Sunday, May 31, 2009

From the Archives: The Incredible Postal Workers Aboard RMS Titanic

Early Sunday morning, May 31, 2009, Millvina Dean, the last survivor of the sinking of the RMS Titanic died in her sleep in Southampton, England. Only 2 months old when the "unsinkable" ship sank, Ms. Dean had no memory of that night, and only found out about her rescue from the ship when she was told so by her mother when she was 8 years old. For seven decades, she had shunned the notoriety that came from her surviving when so many others perished, but in the 1980s she began to speak out about her place in history.

A little over a year ago, I authored the article below about the brave postal workers on the RMS Titanic. Stamp collectors everywhere should be able to respect their diligence to their oaths to protect the mail at all costs, even when it became apparent that they were doomed with most of the other people on the ship.

In honor of the passing of the last of the 706 survivors of that "Night to Remember", I have re-issued my article, "The Incredible Postal Workers Aboard RMS Titanic" originally dated May 3, 2008.

"Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds" is often cited as the motto for the U.S. Postal Service. It is not; while this saying is engraved above the Farley Post Office in New York City, it is not the official motto of the U.S. Postal Service nor any postal service for that matter. Yet it does represent the spirit of mail carriers throughout the world. And nowhere does this spirit seem more real than by the actions of the postal workers aboard the R.M.S. Titanic on the night of her demise.

The Royal Mail Ship (R.M.S.) Titanic, was conceived and built as mankind's efforts to tame the seas. She was called unsinkable by many and she represented the apex of what was thought to be man's domination over nature. She sailed in April, 1912, full of hope and promise and triumph as the greatest ship ever built.

As a Royal Mail Ship, Titanic had been commissioned to transport and handle mail from the United Kingdom's Royal Mail postal service. This type of service, called Sea Post, offered postal authorities an opportunity to process the mail during the transit time of the ship's passage, and it offered the ship's owners a reliable and predictable source of income. On board Titanic was a state of the art Sea Post Office where mail would be sorted and canceled in route to the ship's destination. Incredibly, over 3000 mailbags were ultimately loaded onto Titanic for her fateful journey.

On April 10th, Titanic left Southampton, England and set sail for its ultimate destination, New York City. Below decks, five Sea Post workers started their task of sorting the mail.

The five men represented some of the best postal workers of two nations. Americans John March, Oscar Woody, and William Gwinn worked alongside British clerks John Smith and James Williamson on the voyage.

The Accident and The Postal Workers

Late in the evening of April 14, 1912, the ship struck an iceberg and suffered irreparable damage. While the magnitude of the disaster was unknown at the time, the ship was doomed as compartment after compartment began flooding.

"I urged them to leave their work. They shook their heads and continued."
The postal workers rushed to the mail room to begin rescuing the mail. It has been estimated that the workers retrieved up to 200 sacks of registered mail and had carried them to the upper decks on the slim chance that it might get rescued. Even as water began to fill the post office, the men admirably answered the postal workers call of duty to save the mail from destruction. Their admirable efforts might have cost the men their lives; as they tried to get the mail above deck, their chances of getting aboard one of the precious few lifeboats, while slim at best, vanished completely as the chivalrous call for women and children first seized the day.

The men were claimed by the frigid Atlantic waters in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. Coincidentally, it was postal worker Oscar Woody's 44th birthday.

The Aftermath

None of the mail was ever recovered. The icy Atlantic had doomed these five gallant men and claimed all of the mail. But two life-jacketed bodies were later recovered floating in the detritus of the shipwreck. Birthday celebrant Oscar Woody and fellow American John March were recovered. Woody, whose body had badly decomposed was quickly buried at sea after his effects were removed. The body of his fellow co-worker, John March, had fared better; it was able to be interred in a cemetery in New Jersey in the United States. The bodies of the other three men were never located.

Inside Oscar Woody's coat pockets were found facing slips. These pieces of paper were used by the postal workers to label sacks of mail that had been sorted. When attached to a mail sack they would indicate the delivery destination and the sorting clerk's name for tracking purposes. Apparently, Woody had stashed a handful of the facing slips in his pockets while he had been working.

"I saw them no more."
Also found on Woody's body was a chain with some of the ship's mailroom keys on it and the letter assigning Woody to service on the Titanic. These items are the only postal items recovered from the disaster.

So far, no mail has been recovered from salvaging operations. The debate remains unsettled as to whether any of the mail could even be intact after being underwater for such a long time. Ocean currents, tremendous pressures, biological elements, and even the rusting hulk of metal that was once a proud ship would all serve to harm any mail. It seems doubtful that nearly 100 years after the disaster that any mail would have survived.

