Postal Fraud

The practice of defrauding the post office in the pre-stamp period was extensive. To combat this, proposals were made by postal officials to demand prepayment of postage. But because charges were so high and service was so poor, the public felt that the postman would only make an earnest effort to deliver a letter if the post office had not yet been paid for it. Mark Twain reported that stagecoach riders carrying the mail across the American continent had difficulty adhering to their demanding schedules with stages loaded up with heavy bags of mail. The solution was simple— some of the bags simply “fell out” while traveling across the country, resulting not only in lightening the load but also giving the Indians some reading material.


Abuse of the receiver payment privilege was not the only way the post office was being defrauded. Newspapers were (and still are) permitted to go through the mails at much lower rates than letters. Though tedious, it was profitable work for a person to make a mark with a pin above or below certain words in a newspaper. If the newspaper was a large enough one, a very long message could be communicated by such pinpricks. The receiver of the newspaper only had to read the pricked words to receive the sender’s message; then, if he were an inquisitive sort, he could read the newspaper as well.


Another area of postal fraud was unintentionally provided for by parliamentary law. In Great Britain, each member of Parliament was allowed under law to send all his mail free. All the legislator was required to do was to sign the letter, and the post office would carry it. This is what is known as the “Free Frank.” In the United States, members of Congress, cabinet officers, and presidents have this right as well— it is a privilege designed to encourage communication between the government and the people. In Great Britain at this time, a position in Parliament apparently did not pay well enough for some of its members. They took additional employment with leading commercial firms and spent much of their nonlegislative time franking letters, which could then go through the mail free of charge. The post office was bilked out of a great deal of money through this loophole in the law, and the turpitude of some legislators. Free franked letters of this period are extremely common, attesting to the abuse.

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