Dead Letter Office

When something is lost in the mail, it feels like it has disappeared into the ether, like it was sucked into a black hole, like it no longer exists. But, it turns out, a lot of the mail we think is lost is actually in a designated place.  The USPS Mail Recovery Center is the contemporary name for the Dead Letter Office.  It’s where our lost mail ends up. And eventually, if our mail doesn’t find its way back to its rightful owner, it’s auctioned off to the highest bidder.

dead letter office
The Dead Letter Office at Washington, a wood engraving sketched by Theodore R. Davis published in Harper’s Weekly, February 22, 1868

The first Dead Letter Office in the US opened in 1825 and by 1893 over 20,000 items a day passed through it. In 2006 over 90,000,000 items were marked undeliverable-as-addressed (UAA) and entered the dead letter and parcel system.

Today, the main Mail Recovery Center (MRC) is located in Atlanta, Georgia. This is where lost mail goes to be sorted, processed and sent back to its rightful owner. In specialized offices, dedicated postal sleuths attempt to piece together illegible addresses or even use the contents of mail to determine the intended recipient. But if the recipient can’t be located, items of value may be auctioned off by officials of the United States Postal Service.

dead letter interior
Dead letter office, September 22, 1922. Probably Washington, D.C. via Wikipedia

Many of the bidders at these auctions are resellers, buying from the USPS and then immediately putting purchased goods back up for auction on websites like eBay.

postal cancelatoin stamps
Stamps and cancellations by Stan Shebs via Wikimedia Commons

Paper lists distributed to participants document various lots, with descriptions of items ranging from ‘cameras and accessories’ to ‘ethnic items’. Some lots come with unexpected surprises, like $5,000 worth of marijuana hidden in a shoddy painting or human cremains mixed in with a collection of tableware.

The USPS, meanwhile, appears ready to cut out the middlemen and has started auctioning things off directly via eBay. So the next time you lose a package, check eBay, you may be able to buy back your own stuff. When selecting shipping options, however, you might want to opt for FedEx.

USPS by Bob



Samara Freemark is reporter at APM’s American RadioWorks. She tweets @sfreemark.


“Floating Away”, “hospitalarp”, and “docu-glitch”- Lullatone

  1. Craig Berry

    So are we just going to glaze over the fact that it sounds like the Post Office is just stealing stuff out of packages and selling it at auction? If you got a zip-tied package full of stuff you didn’t ship, went to Georgia and saw it at auction, would you have to pay in order to buy it back? This is all sounding pretty sketchy.

    1. Tori G


      Considering the Postal Service can just steal my stuff and sell it at an auction at a premium is infuriating. Especially if I call them and they tell me “there’s nothing we can do”. Nothing but sell my stuff and I don’t see a red cent, huh? This wasn’t interesting, this was aggravating. Worse still, when she was shooed away, they gave her the most ridiculous excuses. Extremely sketchy, and they know it.

  2. Confused

    So…. How did that stuff end up in the third box that you received? Where did it come from? If it was the post office, why did they open it at all if they eventually sent it to you anyway?

  3. Confused x2

    Dido to the previous comment, how did random things end up in the box that you and the other person interviewed received?

  4. Siiri

    Aaah, trying to find that song with the eerie/spooky singing. I’ve heard it somewhere before, and now I’m obsessed with it. I’m assuming it’s “hospitalarp”? Nothing by that name on the internet

  5. Janet Sugarman

    Samara, did you write this? Why don’t you do some more research on the subject, and stay with us while you do it?

  6. Paul

    Wtf how did that story end without explaining the mystery? Clearly the jumbled and spliced cookbooks etc in the package didn’t happen because the stuff was sold on auction to someone else.

    Because then she wouldn’t have received it–it’d be in the auction winners’ cars!

    I feel dazed and confused… At least as dazed and confused as an unresolved radio story can make someone feel. Was there an extra 6 minutes of story that got incorrectly cut out of the final podcast episode that was released?

  7. jeb Jones

    Agree with other posters. How can you pose this mystery at the beginning of the show and then leave it totally unresolved? This kind of bait-and-switch is a poor way to treat your audience.

  8. Jayinchicago

    I believe part of the reason books so often wind up missing/jumbled is because people use media mail for a cheaper ship without realizing that the USPS definitely opens media mail to check it, but they aren’t very careful about putting stuff back.

    1. Confused

      Now that’s an interesting possibility and would make sense. It raises even more questions about why they are so bad at putting stuff back. Why did that one guy send books and get screwdrivers instead, when screwdrivers aren’t even allowed to be sent media mail?

  9. John

    Really dissapointed that you did not look into how this random content happens to get mailed to people.

  10. B. R.

    It’s not lost if they have the address! The package arrives at the right address, but the contents are different?? Well, that must mean someone has opened the package and switched the stuff, but how does that happen? Is it just an accident? And if it is why just put any junk back in and send it on? I AM SO CONFUSED! You must admit that it all seems very questionable – even if there is an acceptable excuse why don’t they just come out with it?

    1. +1 – I was soo mad at this episode. The story here is not the USPS auctions off lost items, but the late delivery of the correct package to the correct address with DIFFERENT content. I wish they at least acknowledged that they could not find an answer to that – rather than pretending there was an ending.

  11. Disappointed

    Love this podcast but WTF, such a fascinating yet disappointing episode. It’s a beginning without an end. Would be great to see a part 2 with more in depth investigative reporting. From the disclaimer at the beginning, perhaps you are being censored??? You should wait until you finish a story to publish it next time.

  12. Bob

    So they take the things out of your pacakge and put something else inside… why?? Is there no accountability for shipping companies?

  13. An interesting reference to the Dead Letter Office

    Great podcast. But there is an interesting reference to add!

    (Spoiler alert?)

    The Dead Letter Office plays a key role in Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener:

    … But ere parting with the reader, let me say, that if this little narrative has sufficiently interested him, to awaken curiosity as to who Bartleby was, and what manner of life he led prior to the present narrator’s making his acquaintance, I can only reply, that in such curiosity I fully share, but am wholly unable to gratify it. Yet here I hardly know whether I should divulge one little item of rumor, which came to my ear a few months after the scrivener’s decease. Upon what basis it rested, I could never ascertain; and hence, how true it is I cannot now tell. But inasmuch as this vague report has not been without certain strange suggestive interest to me, however sad, it may prove the same with some others; and so I will briefly mention it. The report was this: that Bartleby had been a subordinate clerk in , from which he had been suddenly removed by a change in the administration. When I think over this rumor, I cannot adequately express the emotions which seize me. Dead letters! does it not sound like dead men? Conceive a man by nature and misfortune prone to a pallid hopelessness, can any business seem more fitted to heighten it than that of continually handling these dead letters, and assorting them for the flames? For by the cart-load they are annually burned. Sometimes from out the folded paper the pale clerk takes a ring:—the finger it was meant for, perhaps, moulders in the grave; a bank-note sent in swiftest charity:—he whom it would relieve, nor eats nor hungers any more; pardon for those who died despairing; hope for those who died unhoping; good tidings for those who died stifled by unrelieved calamities. On errands of life, these letters speed to death.

    Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!

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