Honoring the Postal Workers

As word began to spread about the last hours aboard the doomed ship, stories of heroes began to emerge. The incredible story of the postal worker's last actions did not go unnoticed.

Numerous memorials were offered by two grieving countries. Southampton, initial point on Titanic's maiden voyage was also home to most of the ship's crew. The town suffered an incredible loss of 549 lives.

A memorial to the five postal workers aboard Titanic was installed in the High Street Post Office. It was forged from a spare propeller donated by shipbuilder Harland and Wolff. The plaque reads:

This tablet is erected by the Postal and Telegraph Service to the honor and memory of John R. Jago Smith, James B. Williamson, British Sea Post officers, and their American colleagues William H. L. Gwinn, John S. March, [and] Oscar S. Woody who died on duty in the foundering of S. S. Titanic April 15, 1912
"Steadfast in Peril"

In April, 2008, the High Street Post Office was closed. A controversy arose since it was possible that the plaque that adorned the walls would be sold at auction like numerous other Titanic memorabilia. However, Southampton city council members have directed that the memorial be placed in Southampton's Civic Center, thus thwarting any plans to profit from the disaster.

At the time of the disaster, U.S. Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock noted the "bravery exhibited by these men in their efforts to safeguard under such trying conditions the valuable mail intrusted [sic] to them should be a source of pride to the entire Postal Service."


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Welcome to this edition of News and Views. Here are some stories of interest to stamp collectors:

The Worlds Largest Ball of Stamps consists of over 600 pounds of stamps that was started in the 1950s by the Stamp Collecting Club at Boy's Town, Nebraska. Be sure to read the little sign on the display mount! (Hat tip to Stamp Collectors Corner)

Author Georg Jensen ponders the fate of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) in Going Postal. In a thought-provoking article, Jensen wonders if the subsidized handling of bulk mail has helped to drive the USPS to the point of collapse.

Popular Mechanics has an excellent article on 10 Geeky Ways to Deliver Mail: U.S. Postal Service Technology. Mail by mule, missile, and Segway, are just a few of the examples listed.

Worried that a burglar might find it, the owner of a 'Post Office' Mauritius One Penny Red stamp hid it in an album filled with worthless stamps and then forgot where he put it. The story of how one of the approximately 15 known stamps was hidden, found 20 years later, and then ready for auction can be found in the article Legendary Mauritius Stamp On Sale in Germany . (Hat tip to Stamp Collecting Roundup)

Last month, the stamp blog CDDStamps On Stamps posted what might be the most atrocious example of a damaged stamp being actively sold on the internet. The junked stamp, cut on two sides and sporting a torn corner, can be viewed here. Offered for $2 on an unnamed website, a legitimate dealer would probably sell you an excellent copy for the same price. Incredible.

In a short-and-to-the-point post, author "John" laments the decision to issue a stamp honoring The Simpsons cartoon characters in What's Next? Beavis and Butthead?.

That's all for now. Enjoy your stamps!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Was There A Curse Surrounding President Lincoln's Assassination?

Lincoln, the Railsplitter
U.S., 2009
The world's first commemorative stamp was issued in honor of Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, in 1866. While postal authorities never promoted the 15-cent stamp as a commemorative stamp, most philatelists treat it as such, since it was issued in honor of America's recently assassinated leader. Lincoln has become a very frequent subject of commemorative and even definitive stamps, both in the U.S. and abroad. In 2009, on the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, the U.S. Postal Service issued four stamps commemorating his birth, which are illustrated throughout this blog entry, bringing the total number of stamps honoring the 16th President of the United States with 74 distinct stamps.

This article will detail some of the events surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln and the odd events that occurred to those connected to that fateful night. Some have even suggested that the events of that night cursed those around it. For those of us who do not believe in curses, there are clearly some odd historical events regarding the participants that make for entertaining reading.


At about 10:15 PM, on April 14, 1865, five people were alone in the Presidential Box at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, watching the play Our American Cousin. Four of the attendees in the box were busy watching the play; the fifth was an unseen intruder with a nefarious plan to try to affect the outcome of the U.S. Civil War. Within a few short seconds, a mortal wound was delivered to the president and, in the span of a few hours, America was to lose what many believe have come to believe as her greatest president ever. Even though only one life was snuffed out that evening, many of the people surrounding the assassination would meet strange deaths in the following years, leading some to infer that they were cursed. This is the story of the mysterious deaths of those near and dear to President Abraham Lincoln following his assassination.


