DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail Chapter 3: ‘We Accidentally Met With Your Address…’

By Ray Schultz

History doesn’t tell us much about A. Paisley. All we know is that he lived in Gloucester, Mass., and that a letter was sent to him there in 1837. When Paisley opened the “envelope,” a folded-over sheet sealed by a red-wax wafer, he found a promotion from Sylvester’s Exchange & Commission of New York.

“I beg leave to submit to your attention to the annexed – Our brilliant Schemes to be drawn in the month of March either of which professes attractions far superior to any Scheme yet laid before you,” announced the handwritten note. “Early notice is thus given that my most distant correspondents may not be disappointed.”

Behold an early example of junk mail. Like today’s ad letters, it was full of hype, promising that the advertused lotteries were ““beautiful, grand, splendid and brilliant.” It even had what is now called a privacy policy: “All communications strictly confidential.”

In 1827, Congress passed a law prohibiting local postmasters from working as lottery agents—no longer could they dispense handbills in return for a percentage of the sales. So the lottery barons started mailing directly to the rubes; by 1830, if you believe the later claims, they even had an agency in New York to facilitate this “circular advertising.”

So great was the moral outcry against lotteries that most northern states gave up theirs. But tickets for border and Southern state lotteries were sold in shops and by mail by firms like Wood, Eddy & Co., of Wilmington; Egerton & Bros. of Baltimore; and the combine of Archibald McIntyre and John Barentse Yates, of New York. And these men decided that they had to educate their customers on how to buy by mail. Egerton & Bros. explained that “we invariably answer letters by return mail, enclosing the Tickets in a proper envelope, observing the strictest confidence and after the Drawing is over we send the Official Printed Drawing, duly certified to by the State Officer, and Managers with a written explanation of the result.” Smallwood Co. promised that its tickets would be returned in “strong safety envelopes.”

The average person learned that he had mail when he saw his name in a newspaper listing. Or he found out when he visited the post office, usually part of a dark general store with tools and bacon hanging from the ceiling. Then he had to pay for the letter.

Most mail was dropped into the system without postage; the recipient had to pay, and few did. Why would they? Some unpaid letters were sent as jokes—the victim would pay 25 cents for an envelope full of manure. General Zachary Taylor refused to pay for the letter informing him he had been nominated for the Presidency of the United States. Even the lottery companies wouldn’t pay: “No unpaid letters received in our office,” B.B. Mars & Co. of Baltimore warned customers:

This changed when Congress passed the Postal Reform Act of 1855. Magazines and newspapers excepted, senders now had to pay in advance. And the lottery operators were happy to inform people about it. “From and after 1st April 1855, prepayment, either by stamps, stamped envelope, or in money, is compulsory,” Emory & Co. advised its customers. With this system in place, the lottery promoters papered the country with offers, almost all containing an apology:

“Trusting you will not find us intrusive…”

“We crave your indulgence for intruding on your valuable time…”

“We accidentally met with your address…”

Chapter 4: Gospel Mail

DEAR FRIEND: The Rascals, Rogues and Roues Who Made American Junk Mail, Chapter 8: The Pride Of Park Row

By Ray Schultz

J. M. Pattee left Omaha for good—some say he was run out—in the summer of 1873. The Nebraska legislature had outlawed lotteries, effective Sept. 1, so he regrouped in New York, where he owned a brownstone near Central Park.

Not a man of idle nature, as one reporter put it, he ran a few scams in the city, then made his way to  Laramie and ingratiated himself with the right people. The Wyoming legislature passed a bill granting him a ten-year lottery license that could never be altered, and Pattee acted on it before the governor could sign it (which he never did).

It didn’t matter. The so-called Wyoming Lottery would operate entirely by mail. And Pattee could get away with it,for lawmakers had failed to keep lotteries like his out of the postal system.

Congress had tried in 1865 with a law defining “nonmailable matter”—everything from explosives to lottery materials. But it failed to specify letters or circulars, and what it meant the courts could never figure out.

Realizing their error, the lawmakers attempted  to clarify things in 1868 by prohibiting the mailing of “any letters or circulars concerning lotteries, so-called gift concerts, or other similar enterprises.” But this bill, too, was flawed in that it failed to set penalties for disobeying it.

In 1872, trying one more time, they forbade the mailing of “any letters or circulars concerning illegal lotteries, so-called gift concerts, or other similar enterprises, offering prizes, or concerning schemes devised and intended to deceive and defraud the public for the purpose of obtaining money under false pretenses.”

The blunder this time was that they had added the word “illegal.” How could a lottery chartered by a state or an institution be considered illegal?

Pattee knew that they would get it right sooner or later, and he knew he had to move beyond lotteries. He had doubtless heard of E.C. Allen, of Augusta, Maine, who in 1869 started Peoples’ Literary Companion, a paper filled with stories, homilies, recipes, songs and advertisements.

Other publishers followed Allen’s lead. A fellow Augustan named P.O. Vickery started Fireside Visitor, and W.W. Gannett followed with Comfort. Mailed to farmers whether they wanted them or not, these mail order papers were “the great business of the city, completely overshadowing everything else,” wrote Frank A. Munsey.

Pattee could do the arithmetic as well as anyone. He created The Times Illustrated, a promotional vehicle for the Wyoming Lottery. The cost was defrayed, in part, by paid advertisements for Red Cloud’s Great Indian Blood Purifier and other patent medicines.

He followed it with The Laramie News, in which he described Laramie and the local mining deposits: “There are within a hundred miles of Laramie City a hundred miles in length of gulches which will pay an average of five dollars per day in gold, for every day’s labor, and they can be worked with very little outlay of capital.”

Thus he sharpened his pen for a new venture—and just in time. On July 12, 1876, Congress enacted a new bill, dropping the term “illegal” when describing lotteries. Now it was unlawful to send any sort of lottery letter.

This bill turned out to be as hollow as the previous ones, but that wasn’t clear at first. Pattee cancelled his next lottery mailing, saying “times have been hard,” and accelerated a plan he apparently already had: He prepared a letter for fools who had won his previous lotteries and were now on his sucker’s list.

“On account of the new Postal law and the penalty for sending letters concerning lotteries through the mails, I have been obliged to make some other arrangement to pay off the small prizes of $1 and 50 cents as it would cost the party receiving them more than the amount to pay the express charges,” Pattee wrote under his own name.

Instead, he awarded shares in “one of the most extensive gold mines on this continent.” Additional shares could be had for $2 apiece.

“It is the richest gold mining country in the world,” Pattee wrote. “For miles away up in the heights of those tremendous elevations in the Big Horn Mountains glisten rich veins of gold quartz that run in golden ribbons at close intervals across their breasts. Some specimens of gold quartz have been found which assayed $47,000 to the ton—a mountain of gold ore.”

Pattee’s own employees turned against him. They sent a mailing to his “winner’s” list, offering for one dollar “a most complete exposure of this ‘arch swindler’s’ manner of defrauding the public during the past years.” They added that he planned to “foist upon those who have won good prizes in his last drawings, amongst whom we see your name, certain stock certificates…instead of the money they have RIGHTFULLY WON.”

The master returned to New York, where there was less danger of getting shot. He now worked only through designated criminals who would take the fall if there was trouble. One was N. Sherman Read, a tiny man known to friends as Nate. Pattee was married to Read’s sister Eunice, and they had often summered at Read’s resorts in New Jersey.  In 1876, now working for his brother-in-law, Read opened a lottery office on Nassau St. near Park Row.

Flanked on one side by City Hall, Park Row was home to newspapers and advertising agencies–and dozens of lottery shops. “Entering the office of any one of these so-called firms, the inquirer finds himself surrounded on all sides by a ground-glass partition,” a reporter wrote. And each one had a “hard-featured man peering through a wire netting under the sign ‘Cashier.’”

These offices also sent quantities of junk mail. The city’s best printers and engravers were two blocks south on Maiden Lane, and the largest post office in the country, a five-story granite block known as the Whale, stood on the triangular lot bordered by Park Row and Broadway.

Pattee made full use of these facilities, not only for his lotteries but for schemes like the Bullion Gold Mining Co. and Carburrus Gold Mining Company.

He also got to know his fellow mail fraud artists. Ellis and William Elias were driven out of Cincinnati for swindling, then made a fortune in New York running “dollar stores”—stores in which the shopper never knew what he was buying. They enjoyed a “very unenviable reputation,” the New York Times wrote.

