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Truth Stranger Than Fiction – Strange Incident that happened at the post office in Greensboro in 1872

Truth Stranger Than Fiction – Strange Incident at Post Office in Greensboro 18721


(Published in 1908)

In the year 1872 there happened an incident in connection with the Greensboro post office that fully demonstrates that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and further, that circumstantial evidence is very treacherous at times. The account of the incident about to be related was written by Judge Anthony W. Dillard, who held the first session of the Chancery Court of Hale County in Greensboro on the 11th day of July 1869. Judge Dillard was a lawyer of ability and was well-known to the older citizens of Greensboro.

The post office at Greensboro was established in September 1818, and during the ninety years of its existence, there have been seventeen postmasters, as follows: Frederick Peck, John Street, Sr., John Street, Jr., Herman Kohnen, Wm. M. Palmer, Al. Stollenwerck, J. C Simonds, Wm. Kelly, C. W. Hatch, Wm. H. Sanborn, Joseph Atkins, W. White Jones, James W. Locke, W. White Jones, G. W. Dugger, James M. Hobson, L. J. Lawson. It was not until the middle of 1869 that it was made a money order office, the first post office Inoney order being issued on July 14th, 1869, to D. F. McCrary for the sum of $24.60. The first rural free delivery route from the Greensboro office was established in 1906. There are at present (1908) three routes radiating from this point.

Disunion, War, Defeat, and Recovery in Alabama: The Journal of Augustus Benners, 1850-1885

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

The facts of the strange case given below were recalled to his mind by the death of Wm. H. Sanborn, which occurred at Village Springs, Ala., on November 24th, 1898, from the effects of a wound received from the accidental discharge of a shotgun. His remains were brought to Greensboro and buried in the cemetery here. Charles W. Hatch is also buried in the same cemetery, he having died some years before.

Old Greensboro Courthouse was torn down in 1907 (HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama)

The following is Chancellor Dillard’s letter:

Gainesville, Ala., Dec. 12, 1898.

Dear Mr. Editor: I see you announce the death of Wm. H. Sanborn, former postmaster at Greensboro, Ala., and this induced me to forward to you a copy of the “San Antonio Light,” containing an article from my pen concerning Mr. Sanborn, which you might re-produce if you think proper. The United States District Attorney gave me the facts recited, and that is all I know.


As it may prove interesting to your readers, I have concluded to narrate a case in which a registered letter, containing the sum of $1,950 in national bank notes, when it reached the party to whom it was addressed, in the city of New York, did not contain a single dollar. The Seals on the letter were unbroken and showed that the letter had never been tampered with while enroute.

The letter was registered in the post office at Greensboro, Ala., by Charles W. Hatch, the postmaster, and subsequently was placed in a mail pouch and locked, in the presence of Wm. H. Sanborn, Hatch’s clerk.

Sanborn was employed in the store and post office

Hatch kept the post office on one side of his store, in the front side of it. In 1872 he had Wm. H. Sanborn, a young man, aged about 20, employed as a clerk in his store and in the post office.

Young Sanborn ate at his mother’s, but slept at night in the rear end of the store of Hatch, and had access to the mails and the matter in the post office, situated in the front part of the store.

When the registered letter was delivered to its owner, in the city of New York, and found to contain no money at all, the owner immediately telegraphed the facts to the postmaster general at Washington and requested that a postal detective be sent to New York. This detective was sent at once, and Hatch, the postmaster at Greensboro, Ala., was notified by the post office department of the loss of the money contained in the registered letter.

Gave an affidavit

Young Sanborn, on hearing of the matter from Hatch, made an affidavit to the effect that he was a clerk in the store of Hatch as well as a deputy postmaster; that the post office was in the store; that he saw Hatch count the money, place it in a registered envelope, seal it, put the same in the letter mail pouch and lock the mail pouch; that he knew of his own personal knowledge that Hatch did not after that re-open or touch the said mail pouch; that Hatch and himself left the store at sunset at the same time, and in company; that they walked together down the street a couple of hundred yards, to a point where they separated to go to their respective homes, which were on opposite sides of the town; that he (Sanborn) returned to the store immediately after getting his supper—slept in the store that night; that Hatch did not re-enter the store and the post office that night after they had quitted it in company, and that he delivered the mail pouches to the stage driver at the door at 3 o’clock, the morning following the placing of the registered letter in the letter pouch.