Lincoln, the Lawyer
U.S., 2009

Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States in 1861, the same year in which the country slid into civil war. The war, which was to last virtually Lincoln's entire presidency, split the country into two factions -- the northern states, called the Union, and the southern states, named the Confederacy. The Union sought to preserve the nation, while the Confederacy seceded in order to start their own nation. After early Confederate victories, the 4-year-long struggle wore them down and turned the tide toward the more industrial and better financed Union forces.

Late in the war, John Wilkes Booth, a famous actor of the day, grew disgruntled that his beloved South was losing the war, and actively sought ways to change the outcome of the war. He conspired with several others to attempt to kidnap President Lincoln, transport him into Confederate territory, and hold him for ransom in an attempt to force the Union to surrender. After carefully laying out the plans for the kidnapping, a last-minute schedule change by the President thwarted the attempt. Before the plan could be revised, a major army of the South surrendered, dooming the Confederacy to ultimate defeat.

The Assassination

Lincoln, the Politician
U.S., 2009

Booth, stung by the surrender of his beloved side, changed his plans to murder. He, along with some of the original kidnapping conspirators would attempt to assassinate several leaders of the government. Booth believed that a coordinated attack on the political leaders of the Union would create such chaos and disorder that the Confederacy would be emboldened to fight on.

On the night of April 14th, 1865, as President Lincoln watched the play with his wife, Mary Todd, and invited guests Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance, Clara Harris, Booth's plan was put in motion. He would kill the President, a fellow conspirator would murder the Vice-President, Andrew Johnson, and a third conspirator would kill the Secretary of State, William Seward, all at the same time. Only Booth would prove to be successful, and what a terrible blow to the recovering nation it was.

When Booth fired the fatal shot that murdered the President, the stunned crowd in Ford's Theater did not fully understand what was happening. During the ensuing chaos, Major Rathbone, the invited guest of the president, struggled with Booth in the Presidential Box. After critically slashing Rathbone with a sharp dagger, Booth managed to jump to the stage, run across the platform, and escape the theater.

President Lincoln, shot in the back of the head, would never regain consciousness. He was taken across the street to a boarding house owned by William Petersen, a German-born tailor. Through the night Lincoln struggled to survive but the final outcome was without doubt. Mercifully, at 7:22 AM, on Saturday, April 15th, 1865, the President died from his wound. America had lost her 16th President to an assassin's bullet.


Lincoln, the President
U.S., 2009

Following a twelve-day manhunt, Booth was found hiding in a barn in northern Virginia. Surrounded, but unwilling to leave the confines of the barn, hay surrounding the barn was ignited. As the flames intensified, a shot was fired and Booth was wounded. An over-eager, and slightly deranged, soldier named Thomas "Boston" Corbett fired the shot, although there is some minor controversy regarding this claim. Regardless of the source of the bullet, Booth was paralyzed and mortally wounded as well. After lingering for three hours, Booth died.

Thus, the two principal players in a watershed event in American history had died from bullet wounds.

Affected Lives

Many of the individuals in direct or indirect proximity to President Lincoln's assassination would go on to lead troubled lives, or meet untimely deaths.

  • Mary Todd Lincoln - Mary Todd always seemed to be bit daft, but her husband's assassination completely unhinged her. She wore nothing but black clothes as a sign of mourning for the rest of her life, but enigmatically often purchased bright colorful clothes for which she would never wear. These and other extravagant purchases, plus obvious signs of her being disconnected from reality, plus a suspected suicide attempt led her only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, to have her committed to a psychiatric hospital. Following a public outcry, she was released to the custody of her sister, Elizabeth Edwards, at whose house she died several years later.

  • Major Henry Rathbone and Clara Harris - Major Rathbone and his fiancee were not the Lincoln's first choice of theater companions that fateful night. After others had begged off for the evening, Mary Todd invited the young courting couple. Oddly, the major and his fiancee where step-brother and step-sister, as Rathbone's widowed mother had married Harris's widowered father.

    During the assassination attempt, Rathbone was seriously injured by the dagger-wielding John Wilkes Booth. Rathbone struggled to overcome the assassin, but the wound was too deep, resulting in a large amount of blood-loss. Rathbone ultimately survived and in 1867, he and his step-sister wed.

