Hope your National Thank a Mail Carrier Day celebrations were first class! If you didn’t know this was a thing, perhaps your invitation was lost in the mail. In honor of this underrated holiday, I have for your reading pleasure an anecdote about a dead—that is to say, undeliverable—letter belonging to Henry Ward Beecher.
If you’re as rusty on 19th century public figures as you are on obscure holidays, never fear, good ol’ Wikipedia has you covered. Henry was “an American Congregationalist clergyman, social reformer, and speaker, known for his support of the abolition of slavery, his emphasis on God’s love, and his 1875 adultery trial.” . . . At least he’s not referred to as the lesser known sibling of Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In October of 1880, Colonel James McLeer, postmaster of Brooklyn, notified Henry that the post office was holding a dead letter for him. Multiple biographies record Henry’s reply to the colonel and what happened next:
Dear Sir—Your notice that a letter of mine was dead and subject to my order is before me.
We must all die! and tho’ the premature decease of my poor letter should excite a proper sympathy (and I hope it does) yet I am greatly sustained under the affliction.
What was the date of its death? Of what did it die? Had it in its last hours proper attention and such consolation as befit the melancholy occasion? Did it leave any effects?
Will you kindly see to its funeral? I am strongly inclined to cremation.
May I ask whether any other letters of mine are sick, dangerously sick? If any depart this life don’t notify me hereafter, don’t notify me till after the funeral.
Henry Ward Beecher
Colonel McLeer examined the deceased letter and wrote Mr. Beecher, in the course of the letter saying: “I hesitate, Mr. Beecher, to carry out your instructions in regard to the cremation of your letter, as it contains a check for $150.”
On the receipt of this information Mr. Beecher hastened to Colonel McLeer’s office. Entering the room with a rush he threw his hat with force on the desk. Drawing himself to his full height he, without preface and looking the Colonel full in the face said:
“I do hereby revoke, cancel and recind [sic] all the power delegated to you to cremate any letters of mine or in which I may have any interest.”
– Quoted from Griswold’s Life of Henry Ward Beecher: A Comprehensive and Accurate History of the Great Divine from his Birth to his Grave, 1887
Let that be a lesson to all of us to give our dead letters—and mail carriers—the respect they deserve.
Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above historical anecdote. I assert only that it makes for a good story.
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