First Class Mail: 5 Letters That Changed History

Hidden out of the public's sight, tucked away in the deepest of archives, lie stacks of correspondence that changed the world (or at least tried). Here are a few of our favorites.

The Last Days of Charlotte Braun

In November 1954, Peanuts creator Charles Schulz debuted Charlotte Braun, a pushy air-raid-siren version of Charlie Brown who shouts EVERYTHING SHE SAYS.

The character arrived in the fourth year of the strip's 50-year run, just as Peanuts was becoming a hit. Schulz was experimenting with his medium, even depicting adults in one strip -an oddity in its knee-high view of the world, and "something I never should have done," he admitted.

Braun was another failed experiment, making just 10 appearances over two months. After receiving a letter from fan Elizabeth Swaim complaining about the obnoxious character, Schulz got the hint. His playful response:

I am taking your suggestion regarding Charlotte Braun and will eventually discard her. If she appears anymore it will be in strips that were already completed before I got your letter or because someone writes in saying that they like her. Remember, however, that you and your friends will have the death of an innocent child on your conscience. Are you prepared to accept such responsibility?

Schulz, who once called Peanuts "the cruelest strip going," ended his letter with a hand-drawn flourish: an ax in the head of Charlotte Braun!

Annie Oakley Tried to Enlist

Fervor around the impending Spanish-American War was running high in April 1899- but three weeks before the war broke out, famed sharpshooter Annie Oakley took her patriotism further than most. Bored from 13 years of touring with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, where she routinely wowed crowds by shooting holes in playing cards tossed in the air, the 37-year-old Oakley wrote President McKinley about putting her talents to better use:

I for one feel confident that your good judgment will carry America safely through without war. But in case of such an event I am ready to place a company of fifty lady sharpshooters at your disposal. Every one of them will be an American and as they will furnish their own arms and ammunition will be little if any expense to the government.

But Oakley and her recruits never went to war, and in fact, there's no record of a response from McKinley -although he might have smelled a publicity stunt. After all, the grandstanding newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst had just offered McKinley an entire cavalry regiment -which would be akin to Rupert Murdoch whipping up a tank battalion.

Oakley's interest in defending her nation was sincere, however. Over the course of her career, she taught thousands of women how to shoot. And two decades later, still amazing crowds with her shooting feats, she wired Secretary of War Newton Baker with a similar proposition, this time for World War I: "I can guarantee a regiment of women for home protection every one of whom can and will shoot if necessary." Baker didn't take Oakley up on her offer, either.

The Fan Who Put a (Real) Gun in James Bond's Hands

"Everything I write has a precedent in truth," novelist Ian Fleming claimed. Indeed, the James Bond creator had spent six years as a Naval Intelligence officer. For all his experience in spying and counterintelligence, though, Fleming had one notable shortfall: he didn't know much about guns.

One fan noticed. In May 1956, after the release of the fourth Bond novel Diamonds Are Forever, engineering analyst and amateur firearms expert Geoffrey Boothroyd wrote Fleming, chastising him for Bond's petite firearm: "I dislike a man who comes in contact with all sorts of formidable people using a .25 Beretta. This sort of gun is really a lady's gun, and not a really nice lady at that."

Fleming replied to Boothroyd just a week later, plainly delighted and willing to switch James Bond to his now-iconic Walther PPK:

I really am most grateful for your splendid letter of May 23rd.

You have entirely convinced me and I propose, perhaps not in the next volume of James Bond's memoirs but, in the subsequent one, to change his weapons in accordance with your instructions.

Since I am not in the habit of stealing another man's expertise, I shall ask you in due course to accept remuneration for your most valuable technical aid.

Boothroyd went on to a advise Fleming for years, and despite Fleming's offer, the arms expert refused compensation. Undeterred, the novelist repaid Boothroyd with something even better. In Dr. No, Fleming debuted a new character -Bond's brilliant armorer and gadgeteer Major Boothroyd, a.k.a. "Q."

Alexander Hamilton's Election Scheme

The U.S. presidential election of 1800 was famously bitter: incumbent Federalists ran headlines like AMERICANS BEWARE and warned that Thomas Jefferson and his fellow Republicans stood for a "tempestuous sea of anarchy and misrule; for arming the poor against the rich; for fraternizing with the foes of God."

After Federalists in key swing state New York lost elections -which chose presidential electors- their strategist Alexander Hamilton became frantic. (It didn't help that his Republican counterpart was his mortal enemy Aaron Burr.) In a May 7, 1800 letter to New York governor John Jay, Hamilton proposed stealing the election. By hastily reconvening the recessed Federalist state assembly, they could cast electoral votes before new Republican representatives took office.

The very high probability is that this [election] will bring Jefferson into the Chief Magistracy, unless it be prevented by the measure which I shall now submit to your consideration, namely the immediate calling together of the existing legislature. They ought not to hinder the taking of a legal and Constitutional step, to prevent an Atheist in Religion and a Fanatic in politics from getting possession of the helm of the State.

Cooler heads prevailed. Jay jotted on the note: "Proposing a measure for party purposes [which] I think it [would] not become me to adopt." Jefferson did indeed become president -and despite Hamilton's fears, the republic still stands.

A Rare Encounter With Emily Dickinson
In 1862, editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson received this auspicious request: "Are you too deeply occupied to say if my Verse is alive?" Higginson, a prominent Abolitionist essayist, had just urged Atlantic Monthly readers to pursue their literary ambitions. Answering the call was an unknown and virtually unpublished poet named Emily Dickinson.

Though somewhat baffled by her stirringly spare poetry, Higginson was impressed -and his encouraging reply sparked decades of correspondence. But it wasn't until after Dickinson's death in 1886 that Higginson managed to shepherd her poems to publication. Living for nearly her entire life in her father's home in Amherst, Massachusetts, Dickinson had steadily refused publication or visitors.

But in 1868, the 38-year-old poet made an exception. "You were not aware that you saved my life," she wrote Higginson. "To thank you in person has been since then one of my few requests." On August 16, 1870, Higginson walked up to "a large country lawyer's house" and sent his card up from the parlor. Writing to his wife that night, he described what happened next:

A step like a pattering child’s in entry & in glided a little plain woman with two smooth bands of reddish hair & a face little like Belle Dove's; not plainer -with no good feature- in a very plain & exquisitely white pique & a blue net worsted shawl. She came to me with two day lilies which she put in a sort of childlike way into my hand & said "These are my introduction" in a soft frightened childlike voice- & added under her breath Forgive me if I am frightened; I never see strangers and hardly know what to say-

Higginson found the meeting exhausting: "I never was with anyone who drained my nerve power so much," he admitted, adding, "I am glad not to live near her." So was Mrs. Higginson. "Oh, why do the insane so cling to you?"


The article above, written by Paul Collins, is reprinted with permission from the October 2012 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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Methinks Annie O. attempted to enlist in 1898, rather than 1989. If memory serves, 1989 marked the lead-up to the first Gulf War (by which time Ms. Oakley was long dead), not the Spanish-American War.
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Okay, sorry about the agenda bit. Whoever wrote this just seemed to pick and choose their facts without checking if they were right or wrong, especially about the different parties. It's not an easy subject to condense to a quick little article and it felt like the facts were just used to justify a point of view, instead of stating how the parties actually worked at the time.
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