Delivering Bad News: Western Union

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HAPPY HOLIDAYS FROM E N HOLLAND

telegram

One of the fun—and often frustrating—things about writing historical fiction is the research that is required. I enjoy research and history; in fact, at one point in my life I considered majoring in history in college. But, while history and research fascinate me, they can also frustrate me, especially when I have discovered I have spent hours, or even days, researching a topic that becomes just a sentence in the finished work.

western-union-delivery-boy

Western Union Delivery Boy

Case in point: in my story  Our One and Only, a telegram is delivered to the Fiske family in the opening paragraphs. The deliveryman’s bicycle is mentioned briefly, vis, “…his bicycle stood waiting, a silent sentry.” Those six words are the distillation of several days of research. Since I couldn’t incorporate all I learned about delivering telegrams in the story, I thought I would share a few tidbits of information here.

Western Union was founded in 1851 in Rochester, NY. From the start it has been a diverse telecommunications company, although I

western_union_delivery-300x214

Delivery

always think of it as the company that delivered telegrams. Imagine what it must have been like in the late 1800s, to be able to send a message across the country in a day! Telegrams peaked in popularity in the 1920s and 1930s, because sending one was cheaper than a long distance phone call. Singing telegrams were invented in the 1930s; candygrams debuted in 1964. With the rise of the Internet and email, telegrams because an anachronism and Western Union gradually phased them out of service. The last telegram, at a cost of $10, was sent in early 2006.

From the start, telegrams were hand-delivered to the recipient by a Western Union courier. In the early 1900s, when child labor laws were lax, boys as young as 10 or 11 would be hired as couriers

1911-westernunion-childworker

Children Delivering

and would ride bikes to bring the telegrams to their intended destinations. Even as laws became stricter and young boys were no longer hired for the job, bikes remained popular as delivery vehicles. While some delivery men had cars, I opted for a bike in Our One and Only, since, from what I read, they were common in Baltimore, Maryland.

Outside of the city, in rural areas of the US, delivering telegrams was a different matter entirely. If the message was routine—well wishes, Happy Birthday greetings and so on—it might be handed off to the mailman for delivery. More urgent missives would be delivered by taxi or, absent that, anyone who owned a car or truck and was willing to drive into the countryside could be pressed into service.

At 8 am on Monday, July 17, 1944, Elizabeth Teass turned on the Western Union teletype machine in her tiny office at the back of Green’s Drug Store in Bedford, Virginia. Bedford was a small town of 3200 people; Company A of the 116th Infantry, 29th Division included 32 soldiers who called Bedford home. Residents of the town had been on tenterhooks since the D-Day invasion on June 6th, since it was known that Company A had been one of the first forces to land on Omaha Beach. A few people had received news of loved ones’ deaths in letters sent home but as of mid-July, no one had received any official word from the Army about the soldiers of Company A.

That changed on July 17th. When Teass turned on the teletype it clattered to life with the message, “Good morning. Go ahead. Roanoke. We have casualties.” Then, “The Secretary of War desires me to express his deep regret that your son …”

Teass does not remember the order of the names of the men who were killed, nor does she remember the exact number of telegrams that were received that day. (A present day newspaper report says nine.) In all, 19 soldiers from Bedford were killed on June 6th; an additional 3 died in the following days, making the town famous as the one that suffered the largest loss of life, per capita, of any American community during the invasion.

As the telegrams poured in, Teass’s anxiety mounted. She wanted to get the messages to families and loved ones before they heard the news “through the grapevine,” which in a small town like Bedford was likely to happen. She went into the drugstore and in addition to the owner, Mr. Green, found the local undertaker and doctor; she pressed all three of them into service. Elizabeth made a list of everyone she knew who had a truck or car and might be willing to drive out into the country (remember at the time, gas was strictly rationed). In the end, Roy Israel ended up being the hero of the day. A former cowboy from Texas, Israel had a Cadillac and used it as a one-car taxi business. He took the telegrams from Elizabeth and delivered them throughout the county, often sitting with the family until they had begun to be able to absorb the bad news.

