Today, the familiar phrase from Herodotus’ work is engraved on the outside of the James A. Farley Post Office building in New York City: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” But when Herodotus originally wrote the phrase in 500 B.C., he undoubtedly didn’t anticipate that an entire country of Americans would put that slogan to the test. In fact, since the beginning of the U.S. Postal Service in 1775, mischievous citizens have constantly pushed the envelope when it came to challenging their local mailmen. Here are a few strange things that have been sent through the mail.
One of the earliest tales of beating the mail system occurred in 1849 with the escape of Virginia slave Henry “Box” Brown. One night, Brown had a dream to “mail [himself] to a place where there are no slaves.” With $86 in hand, Brown enlisted the help of a local storekeeper to box him up with water and biscuits and send him north to freedom. James Miller McKim, a Philadelphia abolitionist, agreed to receive the box. The trip began on March 23. While the journey only lasted 27 hours, Brown’s box was passed from wagon to railroad to steamboat and back again. The box often ended up upside down, but Brown remained quiet enough to avoid discovery. On March 24, Brown arrived in Philadelphia and was released as a free man.
That wasn’t the only case of shipping people by mail. In 1914, 5-year-old May Pierstorff was sent from Grangeville, Idaho to visit her grandmother in Lewiston, Idaho. When it came time to buy tickets, Pierstorff’s parents discovered that sending their daughter through parcel post was cheaper than buying fare. Pierstorff, who weighed less than the 50-pound weight limit, was sent through the mail at the chicken rate. Before Pierstorff boarded the train, her parents clipped 53 cents to her coat and sent her on her way. Upon arrival in Lewiston, the postmaster personally delivered the young girl to her grandmother’s house. Six years later, the practice of shipping humans through parcel post became illegal.
In the August 7, 1895 issue of The New York Times, Miss Daisy James from the New York Post Office noted that dead birds and other small animals were sent to taxidermists throughout the country. She also handled various strains of smallpox, diphtheria, and scarlet fever that were shipped by physicians to the national Health Board.
The largest thing to be sent through the mail was a building. In 1916, a young businessman by the name of William H. Coltharp decided to construct a new bank on the corner of a street in Vernal, Utah. Of course, Coltharp couldn’t send a completed building through the mail, wall by wall. But Coltharp wanted the best bricks in the area and decided to have those bricks sent from the Salt Lake Pressed Brick Company—all 80,000 of them. He reasoned that parcel post was the most inexpensive way to ship the bricks for construction, and he carefully packaged the bricks in separate crates weighing less than the 50-pound weight limit. Somewhere around 40 crates were shipped each time, and each shipment weighed roughly one ton collectively. It was Coltharp’s infamous scheme that prompted the U.S. Postal Service to change their rules so that a customer could only send 200 pounds of goods per day. Their reasoning? “It is not the intent of the U.S. Postal Service that buildings be shipped through the mail.”
Some patrons have resorted to sending their beloved pets through the postal system. In December 1954, a man named David from Fostoria, Ohio decided to send his pet chameleon through the mail to the much warmer Orlando, Florida. On December 7, David received the following note from Orlando’s postmaster: “Dear David, I received your chameleon yesterday and he was immediately released on the post office grounds. Best wishes for a merry Christmas!”
By far, the most expensive item to be shipped through the mail was the allegedly cursed Hope Diamond. In November 1958, Harry Winston donated the diamond to the Smithsonian Institution for the National Jewel Collection. Valued at over $1 million at the time, the diamond was shipped to the museum for only $145.29, which was mostly package insurance for the precious gem.
6. Skis, deer tibias, and dead fish
Even today, individuals still test the limits of our country’s postal service. In 2000, a team of social scientists from the science-humor magazine Improbable Research conducted a study to see what bizarre items they could sneak through the post office. The team broke the proposed items into six categories: valuable items, sentimental items, unwieldy items, pointless items, suspicious items, and disgusting items.
Among the valuable items was a pair of “new, expensive tennis shoes” that were bound together by duct tape. The shoes took only seven days to reach their destination, and a mail clerk along the way tightly tied the laces together in a knot. For one of the sentimental items, the researchers sent a molar tooth to themselves in a clear plastic box. After 14 days, the tooth was delivered in a repackaged mailer and accompanied with a note: “Please be advised that human remains may not be transported through the mail, but we assumed this to be of sentimental value, and made an exception in your case.”
The researchers continued their study with the “unwieldy items” category by sending a ski through the mail. After affixing a large amount of postage to the single ski, the researchers distracted the local mailman and stuffed the ski into a bin of postage being loaded in the truck. Eleven days later, the ski was delivered. “Pointless items” were packages that appeared to be a prank. Researchers sent one fresh, green coconut from Hawaii to their office. It arrived in only 10 days, completely intact. The team also sent a street sign—which could have easily been a stolen item possessed illegally—to themselves. This item, part of the “suspicious items” category, made it to the local post office in nine days.
Finally, the individuals finished their study by sending items from the “disgusting” category on their list. In all, the team sent a deer tibia, a large wheel of rancid cheese, and dead fish through the mail. All of the items were delivered within nine days, although the postal clerks were especially concerned with the team’s motives. They asked the group if they were part of a cult and warned them against being fined for mail service abuse.