By David Kurlander
The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) on October 21st released U.S. Postal Service documents showing Postmaster General Louis DeJoy’s attempts to avoid divesting from companies he had stakes in that also had contracts with the Postal Service. DeJoy’s conflicts of interest are a new crisis in the always-relevant saga of the American mail. As Joanne Freeman said on this week’s Now & Then episode, “Democracy Is In the Mail,” “Talking about the postal service, we really are mapping national history.” Postal issues were a particular mirror of the triumphs and pitfalls of the country in the 1880s, when the “Star Route” scandal took Washington by storm.
As overland mail expanded Westward along with the nation in the 1840s, the Postal Service quickly became overwhelmed. Unable to access the sprawling frontier via steamer or train, legislators passed the Postal Act of 1845, which established rules for private postal delivery contractors. The Act decreed that the lowest private bidder who offered “celerity, certainty, and security” in their remote routes would be accepted. These three qualifiers were often designated as “stars” on official documents, leading to the cosmic route name. By 1880, some 10,000 Star Routes transported mail over routes totaling 75 million annual miles.
The rapid growth of private mail carriers made manipulation of bidding very easy. Professional bidders often formed private mail rings, who would fudge population statistics, make multiple bids for a single route, and underestimate the speed of their horses to squeeze more money out of the Post Office Department.
In 1878, Congress began investigating the prevalence of fraud on the Star Routes. They quickly zeroed in on the junior U.S. senator from Arkansas, the Republican Stephen Dorsey.
Raised in Ohio, Dorsey fought in the Union ranks of future presidents James Garfield and Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War. His closeness to the political kingmakers led to a rapid rise in his Party status during Reconstruction. After selling a lucrative tool company, Dorsey moved South to serve as president of the Arkansas Central Railway. Within a year of his relocation, he was elected to the Senate in 1872. He was just 30.
In office during the mid-1870s, Dorsey worked closely with Second Assistant Postmaster Thomas J. Brady, who was responsible for issuing Star Route contracts. A private bidding ring made up of Dorsey’s brother, stepbrother, and several former tool company employees had successfully bid on many Star Routes at high rates. The optics were, to say the least, not ideal.
When Congress cracked down in 1878, Dorsey denied that he was fooling around with the bidding process, issuing a defiant statement: “I have been as active probably as any man in Congress in attending to the legitimate business of my constituency.”
But the problem was lingering, and the high contract rates necessitated more money for the Post Office Department. In December 1879, Brady asked Congress for $2,000,000 in additional appropriations for Star Route bids. “The policy of the department is to develop the mail-service as fast as is consistent with the growth of the country,” Brady explained.
The massive ask led the House Appropriations Committee to create a new Star Service Subcommittee, before whom Brady appeared in January 1880. “I have explained as fully as I can the modus operandi of doing business,” he said frustratedly at the end of his testimony. “I am very certain that you have explained it as fully as you mean to do,” Subcommittee member and Democratic Kentucky Congressman Joseph Blackburn cheekily responded.
By this point, Dorsey had left government. He purchased a massive plot in New Mexico, where he raised cattle and constructed a 36-room Gothic Victorian mansion. Dorsey agreed to serve, however, as Secretary of the Republican National Committee during the 1880 presidential election. Dorsey’s Civil War commander, Garfield, shocked the Party when he won the nomination.
“Don’t relax any grip anywhere,” Garfield wrote to Dorsey in September as the general election campaign intensified. Dorsey listened. In Indiana, a crucial swing state in the close contest against Democrat Winfield Hancock, Dorsey allegedly spent at least $70,000 in under-the-table Committee funds to bribe voters.
Dorsey’s hardball tactics worked. On February 11th, 1881, shortly before Garfield’s inauguration, leading Republican fundraisers—John Jacob Astor, J.P. Morgan, and Jay Gould chief among them—converged in the ballroom of Delmonico’s in Lower Manhattan to toast Dorsey. Garfield’s to-be Vice President, Chester A. Arthur, drunkenly speechified about Dorsey’s efforts: “I don’t think we had better go into the minute secrets of the campaign, as far as I know them, because I see the reporters present who are taking it all down.”
