The Letter-Thief and The Law

Dr. J. D. Logan. Ph D. November 1 1911

The Letter-Thief and The Law

Dr. J. D. Logan. Ph D. November 1 1911

The Letter-Thief and The Law

Dr. J. D. Logan. Ph D.

EDITOR’S Note:—When you, or the man who lives next door to you, drops a letter into a post-box, you are registering the fact that you have confidence in human nature,—that you believe human nature, as a rule is good. You may have written the most precious or the most dangerous facts in that letter. Yet there is nothing between those written facts and EXPOSURE, but a flimsy piece of paper and—the trustworthiness of human nature.

But there is The Letter Thief. You, or the man next door, or I, might be letter thieves if we were placed in the same circumstances. The Letter Thief is an ordinary man—tempted. To deter the impulse of The Letter Thief stands the Law. In the following article, Dr. Logan has presented the result of the studies he has been able to make along this line.

NOT one in a thousand among the educated Canadian citizens can name the indictable offences that under the Criminal Code of Canada are punishable with life imprisonment. Nay, more; it is a safe wager that not one in a thousand of our lawyers can name them—offhand. The present writer casually asked a dozen of the more prominent lawyers of Toronto to detail the list of such indictable offences, and they all replied, hesitantly: “Why, there is Murder—and Robbery—and Rape—and Arson, and— Oh, there’s a great many of them!” With the exception of a crown appointee, not one of these gentlemen named as punish-

able with life imprisonment the crime of stealing letters from His Majesty’s mails in Canada.

Now, the fact that anyone properly indicted for such crime against the laws of the Dominion of Canada, and found guilty before a rightful judge, after trial by jury, may receive a penal sentence of life imprisonment or of imprisonment for a term not less than three years, is a sociological phenomenon by itself that requires special explanation and justification. Such extreme punishment for a crime which, on the face of it, does not appear so heinous as some others, is either an injustice or a unique paradox.

We may readily understand why rape, arson and certain forms of robbery should be punishable with exceedingly heavy penalties, with life imprisonment, or, conceivably, even with death. Not only are these three specially heinous crimes against the human person and property, but often they are attended with wilful homicide, or with manslaughter, of individuals, or with great loss of life and property. “Lynch law” has its scores of victims annually in the Southern States, where the white women are too frequently violated revoltingly by the black males. In mostrobberies “gun play” is provided for as a possibility and not infrequently eventuates with homicidal results. Arson may issue in the death of individuals, as indeed it has done and may have been planned to do, or it may start a wide-spreading conflagration that destroys a village, town or section of a city, and incidentally encompasses the death of many innocent and law-abiding citizens.

Each of these three crimes is so heinous, so abhorrent, so damnable from the point of view of the inviolable “natural right” of every human individual to life and the pursuit of happiness that their awful possibilities demand very heavy penalties in the Criminal Code to serve as effective deterrents, and, conceivably, in actual punishment might justly require the sentence of life imprisonment, or even death as adequate retribution? We do not, in short, feel that there is any essential injustice in meting the severest penalties under the statutes to those found guilty of crimes that may involve murder or manslaughter.

On the other hand, until we understand what serious consequences for ill to the person and property of private individuals, to the conduct of business, general and governmental, and to public order, may, and often do, result from the theft of letters from the mails in transit or in the post offices, we do feel that there is unreasonable severity, if not total injustice, in the heavy penalty possible to be meted to one found guilty of a crime which, on first view, does not appear extraordinarily felonious. Yet the Criminal Code of the Dominion of Canada (Revised Statutes, Sec. 364) is explicit and unmistakable in the matter. It reads:

“Everyone is guilty of an indictable, offence and liable to imprisonment for life or for any term not less than three years, who steals—

“(a) a post letter, bag, or

“(b) a post letter from a post letter bag, or from any post office, or from any officer or person employed in any business of the post office of Canada, or from a mail, or

“(c) a post letter containing any chattel, money, or valuable security, or

“(d) any chattel, money, or valuable security from or out of a post letter.”

Immediately on reading this statute law we are struck with the paradox of it all. Imagine the astonishment of one who, being ignorant of the statute, received a sentence of even three years’ imprisonment for stealing a post letter which, say, contained no money, cheque, or negotiable security. Would he not recall many instances of men who had stolen thousands of dollars, wrecked banks, and impoverished or ruined scores of people, but who, when brought to justice and found guilty of a heinous felony, received a sentence relatively less heavy than his own—let us say five years in a penitentiary, where, in contra-distinction from himself, they would, in view of their family connections or social or business status in the past, be treated, as far as possible, like gentlemen and be given employment of such a light or refined nature as would mitigate their degraded lot and reconcile them to prison walls and prison fare?

Nay, more ; would he not remember the frequent reports in the press of how bank clerks and other trusted employes guilty of thefts were “sent down,” as the phrase goes, for a few months or a year or two at the most, because a humane and just judge knew the close propinquity of their peculiar temptations, and felt that a short sentence would in all likelihood work reformation in them? Assuredly he would charge no injustice on the part of his judge, once he was informed by the court that the judge was compelled to impose sentence according to the statute; yet he, as we, too, at present, would be at loss to explain the severity of the statute penalty. To resolve the apparent paradox in the

relatively heavy penalty for stealing post letters, whether containing money, valuable securities or not, forms an interesting and instructive essay in social ethics and psychology. Fortunately the matter bends to popular treatment and familiar illustration.

The theft of post letters by stampers, sorters, and carriers is regarded by the Post Office Department and by the Judiciary as the meanest and the most perfidious of all felonies. These two epithets —“meanest” and “most perfidious”—apply, be it clearly understood, more to the moral perceptions and character of the thief than to the theft itself as a crime against society. This distinction is too important not to be signalized, fully explained, and aptly illustrated.

Suppose, as has actually happened, that a post office employe steals a mail bag which contains, say, 200 letters, and secretes it until he has opportunity to open it and to search each letter for money. Suppose that he has opened every letter, but has found no money in any of them, save the last, which, as it happens, is from a poor laborer to his aged and poorer mother, and which contains a single paltry dollar. Finally, suppose that amongst those 200 letters there are (I am selecting three real cases) a letter from a man lying in a hospital, which was intended to apprize his family or friends of his dire circumstances or of his approaching death ; also a letter from a wandering son, long lost to his parents, telling them that he wants to see them and the old home again and that he will come to them if they, for their part, will send him by return mail a letter promising welcome to their unfilial prodigal; and, further, a letter from an estranged sweetheart to her lover, stating that unless the two are united again she will destroy her life.

Now, note the fell consequences of a seemingly insignificant deed. Lonely dying men, wandering home-sick prodigáis, and broken-hearted maidens with suicidal intent, who write letters to ameliorate their bodily and mental estate, are common realities of this world. Our letterthief opened 200 stolen letters to obtain, as it happened, a paltry dollar, and thereby not only deprived a poor woman of the means of sustenance, but also, because he was compelled totally to destroy the

remaining 199 letters, amongst which were the three specially noted, kept these highly important letters from being delivered to the persons vitally concerned with their contents and thus caused a man to be buried in “the potter’s field,” a repentant son to remain forever separated from loving parents, and a distracted maiden to take, as the melodramatists say, her young and beautiful life. Can we, then, more fittingly describe the moral perceptions and sensibilities of the letter-thief than as altogether mean, or his crime than as the meanest of all felonies?

His crime is, too, the most perfidious of felonies. We all know with what contempt we regard a trusted companion whom we have accidentally discovered to have been reading our unsecreted letters, especially our family correspondence, and those epistles which contain the inmost revealments of our hearts. Anyone who would break the trust, the faith, which, peculiarly in this instance, one gentleman implicitly reposes in another, is, in the literal Latin meaning of the term, perfidious—faithless through and through.

In this moral regard the situation is precisely the same for one guilty of the theft of a letter from the mails as for one guilty of surreptitiously reading another’s private correspondence. There is a propinquity of unsecreted letters, an implicit trust, and a breach of that trust.

The Post Office Department and its mails service are the most important Public Utility and Convenience for the general conduct of business and the enhancement of social and spiritual life among the institutions of man. The absolute safety and security of the post office service are logical implications of its function as a publicconvenience. Post office employes are under oath and bond to promote that function and to safeguard that service by strict personal honesty. On the part, then, of one who is a specially trusted public servant, the stealing of letters from the mails is such a base violation of oath of office and such a fatal breach of a paramount trust that the crime is rightly regarded as the most perfidious of felonies.

How base and how fatal is such a felony may be seen in the light of two special considerations. In general, theft which involves a breach of trust is, in the sight of

the law, more to be condemned and punished than is common theft as such. A simple case in point is the following, taken from a Toronto daily newspaper:


“John A—d, an employe of the Eaton store, was sent to jail for three months by Judge Denton, in county judges’ criminal court yesterday morning, for theft of $1 from the Eaton Company. The sentence was on account of the breach of trust.” That seems a rather heavy sentence for what, at least under ordinary circumstances, would appear a vulgar and petty theft. In Judge Denton’s view its implications made it much more than a petty theft. In the first place, the thief took a “mean advantage” of his trusting employer; in the second place, the thief impugned, in the eyes of his employer’s customers, the latter’s reputation for “square dealing,” and vitiated, or threw doubt on the security of, a system of payment which the employer had devised as a convenience to expedite business between himself and his customers. It was as if the employer

had taken John A-into his confidence

and said to him : “Now, Mr. A-, you’re

an upright young man. You want to get ahead. I want a man to take charge of an important branch of my business. I’ve selected you from a dozen others for the job. I believe you’ll prove the right man in the right place—an important position of trust. You’re on vour honor to make good, I have faith in you, and feel sure

you will.” Forthwith, Mr. A-, with

total disregard for his own self-respect, and with base ingratitude to his employer, pilfers a paltry, filthy “one case note,” which, if he really needed it, he could easily have borrowed. In Judge Denton’s view A-’s theft, was a despicable be-

trayal of trust and, no doubt, a symptom

that A-was a “crook” at heart.

Applying this point of view to the theft of letters from the mails, we must remember that post office employes are under special oath and bond to fulfill a position of public trust. To steal a letter from the mails, when one is thus bound to absolute personal honesty, all the more adds to the perfidy of the felony.

The second aspect of A-’s deed re-

quires some orienting, before its character is applied to the theft, of post letters. It

was said that A-’s theft threw doubt

on the security of a convenience devised to expedite business between his employer and the latter’s customers. It happens

that a customer who paid to A-, say,

$1 for goods bought at the store of A-’s

employer, is, under the system of payment, afforded protection against being defrauded of the $1 paid over to A-, and

that the employer.of Ais also vir-

tually so protected.

On the other hand, a man who sends money through the mails has no protection guaranteed him, save the presumed security of the mails, implied in the equally presumed honesty of letter-stampers, sorters, and carriers, but which, in fact, is not. obvious, and, on psychological grounds, is not highly probable. In this matter the views of Colonel George T. Denison, who, as Magistrate of the Toronto Police Court for many years, has dealt with many important, cases of postal thefts, are enlightening and convincing. In an interview with present writer, Col. Denison said in his incisive, colloquial manner of speech :

“The stealing of a letter, containing money, from the mails, affects everyday life—shakes the confidence of the public. The public can’t protect themselves against that kind of theft. If A. mails money, say, a dollar, to B., and B. says he never got. the letter, what is A. going to do about it Both he and B. are out a dollar, or all B. can do is to take A.’s word that he sent the money and call the account square. No doubt, that will satisfy A., but B. is still out a dollar, and, wbat is worse, B. may come to believe that. A. is a shyster, or A. may think that of B., and consequently the confidence the two had in one another in their business relations may be wrecked forever. Indeed, the theft of a leter by a post office employe might cause other men to suspect the integrity of their fellows for^ years, and make bitter enemies—quite unjustly. It’s worse than forgery. Men can guard themselves against the forger, but not against the letterthief.”'

