Adventures In The Secret Service Of The Post-office Department

* The author of the pages that follow was chief special agent of

the Secret Service of the United States Post-Office Department

during pioneer and romantic days. The curious adventures related

are partly from his own observation, and partly from the notebooks

of fellow officers, operating in many sections of the Country.

The stories are true, although, of course, justice demands that in

some cases person
and places be usually disguised under fictitious


The stories have interest not only for their exciting play of

honest wits against dishonest, but also for the cautions they sound

against believing things "too good to be true" from the pen of


There is a class of post-office thieves who make a specialty of

rifling the registered letters that pass through their hands in

transit on journeys of greater or less length. Some of them have

managed operations very shrewdly, in the evident belief that they

had discovered an infallible method for doing the work and at the

same time escaping detection. Too late they generally learn by sad

experience that no patents can be taken out for the protection of


In this class of cases something tangible always remains to exhibit

the peculiar style of workmanship belonging to each; and it would

often surprise the uninitiated to learn how many traits of

character, what indexes of habit and vocation, can be picked up by

careful study of the minute points presented for inspection.

Unless, however, an agent cultivates a taste for thoroughness even

to details and trifles that might at first view appear utterly

insignificant, he will never succeed in interpreting the


At intervals of two or three weeks, beginning in the summer of

1871, registered packages passing to and fro from Chicago to a town

in the interior of Dakota Territory, which for convenience will be

called Wellington,--though that was not its name,--were reported to

the department as rifled. As the season wore on, the complaints

increased in frequency. Under the old method of doing business at

headquarters, which often amounted practically to a distribution of

the cases about equally "among the boys," the agent stationed at

Chicago received most of them at first; then a part were sent to an

agent in Iowa; and as the number multiplied, Furay, at Omaha, was

favored with an occasional sprinkling. Under the present more

perfect system, great care is taken to group together all the

complaints growing out of each series of depredations, to locate

the seat of trouble by comparisons carefully made in the department

itself, and to give everything bearing on the subject to the

officer specifically charged with the investigation.

March came around before Mr. Furay found time to give personal

attention to this particular thief. He then passed over the route

to Wellington, eighty miles by stagecoach from the nearest railroad

station, with ten intermediate offices. All the packages remained

over night at Sioux City, Iowa, a fact sufficiently important to

invite close scrutiny; but the detective soon became satisfied that

he must look elsewhere for the robber. His suspicions were next

directed to another office, where also the mails lay over night;

but the postmaster bore a countenance so open and honest that he

too was eliminated from the problem.

He continued on to Wellington, skirmishing along the line, and

observing the faces of the postmasters; but these studies in

physiognomy threw no light on the mystery, as the officials of the

department on the route, though far removed from central

supervision, seemed to be all that their affectionate uncle at

Washington could wish. On the return trip the detective was

equally observant and equally perplexed. At that season the stage

stopped for the night at Hannibal; but there, likewise, the

postmaster shared the honest looks that seemed to prevail through

eastern Dakota.

Proceeding on, the passengers dined at Raven's Nest, where one

Michael Mahoney, Sr., kept a small store and the post-office,

running also--with the aid of a young son and a son-in-law--a farm.

The store was managed by Michael Mahoney, Jr., a married son, who

happened to be absent both when the special agent went up and when

he returned. The face of the old man indicated that he was

vicious, ignorant, and unscrupulous; but clearly he was not sharp

enough to execute nice work like that under investigation.

With the exception of a general knowledge of the offices, the

special agent returned but little wiser for the trip, and

concluded, as the best that could be done under the circumstances,

to allow the bird to flutter a little longer before renewing the

hunt. Meanwhile the thief grew more reckless, and the papers that

came to Mr. Furay, though covering a fraction only of the

depredations, located the thief on the lower end of the route,

within fifty miles of the terminus.

During the summer one or two other agents took up the matter

cursorily, but made no discoveries. In the meantime Mr. Furay was

kept too busily occupied with a succession of important cases in

Nebraska to give much thought to the outlying territory of Dakota.

