Robert A. Siegel Auction Galleries, Inc.

Magic Letter Express

The unique 1-cent Magic Letter Express stamp

The unique 2-cent Magic Letter Express stamp

The Magic Letter Express was run for approximately two months in June and July 1865 by the Richmond firm of Evans, Porter & Co., under the management of Maurice Evans. It is perhaps the most misunderstood of American local posts, yet its origins can be impeccably documented and its stamps are of the greatest rarity. With the Golden Collection offering of the unique 1c, we intend to establish the history of the Magic Letter Express.

The poor scholarship that is still found in published reference books may be blamed on August Dietz Sr., who published an article in the 1932 Southern Philatelist. Dietz admitted his "inability to solve the mystery", but instead of presenting the evidence available to him, Dietz coyly questioned the authenticity of the 5c cover and the printed broadside advertising the express, both of which were in the hands of Henry Needham. In bolder terms, Dietz then included the Magic Letter Express stamps in the "Fakes" section of his Confederate catalogue, stating "Two spurious letter express labels supposedly from Richmond have been recorded...The 5c "Magic Letter Express" fantasy is generally accompanied by a faked circular... There was no such institution in Richmond at any time during the war and a diligent search in the newspapers of that period has failed to disclose any announcement, advertisement, or other notice of any such post or its activities." If ever there were an example of the wrong conclusion based on incomplete research, this is it. Dietz, who provided the foundation for Confederate philately, was usually more careful.

The printed Magic Letter Express circular to which Dietz refers is illustrated above. A statement written on back reads: "This is to certify that the within attached stamp is an original one used by my father W. D. Porter in connection with Mr. Evans in Richmond Va. in 1864. W. Paul Porter. Lynchburg Va. Augt 25 -03". The broadside has a 5c Magic Letter Express stamp affixed at upper left. There are stains around the edges, which effectively tie the stamp. The advertisement is explicit in details about the post, its rates and the location "Broad Street, one Door above 4th", but there is no date (Porter's 1864 date from memory is inaccurate). Nothing about the circular is spurious, but Dietz's condemnation carried some weight, because years later Elliott Perry repeated those suspicions in unpublished correspondence, possibly prejudiced by the fact that the item was once owned by his nemesis, Henry Needham. However, through corroborative evidence, we are able to prove that the Porter circular is genuine.

 

May 27, 1865 broadside recently located in the archives of the Virginia Historical Society among family papers belonging to Maurice Evans, a partner in the Magic Letter Express. This broadside documents the formation of the post and states "Our stamps for letters can be had at the office, or in stores where our boxes are located"

In an effort to learn more about Evans, Porter & Co., we contacted the Virginia Historical Society in Richmond (www.vahistorical.org) and located a second printed broadside among the papers of Maurice Evans (location: Mss1 EV 163a64). The notice, shown here for the first time, is an earlier announcement that reads "The undersigned propose establishing in this city, for the convenience of merchants and families, a Letter, Parcel, and Package Express, which will be delivered to all parts of this city and Manchester." It contains two key pieces of information not found in the other circular: first, that "stamps for letters can be had at the office, or in the stores where our boxes are located", and, second, the approximate commencement date, May 27, 1865. On back is a handwritten note: "Magic Express, 1st business enterprise of M. Evans after War between the States. Later in business with his father Samuel Evans and then with Gen. John R. Cooke in Richmond Va." This notation provides a third piece of information: the name of the owner, Maurice Evans, who is listed as a grocer at 224 Broad Street -- located above 4th, as described on the other circular -- in the 1866 Richmond city directory, the first published since before the war. There is no mention of the Magic Letter Express or Evans, Porter & Co. in any city directories or advertisements, indicating that the enterprise was short-lived.

 

Only six stamps are known in total, as follows:

  • 1c - The unique 1c (unlisted in Scott) cancelled "Paid" on Jun. 2, 1865, folded letter handcarried from "Rockland" to Richmond, "June 3d 1865" ms. postmark, delivered locally at appropriate 1c rate, offered in the Golden sale as lot 1326
  • 2c - The unique 2c (Scott 101L1), ms. "Richmond July 4 '65" cancellation, ex Needham, Boker, Richardson, Moyer, offered in lot 1327 of the Golden sale
  • 5c - Scott 101L2, uncancelled, affixed to the undated broadside, ex Needham, Boker
  • 5c  - Scott 101L2, ms. "July 18" postmark and part of Richmond Va. Jul. 19 duplex datestamp and cork cancel (applied by post office), found by George Sloane, ex Boker
  • 5c - Scott 101L2 tied by ms. "Richmond July 10/65" postmark on cover to Talbot B. Coleman, Staunton Va., ex Needham, Boker
  • 5c - Scott 101L2, the Bastable discovery example, reported to be dated Jul. 30, 1865, on cover to Robert King in Gordonsville Va., whereabouts unknown and no confirming photo.

The first example of a Magic Letter Express stamp was described in the June 1887 Quaker City Philatelist as one of two "discoveries of Confederate Locals" by G. M. Bastable, the other being the Liberty Va. Confederate provisional. Bastable is quoted in the article: "The Richmond local, known as the Magic Letter Express, I found among a large correspondence from Richmond, Va., extending from 1840 to 1870. Many of the old envelopes had Confederate stamps of the general issue, and others U.S. stamps of the general issue. I obtained these from a member of the family to whom they were mailed, and among the lot I found the Magic Letter Expresses. The family could give me no information concerning this particular stamp." The article pictures a cut of the 5c Magic Letter Express and describes the item as "an envelope bearing the postmark of Richmond, Va., July 30, [the stamp] is printed on manila paper, and has a good margin. The envelope is addressed to Mr. Ro. King, Gordonsville, Va." We have no record of this cover other than the 1887 report.

The recorded dates establish a time period from June 3 through July 30, 1865. The covers to Staunton and Gordonsville, as well as the incoming cover from Rockland, indicate that the Magic Letter Express used railroad lines to convey mail distances as far as 140 track miles from Richmond. This local post and inter-city express was blatantly illegal. However, the spirit of the times is reflected in one paragraph from the letter offered here: "The Yankees have been here this morning since before breakfast. They came after the branded horses but went away without them. They came from Fred'ksbg & said that it was reported to them there that you had government horses & mules on the farm." The battles may have ended, but for many Southerners, the war was not over.

 

 

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