Today the lost and found department of the United States Postal Service is called the Mail Recovery Center, which isn’t a very evocative name. But it used to be called the Dead Letter Office, and at the turn of the last century, a widow named Patti Lyle Collins was its star employee.
Until World War I, all letters with incomplete, missing, or illegible addresses passed through the “tomb-like quarters” of the Dead Letter Office at the postal service’s central office in Washington, D.C. Toward the end of the 19th century, the postal service was swimming in undeliverable mail—about 7 million letters each year, according to one account. Rising migration both within and to the country, combined with comparatively low literacy, had produced a mass of mail with undecipherable addresses—considered “dead” unless the crack detectives of the Dead Letter Office could interpret them.
To handle the rising tide, the post office hired a number of retired clergymen (deemed trustworthy enough to handle the money often inside the mail) and dozens of women, whose deft analytical skills, the postal service felt, were well-suited to untangling the confusing scrawls arriving en masse at post offices around the nation. These postal detectives used reference books, travel guides, and their own super-sleuth skills to help the letters find their rightful home. (If they failed, the letters were incinerated or pulped.)
Patti Lyle Collins, who began working in the Dead Letter Office in the early 1880s, was queen of them all. She reportedly handled about a thousand almost-dead letters a day, cracking the addresses on almost all of them. In 1893, Ladies Home Journal called Collins the office’s “presiding genius.” One source in 1901 called her "the greatest living expert in deciphering illegible and defective letter addresses.” Collins specialized in “blind readings”—deciphering mail that appeared as clear to the average postal worker as it would have with a blindfold on.
Born to a wealthy Southern family, Collins showed an instinct for languages early on, which her family encouraged with study and travel. By the time she came to work for the post office—after a series of family deaths and misfortunes left her a widow with three young mouths to feed—she was proficient in half a dozen foreign languages. Her work helped her develop an encyclopedic knowledge of historical and geographical associations and local terminology, as well as an instinct for the handwriting styles, home towns, trades, and other idiosyncrasies of various immigrant groups then moving to the country. She even knew which specific logging and mining camps tended to employ various ethnicities.
Many of her cases drew on her deep familiarity with family names and geographic terms. In one example, Collins took an envelope with the address “Miss Isabel Marbury ... Stock,” and had it delivered, correctly, to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, knowing that Marbury was a common last name in that town. In another, she was asked to figure out where an item addressed to a resident on an unnamed “Island” should be sent. She got the letter delivered to the right place by posting it to West Virginia—knowing a portion of that state was commonly referred to as "The Island.”
Collins also understood how mangled pronunciations might translate into incorrect written addresses, which allowed her to decipher “Tossy Tanner, Tx,” as Corsicana, Texas, “Lacy Jane, Kansas,” as La Cygne, Kansas, "Bruklin, Vilene Bur" as “Williamsburg, Brooklyn,” “Reikzhieer, Stiejt Kanedeka” as Roxbury, Connecticut, and “Cikepu Kornsors, Levynworth Co.” as Kickapoo City, Leavenworth County, Kansas.
Needless to say, she was probably a bit of a genius. She could also treat addresses like visual puzzles: One of her most mythical accomplishments was figuring out that
Wood, John, Mass
should be delivered to John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts.
She was even able to decipher the addresses on hundreds of waterlogged letters that had fallen into the sea when the steamer Oregon wrecked in 1889, with the help of some powerful magnifying glasses. In other cases, her mind was the magnifying glass: years at the dead letter office taught her that people would sometimes write Niagara as Saratoga (and vice versa), that they tended to bungle the common place name “Bellevue,” and they often made mistakes like writing "Goose Bay" for "Duck Creek,” “Foxville” for “Wolfville,” or “Steertown” for “Oxford.”
In some cases, her perseverance went above and beyond the call of duty: At one point, a letter arrived from a woman in England pleading for the address of a brother who had moved to Massachusetts 15 years before. The only information provided was the man's name and the fact that he was a weaver. Collins researched the locations of factories in Massachusetts, investigated which ones employed Englishmen, and finally found the man in question. And when the Dead Letter Office received a letter a few years later from Scotland with just the man's name and street address, Collins remembered the city and state and had it sent to the right place.
When a letter came in addressed to a Reverend Wells in Johnstown, Tennessee, staff were initially befuddled to discover that no such town exists. But Collins remembered seeing a sign for a tailor shop in Greeneville, Tennessee, where the later President Andrew Johnson had worked, and guessed correctly that the association between Johnson and Greeneville might have transformed Greeneville into “Johnstown.” She was right, and the letter found its intended recipient.
“It is like the alphabet, absolutely simple when the art is mastered,” Collins once said of her work. At a time when few women worked outside the home, Collins was considered indispensable—the wizard of her department. And in an era before Google, it’s amazing to think how much knowledge was stored in one woman’s mind—and what vanished with it.