Special Delivery

In the 1900s, health officials believed that puncturing supposedly disease-infested mail and then fumigating it slowed the spread of illness

In the wake of the anthrax attacks of 2001, letters bound for Washington, D.C. began taking a major detour. Before arriving at the desks of congressmen, White House aides or, for that matter, Smithsonian staffers, mountains of letters were routed to industrial facilities in Lima, Ohio, and Bridgeport, New Jersey, where they were subjected to microbe-destroying irradiation. (The precautionary measures remain in effect, to a lesser extent, today.) At the same time, words and images were vaporized to near unreadability; the paper itself was often reduced to brittle, ivory sheaves. But however crude and destructive the decontamination process, it has proved effective: irradiation does indeed destroy anthrax.

From Colonial times until the end of the 19th century, packages, letters and newspapers had often been regarded as agents of disease. (Until the anthrax outbreak, this presumption was completely unfounded.)

Never was the U.S. mail subjected to more draconian measures, nor to such a futile extent, than when a series of yellow fever epidemics ravaged the South, killing as many as 150,000 during the 1800s. In 1911, the Smithsonian acquired a curious instrument from this benighted era—a kind of modified hairbrush, fitted with sharp metal tines instead of boar bristles, and used in the city of Montgomery, Alabama, as the yellow fever epidemic of 1897 swept northward from New Orleans. "During the yellow fever outbreaks, everybody feared the mail," says Nancy Pope, a historian at the National Postal Museum, where the paddle now resides. "They were scared of the delivery system, because they thought it would spread the epidemic—and so could kill."

Mandated by Alabama's Board of Health and wielded by postal employees, the perforation paddle, as the curious implement was known, punctured thousands of envelopes and packages. (The theory held that a piece of mail might contain an agent of infection; the puncture allowed for fumigants to penetrate the letter and kill it.) All correspondence was then spirited away to a railway car or shed, where it was subjected to sanitizing fumes, either of sulfur or formaldehyde. Only then was it forwarded to recipients.

Maxie Pepperman, a witness to the 1897 epidemic—and later a newspaper reporter—described the procedure. "Each letter was perforated with many holes and the vapor blown into the envelope to kill the germs," Pepperman wrote. "I remember that a man named Stebbins, who was employed at the local post office and who handled mail, died of the yellow fever. After that, very few people would touch a letter from an infected area even if it had been fumigated." At the very least, the public likely would not have objected to a letter that arrived exuding a faint whiff of sulfur. After all, Montgomery's citizens were already walking around with lumps of the stuff packed in their shoes. Anxious individuals also placed carbolic acid-soaked sponges on their windowsills at night, another measure thought to ward off deadly germs. Former Postal Museum historian James Bruns sums up the medical reasoning of the time. "If it didn't stink, it didn't work," he says. "If it smells so bad, it must be good."

In 1898, a year after the yellow fever outbreak in New Orleans, the United States ignited war with Spain by invading Cuba. There, U.S. military physicians came into contact with a Havana physician, Carlos Juan Finlay, who had spent 19 years researching yellow fever. Finlay theorized, correctly, that the disease was transmitted by a particular species of mosquito (Aedes aegyptis). He provided Maj. Walter Reed and other Army researchers with mosquitoes; the insects obligingly bit volunteers among the enlisted men, and in 1900, the Army's Yellow Fever Commission proved Finlay's theory. Across America, municipalities ceased attacking the mail and turned their efforts instead to standing water in cisterns and gutters—sites where mosquitoes spawn. (As if to illustrate the futility of perforation and sanitation by sulfur, the paddle bears a hand-drawn portrait of the real culprit.)

Although 19th-century postal workers were in no danger of contracting yellow fever from perforating or fumigating the mail, that fact, known to us only in hindsight, does not detract from the bravery demonstrated by post office employees of the time. Like most hazardous postal jobs, decontamination was the specialty of railway mail clerks, who oversaw the transporting of mail between cities. "They were the Marine Corps of the Postal Service," says Bruns. "There are accounts of train wrecks where the train caught fire, and people would find the clerks' bodies literally on top of the mail, protecting it at the cost of their lives."

Even in the 1897 epidemic, one aspect of the mail remained unchanged: for the most part, the perforated letters contained accounts of ordinary events. Fifty-three years after the fact, Lance Johnston recalled waiting out the epidemic on a farm while his parents remained in Montgomery. "Whenever we received mail, which was seldom," he said, "it bore marks showing that it had been to Atlanta and was fumigated and had little holes punched through the envelope. During this time my mother wrote me that my billy goat had died, not from the fever, however, but from overeating."

In 2001, more than a century after that letter was written, two Washington, D.C. postal workers died from exposure to airborne anthrax. "For so many years, it was feared that the mail could bring disease, and it turned out it had not," says historian Pope. "Then, with the nationwide anthrax scare, we find that, yes, mail can become an instrument for carrying death."

Get the latest History stories in your inbox?

Click to visit our Privacy Statement.