The Postal Museum covers up a 105-year-old slaying.
Standing sentry at the entrance to the National Postal Museum is a statue of Owney, canine mascot of the Railway Mail Service, cast in bronze for eternity atop his marble pedestal. Inside, museum visitors can see the taxidermically prepared remains of the dog himself—a smallish, shaggy animal of unknown breed—and learn about his late-19th-century scalawaggery: riding the rails around the country while befriending postal clerks and protecting mail bags. But they won’t see the truth about how he died.
As the folksy narrator of the nickelodeon-style museum video display explains, the story of Owney began in the Albany, N.Y., post office one cold autumn day in 1888: “A small homeless puppy crept in unnoticed, made himself right at home among the mail pouches, and soon was following the mailbags everywhere….#” James H. Bruns, the former director of the Postal Museum, says one of his first jobs as a curator was “to improve the story of Owney”—to make the rail-riding dog a focal point of postal history. “Owney is America,” Bruns says. “He’s a mongrel. We are a mongrel nation. To me, he’s the symbol of the American people.”
The mail-loving hobo hound collected some 1,000 medals and citations on his cross-country escapades. The museum has around 300 of them, some pinned to the vest that Owney’s corpse still wears, others displayed around his feet. Many are stored in a secure room, deep in the museum’s bowels, that only four people in the world can access, according to museum registrar Ted Wilson. Thanks to the dog archive, future generations will be able to know that Owney stayed at the Yellowstone Hotel and enjoyed a free lunch in Grand Rapids, Mich.
An essential part of the story of Owney, however, is missing. The squeaky-clean, kid-friendly legend told at the museum says simply that Owney died of a gunshot wound, under circumstances that “were never satisfactorily reported.” But an examination of the Toledo Bee of June 12, 1897, seems to indicate that the facts surrounding Owney’s death are as clear as a hole in a dog’s head: He was deliberately shot, on the orders of the postmaster of Toledo, Ohio.
Owney’s longtime love affair with the public and the Postal Service had turned sour with his advanced age, according to the Bee story, headlined “Tramp Dog Was Executed.” “The dog had grown old, and had been cross for months,” the article relates. “He had bitten several people before, but had been spirited away by postal clerks before he could be killed. This time another attempt was made by some of the postal clerks to save his life, but Postmaster Brand would not have it, and sent for a policeman to shoot the cur. Officer Smith responded, and shot ‘Owney’ to death in the basement of the government building about 4 o’clock yesterday.”
Confronted with this information, Bruns claims to have seen evidence that the postmaster “may not have known that it was literally Owney.” “We tried to be as truthful as possible,” Bruns explains. “Regardless of the story you hear, the dog was shot.”
Rather than dwell on the circumstances behind the dog’s demise, Bruns prefers to focus on what happened after the mortal head wound. Railway postal clerks nationwide collected enough money to stuff their beloved friend and ship him off to Washington, where he rests to this day as a monument to persistence and the American way. “There was nothing that the dog didn’t want to achieve,” Bruns says. “To me, it just symbolized the American spirit. In a dog version.” CP