Sanborn incriminated

This affidavit exonerated Hatch, the postmaster, but it clearly inculpated young Sanborn, when supplemented by another fact disclosed by the moneyless letter when it reached New York. After abstracting the money the thief had placed several old papers in the registered envelope to represent the money in bulk, and among these was an almanac, on which was printed the name of a Greensboro druggist, who kept the patent medicine of the almanac make for sale. On the almanac was visible the name of the person in New York to whom the money in the registered letter had been sent, and this showed the almanac had been used as a blotting paper on the address on the registered letter. Of course, this had all been done in the post office at Greensboro, Ala., and, as a matter of course, the robbery of the registered letter had taken place in the Greensboro post office. That was the only place where the almanac could possibly have been employed as a blotter on the registered package and then placed inside the registered envelope prior to its being sealed.

Sanborn arrested

Young Sanborn was arrested by the United States marshal, carried to Mobile, Ala., and in default of bail lodged in jail. At the first term thereafter of the United States District Court an indictment was returned into court against Sanborn for robbing the registered package of $1,950. As he could not give bail, Sanborn remained in jail in Mobile. Hatch had been summoned as a witness before the grand jury and had appeared and testified.

Battle House in Mobile, Alabama ca. 1904 (Library of Congress)

Sanborn had been in jail a year. On the Monday preceding the day set for his trial, District Attorney Southworth told me that while at the dinner table at the Battle House he received a card requesting him to call at room twenty-three immediately after dinner as the writer desired to consult him on government business of an urgent character.

Detective from Galveston, Texas came to Greensboro

“I called at room 23,” said the district attorney to me, “and was received by a gentleman, who informed me that the name on his card was his traveling name; that he was a detective in the post office department and had been for many years, and handed me his commission properly executed and avouched by the proper official seal. He then said, ‘I am on my way to Galveston, Texas, to investigate a crooked transaction in that post office in reference to a registered money package, but was ordered to stop here and see about the Greensboro robbery of the money in a registered package.”

“I replied,” said Mr. Southworth, “that it was entirely useless for him to do so, as the thief was in jail, would be tried and convicted two days later, and that the attorneys for the thief had already admitted their client’s case was hopeless and had entreated him, in consideration of the previous good character and youthfulness of the culprit, to consent to the infliction of the lowest punishment.”

The Detective: “I am paid a yearly salary, sir, and it is my rule to obey the orders of my superiors to the letter, and I wish you to allow me to see and examine the papers in the case. By the by, who is the party in jail for the Greensboro robbery?”

Southworth: “Young Sanborn, the deputy postmaster.”

Detective: “Can you send to my room the papers in the case, Mr. Southworth? As I am a detective it is my duty and my business to prevent my real character being discovered; hence I do not care to examine them in your Office.”

“Certainly, I will send them to your room by one of the clerks in my office.”

Detective: “Please call here at my room, Mr. Southworth, after supper.”

Mr. Southworth sent the papers to the detective in room 23, and called on him immediately on quitting the dining-room the same evening.

Wrong man arraigned

“Mr. Southworth, you have the wrong man arraigned for the Greensboro robbery,” said the detective.

“Nonsense, sir; the proof is perfectly conclusive. The man’s own voluntary affidavit proves him to be guilty,” replied Southworth in a tone of pique and irritation.

“Is Charles W. Hatch in the city,” asked the detective.

“Yes, sir; he is one of the witnesses against Sanborn.”

“Mr. Southworth, I wish you to send a note to Mr. Hatch to call at your office at 11 o’clock tomorrow, and I wish you to ask him the questions written on this slip of paper. I will drop into your office a few minutes after eleven as an entire stranger and tell you that I came from the north and am a stranger in the city, and ask if I can write a letter in your office. You will please place me at a desk or table where I can observe Hatch without his being aware of it, and contrive somehow to get your clerk out of your office.”

Charles W. Hatch was sent for

Southworth told me he followed out this plan to the letter; that at 11 o’clock the next day, Hatch entered his office, and he sent his clerk out to see a gentleman who lived some distance off, on a case in court. In a few minutes, the detective entered and asked if he might write a letter and was placed at a table on one side of Hatch, but from where he could observe the countenance of Hatch.

