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Early Photo Sleuths In the Dead Letter Office

By Kurt Luther 

Not long ago, I received a gift of a carte de visite of an unidentified Civil War soldier, probably a Union private, wearing a short jacket and the reinforced trousers of a cavalryman or mounted artillerist.

The distinctive brass clips and identification number mark this carte de visite by Harvey’s New York Photographic Gallery of New Orleans, La., as having been processed through the Dead Letter Office. Author’s collection.
The distinctive brass clips and identification number mark this carte de visite by Harvey’s New York Photographic Gallery of New Orleans, La., as having been processed through the Dead Letter Office. Author’s collection.

The back mark revealed the image was made at a New Orleans studio. I imagined this young man, sweltering, mosquito-bitten and bored from countless days on garrison duty in occupied Louisiana, had ducked into a local photographer’s shop for a moment of shade and distraction. He had his portrait taken and sent it through the mail, perhaps to his parents or a sweetheart anxious to hear from him.

Yet, this image, like thousands of others, would only arrive at its intended destination years later, if at all. The distinctive markings on this carte de visite, a pair of old-fashioned brass clips, one at the top of the mount and one at the bottom, along with a number written in red ink on the lower left-hand corner, reveal that it was processed by the Dead Letter Office, a unit of the U.S. Postal Service tasked with finding the correct addresses for letters deemed undeliverable. The clerks who worked to track down the recipients through skill, public participation, and even special laws to solve each mystery, stand among some of the earliest Civil War photo sleuths.

The Dead Letter Office (DLO), located in Washington, D.C., processed all of the mail that postal workers around the country had found to be undeliverable. The reasons for this status varied, from mail carrier mix-ups and insufficient postage to illegal contents, such as a pepperbox pistol rigged to fire upon its unsuspecting recipient. Many undeliverable letters bore illegible, incorrect, incomplete or missing addresses. The Civil War greatly exacerbated these problems. Thousands of young men, many of whom had limited schooling and may never have written a letter before, left for distant training camps and battlefields. Once there, they relied on the mail to ease their homesickness. The DLO expanded rapidly to meet this growing demand. At the end of the war, the DLO held more than 4.5 million dead letters.

DLO clerks deployed two distinct skill sets to help letters reach their intended destinations. First was “blind reading,” in which clerks attempted to make sense of an enigmatic address, combining expert handwriting analysis with encyclopedic knowledge of geography and regional accents. If blind reading failed, the clerk would then deploy a second skill, opening the letter in an attempt to guess the recipient from its contents. DLO clerks were uniquely granted this special power—otherwise, lacking a search warrant, a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment—thanks to a special act of Congress. Most of these clerks were women or retired clergymen, owing to the belief that these specific individuals were trustworthy to a higher degree.

These clerks were remarkably skilled sleuths, as more than 40 percent of dead letters were successfully delivered. Still, plenty of mail remained undeliverable. After a period of time, most of the letters would be scrapped, and the contents donated or auctioned. Yet, there were exceptions.

Ashley Bowen-Murphy, a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies at Brown University, has researched how employees kept and displayed some of the more bizarre and compelling items that couldn’t be delivered. These exhibits became so popular that the DLO set up an informal museum to handle a steady stream of tourists while allowing clerks to do their jobs.

One centerpiece of this museum was a large collection of Civil War soldier portraits accumulated from years of dead letter processing. By the end of the war, thousands of these photos existed. Estimates range from 5,000 to a more doubtful 15,000, and all under the DLO direction of Third Assistant Postmaster General Alexander N. Zevely, who sought the public’s help in identifying and delivering them. One strategy involved publishing lists of undeliverable letters containing soldier photos in local newspapers, with the hope that a reader might recognize the name of the sender or recipient. For example, an 1868 Connecticut Courant article lists 10 such letters with portraits, including a carte de visite of 2nd Lt. Joseph Ferguson, Company G, 7th U.S. Colored Troops, addressed to a Miss Elizabeth Ferguson of Bridgeport, Conn.

This surviving panel was displayed in the Dead Letter Office museum after the Civil War in hopes that a friend or family member might recognize a familiar face. George Eastman Museum.

This surviving panel was displayed in the Dead Letter Office museum after the Civil War in hopes that a friend or family member might recognize a familiar face. George Eastman Museum.
Visitors to the Dead Letter Office museum browsed through panels  of soldier portaits in a unique wooden crate pictured in the 1893 book The Story of Our Post Office.
Visitors to the Dead Letter Office museum browsed through panels of soldier portaits in a unique wooden crate pictured in the 1893 book The Story of Our Post Office.

Another strategy, described by Marshall Cushing in The Story of Our Post Office (1893), leveraged increasing public visits to the DLO museum as a way to direct attention to the undelivered soldier portraits. At Zevely’s request, the images “were taken out of the storeroom, mounted on large cards, and placed on exhibition in the museum in the hope that an occasional visitor might be able to identify and restore some picture of value to the family connections.” It is likely that the dead letter portraits received their characteristic brass clips and red-inked numerals at this time. The portraits, which included cartes de visite and mounted gem tintypes, were attached to panels in groups of 36 images, or 4 rows of nine images each.

A few decades later, the photos returned to storage, only to reappear in the early 1890s under another postal supervisor, whose “patriotic interest and personal efforts” ensured that they were restored and re-displayed. Around this time, the panels were bound into an oversized photo album, one panel per page, and set in a unique wooden cradle, which allowed visitors to inspect its contents at close range.

