10 Postmasters General Who Weren't Boring

Postmaster general boring? Try telling Aaron V. Brown that!
Postmaster general boring? Try telling Aaron V. Brown that!
Mathew Brady, Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons

If pressed, most people probably couldn't remember the name of any of the United States' Postmasters General (yes, we're going with "Postmasters General"). The job just isn't all that glamorous and, quite frankly, sounds a little boring. It might not be an A-List position, but that doesn't mean Postmasters have led D-List lives. Here are 10 surprising stories that illustrate how wild and crazy—or brilliant and powerful—the highest-ranking mailman in the country can be.

1. Charles Wickliffe (1840 – 1845)

After being stabbed in the chest by a madman (luckily the knife bounced off his sternum, preventing any serious injury), Wickliffe traveled to the Republic of Texas on a secret mission for President John Tyler. He was sent to convince the leaders of Texas to invade Mexico. If the invasion was a success, America could then negotiate with Mexico for the annexation of the land. Sadly, the powers of the Postmaster were not enough to immediately send the Texans to war, but his visit did help drum up support for annexation.

2. Aaron Brown (1857 – 1859)

Shortly after the Mexican-American War began in 1846, then-Tennessee Governor Brown, asked his constituents for 2,600 volunteers to help fight in the conflict. When 30,000 men answered his call, the “Volunteer State” received its famous nickname. But that wasn't the end of Brown's influence in American history. He was also one of the members of the Nashville Convention of 1850, where many Southern states first got together to debate action against the U.S. Government over the issue of slavery, including the possibility of secession. And, well, we all know how that turned out.

3. Joseph Holt (1859 – 1861)

Holt started his political career as the Commissioner of Patents and was appointed Postmaster General two years later. When the Civil War broke out, the U.S. Government saw many resignations and shuffling of positions, so Holt was promoted first to Secretary of War and later to Judge Advocate General of the Army. Holt held this position when President Lincoln was assassinated, meaning he presided over the trial of the accused conspirators. During the trial, Holt was personally accused of withholding evidence, and of forcing the execution of conspirator Mary Surratt before her sentence could be officially reduced to life in prison.

4. John Wanamaker (1889 – 1893)

Before he became Postmaster, John Wanamaker was the Sam Walton of his day. He owned many large businesses where he sold clothing and household items, considered by many to be the first department stores. He also revolutionized marketing by offering written guarantees, fixed pricing, and a return policy. The spectacle of his Wanamaker's stores made them tourist attractions as well as shopping destinations, much like the Mall of America is today. Wannamaker's was the first department store with electric lights, the first store with a telephone, the first store with pneumatic tubes for sending documents between departments, and the first store with a restaurant inside. He was also a pretty great guy to work for—he was an advocate for employee benefits, some of which we don't even find today, like free healthcare, educational assistance, pensions, and profit-sharing.

5. George Cortelyou (1905 – 1907)

Before George Cortelyou came along, the media and the Oval Office were barely on speaking terms. Just prior to becoming Postmaster General, Cortelyou revolutionized the relationship between the two by providing reporters with room to work in the White House, briefed journalists on political news, and gave President Teddy Roosevelt clippings from newspapers in an effort to use the media to gauge public opinion. It's nearly impossible to imagine our world today without his contribution.

6. George von Lengerke Meyer (1907 – 1909)

After serving as Postmaster General, Meyer moved on to become Secretary of the Navy. It was under his leadership that the U.S. Navy began experimenting with aircraft, including the successful take-off and landing of airplanes from Navy warships in 1910 and 1911. These feasibility tests led to the modern aircraft carrier.

7. Will Hays (1921 – 1922)

Hays' tenure as Postmaster General only lasted one year before he left to become the first President of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA), the forefather of the modern Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The organization was founded to clean up Hollywood's image after the trial of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, in which Arbuckle was accused, and later found innocent, of raping and murdering a woman in his home. Hays was brought in to “clean up the pictures” because he was a Presbyterian deacon and former chairman of the Republican Party. In 1930, he implemented the “Hays Code,” which forced studios to remove any potentially offensive material from their films and seriously dampened artistic expression in film until 1960, when the current age-based movie ratings system was created.

8. Arthur Summerfield (1953 – 1961)

One of the longest-serving Postmasters General, Summerfield made his mark on the world as the man behind the U.S. Postal Service's bizarre idea of “rocket mail” - a scheme that would use missiles jam-packed with letters as a means of delivering the mail. The one and only successful use of rocket mail occurred on June 8, 1959, when a Regulus cruise missile was launched from the USS Barbero and landed at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida. The missile landed safely with assistance from a parachute and the 3000 special edition postcards inside were delivered to their addressees, including President Eisenhower and other prominent politicians. The rocket mail project was abandoned, though, when it was determined that, no matter how cool it might have been, it was not a cost-effective method of delivering the mail.

