Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Assassination attempts via letters and packages are nothing new, and their victims are almost always postal workers.
In April 1919, a mail clerk named Charles Kaplan saved the lives of untold U.S. officials and staffers. He had read a newspaper account about the bombing of the home of Senator Thomas R. Hardwick; a package mailed to the Georgia lawmaker had detonated in the hands of a housekeeper, severely injuring her. Kaplan recognized the description of the device: He had seen similar packages at his own New York City post office.
Kaplan rushed back to work and found the boxes, which he had set aside for lack of postage. Dozens of department-store boxes featured the same return address: “Gimbel Bros. 32nd St. and Broadway, New York City.” All the packages contained dynamite bombs. Alerted by Kaplan’s nick-of-time intervention, postmasters in North Carolina, Utah, and Nebraska discovered similar booby-trapped parcels. In all, the U.S. Postal Service intercepted 36 mail bombs meant for senators, mayors, and other officials—a May Day plot planned by followers of anarchist Luigi Galleani. The crisis sparked the First Red Scare.
“When I was watching the news yesterday, all I could keep saying is, ‘1919! 1919!’” says Nancy Pope, historian for the Smithsonian National Postal Museum. “It’s all happening all over again.”
Law enforcement officials do not yet know who is responsible for this week’s attempted mail bombings of Democratic leaders and activists, as well as news organizations. Officials intercepted suspicious packages intended for former Vice President Joe Biden and actor and liberal activist Robert De Niro, the latest in a wave of attempted attacks targeting a range of figures often singled out as foes of the Trump administration, from liberal philanthropist George Soros to CNN. More yet may be discovered—one of the factors, along with the partisan agitation, that makes these attempted bombings so much like the thwarted 1919 attacks.
The packages intercepted so far bear computer-printed address labels, six Forever stamps, and a return address that misspells the name of Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, according to The Washington Post. “It’s very distinctive: six American flags on it, white-strip address, and return address,” Pope says. “You know that every postal worker in this country has gotten that image and knows what to look for.”
Many conservative commentators have rushed to deny that a conservative sympathizer could have targeted the would-be victims, who are all subjects of frequents and vicious personal attacks by President Donald Trump. Some suggested it was a hoax or a “false flag”—an attack planned by the left to generate sympathy for liberals in advance of the midterm election. “Fake News—Fake Bombs,” offered Lou Dobbs, in a now-deleted tweet. Ann Coulter, citing the Haymarket Riot and “the Unibomber [sic],” went so far as to say that “bombs are a liberal tactic.”
That’s not remotely accurate. (The Unabomber decried “the Dangers of Leftism” in his manifesto.) Mail bombs, in particular, have no fixed ideology. Their history in the U.S. goes way back: Pope says that the very first mail bomb was attempted in the 19th century, at a time when the postal service played a critical role in the country’s westward expansion. The Postal Inspection Service dates back to 1775, although its duties have shifted over the centuries, perhaps most notably after the 2001 anthrax attacks.
But the majority of mail bombs aren’t political in nature at all. The targets are often women, and the victims are usually Postal Service workers.
“A lot of the times, they’re personal,” Pope says. “Someone is trying to get rid of someone they don’t like. It’s an ex-boyfriend or an ex-husband. It’s someone who’s trying to get rid of a family member or someone they don’t like down the street.”
An exhibit at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum includes case histories on “dangerous mail”—from a fatal attempt to settle a local union dispute with a cigar-box bomb in 1936 to a conspiracy to retaliate against a witness in a criminal prosecution with a mail bomb in 1991. There is no period in history that stands out for featuring more or fewer mail bombings; the rise of electronic communications has done little to slow the flow of potentially lethal terror-on-delivery.
But mail bombs are far less effective today, especially as a tool of assassination, Pope says. They were never particularly reliable, but after the anthrax attacks of 2001, mail screening protocols for members of Congress and other top officials were completely rewritten. Packages are now opened and thoroughly screened before they ever arrive at the U.S. Capitol. Technology has changed, too: Whereas mail used to be delivered hand to hand to hand, machines are increasingly responsible for moving letters and packages.
Leaders may be more secure as a result—but as the ongoing aftermath of this week’s attempted attacks reveals, even a letter bomb that doesn’t go off has real political consequences. And consequences in the abstract are still very real for the postal workers on the front lines of delusional or terrorist would-be mail bombers.
“You have to have a very bad bomb or a very good bomb to make it through the Postal Service without something happening there,” Pope says.