The very few extant examples of these panels illustrate a surprising diversity of Union military experiences: soldiers and sailors, infantrymen and artillerists, Westerners and Easterners, privates and field officers. Apparently, no one was immune from the perils of the postal system. African-American and Confederate subjects are notably absent. But whether these images were deliberately culled is unclear. While the DLO did handle letters addressed to seceded states, they were generally returned to their senders.

Along with the museum displays, DLO employees pursued other means of publicizing. They sent information about the photos for advertisement in GAR journals, hoping to draw the attention of veterans who might recognize themselves or their comrades. They also apparently sent the soldier portraits on tour. Lynn Heidelbaugh, curator of the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum, has discovered newspaper records indicating that the DLO exhibited the soldier album at several world’s fairs in the late 19th century, seeking to take advantage of the millions of cross-country visitors those events drew.

This multitude of efforts to identify and find homes for Civil War soldier portraits begs the question of how successful they were. How often did family or friends actually recognize and claim one? According to Cushing, “In various ways, many of these pictures have reached the families for which they were originally intended.” He includes an image of a panel with five missing photos, noting in a caption that, “The blanks indicate where pictures have been taken out and restored to owners.”

Heidelbaugh directed me to one report, covering the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exhibition in Omaha, Neb., that possessed a trove of fascinating details about the dead letter album exhibited. The article claimed that 2,000 portraits had been identified since the 1860s, and “there were many pathetic and dramatic incidents in connection with their discovery,” such as viewers weeping, overcome with emotion. Furthermore, it recorded that “for some time after the war these identifications were of almost daily occurrence, but in the last few years such discoveries have been growing less and less as the ante-bellum generation has faded away and the soldier boys of the civil war have outgrown their appearance at that time.”

These clerks were remarkably skilled sleuths, as more than 40 percent of dead letters were successfully delivered.

Such a discovery had taken place just weeks earlier, on Aug. 13. An Omaha woman browsing the album in the Government building at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition discovered a wartime photo of her father, J.J. Gorman. A Civil War veteran of Company D in the 86th Indiana, Gorman mailed the photo from Camp Carrington, Indianapolis, to his family in South Bend, Ind., in 1862. Thirty-five years later, his family finally received the photograph. Gorman was so pleased that he sent a thank you letter to the exhibit director, writing, ”I am greatly obliged for the return of the picture.”

Such remarkable stories were apparently few and far between. The article notes, with respect to the dead letter soldier photos, “the department has given up hope of locating the greater part of those remaining.” The album made appearances at several subsequent world’s fairs over the next decade, but its days were numbered. In 1911, the DLO museum closed, and its contents distributed to several museums and private collections. The album was apparently split up, with at least two individuals known to have acquired large groupings of dead letter portraits. One of two, militaria collector Philip J. Medicus, sold eight complete panels with nearly 300 portraits to the George Eastman Museum in 1948, according to Ross Knapper, collection manager for the museum’s Department of Photography. One of these panels appeared in Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and is perhaps the only such panel on public exhibition.

The other documented owner was Argus E. Ogborn, an Indiana historian, genealogist and former Sons of Union Veterans commander. Ogborn bought a large cache of dead letter portraits from the U.S. government in the 1930s. He was well known for fastidiously recording his name, address and an identifying number on his collectibles, including his cartes de visite. Although Ogborn died in 1992, many of his inscriptions survive today. He is so closely associated today with dead letter portraits that some people, mistakenly, believe the brass clips and red numbering to be his handiwork. Ogborn’s collection was auctioned off in the 1980s. A large proportion of dead letter portraits currently in circulation bear this provenance.

My own carte de visite of the youthful Union private possesses markings of having passed through the DLO. But otherwise, its journey, like the man’s identity, remains a mystery. Perhaps it came from the collections of Medicus or Ogborn, rescued by them from a trash heap or a forgotten storeroom. Perhaps it was spotted a century ago by a hopeful relative or brother-in-arms, who claimed it as a treasured memento.

Whatever the story of my image, we can be assured that the tireless efforts of the DLO clerks played a central role.  

Heidelbaugh finds their dedication admirable, but not surprising. Undeliverable photos should eventually have been destroyed. She noted however, “there’s something with the aftermath of the Civil War that makes the DLO clerks hang on to these and go to the efforts of trying to connect people to their loved ones. The clerks are probably dealing with their own trauma and understanding that these [photos] may be the only visual records of these soldiers.” Bowen-Murphy sees part of the DLO’s significance as “the collection point for stuff that would otherwise be lost. This is the last chance for a love letter to get where it’s going, or a soldier’s letter home. I think there’s some emotional power there.”

These sentiments will resonate with many contemporary photo sleuths. Inspired by the example of the Dead Letter Office clerks, we can continue their important work.

We encourage you to pick up the torch to continue this investigation and, as always, submit other photo mysteries to be investigated as well as summaries of your best success stories to MI via email. Please also check out our Facebook page, Civil War Photo Sleuth, to continue the discussion online.

References: Ashley Bowen-Murphy, “Where U.S. Mail Went To Die” (Atlas Obscura); James H. Bruns, “Remembering the Dead” (EnRoute Vol. 1, No. 3); Marshall Cushing, The Story of Our Post Office: The Greatest Government Department in All Its Phases; Dorothy G. Fowler, Unmailable: Congress and the Post Office; Omaha Daily Bee, May 2 and Sept. 4, 1898; Connecticut Courant, Jan. 18, 1868.

Kurt Luther is an assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech. He writes and speaks about ways that technology can support historical research, education and preservation.By Kurt

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