A Postal Fraud

On our last visit, we were looking at the establishment of a postal system in Ashland. We saw the progression from a single office handling letters, to a more elaborate home and business delivery system. A lot of that was due to the increase in volume of material handled by the post office. I attributed this largely to the changing of Ashland from a farming community to a more industrialized one. The advent of the railroad, along with companies built by Lombard, Warren, Tilton and many others increased the need for a larger postal system.

Apparently, I missed a major source that increased the volume dramatically in the late 1800’s and it involved the seedier side of commerce. This was so bad that the Postmaster General stepped in after an investigation by a Special Agent of the Post Office Department of the United States. His name was Anthony Comstock.

OK, so what happened? The year is 1874. Enter a Mr. Edgar W. Jones. This enterprising soul worked under the aliases of the Union Purchasing Agency, Union Publishing Agency, Union Publishing Company, Littleton & Company, H. J. Littleton, Atlas Company, and the Magnetic Watch Company. These were all of Ashland. He also “ran” the Atlas Manufacturing Company in South Framingham.

His scheme and eventual fraud came in two parts: The advertisement of obscene books, and a worthless “Swiss style magnetic time keeper.” From May of 1874 to May of 1877, Jones sent out 1,350,000 circulars through the United States postal system. These circulars advertised the obscene material and his magnetic time keeper that was no more than a common brass compass of zero value. This fine piece of machinery could be purchased for only 50 cents to cover shipping and handling. Sound familiar? He must have been the precursor of all those Saturday morning advertising gimmicks where if you order in the next 10 minutes we will include a free paring knife with your food processor.

It didn’t take long before people started complaining. The timekeeper was useless, and the advertisement of obscene books went out to just about everybody including children. Teachers and parents complained that these books were being sent to the kids. This is when the investigation began. Special Agent Comstock gathered material from the complainants and found that Jones had received 10,303 responses to his circulars from January to December of 1877. Edgar Jones was arrested on November 2, 1877. Comstock’s comments were a bit amusing:

“He used to run a one-horse post office, or in other words, his mail was more than all the rest of the town put together.”

Jones pleaded guilty in federal court and was sentenced. His many businesses were disbanded, and his name and aliases appeared on the Fraud List of the Postmaster General under the revised statutes of the Postal Laws and Regulations of 1879.

Over 1.3 million circulars in a 3 year period in the late 1800’s? You think somebody would have noticed early on. Even by today’s standards that is a bit much. I guess they were not interested in saving trees back then.

Sources: “Frauds Exposed,” Anthony Comstock 1880

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
September 2016