DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 4: Gospel Mail

By Ray Schultz

One morning in 1855 or thereabouts, in a church in upstate New York, a minister of the Gospel opened his mail and, according to Postal Inspector J. Holbrook, found the following letter:

“Brother P —

“I heard you once, while passing through your place — a sermon that has many times recurred to my memory, though its calm piety and deep perception of human nature may be weekly occurrences to your congregation.

“I have several times thought it would be well for our church to call on you for a trial here. Our house is wealthy, and ‘up town,’ though that is no matter.”

The writer mentioned that he had seen “a notice of you in the new publication of travels through the states; in which I see the writer has heard you, and was so impressed that he gives a strong description of your and your style…” And there’s the rub: The minister could have a copy of the book for $1.50. Pastors who fell for it soon learned, according Inspector Holbrook,  that “the dollar and a half went to the ‘bourne from which no traveler returns.’”

One minister wasn’t fooled, and his answer showed a clear understanding of the direct mail art, such as it was at that time. He wrote: “I am in receipt of a communication from you, of whose flattering contents I have reason to believe that I am not the only recipient; as I am not ignorant of the fact that the art of lithography can be employed to multiply confidential letters to any extent.

“If, as you state, you have at any time heard a discourse from my lips, I regret that the principles which it has inculcated have produced so little impression upon your actions, especially as it has ‘many times recurred to your memory.’

(Perhaps the minister also noticed that the word “brother” was lithographed, and that a blank space was included for his own name).

“If you ever happen to pass through this place again, and to be detained over the Sabbath, your name, mentioned to the sexton, or indeed, to any member of my congregation, will secure you as good a seat as the house will furnish: And if you will inform me of your intended presence, beforehand, I will endeavor to suit my discourse to your wants, if not to your wishes.

“‘Not what we wish, but what we want Do thou, O Lord, in mercy grant.’

“If, however, circumstances like some that I can foresee, if you continue in your present course, should prevent a visit to our place, I hope you will manage to be satisfied with the ministrations oef the chaplain at Sing Sing, who, I understand, is an excellent, talented man.”

That was once instance where the intended victim avoided harm. But it was a rarity.

Chapter 5: Show The Money