    In 1883, in Hanover, Germany, where he was appointed U.S. Consul, Rathbone's mental health began a serious decline. A few days before Christmas that year, Rathbone murdered his wife/step-sister, Clara, and came close to murdering their three children, before trying, but failing, to commit suicide. He spent the remaining years of his life in an asylum for the criminally insane.

  • William Petersen - Petersen, a German-born tailor, owned the house across the street from Ford's Theater. Following the gunshot to the president, Lincoln was brought to Petersen's boarding house where he was laid across a bed while doctors frantically tried to save him.

    A few years after the assassination, Petersen died from an overdose of laudanum (an alcohol-based mixture with opium). He was found on the grounds of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. The question remains to this day as to whether it was an accidental death or a suicide. Just four months later, his wife followed him to the grave.

  • Mary Surratt - As the owner of the boarding house where Booth and his comrades met, much has been written of Mary Surratt and whether she had first-hand knowledge of the assassination plot and the plot to overthrow the U.S. Government.

    It is very well documented and accepted by historians that she did know of the plot to kidnap Lincoln. It was at her boarding house that the plot for the kidnapping was hatched. After the kidnap attempt was thwarted by Lincoln's last minute change of plans, Mrs. Surratt seems to have taken a back seat in the conspiracy plot. Many historians question the amount of knowledge that she had of Booth's last-minute change of plans to murder the president, and whether such knowledge was sufficient cause for her execution.

    She was tried with the other conspirators and by the thinnest of margins was condemned to die by hanging. Attempts by her supporters to contact the new president, Andrew Johnson, to plea for mercy on Mrs. Surratt were blocked by several people, including Senators Preston King and James H. Lane. On July 7, 1865, Surratt, along with 3 others involved in the Lincoln conspiracy where hanged. She was the first woman hanged by the U.S. Government.

  • Senators Preston King and James H. Lane - These two senators were part of the entourage who shielded the new president, Andrew Johnson, from attempts to plea for mercy on Mary Surratt's life. Both men died within a little over one year of Lincoln's assassination, some claim due to guilt over their complicity to allow Ms. Surratt to be executed.

    Sen. King chose a particularly morbid way to commit suicide. He tied a bag filled with lead bullets around his neck and jumped from a ferry boat into New York Harbor, where he sunk to the bottom.

    Sen. Lane likewise ended his life, although by a more conventional manner. Almost one year to the day after Mary Surratt's hanging, the senator killed himself with a self-inflicted gunshot.

  • "Boston" Corbett - It's doubtful that a more strange character could have been found to have killed John Wilkes Booth. Corbett was a religious fanatic who had previously castrated himself to prevent succumbing to temptation from prostitutes. He had worked as a hat-maker, a field that exposed workers to mercury and led to many cases of dementia. The exposure to the toxin may have affected his mental capacity.

    In the 1880s, he served as a assistant doorkeeper of the Kansas House of Representatives. Overhearing someone mocking the opening prayer, Corbett pulled out a revolver and threatened violence. Soon declared to be insane, he was sentenced to an asylum, from which he escaped several months later and disappeared from view. He is believed by many to have died in a terrible fire that consumed much of the town of Hinkley, Minnesota, his last known residence.

Special Mention

  • Robert Todd Lincoln - Robert was the sole surviving son of President and Mrs. Lincoln; two of his three brothers died as children, and the third died at age 18. Robert lived to the ripe old age of 82 and lived to see his famous father honored many times.

    Robert had the unusual coincidence of being connected to the assassination of 3 U.S. Presidents. His parents had invited him to attend Ford's Theater on the night of the assassination, but he declined citing fatigue. Later as Secretary of War, he was an eyewitness to the assassination of President James Garfield at a train station in Washington, DC in 1881. Twenty years after that, while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, NY, then-president William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. Robert Todd Lincoln was near the first three presidential assassinations in U.S. history, over an almost 40-year span, an event probably unequaled in American History.

    He was reputed to turn down future invitations to be near the president, although he was with President Warren Harding and former President Howard Taft at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC.

  • Ford's Theater - The infamous locale of the Lincoln Assassination also has a morbid history. Immediately following the assassination, the U.S. Government purchased the theater from its owner, John Ford, for $100,000 (US). The government forbade the building from ever being used as a place of entertainment. (The stipulation has since been overridden as special performances are sometimes held in the theater.)

    Following the purchase of the theater, the building served as a record's warehouse and clerical office for the government. The last bit of tragedy to unfold in the building occurred in 1893, when the front part of the building collapsed, killing 22 clerks and injuring scores more people.

Curse or no curse, the lives and place surrounding the assassination of President Lincoln certainly seem to have a dark shadow clouding them.