9. Larry O'Brien (1968 – 1969)

O'Brien's career as top mailman might have been brief, but his influence on American politics has been long-standing. His political career began in 1952 when John F. Kennedy appointed O'Brien as head of the young statesman's U.S. Senate campaign. Later, JFK would use O'Brien as the head of his Presidential campaign, helping many overlook Kennedy's Catholic upbringing as a hurdle to the White House. After his stint as Postmaster General, O'Brien became the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, and it was his office at the Watergate Hotel and Office Building that was broken-into in 1972 by “burglars” looking for an advantage in the upcoming Presidential election.

10. Anthony Frank (1988 – 1992)

While serving as Postmaster General, Frank made a guest appearance during the final episode of the seventh season of Murder She Wrote in May 1991. He played opposite star Angela Lansbury as – what else? - her mailman. In the scene, he delivers a package to sleuthmaster Fletcher, played by Lansbury, and informs her she owes him 43 cents because the person who sent her the package must not have known about the new postage rates. A subtle reminder for the viewing audience at home, perhaps? He was listed in the credits as “Postmaster General Anthony Frank as The Mailman.”

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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Little Weesy Coppin, the Ghost That Foretold the Franklin Expedition’s Fate

An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
An 1847 illustration of the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus during an earlier Arctic expedition, by James Wilson Carmichael.
Royal Museums Greenwich, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On May 19, 1845, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail from England and headed for the Arctic. Commanding the expedition was Sir John Franklin, a distinguished naval officer with a few Arctic voyages under his belt. Britain’s Admiralty was hopeful that, within a year, he would arrive in the Bering Strait having successfully charted the Northwest Passage.

But as 1846 slipped away with no sign of either ship—and no word from the explorers—it became clear that something had gone wrong. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, lobbied the Admiralty to investigate, and so began a steady stream of expeditions to locate the missing vessels. By spring 1850, they were none the wiser as to what had happened to the ships or the sailors. The country was captivated by the mystery, and Lady Jane was growing increasingly desperate for any lead.

It was around this time that a shipbuilder named William Coppin sent her a strange letter. The ghost of his daughter, he said, knew where to find the Franklin expedition.

Weesy Puts on a Show

Coppin lived in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, with his wife, his wife’s sister, and the couple’s five young children. In May 1849, their 3-year-old daughter, Louisa (Weesy for short) had died of gastric fever, but that hardly stopped her from being present. Soon after her death, her siblings reported seeing a “ball of bluish light” that they all agreed was Weesy; they even started setting a place for her at meals.

One night, Weesy’s older sister told her aunt that the words “Mr. Mackay is dead” were glowing on the wall of the bedroom. Though her aunt couldn’t see them herself, she nevertheless asked after Mr. Mackay—a banker friend of the family—the next day, and discovered that he had indeed passed away the previous night. Weeks later, the aunt suggested that the children put Weesy’s apparent clairvoyance to good use by questioning her about the fate of Sir John Franklin.

Weesy responded with flair, filling the room with an Arctic scene that showed two ships amid snowy mountains and narrow channels. When asked if Franklin himself was still alive, Weesy revealed “a round-faced Man [ascending] the Mast and [waving] his hat,” and she answered a query about his exact location with a series of abbreviations that included “P.RI” and “BS.”

An illustration of the two ships from Francis Watt's Pictorial Chronicles of the Mighty Deep.Kokstein, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The spectral illuminations were only visible to Weesy’s sister Anne, who copied them onto paper and showed her father upon his return from a trip. Coppin wasn’t wholly disbelieving, but he didn’t act on the information immediately. Then, in May 1850, after hearing that Lady Jane was preparing to send a ship to search for her husband, he wrote her a letter detailing Weesy’s appearance.

“[The abbreviations] constantly lead me to believe that [Sir John Franklin] is in Prince Regent Inlet off Barrow’s Strait, likely in the Victory in Felix Harbour or not far from it at this moment,” he said, and encouraged Lady Jane to direct her commander to that area. Shortly after, he met with her in person to reiterate his advice.

Charting a Course

Here’s where accounts of the story begin to diverge. In 1889, a reverend named J. Henry Skewes published a book—at Coppin’s behest—that credited Weesy’s vision with causing Lady Jane to point her expedition south, toward Prince Regent Inlet, instead of north, like she had been planning. While it’s true that the government had focused most of its search north toward Wellington Channel, it’s not true that Lady Jane herself had only considered a northern mission. In June 1850, she mentioned in a letter that Coppin visited her after “reading in the newspaper a paragraph of the ship’s being about to sail for Regent Inlet,” implying that she had already intended to explore that region.

