOODS for LADIES’ AND GENTLEMEN’S WEAR, And have determined to dispose of our Stock on the following plan, which is PERFECTLY LEGITIMATE, AND NOT A LOTTERY.”

And the plan? “We do not sell any tickets to tell you what article you can have for a dollar, but we sell you a box of very extra quality of Writing Pens, twenty-four in a box, for twenty-five cents, and warrant them to give entire satisfaction; will not corrode—and are adapted to any hand that can hold a pen. In this box we put a sealed envelope, that has in it a slip of paper with some one of the above articles named on it, which you can have if you desire it, by paying one dollar.

“We also sell the Ladies’ Casket for fifty cents, which contains the following articles, (whih are worth separately at retail $1.15) viz: four papers (100) of Cole’s Celebrated Duplex Silver Spring Steel Needles, Nos. 5 to 10, (Sharps); one Patent Button-Hole Cutter, twelve Yosemite Pens, one Silver Plated Pen Holder. The Casket opens like a book, with gold edges and clasp. In this Casket you will find two envelopes, each contaning a slip of paper, naming some article in this list which you can have, if you desire it, upon paying one dollar.”

Anthony Comstock had overlooked the City Novelty Company, but there were bigger bigger frauds being perpetrated. One was the so-called Green Goods scam. Having divined that most people were as dishonest as they were, rogues like Ed Parmalee and Tony Martin prospered by sending letters like this one:

“Dear Sir: — If you have no conscientious scruples regarding how men get money, I write to say that I am in a position to supply you with an ‘article’ that — for commercial purposes — is as good as gold.”

If the reader was too dense to grasp what he was being offered, the attached clipping, looking like it came right out of a New York newspaper, would set him straight:


“The country flooded with $2,000,000,000 of counterfeit money in the past year, and pronounced by Government experts to be as good as the genuine greenback.”

Yes, counterfeit money. Most people got little mail of any kind, let alone letters from a stranger inviting them to commit a crime, but the note stated a truth obvious to many in that age of robber barons: “People are growing rich around you every day (no one knows why), why not you?

Another wrote, “My Dear Sir: I am desirous of obtaining a good shrewd agent in your locality to handle my ‘goods.’ If you have been unsuccessful in your business, I can supply you with goods with which you can pay off all your debts and start free and clear again. You can purchase mortgages, etc.”

Of course, most green-goods operators apologized for the intrusion. One said, “This communication may be somewhat startling or probably unwelcome. If so, I trust you will be good enough to destroy the same as no harm or insult is intended.”

The actual sale took place in two stages. If he responded, the would-be millionaire would be sent a free sample — usually a genuine $1 bill. After examining and spending it, he would send a sum of money for 10 times that amount in counterfeit notes (there was a sliding scale through which the customer received a better percentage the more he paid). On the happy day that his order arrived C.O.D., he would open the box to find not the greenbacks he had ordered, but sawdust or green paper.

Few victims griped because they feared “the odium that is attached to their being willing to be a party to purchasing and putting into circulation counterfeit money,” according to the Pinkerton Detective Agency. And they needn’t have expected any sympathy from Comstock. “Any person who sends money for counterfeit money should lose every cent of it,” he wrote.

Some green-goods artists ran industrial-strength enterprises (one group had free run of Jersey City city hall). Others operated out of saloons on Hudson Street in New York City, many of which had private mail boxes. They would come in for a beer and the mail, and quietly slip out if they saw anyone asking questions.

As for printing, some lottery men used processes that allowed them to mimic handwriting or typewriting. In 1883, a tip led Comstock to the back room of Eugene Marvin’s print shop on Eighth Ave., where he found two big cylinder presses, cutting and numbering machines, 875,000 green-goods circulars and phony Western Union telegraph blanks.

In 1890, Congress passed a law making it illegal not only to offer green goods by mail, but also to order them. (Ditto for “green articles,” “green coin,” “United States goods” and “green cigars”.) So the perpetrators returned to the practice they’d followed earlier: Conducting the swindle in person.

Invited to New York or to a smaller town (after the initial direct mail letter, all communications would be by telegraph), the mark would be plied with food and liquor by his hosts, and the party would retire to a hotel room to finalize the deal. Then one of two things would happen. In the first, men posing as police would barge in and threaten to arrest everyone for counterfeiting; the only way out would be for the one man with actual legal tender in his pocket to bribe the officers. In the second, the swindlers would switch a suitcase filled with cash for one containing sawdust. As one writer put it, the victim would find himself alone in the room, his money gone, the idea slowly dawning on him of just what a fool he had been.

Occasionally, this would backfire. Tony Martin, known as the Prince of Green-Goods Men, was shot to death by an outraged rube from whom he had euchred $650. Comstock attended the funeral, hoping to catch Martin’s Comstock. Failing that, he used the occasion to denounce the dead man to a reporter. “The woman he lived with was another man’s wife,” he said. “And he was a confirmed opium fiend.”

Chapter 11: The Crooked Road To The End

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