The brothers operated a mail room in which men and girls sat at two rows of tables shaped in the letter “L,” addressing envelopes. Also to be found there was H.P. Jones, a former post office employee who was “discharged from P.O. for NY for embezzlement or helping himself to other peoples’ money.” A handwritten note signed by him was sent to 140,000 people in the fall of 1878:

“Dear Sir:

“A cousin of mine bearing the same name as yours, after the war was over, left his Regiment and I have not heard from him since. Now I do not know whether you are the same person or not but you can tell as soon as you see my signature to this letter.”

The note continued that a contest was about to be held, and that if the recipient agreed it would be rigged in his favor. Why this largesse? “I am sure that if a large prize was drawn by you and shown around that thousands of tickets could be sold in your County.”

A series of followup letters persuaded the sucker to pay $8 apiece for lottery tickets—a seemingly paltry sum by today’s standards—but the letters cost only a penny apiece to mail, and not much more to print. The Eliases had discovered the immutable law of junk mail—that a profit could be made even after expenses and the pilfering of cash-filled envelopes by postal workers.

Anyway, it was not their only business. They also ran several “stores,” including a jewelry store on Broadway and 21st St. (above which was their mail room). Their flagship was the Centre, a large outlet at 22nd St. and Broadway, in which they displayed gold and silver jewelry in cases. It operated on the same marketing principles as the junk mail business.

The Eliases promised in circulars that they could deliver “the most valuable articles to the purchaser at the same price as those of less cost,” but what they really offered was a lottery. The customers bought tickets in sealed envelopes from a cashier, who sat hidden in a teller’s cage. Most opened the envelopes to find that they had won cheap merchandise.

Operating on the border of legality, the pair had to pay occasional modest fines. But they “reaped a rich harvest from their numerous enterprises,” the New York Times reported. Ellis Elias alone had $300,000 in assets, including a country estate and $3,000 worth of trotting horses.

“A man who came in contact with the senior member of the Elias firm used to tell of seeing him exhibit a roll containing sixty one thousand dollar bills, one day, and when putting it back in his pocket heard him remark, pleasantly, that that was some that came in after he had got done expecting to make any money,” wrote George Rowell, whose ad agency was located at 41 Park Row.

Pattee could admire these accomplishments. And though they were competitors, he started working with Eliases on a matter that would benefit them both: The trading of names and addresses.

There was at this time no mailing list business per se. Some frauds wrote to small-town postmasters offering a dollar for the names of “all men (no women) as herein provided, who are permanent residents and who receive mail at your office.” Others asked customers for the names of their friends. “Any person, who will send us the Address of ten persons of their acquaintance, we will send free post-paid, a beautiful Chromo for their trouble, and Wholesale Price-list of Jewelry,” the City Novelty Co. promised in 1873.

Still another way was to copy names out of a city directory. But this was too much work for the average fraud—an easier method was to sell or rent names from each other. Pattee had 300,000, and he turned an unknown number of them over to the Eliases for a consideration.

This bartering of names quickly grew into a business. L’Orient Chemical Company of Bristol, Rhode Island, offered its letters to all comers in 1875.

By this time, using his list, Pattee had broadened his product offering. First, he went into stock brokerage with a Louisiana criminal named J.F. Barrett, using Andrew Simpson, his Maiden Lane printing foreman, as a front man. They mailed a newspaper called The New York Stock Exchange.

Next was an outfit called Heath & Co., The office was located a few doors away from a legitimate brokerage—Wm. Heath & Co. Victims received stock certificates and regular reports on how their investments were soaring, but requests to redeem the stock were never answered.

Then Pattee unveiled his masterpiece—the Silver Mountain Mining Co. For this, he hired a former postal agent named William R. McCall, who had also worked for the Eliases.

“Persons who invest a few dollars to develop the Mine may realize a fortune,” said the prospectus, which featured a map marked in several places by the word “ore.”

What they got, though, were regular reports and requests for more money to keep the mine running. Said one: “The Indians made their appearance last week, but have all but disappeared.”