Wellington Channel to the north, and Prince Regent Inlet to the south.TerraMetrics/Google

Skewes’s book also alleged that Weesy’s original directions had been much clearer than a few cryptic initials. According to him, she illuminated the words “Erebus and Terror. Sir John Franklin, Lancaster Sound, Prince Regent Inlet, Point Victory, Victoria Channel.” At that point, no place named “Victoria Channel” existed on the map, which Skewes used as evidence of Weesy’s omniscience. Since the Coppins were collaborating with Skewes, it’s possible that they simply recalled the events differently than they had decades earlier. They had also repeated the same séance several times, so the stream of intelligible words may have come later. In Coppin’s initial letter to Lady Jane, however, he said nothing about a “Victoria Channel.”

Even though Lady Jane had probably already set her sights on the south, Coppin’s conviction did seem to encourage her, and she instructed him to share Weesy’s vision with a select few influential figures around town. In early June, she saw off Captain Charles Codrington Forsyth in the schooner Prince Albert, hoping he’d return with news of her husband from beyond the inlet.

Unfortunately, the inlet was frozen, and Forsyth couldn’t get through.

Breaking News and Breaking Ice

The expedition wasn’t entirely fruitless—it was Forsyth who broke the news in England that another expedition had located three graves on Beechey Island, thus confirming that the Terror and Erebus had at least spent part of the winter in Wellington Channel [PDF]. There was still a chance that Franklin and his men had journeyed on toward Prince Regent Inlet after stopping on the island.

Lady Jane began preparing another mission, this time with Captain William Kennedy in command, and Coppin stuck around to help with shipbuilding and fundraising. Kennedy even spent a few days with the Coppins in Londonderry and supposedly corroborated Weesy’s account (though he didn’t see her messages for himself). Kennedy managed to make it through Prince Regent Inlet, but pivoted westward and came back empty-handed.

A portrait of William Kennedy painted by Stephen Pearce in 1853.National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Independent of Lady Jane's endeavors, a Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor named John Rae was making significantly more progress in the area. After passing through the inlet in 1851, he came to a narrow body of water that he christened “Victoria Strait” before encountering ice and turning back. During a surveying mission in 1854, Rae spoke with local Inuit, who reported having come across a few dozen white men on King William Island—not far from Victoria Strait. He even bought several English-made items from the Inuit, including a plate that bore Sir John Franklin’s name.

Now, Lady Jane directed her attention to King William Island, financing an expedition led by Francis Leopold McClintock in the late 1850s. In 1859, his lieutenant finally discovered an incontrovertible clue to the Franklin expedition’s fate: a boat, skeletons, and a note that explained Franklin had died in June 1847 and his crew had abandoned the ships—marooned in ice—in April 1848.

Little Weesy’s Contested Legacy

The note found during McClintock's 1859 expedition.Petecarney, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Coppin wasted no time asking Lady Jane to validate that Weesy’s leads (as Anne had transcribed them) had, in fact, been correct. Lady Jane obliged.

“I have no hesitation in telling you that the child’s chart … represented the ships as being in a channel which we believed at the time to be inaccessible, but which it has since been found they actually navigated,” she wrote. “Moreover, the names ‘Victory’ and ‘Victoria’ written by the little girl upon her chart correspond with that of the point (Point Victory) on King William’s Land, where the important record of the Erebus and Terror was found, and with that of the strait or channel (Victoria Strait) where the ships were finally lost.”

That said, she did decline returning the original chart to him. As Shane McCorristine writes in his book The Spectral Arctic: A History of Dreams and Ghosts in Polar Exploration, that could have been because she feared becoming a laughingstock if he published it. With Franklin’s demise no longer a mystery, entertaining the supernatural no longer had value.

A sketch of Lady Jane Franklin drawn by Amélie Romilly in 1816.The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Emmet Collection of Manuscripts Etc. Relating to American History, New York Public Library // Public Domain

Coppin’s story stayed under the radar until Skewes released his book, Sir John Franklin: The True Secret of the Discovery of His Fate, nearly 15 years after Lady Franklin’s death in 1875. The author so fervently believed that Weesy had expertly directed explorers to the Franklin expedition that his account seems exaggerated at best and downright ludicrous at worst, despite plenty of firsthand details from the Coppins. After its debut, John Rae and Francis McClintock both denied that the long-dead toddler had influenced their exploratory routes in any way.

Furthermore, as historian Russell Potter explains on his blog Visions of the North, Weesy’s phantasmal allegations weren’t totally accurate. Though the idea that Franklin may have gone south instead of north did ultimately lead to some discoveries, there’s no evidence that either the Terror or the Erebus actually went through Prince Regent Inlet. And when Weesy revealed the vision of a healthy Franklin waving his hat from the top of the mast, he had already been dead for more than two years.

In short, the ghost of Little Weesy didn’t single-handedly solve the mystery of the missing Franklin expedition. (In fact, the ships themselves weren’t even located until 2014 and 2016 off the southwestern coast of King William Island, far from Prince Regent Inlet and south of the island's Victory Point.) But you’d be hard-pressed to prove that her ghost didn’t exist at all—and considering that the story helped her father secure about a decade’s worth of work and plenty of high-society connections, she made an impact from beyond the grave.