Monday, March 23, 2009

News and Views

Here's a recap of some interesting philately news:

The U.S. Postal Service went from a $1.4 billion (US$) surplus to a $2.8 billion deficit in about 3 years according to this Yahoo article. Even with postage rates increasing this May, the post office may need to drop 6-day home delivery down to 5 days.

Don Shilling of Stamp Collecting Round-Up published a short article detailing one side effect for stamp collectors when the U.S. Postal Service has to cut back -- the stamp schedule for 2009 has been decreased. Even the iconic Flags of Our Nation coil stamps have been affected -- the fourth series of stamps, originally due in Fall 2009, has been delayed until 2010.

Could a 20 million pounds (UK) collection have actually been discarded by trash collectors? According to this article, collector Jim Ford is planning on suing his city council for the actions of the trash men who discarded the albums. There are lots of holes in this story; would such a valuable collection really be "aired out" after being soaked by a burst pipe? And would such a valuable collection have escaped the eyes of local philatelists for all these years? At least one expert says no. Update -- be sure to see the first comment from a reader who indicates he is collector Jim Ford! --

A ten-year old postage stamp has helped authorities in Chicago to arrest a man for mailing a bomb threat to a Jewish school. The Chicago Tribune reports in this story, that the threat was mailed with a stamp bearing a design of two swans forming a heart shape. A subsequent search of the suspect's home found a book of the 10-year-old stamps with one stamp missing. The authorities have found other evidence, including a fingerprint, which led to the arrest.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Pi-Day Puzzle Pi Stamp
The mathematical symbol for pi

If you haven't looked at your calendar yet, today is Pi Day. This is the day in which the month and day of the calendar is 3/14, the first three digits to the mathematical formula for pi (3.14...).

Before I go any further, I want to ask you a puzzle that relates to pi.

Suppose you could put a steel band tightly around the equator of Earth. Assume, for the sake of this puzzle, that the earth is perfectly round, without hills or valleys, and that the steel band would make a exact circle around Earth where it is touching the surface evenly. Then, you take a cutting torch, open up a gap in this band, and weld in exactly 1 extra meter (for non-metric readers, approximately 1 yard) of metal.

Question -- how high would this extra meter of material allow the band to be raised, evenly, throughout the entire circumference of the earth. If you haven't heard this question before, the answer, provided below, will likely amaze you.

I have searched through various websites trying to find stamps that portray the symbol for pi, but have came up virtually empty-handed. I have yet to find a postage stamp, issued by a postal authority, with such an image.

I did find several representations of pi on stamps designed by For readers who have never heard of Zazzle, the company markets metered stamps with custom images that are valid for postage in several countries. Technically the stamps are metered stamps -- the barcoding on the stamp is what identifies the stamp as valid postage for the United States Postal Service -- the picture is just an add-on. Customers can provide their own images for the pictorial image on the stamp or purchase them with pre-made images.

Zazzle makes up various designs and sells them. They have several images with pi on them, including the two represented here. Pi Stamp
Pi to 80 decimal places

Are there any pi stamps issued by postal agencies and not companies like Zazzle? Maybe readers can provide another example, but a quick search through websites dedicated to stamps featuring mathematical-related terms failed to turn up an example.

Now, back to the puzzle. The steel band would be raised approximately 1/6th of a meter (approximately 6 inches for non-metric readers) above the surface of the earth! And even more amazingly, it doesn't matter what the diameter of the round surface is -- from something as small as a pea or as large as the sun -- the result is the same -- the band will be raised about 1/6th of a meter larger than the object in all cases.

For those who might doubt this, here is how the solution is determined. My apologies to mathematicians everywhere!

The circumference of an item is equal to the diameter of the object multiplied by pi. When you add one meter of material to the steel band, you are adding 1 meter to the circumference. Since pi is approximately 3, then the one meter of extra circumference increases the diameter of the circle by about 1/3 meter -- 1/3 meter in diameter * pi (approx. 3) yields approximately 1 meter in circumference. So by adding 1 meter to the steel band, we are, in effect, increasing the diameter of the band by 1/3 meter. This yields a radius increase of 1/6th meter (diameter = 2 times the radius). Thus approximately 1/6th of a meter is how much the steel band is raised from surface at any one spot.

For those who prefer their numbers more precise, divide the 1 meter by an approximation of pi (3.141592...) and you get 0.318309... of a meter for the increase in diameter, which yields 0.159159... of a meter increase in the radius.

Happy Pi Day!