19th Century 20th Century

Postal Inspectors

Have a drink with: Postal Inspectors
Don’t mess with the postal service.

Ask them about: Snow, rain, gloom of night, Tommy guns

When former Trump adviser Steve Bannon was arrested recently on charges of defrauding donors to an online fundraising campaign known as “We Build the Wall,” it was by agents of the United States Postal Inspection Service. This may seem surprising to many of us, who typically think of the postal service as consisting of affable, hardworking people who look unusually good in shorts and the occasional pith helmet, but for most of American history, the Post Office has been home to the nation’s most powerful federal law enforcement.

Displeased with a postal system that operated as a revenue generator for the English crown (and tended to unceremoniously open and read people’s letters), the Continental Congress acted to create an independent American postal service on July 25, 1775 and named Benjamin Franklin its first Postmaster. Franklin, in turn, chose William Goddard as his second-in-command “surveyor,” making him the first American postal inspector. (The U.S. also promptly took action to stop that business about opening someone else’s mail, and in 1792 made mail theft punishable by death.)

In a nation without centralized law enforcement or intelligence infrastructure (the FBI and CIA are twentieth century inventions), postal inspectors – soon renamed “special agents” – were for a long time the people empowered to investigate federal crime. They had broad authority and expansive resources: author William Oldfield, whose great-grandfather was an agent, notes that inspectors “could bust a crime ring anywhere on earth if one of the suspects so much as licked a U.S. postage stamp.” Agents’ jobs only got busier over time, as federal legislation in 1845 and 1851 reduced postage rates and made the mail more accessible to Americans; and the combination of westward expansion, the California Gold Rush and the Civil War increased mail traffic dramatically.

The service grew roots when, in 1873, President Grant signed federal legislation to enhance the nation’s postal code insofar as it regulated “obscene literature and articles of immoral use.” This law criminalized use of the mail to market or distribute indecent materials, and was pushed through Congress by the anti-vice zealot Anthony Comstock, who hoped to “expose the multitudinous schemes and devices of the sharper to deceive and rob the unwary and credulous through the mails.” (Comstock railed against all manner of social ills, from gambling and quackery to saucy literature, but the law was pointedly directed towards access to contraception). Comstock was designated a special agent of the Postal Service, and in response to his enthusiastic public pursuit of fraud and obscenity, the inspection service ballooned: an agency that consisted of just twenty men at the time of the Civil War topped a hundred in 1897, and numbers quadrupled from there in less than two decades.

So established, postal inspectors became associated with colorful work that shaped modern law enforcement practice, not to mention procedural drama. In the first years of the twentieth century, postal investigators were responsible for tracing extortion and violence among immigrant Italian communities in the Midwest, exposing the “Black Hand” ring with a sting operation involving undercover operations and surreptitiously marked postage stamps. The ensuing trial produced the first organized crime convictions in the United States, and convinced law enforcement that the mafia was an American reality.

They investigated scammer Charles Ponzi, whose famous pyramid scheme rested on an arbitrage system to buy and re-sell international postage vouchers. According to the USPIS’ website, their agents were the first federal officers permitted to carry Thompson machine guns, in order to address a 1920s swell in train robberies. Agents supervised the transfer of more than $15 billion in federal gold reserve by mail train from New York to Fort Knox; and one assumes it was they who rode along with the nervous mail carrier who delivered the Hope Diamond to the Smithsonian Institution in 1958 (jeweler Harry Winston insisted on sending it registered mail), and described his seat mates in a black sedan as “some men he didn’t know.”

Today the USPIS pursues thousands of federal offenses, involving crimes from scams and identity theft to money laundering, drug operations and cybercrime. And while the investigators are by no means immune to criticism (they came under fire in 2015, for example, for failure to demonstrate best practices in data protection, and spent $16 million of taxpayer money on a TV show about themselves), the history of this “silent service” reinforces the importance of a robust, accountable postal service at a time when its work has become a political flashpoint.

Fun Facts:

The Comstock laws are an unfortunate part of postal and American history – Comstock was obsessively focused on anti-vice causes, writing that “Lust is the boon companion of all other crimes. There is no evil so extensive, none doing more to destroy the instructions of free America.” Not everyone was on board with the pearl-clutching crusade, to be sure: George Bernard Shaw said of Comstock that “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.”

The postal inspectors definitely cultivate an image of their service as quiet but cool, claiming that Noah Webster was a postal agent and that their guys interrogated Billy the Kid.

The United States has long recognized the importance of a solid postal service: in 1791, George Washington remarked that it was one of the most important tools of political communication, civic education and transparency: “The importance of the post office and post roads on a plan sufficiently liberal and comprehensive, as they respect the expedition, safety, and facility of communication, is increased by their instrumentality in diffusing a knowledge of the laws and proceedings of the Government, which, while it contributes to the security of the people, serves also to guard them against the effects of misrepresentation and misconception.”

Additional Reading:

William Oldfield and Victoria Bruce, Inspector Oldfield and the Black Hand Society (2019)

Francis C. Huebner, “Our Postal System,” Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C. , 1906, Vol. 9 (1906)

US Postal Service, Universal Service and the Postal Monopoly: A Brief History