Col. Denison thus signalizes a dastardly element in the perfidy of a post officp employe who steals a letter from the

mails. The letter-thief is despicable in that he takes a mean advantage of the trusting Department to which he has pledged absolute fidelity, and also of the trusting Public, for whose convenience the Post Office Department was created. Nay, more; the letter-thief is dastardly in that he takes advantage of the Public when employing a medium of business and social service from villainy in which the citizenry of a country are defenceless.

We are now ready to answer the question : Why does the Post Office Act, under the Criminal Code of Canada (R.S. Sec. 364) provide such severe penalty for those found guilty of the theft of post letters? This Act was passed to safeguard the security of His Majesty’s mails service in Canada as a paramount Public Convenience for the despatch of all business and for the enhancement of social life. The answer is two-fold.

The penalty for stealing post letters is severe, first, to signalize the fact that the Post Office Department and the Judiciary regard the crime as so perfidious a breach of public trust and as so fatal to the conduct of business and social life that its dire heinousness must, by extreme means, be indelibly impressed on the conscience of society. The penalty is severe, secondIv, to provide as adeauate as possible a deterrent from committing the heinous felonv of stealing post letters.

If the penalty acts as a virtually sure deterrent, then its severity is morally, as well as practicallv, quite justified. A consultation of the Report of the PostmasterGeneral for the year ended March 31. 1910, proves that relatively to the thousands of persons employed in the mails service of Canada and to the hundreds of millions of letters received, transported, and delivered by the service, the number of offences annuallv against the Post Office Act under the Criminal Code is so few as to be virtuallv nil. In that year (Report cited, page xiii.) the estimated number of letters posted in Canada was 466,550,000, of which 10,465.000 were registered letters, and, therefore, likelv to have contained monev and negotiable securities. Yet out of all those millions of letters, or thousands of registered letters, there were only 77 cases of abstracted or lost letters containing money, and of these only 6

(or 8, if we count the last three distributively) are described in the Report of the Postmaster-General as thefts (Cp. Appendix H., pp. 2—4). That is to say: inevitable liability to a very heavy penal sentence, even life imprisonment, for stealing post letters has proved a sure deterrent from such felonies, and thus justifies the provision of the Post Office statute in the Criminal Code.

An interesting commentary on the necessity of severe penalty for postal thefts was furnished the present writer by an officer of the British Postal Secret Service who was recentlv in Toronto. “The penalty,” he said, “in England for the theft of post letters was, until some years ago, as heavv as it is in Canada. But under the wave of humanitarian feeling which swept over Britain, the terms of imprisonment were reduced, sometimes to a period of a year or so. sometimes even to a few months. The result has been to increase the number of offences of this kind in England, and now the Post Office Department and the Judiciary are advising that the former severer penalties be again provided for by statute for the sake of their deterrent force. There is no disregard of essential humanity in this demand, but postal thefts have become so relativelv frequent in England that extreme statute penalties must be re-enacted in order absolutely to safeguard the security of the British mails service.”

Summing up: we conclude that the severe penal sentences for postal thefts are imposed as the just desert for a most base and perfidious felony and as an effective deterrent from deeds that if not practicallv reduced to zero, would destroy the usefulness of a supreme public convenience, and, with it, the warp and woof of the social fabric. Let. therefore, those humanitarians who, in their logic, think that the part is greater than the whole, and those penologists who, in their advocacy of the short-term sentence and the parole, think onlv of the suffering wrong-doer and forget the necessitv of the law-abiding public, remember this: What, on first view, seems an inhuman social paradox, namelv, the extreme penalty for theft of post letters, turns out to be a necessary means for that Ideal Enhancement of Life, which is the intrinsic end and justification of human existence.