When Garfield took office in March 1881, he faced the problem of how to adequately address the Star Route scandals while not putting too much heat on his own Dorsey dealings. The National Republican newspaper stated the issue bluntly in May: “We have no small curiosity to see how an administration which is the result of state buying in October will proceed in May to reform the man who handled the money.”
Garfield appointed a reformer, Thomas L. James, as Postmaster General, ceased most communication with Dorsey, and removed Brady from office. Garfield even hired a Special Counsel, Secret Service pioneer William P. Wood, to investigate the Star Route scandal, telling him, “I want a most thorough and impartial investigation of the facts, and wherever it conducts I want you to go, irrespective of persons.” The scandal occupied much of Garfield’s time throughout the early summer. On July 1st, 1881, the night before Charles Guiteau shot the President, Garfield dined with his new Postmaster General.
As Washington reeled from Garfield’s shooting and hung on news of his condition, Postmaster James cooperated with the Department of Justice to undertake a more thorough investigation of Dorsey. When Garfield finally died from his wounds in September, Arthur assumed the Presidency. He refused a private meeting with Dorsey and touted James’s reform efforts during his First Annual Message to Congress in December 1881.
On March 4th, 1882, a Grand Jury indicted Dorsey, his business collaborators, and Brady, alleging that Dorsey had defrauded the government of $400,000 by fraudulently jacking up the bid prices on 19 different Star Routes, with Brady and other Post Office employees covering Dorsey’s tracks.
Dorsey hired famed Defense Attorney Robert G. Ingersoll, a prominent popular philosopher whose lecture tours on Shakespeare, Burns, and religion had made him a household name. Ingersoll’s most famous lecture, a defense of agnosticism called “The Great Infidels,” was printed the previous year.
The trial finally began in the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia in June 1882. The jury heard almost 150 witnesses and pored over 3,600 documents, but a retrial was called after the jury foreman testified that he had been offered a bribe.
A new trial was set for December 1882. President Arthur continued to reassure a restive Congress that results were coming, writing in his Second Annual Message to Congress, “If any guilty persons shall finally escape punishment for their offenses, it will not be for lack of diligent and earnest efforts on the part of the prosecution.”
The second trial ran until June 1883. A plethora of colorful characters testified, including Montford Rerdell, a defendant in both trials who admitted that he had helped prepare the phony bids for Dorsey and Brady. The March 7th, 1883 cover of the humorous newsmagazine Puck showed Rerdell pumping an anthropomorphized red water pump labeled “Evidence,” with Dorsey and Brady getting splashed in the Prisoner’s Box.
Despite the media hoopla and President Arthur’s hopeful words, the second trial ended in acquittals for every defendant. Another Puck cover, from just after the verdict on June 23rd, 1883, showed Ingersoll leaving the Washington Court House with two bulging moneybags labeled “Counsel Fees.” Dorsey and Brady exited through the back door dressed in rags, a reference to Ingersoll’s massive bill.
An exonerated Dorsey responded by penning a public letter excoriating the prosecution’s effort: “It has all failed, notwithstanding the raking of every valley and mining camp and canon, every mountain and plain in all the vast region of the west in the attempt to procure something that would gratify the dishonorable ambition of crushed politicians.”
Dorsey ultimately returned to his New Mexico palace, economically and politically shrunken by the costs of the trial. The popular short story writer Ambrose Bierce dedicated an “ante-mortem epitaph for Dorsey that read in part: “Skilled with a frank loquacity to blab / The dark arcana of each mighty grab / And famed for lying from his early youth / He sinned secure behind a veil of truth.”
The central role of the Post Office Department in the sordid machinations of Dorsey and Brady show, as Joanne suggested, how mail delivery so often reflects the good, bad, and ugly of American political life. Now, as DeJoy’s potential conflicts and their implications for democracy continue to drip into the press, the legacy of the Star Route shines brightly.
For more on Dorsey’s role in the broader political landscape surrounding President Garfield, read Kenneth Ackerman’s 2003 Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. For an in-depth examination of the Star Route cases, check out Myra Trowbridge’s 1918 University of Wisconsin graduate thesis, “The Garfield Administration and the Star Route Prosecutions.”
To receive Time Machine articles in your inbox, sign up to receive the CAFE Brief newsletter sent every Friday.
Catch up on the Time Machine’s deep dives into history, which offer context to understand our present challenges, including these recent pieces: