Tuesday, March 29, 2011

A Look Back in History - How a Postal Clerk Saved Lives

One of my favorite history books is Only Yesterday by Frederick Lewis Allen.    Only Yesterday is an informal history of the period from the end of World War I to the Great Crash in 1929.  As such, it combines a history of the culture of the time with politics and economics that gives life to a period that is only distant memory.  Fortunately, for web savvy readers, the University of Virginia has put the book on line for anyone to read for free.  (They also have a remarkable list of other books of American historical and literary significance that can be read for free.)

I was reminded about the book when I checked up on the background of Ryan L. Cole's who wrote an op-ed on the Postal Service in today's Washington Times. Mr. Cole was a former speechwriter in the George W. Bush administration at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He has written a number of articles in conservative publications. One article he co-wrote caught my eye, Reassessing Warren Harding. Warren Harding and his successor Calvin Coolidge represent examples of Presidents whose public policy views most closely align with current Republicans and governed during the last period of limited government involvement in the economy, and active government involvement in the major social issue of the time, prohibition.

After reading his article on Warren Harding, I thought that maybe it was time for me to read Only Yesterday again.   Fortunately, I found it on the University of Virginia website and just got to the beginning of the second chapter when I found a beautiful passage that showed how the actions of a postal clerks may have saved many injuries and possibly deaths. The passage is in a chapter describing the factors that led to the Red Scare in the early 1920's, Mr. Allen describes the first incident that allowed politicians and industrialists to exploit the fear of Communism to suit their political and economic interests and led to major restrictions in immigrations of Jewish, Italian, Irish and other European ethnic "radicals."

The events of 1919 did much to feed this fear. On the 28th of April-while Wilson was negotiating the Peace Treaty at Paris, and homecoming troops were parading under Victory Arches-an infernal machine "big enough to blow out the entire side of the County-City Building" was found in Mayor Ole Hanson's mail at Seattle. Mayor Hanson had been stumping the country to arouse it to the Red Menace. The following afternoon a colored servant opened a package addressed to Senator Thomas R. Hardwick at his home in Atlanta, Georgia, and a bomb in the package blew off her hands. Senator Hardwick, as chairman of the Immigration Committee of the Senate, had proposed restricting immigration as a means of keeping out Bolshevism.

At two o'clock the next morning Charles Caplan, a clerk the parcel post division of the New York Post Office, was on his way home to Harlem when he read in a newspaper about the Hardwick bomb. The package was described news story as being about six inches long and three being done up in brown paper and, like the Hanson bomb, marked with the (false, of course) return address of Gimbel Brothers in New York. There was thing familiar to Mr. Caplan about this description. He thought he remembered having seen some packages like that. He racked his brain, and suddenly it all came back to him. He hurried back to the Post Office-and found, neatly laid away on a shelf where he had put them because of insufficient postage, sixteen little brown-paper packages with the Gimbel return address on them. They were addressed to Attorney-General Palmer, Postmaster-General Judge Landis of Chicago, Justice Holmes of the Supreme Court, Secretary of Labor Wilson, Commissioner of Immigration Caminetti, J. P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and a number of other government officials and capitalists. The packages were examined by the police in a neighboring house, and found to contain bombs. Others had started on their way through the mails; the total number ultimately accounted for reached thirty-six. (None of the other packages were carelessly opened, it is hardly necessary to say; for the next few days people in high station were very circumspect about undoing brown-paper packages.) The list of intended recipients was strong evidence that the bombs had been sent by an alien radical.

I have no idea whether this crime was ever solved but I am sure the amateur and professional Postal historians who follow this blog will be kind enough to provide a comment to tell my readers if the case was solved.

No comments: