Campus & Community

Bailing Out the Mail Jail — Harvard Mail Services’ sleuths ensure mail gets where it’s going

5 min read
Bill Gannon (left) and Frank Pisano, employees of Harvard University Mail Services, carry a trunk out of University Hall heading to the shipping and receiving room at the Science Center. The trunk was addressed to a student group, but was so large there wasn't room in the student activities office in University Hall. Photo by Gail Oskin.

It’s the Mail Jail – Harvard’s Dead Letter Office– and into it go letters and packages that are undeliverable because of incomplete addresses that often consist of just a name and “Harvard University.”

And sometimes even a name is too much to ask.

“We once got a four-foot box of dirt from China, just addressed to ‘Harvard University,’ with a letter that said it had medicinal value,” said Ursula Moore, manager of Mail Services for University Operations Services. “We sent it to the News Office, but on reflection, we probably should have sent it to the Medical School.”

Many unusual items wind up in the Mail Jail, from admissions applications to flagpoles to to a letter that held just a crucifix and a single sock. Even donations to the University sometimes wind up in the Mail Jail – albeit briefly – before being sent on to the Development Office.

The Mail Jail isn’t just a place where badly addressed items languish, however, it’s more like an investigative service that helps figure out who the intended recipient is so the mail can be forwarded.

Among the more difficult nuts to crack are letters and packages that are addressed in a foreign language or script. Moore said she usually starts by asking among the students who work there, and many times there is someone around who knows enough to read the address.

Moore said Mail Services personnel take their responsibilities seriously. Mail is only opened when the intended recipient can’t be determined from the address. Even after it’s opened, the only people who see the contents are Mail Services personnel and the recipient.

The Mail Jail is just one part of the operations of University Mail Services, which delivers mail to 175 places on campus. Letters and packages with street addresses are presorted by the Post Office, dropped off on campus, and delivered by University Mail Services personnel.

Mail without an address goes to University Mail Services headquarters, where it is sorted before delivery. Though they visit many locations across campus, University Mail Services employees do not make it into the dormitories, which have their mail delivered directly by the Post Office.

Mail Services employs 15 full-time drivers, staff assistants, and mail clerks, as well as a workforce of as many as 35 students.

Interoffice mail is also handled by University Mail Services. And just because the mail originates on campus doesn’t mean it’s addressed any better, Moore said. People sometimes think that because the envelope is just going down the hall or to the office next door that it’ll get there if they just put “Bruce” or “Maggie” on it.

That’s a mistake, because even interoffice mail goes to a central location for sorting, and the folks at University Mail Services headquarters on Western Avenue probably don’t know Bruce or Maggie.

The Mail Jail itself is a nondescript wooden box amidst dozens of others lining a wall at University Mail Services headquarters. Every hour, after the rest of the incoming mail has been sorted, the graduate student manning the Information Desk picks up the contents of the Mail Jail box and gets to work.

Moore said she prefers to have a graduate student in that position because graduate students tend to have a better knowledge of the University. Nobody can know everything, however, so the Information Desk is stocked with directories and other reference books. Modern technology has also lent a hand in solving the riddle of poorly-addressed mail. The Internet has become a very useful resource for those searching for the proper destination of wayward letters and packages.

Dayle Delancey, a doctoral student in the History of American Civilization and resident tutor at Pforzheimer House, has enjoyed manning Mail Services’ Information Desk so much that she’s kept at it for six years. Delancey said figuring out where each piece of mail goes is like solving a puzzle. The job also provides a break, she said, from her hectic academic schedule.

“It’s so interesting because you’re solving little mysteries each day,” Delancey said.

Recent events have added an element of caution to how mail is handled, however. Moore said since the Unabomer began mailing bombs to his targets, mail handling staff has become more cautious. The recent campaign by animal rights activists in which they mailed letters containing razor blades has also gotten the attention of mail workers. Threatening or suspicious mail is sent to the Harvard University Police Department,” Moore said.

Major package delivery services, such as Federal Express, make their deliveries directly to the professors, so many specimens and samples en route to the University don’t pass through University Mail Services. Still, enough does to keep life interesting for those on duty at the Mail Jail.

“We recently got a box in here with ‘skull’ written on it,” Moore said. “We weren’t certain there was actually a skull in it, but I told the driver to hand deliver it, just in case.”