“I then commenced asking Hatch the written questions,” said Southworth, “telling him that, as Sanborn was to be tried the next day, I wished to fully understand what he (Hatch) could testify to on the trial. I had not asked him half the questions written on the slip of paper, when the detective arose and stepping in front of Hatch said to him : “Charles W. Hatch, you are a thief; you stole the $1,950 out of the registered package, and yet you have the baseness to come here and swear away the character and liberty of young Sanborn, whom you know to be innocent. You persuaded him to make the affidavit that exonerated you, but criminated him. You not only stole the $1,950 out of the registered package, but six weeks before you stole $830 out of another registered package. I am a secret agent in the post office department; here is my commission to prove my statement. I am occupying room 23 in the Battle House, and I tell you now, that unless you appear at my room this evening with a confession of your guilt in both cases, duly sworn to, and $2,780 in cash, or your bill of exchange at thirty days accepted by a solvent business firm of this city, I will cause you to be arrested on both charges. It is a rule with the government, where a thief makes good what he has stolen prior to the institution of criminal proceedings against him, not to prosecute him, and you have until 3 o’clock this evening to refund what you have stolen, but don’t fail to appear at my room, No. 23, at the hour named.”

Detective left my office

“The detective,” said Mr. Southworth, “turned on his heel and walked out of my office. I was utterly dumbfounded at his remarks to Hatch, whose character and standing were first-class. And the other evidence against Sanborn was so conclusive! Hatch sat there in his chair, silent and astounded. At last, he said, “Mr. Southworth, did you hear what that man said to me?” I nodded my head by way of reply. “What must I do about it, Mr. Southworth?” asked Hatch.

“I told him the charge against him was a calumny and that his character was his rock of defense, and to treat the threat of the detective with utter contempt and stern defiance. In a few moments, Hatch withdrew and I saw him no more that day. At 3:30 o’clock, that evening, while I was dining in the Battle House, the detective passed behind my chair and requested me to come to room 23 when I left the dining room.

Sworn confession of Hatch

“I repaired to room 23, impatient to learn the result of the affair, and the detective placed in my hand the sworn confession of Hatch acknowledging that he had stolen both the $830 and the $1,950 out of the registered envelopes. In regard to the $1,950 theft, Hatch said Sanborn and himself did leave the store together but that after he and Sanborn separated, he waited until Sanborn had gotten out of sight and returned to the post office, to which he also carried a key. Entering the post office, he unlocked the mail pouch, took out the registered package, broke it open and withdrew the $1,950, took another envelope similar to the one first used, placed in the almanac and some other papers, sealed it, addressed it exactly as the first one was addressed, placed it in the mail pouch and then locked it. The detective then exhibited to me the $2,780 which Hatch had paid him.

“Now, Mr. Southworth, you must dismiss the case against Sanborn tomorrow, and state that circumstances have come to light which establish his innocence; that the real culprit has confessed his guilt, and refunded the money stolen by him. I have written the facts to the post office department, enclosing the resignation of Hatch, and I have urged and recommended that Sanborn be appointed postmaster at Greensboro, as some reparation for his imprisonment.”

What proof did he have?

“I was amazed at this denouement,” said Southworth, “and I asked the detective what proof he had of the guilt of Hatch. He said he reached New York on the first train after having been notified the letter had been robbed, and that the tell-tale almanac had given him a clue as well as directed suspicion to Hatch himself. He discovered that Hatch carried on a mercantile business in Greensboro, Ala., and was indebted to two merchants in the city of New York, so he went to see them in person and requested them in case Hatch should remit them money, either by express or registered letter to apprise him of it immediately and not to open it until he was present, I also went to the express office and requested them to notify me should any money package from C. W. Hatch reach their office directed to A or B, and hold the package until I arrived.

