Courtney Fullilove, assistant professor of history, wrote an article titled “Dead Letters—By a Resurrectionist: Liberty and Surveillance in the Tombs of the U.S. Post Office,” published in the January 2012 issue of Common-Place.org.
In the article, Fullilove describes a history of the 19th century Division of Dead Letters. Until World War I, all undeliverable letters were processed through the central office in Washington. By law, unclaimed letters were burned, pulped, or otherwise destroyed. But Fullilove discovered this wasn’t the case.
“Here was a riddle,” she writes. “In a non-existent box were four letters that should have been destroyed. Their presence was evidence that the information system had failed at every point: in the aborted transit of the letters, their survival in the archives of an office committed to their destruction, and the absence of those archives from the public record meant to guarantee their preservation. Why were the letters saved and the archives lost?”