The federal law enforcement agency with the longest reach and the wildest tales cannot be identified with three letters. In fact, they’ve flown under the radar for most of their existence: the U.S. Postal Inspection Service.
This storied agency investigates crime related to mail throughout the world, and they’ve uncovered some pretty crazy and dangerous schemes over the years.
Benjamin Franklin became the first postmaster of Philadelphia when he was appointed by the British in 1737. His job was to regulate and survey the post offices and roads.
When he became the continental Congress’s first Postmaster General, Franklin laid the groundwork for additional surveyors since a single person could not do the job. He appointed William Goddard to the position as the first surveyor of the American Postal Service.
The Postal Inspection Service began the day Goddard started, Aug. 7, 1775. The service looked into all mail crimes but there were so many that Congress decided the death penalty would apply for the most serious escapades.
As America moved into the 19th century, the surveyors became known as special agents, and an upgrade of importance.
One of these new special agents was none other than the Noah Webster, the man responsible for compiling the most trusted English dictionary.
In the War of 1812, these special agents reported on the movements of the British Fleet on the Potomac. As time progressed and settlers moved out west, so did the postal service, becoming a pivotal agency in early American expansion.
Agents were put in place in Texas, Oregon, and California to set up regular mail services and maintain transport safety. Two statutes from that era still exist to this day: the Mail Fraud Statute of 1872 regarding swindlers and the Postal Obscenity Statute of 1873 making it illegal to “sell, give away, or possess an obscene book, pamphlet, picture, drawing, or advertisement.”
In 1880, the agents once again were renamed and became known as Post Office Inspectors. Under this name they had some of their largest cases.
One of these was taking down the criminal organization known as the Black Hand. The investigation was so successful because the gang leader, Salvatore Lima, sent letters to their victims through the postal service. While a terrifying organized criminal enterprise, they were caught and convicted by Inspector Frank Oldfield. He was able to find, arrest and convict 14 of the brutal gang’s members.
Elmer Irey used a similar method with Al Capone, arresting him for tax fraud, which led to a conviction. The same went for Charles Ponzi and the DeAutremont brothers, two massive criminal schemes dismantled by the Post Office Inspectors.
On a softer note, the Post Office Inspectors were behind the creation of the Army Post Offices in World War II, allowing soldiers to communicate with their families.
This storied agency, the silent service, continues to monitor the mail and protect American citizens to this day.