At length, in September, he went carefully over the papers that had

accumulated during his late prolonged absences, and soon knew

exactly where to look for the chap who had so long plundered the

public with impunity.

For some time Chicago had been closing registered package envelopes

with wax, which, on this route at least, effectually secured them

against molestation. Imitating the example, Camden, Dakota, began

to do the same; but, having no seal suitable for the purpose,

improvised a substitute by using the flat surface of a rasp.

Camden placed the wax near each end of the envelope, which

materially interfered with the game of the thief, because it was

just here that he operated. Evidently piqued that a rural

postmaster should presume to outwit him, he studied hard to devise

some means for opening these particular packages without leaving

such traces of his handiwork as would attract the notice of other

officials through whose hands they might subsequently pass. The

effort was crowned with a measurable degree of success, for Mr.

Furay, at the general overhauling referred to, was the first to

discover that the seal had been tampered with.

As it was necessary to break one of the seals, the object of the

robber was to restore it as nearly as possible to its original

appearance; and to effect this he used a dampened thimble, rolling

it over the wax while the latter was hot. There was but one

envelope of the kind in the lot, but it told the whole story to the

eye that could penetrate its meaning. As the thimble passed along

the edge, it left the mark of the rim, then a smooth, narrow band,

followed by pointed elevations closely resembling continuous lines,






On the opposite side of the same seal the wax flattened out so as

to cover a good deal of surface; and, to give it the desired

appearance, the manipulator resorted to the thimble again, but this

time USED A DIFFERENT ONE, the indentations on the surface being

perceptibly finer and more shallow.

The violation of that single seal betrayed the thief, for the

detective at once inferred that the job was done in a store where

the operator had access to a variety of thimbles. Only one was

required; and no person but a merchant would be likely to have more

than one within convenient reach. In a store, however, it would be

natural to take down a boxful, and place it on the counter, to be

selected from at random. One is picked up, used, and thrown back.

The operator now finds another spot that requires attention, and

without waiting to hunt for the thimble that has already served as

a seal,--for the wax is cooling and no time must be lost,--grasps

the first that comes to hand, too absorbed in the main issue to

give a thought to what would pass as an insignificant subsidiary

trifle. No rascal is sharp enough to guard every point,--a general

fact that illustrates over and over again, in the experience of

man, the seminal truth that in a mercenary and physical as well as

in a high and spiritual, sense there is neither wisdom nor profit

outside of the limits of absolute integrity and unflinching


The detective laid aside the papers with a light heart, knowing

that at last he was complete master of the situation. Below Camden

on the infested route the post-office was kept in a store at two

points only, and in one of those no thimbles were sold. The clew

pointed unerringly to Raven's Nest as the spot where alone the

requisite conditions to account for the imprint on the violated

seal were to be found. Thither the officer accordingly went; and

the moment his eye rested on Michael Mahoney, Jr., he recognized

the heaven-branded features of a thief.

Returning to Sioux City, he telegraphed to another agent, who had a

large number of the cases growing out of the robberies, to come on

at once. The two men took stations, one on each side of Raven's

Nest, and in thirty hours they arrested the youthful criminal, who

in the interval stole four decoy letters, and paid a portion of the

contents to one of the officers who was testing him.

Mr. Furay collected from the thief and his relatives the full

amount stolen from the mails during the entire continuance of the

depredations, restoring the money to the rightful owners dollar for

dollar. Young Mahoney made a written confession, supplemented by

three or four codicils relating to items which, to use his own

language, "at first did not to me occur." He was tried the

following February, and sentenced to the penitentiary for the term

of three years.

Within fifteen days from the time when the doors of the prison were

closed upon the son, the villainous old father, acting perhaps on

the theory that no two shots ever strike in exactly the same place,

began also to rob the mails. In due time Mr. Furay again appeared

on the scene and took the old reprobate away a prisoner. When the

trial came on, a material witness for the prosecution happened to

be absent, the lack of whose testimony proved fatal to the case,

for after hanging a day and a night, the jury brought in a verdict

of acquittal.