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Letter’s long journey ends, mystery begins

This letter was mailed from Hyde Park, N.Y., to Gloucester in 1945, but it didn’t arrive until Saturday. This letter was mailed from Hyde Park, N.Y., to Gloucester in 1945, but it didn’t arrive until Saturday. (Lisa Poole for The Globe)
By Billy Baker
Globe Staff / March 29, 2011

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If it were actual snail mail, it would have gotten there 10 times faster.

A letter mailed from Hyde Park, N.Y., in 1945 arrived in Gloucester last week, long after its intended recipient, a Mrs. S.E. Lawrence, had died. A common garden snail could have made the 173-mile journey in 6 1/2 years. Instead it took 66.

Where has it been all these years? That remains a mystery. Among the few things postal officials know is that it appeared Saturday, when carrier James Patrick picked from the day’s batch of mail a slightly yellowed envelope, with a hand-typed address and four ornate one-cent stamps.

“When you see stamps like that, and type-written, you know something’s different,’’ said Richard Tansey, officer in charge of the Greater Boston Postal District.

The letter’s nearly seven-decade odyssey is being puzzled out by most everyone who has come in contact with it. Dennis Tarmey, a spokesman for the Greater Boston Postal District, said that it may have been lost in postal equipment or fallen into a sorting machine — which is often the case with letters that take decades to deliver — but added that that theory is pure speculation.

Tansey said a postmark on the back of the envelope indicates that it appeared in Seattle this month. “It seems to me that somebody had it for a long time and put it in the mail,’’ he said. “Maybe it ended up in an estate sale. Who knows?’’

The letter, which the carrier brought to the Annisquam Historical Society before the Gloucester Post Office took it back yesterday, is what is known as a First Day Cover — when a new stamp is issued, collectors celebrate by gathering at the place it is issued and having it postmarked on the first day. In this case, it was a one-cent stamp to commemorate President Franklin D. Roosevelt, issued from and featuring his Springwood estate, shortly after his death. The “cover’’ is a collector’s term for an envelope.

Nancy A. Pope, a historian and curator at the Smithsonian National Postal Museum, said such first-day celebrations were popular at that time, partly because of Roosevelt, who was a stamp collector and inspired many young people to take up the hobby.

“The point of the First Day Cover is the outside of the envelope, not the letter inside,’’ Pope said. “The concept is that they are never going to be opened.’’

This particular First Day Cover was so popular that it is essentially worthless, according to Martin Deeran, a coin and stamp appraiser who owns Boston Towne.

“I actually use those stamps on postage I send out,’’ said Deeran, who estimated that particular cover would retail for 50 cents.

Deeran and Pope theorized that Lawrence — who lived at 123 Leonard St. — was a stamp collector who had a friend mail her the letter, or mailed it to herself from the event.

“But how did it get lost all those years?’’ asked Tom O’Keefe, curator of the Annisquam Historical Society. “Did it go to Gloucester, England? We’ll never know.’’

This particular cover featured a “cachet,’’ an envelope with a design on the left side commemorating the event being celebrated. When O’Keefe opened the letter in an attempt to figure out more about its history, the only thing inside was a notecard featuring the name and address of the person who had done the engraving of Springwood on the outside of the envelope, H. Grimsland.

Ironically, such cards were enclosed simply to give the letter enough heft so it would not fall through a sorting machine, according to Pope.

O’Keefe said he has done some research on Lawrence, and believes she was a housekeeper who was married to a house painter named Sears.

According to town elders he has spoken with, she died many years ago, though O’Keefe has yet to locate her in a local cemetery.

Daniel Donegan, 30, who recently bought and renovated the Leonard Street house in Annisquam — an old fishing village that is part of Gloucester — said he knew nothing about the Lawrences or the place of his new home in postal history.

“I get all my mail just fine,’’ said Donegan, the owner of Beverly Farms Motors. He said the house was built in the 1780s as a fisherman’s hut or a smokehouse. The post office is attempting to track down one of the Lawrences’ heirs.

Such instances of mail being delivered decades late are rare, Pope said, usually popping into the news every few years. She said post offices now have systems in place to check regularly for mail that has fallen into sorting machinery.

Still, the arrival of such a relic, particularly in an age of instant communication and super-efficient transmission of information, can seem oddly welcome. “We’re so computerized now,’’ Tansey said. “It connects us to the past.’’

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com.