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?
So, who does notice? The discovery of hoards follows some common narratives: They've been caught by meter readers, by housesitters feeding a rabbit for a vacationing postman, and by state troopers making traffic stops. A number of "dead-letter cars"—old clunkers filled up like a junk-mail piñatas—have been discovered by mechanics and used-car dealers. And a number of cases are broken after the stashed mail catches fire: In 1974, back-to-back cases a week apart yielded 1,200 sacks of mail in a Louisville, Ky., attic and another tractor-trailer load in a burning attic in suburban Connecticut.
Discovery becomes more likely in cases where a rogue carrier indiscriminately tosses both first-class mail and junk. In 1978, the postmaster of Roxbury, Conn., was retired after postal inspectors in a late-night raid found letters in the central office's trash cans. Among the locals, both Arthur Miller and William Styron were missing mail. "I have had over the years a large amount of mail for a well-known writer—I guess that's the term," Styron mused afterwards to the New York Times. "And in the last year and a half I've been saying to myself, 'Well, is my stock declining?' "
All these cases, however, bow before the Chicago mail scandals of 1994. Ranked dead last among cities in postal customer satisfaction, that year Chicago found itself on the receiving end of hoard stories seemingly every week. Letters burning under a railway viaduct, letters rotting under a porch, letters stuffed into a dumpster: The stuff was even found hiding at the post office itself. The post office, indeed, was as much a problem as the individual carriers: "Complaint lines might ring as often as 85 times without being answered. …" noted reporter Charles Nicodemus. "Mammoth mounds of undelivered mail were found at several stations—including one pile 800 feet long, nearly the length of three football fields."
It seemed an almost inevitable coda when, five years later, a final Chicago stash caught fire in a home and took down its mailman with it.
To be fair, the problem is not peculiar to the United States. Postal hoards turn up everywhere from Norway to Malaysia, where a postal worker caught hoarding 21,255 letters complained, "Why should I deliver the letters when I am being paid less than 500 Ringgit?" He might have taken a lesson from Italy, which gamed the practice to squeeze some money out of it: In 1974, the Poste Italiane was caught selling new mail to paper-pulp plants for $14 a ton. "Most of the mail has now been turned into cheap cardboard suitcases," the Times of London reported. Shamed by the resulting outcry, the postal service then resorted to stuffing letters into unofficial "ghost trains" that circled the country without any destination.
True to form, though, the most spectacularly eccentric cases come from Britain, where in 2004 one Staffordshire carrier achieved a monumental stash of 130,000 pieces of mail. Far from simply being too tired to carry their mail, British carriers have given excuses ranging from low blood sugar to the post-traumatic stress of having served in Northern Ireland. Most memorably, last year a cross-dressing carrier in Leeds took revenge on local yobs by tossing their mail after they made fun of her newly acquired lipstick and heels.
But when one hears of a Yorkshire postman who filled every room of his house with 35,000 undelivered letters, it's hard not to find a more universal parable of the overwhelming reach of modern communication and consumerism. The carrier, Rodger Parkinson, seemed almost relieved that his mail stash was discovered.
"I'm glad in a way," he told his judge. "It needs sorting."