Cleaning the Mailstream

In February 1865, Jacob Collamer, a U.S. Senator from Vermont and former Postmaster General, told his fellow senators that the traffic in obscene books and pictures was “getting to be a very great evil.”58 An Act of Congress of March 3, 1865, provided that “no obscene book, pamphlet, picture, print, or other publication of a vulgar and indecent character, shall be admitted into the mails.”59 The act was broadened in 1872 to ban obscene envelopes and postal cards, then expanded in 1873 when Congress passed the Comstock Act, named after Special Agent Anthony Comstock, a zealous anti-vice crusader. In addition to banning the mailing of obscene materials, the Comstock Act banned mailing any items or information relating to contraception or abortion, or receiving them with intent to distribute.

In 1872, Congress also passed the Mail Fraud Statute, which empowered special agents to pursue swindlers who previously had used the mails “with almost absolute impunity.”60 “Swindling circulars” enticed victims to buy counterfeit money, tickets for non-existent lotteries, and miraculous “medicines” and devices.61 For a mere $5 (or three for $10), citizens could buy “THE MAGIC BELT! FOR RENDERING ONE’S SELF ‘INVISIBLE’” (“Go where you will, no living being can see you, nor in any way be aware of your presence”).62 In 1876 Chief Special Agent P. H. Woodward noted that swindlers not only fleeced innocent victims by enticing them to send money through the mail but tempted postal employees with an “easy conscience” to redirect money-filled envelopes addressed to a “professional cheat” into their own pockets.63 In 1875, out of 307 people arrested for violating postal laws, 115 were postal employees.

In 1880, the title “post-office inspector” replaced “special agent.” In recommending the change, Postmaster General David M. Key said:


the duties of these officers are by no means confined to the detection and arrest of offenders … most of their time is occupied in the inspection of the postal service, the examination of postmasters’ accounts, the investigation of the solvency of their bonds, the collection of debts … and the general supervision of all officers and employe’s.64


In the late 19th century, the first federal law prohibiting all lottery-related mail was passed, the Anti-Lottery Act of 1890. The act targeted the New Orleans-based Louisiana Lottery Company, the only legal U.S. lottery at the time, which earned profits of more than $10,000,000 a year, mostly via the U.S. Mail. Armed with the new law, inspectors quickly shut down the lottery, whose business had been so vast that, within three months, revenue at the New Orleans Post Office dropped by one third and nine clerks had to be let go.

During the Spanish-American War of 1898, several experienced inspectors oversaw temporary military Post Office stations serving the troops and investigated thefts of soldiers’ mail. In 1898, inspectors also went to Alaska to reorganize the mail service there; the discovery of gold had led to avalanches of mail.

In 1900 inspectors investigated postal fraud in Cuba, which was under U.S. military jurisdiction, and traveled to Puerto Rico and Hawaii to supervise the start of mail service in these new U.S. territories. In 1903, 40 inspectors participated in a sweeping internal investigation of irregularities in the awarding of contracts, leading to the removal or resignation of 17 Post Office Department officers and employees, including First Assistant Postmaster General Perry S. Heath and Superintendent of Free Delivery August W. Machen. In 1905, the Department had 216 inspectors; by 1911, the number had increased to 390.