Creditor listed the bills

About a week after my arrival in New York to investigate the case, the Greensboro merchant who had remitted the $1,950, forwarded to his merchant creditor a list of the bills, together with their numbers, which rendered identification an easy matter. After a few weeks, two money packages shipped from Newberne, Ala., by C. W. Hatch to his two merchant creditors in New York, arrived and I was notified by the express company; I went to the office and accompanied the express messenger who had to deliver them. When the two packages were opened they contained the identical bills taken from the registered letter. The size and the numbers tallied with those on the list forwarded by the Greensboro merchant made prior to the sending of the money by registered letter. The two express packages contained the sum of $830 over and above the $1,950, which led me to conclude that Hatch had also abstracted that sum from a registered letter from Greensboro, that was moneyless when it reached its destination.”

Sanborn was appointed postmaster at Greensboro, Ala., and my recollection he held the office on December 23, 1882, the day on which I left Alabama. This case will deserve a place among the cause celebre, and would have occupied it, had it appeared in the reports of adjudged cases. It suffices to make it highly probable, that innocent persons are so entangled in a web of circumstances as to be sometimes convicted and punished for crimes which they did not commit. The fall of Hatch. after leading an honest life for years is an occurrence witnessed daily. ANTHONY W. DILLARD

1Excerpt from HISTORY OF GREENSBORO, ALABAMA From Its Earliest Settlement by William Edward Wadsworth Yerby, Montgomery, Alabama,

BELOW IS AN ADDITIONAL NOTE FOUND BY TRANSCRIBER ABOUT CHARLES HATCH FROM Proceedings of the Most Worshipful Grand Lodge Jurisdiction of Alabama, Ancient Free and Accepted Masons: Annual Communication, Volumes 54-56, 1875  

Case Of Charles W. Hatch.

Appeal of Charles W. Hatch from the decision of LaFayette Lodge No. 26, which expelled said Charles W. Hatch upon charges and specifications as follows: Charge, gross unmasonic conduct; specification 1st, in that the said Charles W. Hatch, on the 4th day of January, 1871, did acknowledge, under his own signature, to have stolen the following amounts of money belonging to the money-order funds of the P. 0. Department, while in transmission from the following post-offices to the depositing office at Atlanta, Ga.:

  • Feb. 14, 1870, from Greensboro, Ala $419,00
  • May 27, 1870 from Greensboro, Ala$223.00
  • June 22,1870, from Greensboro, Ala $212.00
  • June 28,1870, form Greensboro, Ala $105 00
  • June 30, 1870, from “Tuskaloosa, Ala” $500.00
  • July 6, 1870, from Tuskaloosa, Ala $300.00

Total $1,759 06

 Specification 2d, obtaining money under false pretenses; in that the said Charles W. Hatch did present claim for $59.45 to the commissioners court of Hale county in favor of Brother N. T. James; that the same was allowed Nov. 15th, 1870; warrant issued by the probate judge; the amount collected by the said Charles W. Hatch during the month of January 1871, without the knowledge or consent of Brother N. T. James, and that he (Hatch) failed to account to him (James) for the same.

In this case the defendant assumes that no offense, subject to trial in the lodge, was committed by himself under specification 1st, since he rests his defense, against its arraignment, on the plea of ‘”no jurisdiction.” Because, forsooth, he took this money, amounting to $1,759, from the P. O. Department, and not from the lodge, his confession of said embezzlement, or robbery, charged in specification 1st, staring him in the face, he claims that he has been guilty of no masonic offense.

The lodge unanimously found Hatch guilty under specification 1st, not guilty under specification 2d, and Charles W. Hatch was expelled by vote of twenty-eight for this highest punishment known to us, and two against the same.

The proofs of Hatch’s guilt under the first specification are unanswerable, and there is barely doubt of his criminality under the second.

We recommend that the decision of LaFayette Lodge No. 2G, expelling Charles W. Hatch from all the rights and privileges of Masonry, be sustained.




ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Immigrants: A Collection of Lost & Forgotten Stories When independence from Britain was won in 1776, a great westward movement of Americans began. Historians refer to this movement west as the Great Migration. Tough it was only a territory, Alabama’s population grew faster than any other state in the United States during the time.

ALABAMA FOOTPRINTS Immigrants includes some lost & forgotten stories of their experiences such as:

  • The Birth of Twickenham
  • Captain Slick – Fact or Fiction
  • Vine & Olive Company
  • The Death of Stooka
  • President Monroe’s Surprise Visit To Huntsville

About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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