It's a discovery worthy of a murder mystery: In a parking lot in the mountains outside Santa Cruz, Calif., a truck is found abandoned, the keys still hanging in the door. Inside the police find … a note? A body?
Not quite. Try 13,000 pieces of undelivered mail.
The recent discovery in Bonny Doon, Calif., of a former mail carrier's old stash was not exactly unprecedented. There's also the recent arrest of a Detroit postal carrier who squirreled away 9,000 pieces of mail into a storage locker, a work dodge worthy of a Seinfeld plot. A week earlier, a postman was nailed for hoarding 27,000 letters in Leeds, England; the week before that revealed a postal hoarder with 20,000 letters in Frankfurt, Germany. ("[He] didn't deliver mail addressed to himself either," a police statement dryly noted.) And all of them were dwarfed by the North Carolina postman who admitted in August to filling his garage and burying in his backyard nearly a tractor trailer's worth of undelivered junk mail.
But the hoarding and abandonment of mail is a phenomenon that extends at least back to 1874, when Providence, R.I., postman Benjamin Salisbury was caught throwing mail into the ocean "to avoid the trouble of delivery." Some things don't change much; a Long Island postman used the same MO in 1954, when he blamed a bum leg from the war for forcing him to dump his mail off a local pier. The scheme kind of worked … until the tide came in.
In 2006, the last year the U.S. Postal Service released figures, there were 515 arrests and 466 convictions for "internal theft." That figure includes abandonment and hoarding cases, where the motive has remained constant since the days of penny postage: A worker gets overwhelmed or simply disinclined to finish his route. "It's not a huge issue," Agapi Doulaveris of the U.S. Office of the Inspector General told me. "We work on referrals."
And there's the rub: For a referral to happen, first someone has to notice.
The deliveries affected are often what the U.S. Postal Service now terms "standard mail"—and what the rest of us call "junk." With the railroad-driven growth in catalogs, postal abandonment stories were already common by the 1880s. The New York Times complained of mailmen burning their bundles and in 1883 ran the immortal headline "To Deliver His Letters Some Time" after the discovery of a mailman's old stash in the basement of an Upper East Side saloon.
For a mail-sack slacker, there's a dark allure to hoarding junk. Think about it: If someone's first-class mail with paychecks or credit card bills doesn't show up, they're liable to complain. But if the umpteenth Eddie Bauer catalog doesn't arrive, well … who's gonna notice?