It was the summer of Custer’s last stand and the lead-up to Hayes-Tilden presidential contest. The Brooklyn Bridge was being built—the noise could be heard on Park Row. And Pattee, like many other businessmen, coped with problems beyond his control. The Pennsylvania and New York Central Railroads stopped hauling mail cars because the post office had reduced their compensation by 10%. Then there was a nationwide rail strike. Meanwhile, he feuded with the Eliases. None of it stopped him from reaching the “zenith of his prosperity.”

But he was being watched.

Chapter 9: The Vice Crusader

Privacy in the 19th Century

By Ray Schultz

There’s one small error in the white paper, Privacy and Advertising Mail, by the UC Berkeley School of Law.

The paper quotes a 1917 editorial: “Mail solicitation of business by printed circular has become an intolerable annoyance, to which all are subjected whose addresses appear in the directory or the telephone books.”* And it states that this was “an unusually early instance of stated concerns about advertising mail.”

That’s not quite true. Critics were complaining about junk mail long before 1917. And they sometimes referred to what we now call the privacy issue.

In 1875, in a article titled, “Fancy Advertising,” The New York Times reported on 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.”

That piece didn’t mention mailing lists, but the vice crusader Anthony Comstock touched on the subject in 1880, in his book Frauds Exposted, when writing about lotteries and other types of frauds. “Any person who ever wrote a letter to a lottery, or other advertised scheme, is liable to have a large circle of correspondents,” he wrote. “The name once obtained must go the round of the fraternity, and, when thus used, is either kept for a new scheme by the same fraud or else sold to another one of the brotherhood.”

Case in point: The use of boarding school catalogues. “At last the child reaches the school, and his or her name appears upon the roll and is printed in the catalogue,” Comstock wrote. “These catalogues are sought for by those who send circulars through the mails advertising obscene and unlawful wares.”

Comstock added that names could also be had by “buying old letters from other dealers for the sake of the names, or by sending circulars to postal clerks and others through the country, offering prizes for a list of the names of youth of both sexes twenty-one years of age, or by purchasing addressed envelopes of those who make a business of collecting names, and then addressing envelopes to supply parties doing business through the mails.”

Granted, Comstock was more upset over what people were being offered by mail than how: privacy was a secondary issue. And legislators failed to mention privacy when they banned lotteries from the mail in 1890. But the subject came up again in a whole new context.

Medical Privacy

In 1904, Ladies Home Journal reported on the letters sent by women to patent medicine advertisers.

“Not one in a thousand of these letters ever reaches the eye of the ‘doctor’ to whom they are addressed,” the article said. “There wouldn’t be hours enough in the day to read them even if he had the desire. On the contrary, these letters from women of a private and delicate nature are opened and read by young men and girls; they go through not fewer than eight different hands before they reach a reply; each in turn reads them, and if there is anything ‘spicy’, you will see the heads of two or three girls get together and enjoy (!) the ‘spice.’ Very often these ‘spicy bits’ are taken home and shown to the friends and families of these girls and men! Time and again have I seen this done: time and again have I been handed over a letter by one of the young fellows with the remark; “Read this: isn’t that rich/” only to read of the recital of some trouble into which a young girl has fallen, or some mother’s sacred story of her daughter’s fall!”

Worse, these “sacredly confidential” letters were offered through letter brokers—“clearing-houses where patent-medicine frauds and quack doctors exchange, sell, and rent letters,” wrote Samuel Hopkins Adams in Collier’s magazine in 1906. (In effect, he was describing the early mailing list business).

This came to an end, too, but not because anyone objected to the misuse of personal information. In 1906, Congress passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, requiring that patent medicine advertisers list their ingredients and not make exaggerated claims. Many firms went out of business.

But the sale and trading of names survived, and it was duly noted—before 1917. In 1913, The Kansas City Star wrote, “It probably does not occur to (the average man) that by buying something by mail he has made his name a commodity in itself and become a target for commercial correspondents as long as he lives and probably long after a tombstone has been erected to him on some grassy hillside.”

 *Richard B. Kielbowicz, Origins of the Junk-Mail Controversy: A
Media Battle over Advertising and Postal Policy, 5(2) JOURNAL OF
POLICY HISTORY 248, 253 (1993).

Click here for a related article.