The US military stopped sending telegrams to notify families of a loved one’s death after the Viet Nam conflict. Present day procedure is to have a death notification officer go to the home(s) of loved ones to deliver the news in person and will stay with the family for as long as necessary to work through their grief. A good perspective on the experience of being such as officer is presented in the book Final Salute by Jim Sheeler. To learn more about what the residents of the town of Bedford went through, I highly recommend The Bedford Boys: One American Town’s Ultimate D-Day Sacrifice by Alex Kershaw. Both are available as ebooks as well as in print.

Advent Calendar Giveaway!

Our One and Only is included in the anthology, Hidden Conflict: Tales from Lost Voices in Battle. Leave a comment here on this post and I will randomly select one name from the entrants on the last day of Advent, December 24th, to win a copy of the ebook, in the winner’s choice of formats.

24 Responses

  1. Thanks for such a fascinating post! I know what you mean about researching something that ends up as one sentence, but nevertheless this was so interesting. Singing telegrams – I’d seen them in films but I didn’t know they were real! I learned something today!

    • Thanks, Kate! Yes, the singing telegrams were real. When it came to telegrams, Western Union was very innovative — they were constantly seeking out ways to get people to send more telegrams. :-)

  2. Very interesting. And great pictures! Child labor law evolution, and the way children have been historically excepted to behave by society in general, is fascinating. It’s hard to imagine handing over the responsibility of delivering a single piece of official mail to a modern 10-year-old boy, let alone think he is going to maintain a regular job of that nature. Great post!

    • Thanks, Jordan!

      It is hard to imagine having ten year olds deliver telegrams, especially if they contained very serious or distressing news. I wonder if the folks in the office read the telegrams and had adults deliver those, or just handed them all to the kids and said, “Get on your bike.”? I have no idea. While I could find lots of information about the actual company there was less info about the delivering of telegrams. Elizabeth Teass and the Bedford telegrams is the most famous delivery story and I read that one in several different sources.

      By the time of the Viet Nam conflict, Western Union had pretty much gotten rid of their own couriers and relied, instead, on commercial taxi services. Unlike Roy Israel of Bedford, those drivers did not sit with families — they just handed over the telegrams and left. After several heart-wrenching delivery incidents, the US military made the decision to change its notification procedures. What is in place now is certainly much more compassionate and humane.

  3. And how sad that the paper telegram no longer can be delivered. Sending that yellow slip of congratulations was one of the fine back stage moments of the theatre. Receiving one was even better. Twitter will never sufice.

    • Thanks for your comment, Ken! I’ve never been backstage but I had a period in my life — probably from ages 7 to 10 — when my Uncle Robin sent me a “Happy Birthday” telegram every year. It was *so* exciting for me…I was at the perfect age.

  4. Loved this! How I wish I could get a singing telegram — delivered by a really bad singer!

    As you mentioned, the downside to telegrams, of course, came during war years. I’m sure plenty of families dreaded seeing that yellow paper.

    • I’d love to know what the qualifications were to be a singing delivery man…LOL.

      People did come to dread telegrams during WWII and to be honest, I am not sure the telegram business ever fully recovered from that negative association.

      Thanks for your comment, KZ, and for dropping in to join the fun.

  5. My mom shared with me how she received news of her brother’s death in WWII.
    She was sitting on the stoop of her apartment with a close friend when the telegram was delivered. She didn’t tell me how it was brought to her, just that her friend grabbed her arms so tightly she had black and blue bruises.
    Excellent post. I loved the touch of the bicycle delivery.

  6. Thanks for that comment, Jeanne. How hold was your mom and her brother when he was killed?

    • My uncle Jackie was the youngest of five kids. He and my mom were very close since they were number four and five. My mom was pregnant with my brother at the time so she had to be in her mid twenties. Jackie would have been around twenty three.
      My cousin Jackie was born just before my brother, so he was named after my uncle.
      After my mom’s death back in 1997, we inherited her little suitcase of Jackie’s effects. It was so moving and sad to read stuff from school; some of his souvenirs from his trip to his training; and his medals, etc.
      Your post brought back many memories

      • Thanks for sharing, Jeanne. The character of Eddie in Our One and Only is based on my husband’s uncle who was killed in France on Sept 21, 1944. I visited his grave in 2007 — first person from the family, ever, to do so. When I started working on the story, I realized that there is no one still alive who knew Eddie, so he really is just a memory. All that’s left are a few pictures and his dog tags. It’s very sad.

  7. Hi E>N.

    Thank you for such a lovely and informative post!

