Of mail robbers, marines and babies who travel as parcels. Part 2. - Istillwritecards

August 26, 2017

Of mail robbers, marines and babies who travel as parcels.

(Part 2 of 2)

Who am I and what am I doing here?
(Image: Detail of 'Uniformed Letter Carrier with Child in Mailbag' by Smithsonian Institution. Public Domain.)

This is Part 2 of a two-part series. To read Part 1, please click here.

But back to the mail robbers, who probably enjoyed shouldering sacks even more than trend-conscious carriers of gym bags do today. The idea was simple: Grab some mail sacks and make off. The film 'The Great Train Robbery', produced in 1903 by the Edison Manufacturing Co., visualizes the process:



Here is the unofficial dialogue for the scene:
Bandit 1: Ho Ho Ho! Hold on to your hats, lads, and let's cheese it!
Bandit 2: Oh my, I sure hope there is a baby in there! Hihi!
Bandit 3: Right, we could need a little bandit for the team.
Bandit 4: I call dibs on the stylish bag! Yeehaaaw!

Afterwards the tumultuous unpacking of the loot began – leading to scenes that resemble modern videos where overexcited YouTubers present their shopping hauls:



If the scoundrels were lucky, the plundered sacks contained postcards with the value of istillwritecards-products. In this case, the ruffians were financially set for life and, at the same time, had found an antidote to their loneliness: correspondence providing them with enough heart-warming reading material to last for a lifetime since - as we all know - lovers of art postcards write the most passionate and creative texts.

At least that is how the mail robbers envisioned it in their daydreams, lulled to sleep by the rocking of the railway. And in this light and dark world, still only sketched with a black pencil on pale paper, many things seemed possible. In fact, acquiring riches by hopping around with stolen sacks became such a popular idea that the daydreams of one group turned into nightmares for those who were in charge of maintaining a frictionless transfer of postal items.

In short: The situation became untenable in the eyes of the postal service and the government. To highlight the seriousness of these times, it should be noted that most mailmen were definitely not of the squeamish kind themselves. The clerks in a mail car commonly carried pistols. And other mail carriers were not intimidated easily either, as can be gathered from the example of a mailman from Louisiana who, in 1920, was shot twice by two masked robbers because he refused to hand over the mail and who afterwards pursued the fleeing bandits until he passed out from loss of blood.

At this point the story gets a little wild. So, if there's something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? Ghostbusters! The U.S. Marine Corps. The plan was sophisticated: Similar to today's military camouflage, a suit was tailored using mail sacks, envelopes and picture postcards as material. Under the code name 'pen pal' soldiers systematically and cautiously infiltrated... But who am I kidding? The plan was simple: Shoot!

Yes, really: Following U.S. President Harding's orders, in November 1921 small groups of 2–3 Marines began to escort mail transports. And their rules of engagement were as clear as they were uncompromising: Shoot to kill and don't stop defending a postal shipment until you are incapacitated or killed yourself.

In his article 'Crime and Postal History: Bring in the Marines!', George Corney quotes from a radical instruction to the Marine Corps: “If two Marines guarding a mail car, for example, are suddenly covered by a robber, neither must hold up his hands, but both must begin shooting at once. One may be killed, but the other will get the robbers and save the mail.”

The individual Marines received a training manual with 105 questions and answers relating to their mission. However, as this brief excerpt shows, a single line might have sufficed:

“Q: Suppose he [the robber] is using a gun or making threats with a gun in trying to escape?
A: Shoot him.

Q: Is there a general plan for meeting a robbery?
A: Yes; start shooting and meet developments as they arise thereafter.

Q: If I hear the command "Hands Up", am I justified in obeying this order?
A: No; fall to the ground and start shooting.

Q: Is it possible to make a successful mail robbery?
A: Only over a dead Marine.”

In sum: Shoot first, ask questions later.
The dialogues are easily imagined:
Marine: Sir, a quick question, please.
Superior: Shoot.
Marine: And what if -
Superior: Shoot.

All of this sounds rather martial – luckily during the 4 months until the Marines were withdrawn again, not one single mail robbery took place. One decisive factor for this abrupt drop in crime might have been the very fact that the soldiers weren't clothed in mail sack camouflage. Instead they were visually present and every would-be mail robber knew that he was likely to be met with stout-hearted resistance:

A U.S. Marine waits for mail robbers.(Image: "Now Where's the Mail Robbers?"  from the 'Walter F. Kromp Collection'. Via USMC Archives auf Flickr. Licence: CC BY 2.0. Link to the page of the 'Archives Branch, Marine Corps History Division': Link.)

(Incidentally, there is no data about the outcome of encounters between mail-carrying Marines and dogs.)

For about a year after the mission ended, until April 1923 to be precise, mail delivery remained undisturbed. Then robberies started to happen again and by 1926 the U.S. had entered a 'postal-apocalyptic' state once more. One of the most noteworthy occurrences in this period was the botched robbery attempt of the DeAutreamont brothers, who tried to force their way into a mail car and accidentally used so much dynamite that they blew up a good part of the wagon and its contents.

While the postal service started to train a special unit of armed guards and built armored mail cars, the Marines were called upon for their support once more.

The South African engine 'Havelock', disguised as 'Haarige Mary'.Not an American train, but a funny photo: The South African engine 'Havelock', ca. 1898. It is fortified - instead of armour plate protection, it was draped in strands of thick rope. The troops called it 'Hairy Mary'.
(Image: Wikimedia. Public Domain.)

And once more the attacks on mail carriers ended virtually overnight. Just like in their first deployment, the soldiers were quartered in post offices and government buildings and they helped to deliver the mail without any big incidents. The Marines generally got along with the local population quite nicely. Only the rifle club of San José, California held a certain grudge against General Smedley Butler because he arranged to have a few champion sharp-shooters assigned temporarily to the city in order to win a lucrative bet the local postmaster had made with the rifle club.

Here today's story draws to a close – perhaps it ends a bit anticlimactic, but on a happy and peaceful note at least, as is usually the case with postcard-related topics. Once more pen pals could converse without a care in the world and the bell-like laughter of babies rang across the country. Fortunately it never came to a scene like this:

Famous last words: "The sun is God."The 'Dying Trojan warrior' from the Temple of Aphaia.
(Image: "Aphaia pediment Laomedon E-XI Glyptothek Munich 85". By J. M. Harrington (Nefasdicere on En.Wikipedia). 2006-08-13. Via Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC BY 2.5.)


Or, to say it with the motif of one of our postcards:
Luckily nobody ended up...

'Three daisies' by Christine Eder for istillwritecards.com, available as a postcard....'pushing up daisies'. But you know how the saying from an obscure 90s adventure game goes: “The moral of every story is the same: We may have years, we may have hours, but sooner or later, we push up flowers.” Therefore, and not to be a downer, please do consider sending a postcard to your loved ones while there is still time. :-)

So what is in fact the moral of this blog post? While stories don't always have a moral, there is definitely one lesson to be learned: Send your friends postcards or they will be sad and in their sadness they will become mail robbers and then the army will have to intervene. Oh, also: Send cards, not kids!


Thank you for reading.
David Weger
Selected sources:
1. Smithsonian.com: A Brief History of Children Sent Through the Mail by Danny Lewis
2. Smithsonian National Postal Museum: Precious Packages - America's Parcel Post Service
3. Smithsonian's National Postal Museum Blog: "Very Special Deliveries" by Nancy Pope
4. Marine Corps Gazette: "Crime and Postal History: Bring in the Marines!" by George Corney
5. thelibrary.org: "Shipping Parcel Post in 1918"


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