Title: The Santa Claus Man: The Rise
and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and
the Invention of Christmas in New York
Author: Alex Palmer
Publisher: Lyons Press
Release Date: October 1, 2015
Genres: True Crime, Historical
Street in this true crime adventure, set in
New York City in the Roaring Twenties.
Before the charismatic John Duval Gluck, Jr. came along,
letters from New York City children to Santa Claus were
destroyed, unopened, by the U.S. Post Office Department.
Gluck saw an opportunity, and created the Santa Claus
Association. The effort delighted the public, and for 15 years
money and gifts flowed to the only group authorized to
answer Santa’s mail. Gluck became a Jazz Age celebrity, rubbing
shoulders with the era’s movie stars and politicians, and even
planned to erect a vast Santa Claus monument in the center
of Manhattan — until Gotham’s crusading charity commissioner
discovered some dark secrets in Santa’s workshop.
heartwarming and hardboiled, involving stolen art, phony
Boy Scouts, a kidnapping, pursuit by the FBI, a Coney Island
bullfight, and above all, the thrills and dangers of a wild
imagination. It’s also the larger story of how Christmas became
the extravagant holiday we celebrate today, from Santa’s early
beginnings in New York to the country’s first citywide tree
lighting to Macy’s first grand holiday parade. The Santa Claus Man
is a holiday tale with a dark underbelly, and an essential read for
lovers of Christmas stories, true crime, and New York City history.
bookplate signed by the author, plus two vintage Santa Claus
Association holiday seals. Just email proof once you buy
The Santa Claus Man (online receipt, photo of bookstore
receipt, etc.) along with the mailing address where you’d like
the gift sent to santaclausmanbook[at]gmail[dot]com.
Email before 12/21 to guarantee delivery by Christmas.
“Highly readable” — Publishers Weekly
“Required reading” — New York Post
“A rich, sensational story of holiday spirit corrupted by
audacity and greed, fueled by the media at the dawning
of the Jazz Age.”— Greg Young,
cohost of Bowery Boys NYC history podcast“
A Christmas pudding of a book, studded with historical
nuggets and spiced with larceny.”— Gerard Helferich,
author of Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin
A History of Santa Letters
My new book, The Santa Claus Man: The Rise and Fall of a Jazz Age Con Man and the Invention of Christmas in New York, tells the true story of a colorful huckster who used a Santa letter–answering scheme to make himself rich and famous. But it also tells the larger story of how letters to Santa came about in the first place. It’s impossible to say who wrote the first Santa letter, but it was almost certainly from the mythical saint, not to him.
From the earliest conception of Santa Claus in the United States, parents used the voice of St. Nicholas as a means of providing advice and encouraging good behavior in their children. The earliest reference to a Santa letter in America that I could find came from Theodore Ledyard Cuyler, recalling his childhood in 1820s western New York when he “once received an autograph letter from Santa Claus, full of good counsels.” Fanny Longfellow (wife of poet Henry Wadsworth) regularly wrote her children Santa letters, commenting on their behavior over the preceding year. “I am sorry I sometimes hear you are not so kind to your little brother as I wish you were,” she wrote to her son Charley on Christmas Eve 1851. A few years later she wryly scolded, “You have not been so obedient and gentle and kind and loving to your parents and little sister as I like to have you, and you have picked up some naughty words which I hope you will throw away as you would sour or bitter fruit.” Soon enough, children started writing back, generally placing their letters on the fireplace, where they believed smoke would transport the message to St. Nick.
Having letters hand-delivered by postal workers, beginning for many urban areas in the midst of the Civil War, transformed how Americans viewed the mail—as a pleasant surprise arriving at one’s door, rather than a burdensome errand. The Chicago Tribune captured this change in perception in an 1864 story about the introduction to the city of thirty-five deliverymen. “[W]e were strangers to the varying sensations produced by ‘the postman’s knock,’” the editors gushed. “Though we had often read of his journeyings and followed him in imagination through his daily round, as he dropped his gifts like a genuine Santa Claus into other households on his beat.” It was only a matter of time before children began to view the post office as a direct conduit to the Christmas saint.
By the 1870s, scattered reports appeared of the receipt of Santa letters by local post offices. “The little folks are getting interested about Christmas,” wrote a correspondent in the Columbia, South Carolina, Daily Phoenix in December 1873, describing a few Santa missives. “Several letters deposited in the Richmond Post Office, evidently written by children, plainly indicated that they, anticipating the annual visit of Santa Claus, wished to remind him of what they most desired,” the Times reported the following year.
Each subsequent winter, as certain as snowflakes fell onto the city streets, a growing number of Santa letters ended up at post offices across the country, increasing every year. But with no actual fur-coated toymaker to receive his mail, each January, the department destroyed them. It was a depressing business. But, officials asked, if mailmen began delivering Santa’s letters, to which other fictional characters would mail be shuttled?
By the turn of the century, the public and press complained about this destruction. “There are at present in the Post Office more than a bushel of letters to Santa Claus that the dear old mythical Saint will never receive,” the Times’ editors lamented in 1899.
When nothing changed, they raised the volume of their protests: “The Christmas season has no charm for the prosaic employes [sic] of the Dead Letter Office,” the Times wrote in 1906. “So the letters remain undelivered and the requests unresponded to, and Saint Nick overlooks thousands of children just because he has not received their petitions.”
Irked by the mounting negative press, then–postmaster general George von Lengerke Meyer announced on December 14, 1907, that he would allow the letters to be answered until the end of the year—for two weeks, give or take. For the first time ever, Santa would open his mail. Groups rushed to respond, and despite having little time to organize, that season saw the rise of organizations like one in Winchester, Kentucky, that began delivering Christmas goodies including nuts, fruits, and candy—as well as firecrackers and roman candles—to children. The Silver Belt Santa Claus Association dubbed Kris Kringle its “Chairman of the Board of Directors” and served the kids of Globe, Arizona.
But two weeks wasn’t enough time to get a solid operation up and running. The groups had little time to properly investigate the letters, and many that did found a large number of dubious requests—children exaggerating their needs or seeking to take advantage of public generosity in some other way. In some cities, groups fought over who had the right to play Santa. Almost before the philanthropies began their work, Meyer, at the urging of a number of established charity groups, criticized these upstarts for their lack of oversight and the fact that few verified if the letter writers were actually in need. Citing this failure to investigate the letters and the generally unprofessional approach of the Santa groups, Meyer ruled that the experiment failed and would not be repeated. “That vicarious activity of Santa Claus which last Christmas removed from the minds of some children in the community the deep-seated notion that the Christmas saint was a snob who confined his presents to rich children, is not to be repeated this year,” the Times morosely reported in 1908.
Finally, in 1911, Postmaster General Frank Hitchcock, a bit more of a romantic than his predecessor, decided that releasing the letters, in a limited and cautious manner, would pose few serious threats to the department’s operations, and ordered that the letters could be answered the final two weeks of the year. The consequences could hardly be worse than the negative attention they had already been receiving for the current policy. Two years later, the Post Office Department made the ruling permanent—every year, for the entire month of December, any organization approved by the local postmaster could answer Santa’s mail.
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