    I too, love the thrill of researching history. On those rare occasions when I have nothing to do (or am sick or just too wiped out to do anything else) you will find me in front of the History Channel.

    All the info on telegarms was a delight to read and thank you for sharing! I don’t think I remember anyone telling me any telegraph stories – though I know they were popular the first 60 or so years of the 20th century (and I believe I only know this from my love of old b & w movies.)

    So the last telegram was sent in 2006, eh? Another inistitution, biting the dust..

    So many things have changed in my life time (I’m only 45) – I can now comersate with my grandmother, (1914-1992) who complained to me once that too many things had changed in society, and although some were for the better, she still felt out of her element.

    (oh – don’t include me in the give away – I have the book!)

    • Thanks for dropping by, George and I am glad you enjoyed the post. It does seem that everyone’s most vivid telegram memories do come from the movies…LOL.

  8. I remember the news story about the last telegram in 2006. It’s amazing to think it lasted that long, with email and telephone so ubiquitous by then.

    I’d be interested to learn about different kinds of data transmission used in telegrams. When I think telegram, I automatically think Morse code, but I wonder how the methods of getting the message from one place to another developed.

    Thanks so much for this post, very interesting stuff!

    • Hi Miranda, thanks for dropping in!

      I found this information on teletype machines…it looks like they became widespread in the 1920s. This, of course, brings to mind another image from the movies…characters (usually bankers, I think) pulling strips of paper out of the machine and reading them frantically. Later versions (also seen in movies — Desk Set comes to mind) printed horizontally on paper which seemed to be a very early predecessor of the the dot-matrix printer.

      What I have learned to write six words in a story! LOL

  9. What a fascinating topic! I rely heavily on telegrams to convey information in my Victorian mystery series, as well as in the Heartache Cafe series. Even in the 1940s (Heartache Cafe is set during WWII) the telephone – especially for transatlantic calls – was not only inconvenient but expensive, so people would rely a great deal on telegrams.

    This is a fascinating post – thank you! :)

    • Hi JoAnne, thanks for your post!

      It’s only in the past 10-20 years that haven’t been charged by time and distance. My mother used to freak out about long distance calls. I had a good friend who lived in Illinois (I was in NY). I was handed a stopwatch and could call her once a month, 5 minute conversation, max. The rest of the time, we relied on letters.

      Telegrams were charged by the word. Punctuation cost more than a word did, which is why so using STOP at the end of a sentence became so popular, instead of using a period.

      To keep this all holiday related, a good Christmas movie that features lots of telegrams is Holiday Inn, with Fred Astaire and Bing Crosby. They started filming just before the attack on Pearl Harbor (Nov 1941) and finished in Feb 1942, so it even has a very patriotic WWII montage in the middle of the movie.

  10. In the first sentence, I meant to say, “telephone calls haven’t been charged by time and distance.” Sorry about that…

  11. Fabulous post.

    I believe whole-heartedly that stories are made or broken in the details and things like this make a story.

    The picture of that telegram really choked me up.

    Charlie

    • Yes, that telegram is tough to read. The website where I found it has the history of the soldier’s life. He had only been married for a few weeks when he was killed. His family didn’t want him to get married but he knew his wife was the love of his life. The site also posted some of his letters to her…he clearly was crazy about her and all he wanted to do was get home and be with her. So sad.

  12. An outstanding post. I admit, I knew almost nothing about telegrams except that to my mother’s generation the arrival of a telegram always meant bad news. You’re obviously a fine, thorough researcher as well as a very good writer. I just started reading Our One and Only at night in bed, (with Transgressions in another room in the daytime!).

    I have been doing labor research for a story, and it’s startling at first to realize that childhood, as we know it today, is quite recent, at least among us lower-class types. Children worked. The SPCA, the animal group, was the first organization to try to do anything about the conditions children lived and worked under.

    • Our One and Only in bed, huh? LOL…I hope you enjoy it and maybe will consider posting a review somewhere (your review website?). We’re trying to get the word out about Hidden Conflict. I think it is a great anthology but war stories are a tough sell.

  13. great article, it was very interesting to know that the couriers still used bicycles as opposed to cars. During the winter time, were bikes still the general mode of transport?. Dec. 1941 im sure was a busy time in the advent of Pearl Harbor, getting through the snow must have been tough.

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