I think it’s safe to say that Della Donner and Patti Collins met but once, in December of 1913. Although both lived in Washington D.C., they moved in different circles.
Della Newsom Donner “liked to go about a great deal.” Her former husband, William H. Donner, was “a home-loving man” who made $4,000,000 when U.S. Steel bought his plant in Pittsburgh. The couple divorced in 1907; he kept the four children and she was given a lot of money to leave town, moving first to Cleveland, and then to our nation’s capital. In 1913, she was living in The Dresden, a newly built and very posh apartment building. And when she went out, it was in a chauffeur-driven automobile.
Martha Louise “Patti” Lyle Collins, on the other hand, was a “gentlewoman of the South” from Mississippi and had worked at the U.S. Post Office since 1879. After the death of her husband, Nathaniel Dickson Collins, at the age of 44, she was left with two children, Mary and John Wilfred, as well as her widowed mother, and dwindling means of support. She didn’t think women should work, but neither did she think they should starve. Because of her education and facility with foreign languages, and “the united efforts of the Mississippi delgation in Congress,” she won a place in the Dead Letter Office, where partially, illegibly and phonetically addressed letters were given one last chance at finding their recipients.
To say that the Dead Letter Office was the ideal spot for her talents would be to understate the case. Over the next 30 years, she became nationally famous for her ability to decipher addresses that baffled all others. She was described as the department’s “presiding genius,” “the expert puzzle solver” and “little less than a wizard.”
Mrs. Collins knew the name of every post office and city in the United States, as well as most of the cities’ street names. She knew the names of major corporations, colleges, government agencies and private institutions. She knew every lumber camp and mining settlement in the U.S., as well as the predominant nationality of each camp’s workers. She read and spoke six foreign languages, and could sound out phonetic spellings in an instant. She knew the particular handwriting styles that accompanied many languages, and could often identify the language by the handwriting alone. On her vacations, mostly in Europe, she walked through cities memorizing street names.
And she was gifted with amazing intuition. Her co-workers referred to her as a “blind reader,” because it appeared all she had to do was pick up an envelope, as if blindfolded, before announcing its intended destination. During her tenure, 87% of all the letters that came into the office – as many as 2,000 a day – were routed to the correct destination.
Mrs. Collins was much written about, and herself wrote an article on the Dead Letter Office for the February 1894 issue of St. Nicholas magazine. Articles such as Alice Graham McCollin’s “The ‘Blind Reader’ at Washington” in Ladies’ Home Journal, September 1893, were filled with examples of Mrs. Collins’ skill, such as follows:
Picking up an envelope addressed to 3133 East Maryland Street, with no city or state given, Mrs. Collins knew that while many cities had “Maryland” streets, only in Indianapolis did the numbers go as high as 3133.
A letter to “Tossy Tanner, Tx,” was correctly routed to Corsicana, Texas. “Cayo Huess” was deciphered as Key West. Mrs. Collins sorted out hundreds of phonetic spellings of “Chicago,” including Sheshajo, Jercago, Chahicho, Zizazo, Jaijo and Shyshigo.
A letter to a law firm at “Jerry Rescue Block, N.Y.,” made its way to Syracuse because Mrs. Collins knew the city was the scene of the 1851 rescue from jail of a fugitive slave, William Henry, who called himself “Jerry.”
“Agt. 49 Leon Gty” was all Mrs. Collins needed to send a letter to Box 49, León, Guanajuato, Mexico.
When handed an envelope addressed:
she quickly read it as “John,” under “Wood” and over “Mass,” i.e., John Underwood, Andover, Massachusetts. The letter was delivered.
One of the most common addressees on letters sent to the Dead Letter Office was “Santa Claus.” Before Christmas each year, these came by the thousands. Early in her career, while caring for her widowed mother and two children, Mrs. Collins could only sigh when each new batch arrived. But as her financial responsibilities lightened and her income grew, she took it upon herself to be “Mother Santa Claus.” For 20 years, every Christmas, Mrs. Collins chose letters that particularly appealed to her and personally sent the writers gifts. She also shared “Dear Santa” letters with charitable institutions and others who were eager to help.
On Tuesday evening, December 23, 1913, Mrs. Collins left her office and went to buy Christmas candy for children. Then she headed home to her apartment. At the corner of 16th Street and H Street NW, Mrs. Collins met Della Donner.
Mrs. Donner was in her automobile, driven by her chauffeur, Charles Draughn, who later testified that Mrs. Collins “stepped from behind a moving street car directly before his machine.” He said he was going “no more than six or eight miles an hour,” but witnesses noted his car skidded 50 feet after he ran over Mrs. Collins. Mrs. Donner jumped from her car and ran to the fallen woman. Other pedestrians rushed to help, lifting Mrs. Collins’ body to the sidewalk, but she had been killed instantly.
Mr. Draughn spent the night in jail. The body of Mrs. Collins spent the night in the morgue, unidentified and unclaimed until the following day. Mrs. Collins’ death, while tragic, was not unusual. Automobiles had been killing pedestrians since September 13, 1899, when Henry Bliss of New York City stepped from a streetcar and was run down by an electric-powered taxicab. (Today, U.S. pedestrians are killed at the rate of 12 a day.)
But with the death of Mrs. Collins, the nation lost a truly unique human being, a woman of remarkable intellect who enabled tens of thousands of Americans to receive letters that would otherwise have gone astray, a woman who brightened Christmas for so many children. We may never see the likes of her again.