A little old man and a little old lady
May 28, 2013 6:17 PM   Subscribe

Abbi Jacobson got a letter in the mail, sent from Lt. Joseph O. Matthews, addressed to his wife, and was sent to her exact MacDougal Street address 70 years ago.

She and her friend Todd Bieber have set up the Lost Letter Project, hoping to find the letter's rightful recipient. Previously on Mefi.
posted by roomthreeseventeen (20 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Hmm... walked right past there today, thinking more about the demise of the best restaurant/bar ever - 5 Burro Cafe at 122 MacDougal Street. They served the biggest steak I've ever seen, for practically nothing. Also, I'm kinda skeptical about the whole thing, as much as I'd like it to be real - what a coincidence, considering Bieber's found film thing...
posted by blaneyphoto at 6:43 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

So, am I just missing something because I'm on a mobile, or do they really not have pictures of the letter or the envelope on the web site?
posted by dejah420 at 8:55 PM on May 28, 2013

There is something fishy here. There's no picture of the letter itself. The "mailing address" includes a zip code, which had not been invented in 1944. Also two-letter state abbreviations were not used back then (although I guess NY and NC are obvious enough that they may have been used).

The 1940 census is available online. There is only a single one who is an appropriate age, and does not have a middle initial listed (other than O): this guy. He is listed in census district 31-1439, which is a totally different part of Manhattan.

My guess is elaborate art project or hoax. Zip code!
posted by miyabo at 10:22 PM on May 28, 2013 [5 favorites]

You can see what the envelope looks like in the video on the home page. There is no zip code. There is an apparent 1944 postmark.

Seems to me the first place to look is social security death records and military discharges (although I'm aware there was a Pentagon records fire).
posted by dhartung at 10:42 PM on May 28, 2013

Did New York not have a LM Berry City Directory in the 1940s? The ones here in Ohio let you look up by person's name, or by the street address. They also listed other people in the household, ages, and occupations.
posted by figment of my conation at 10:58 PM on May 28, 2013

Possibly not the firm LM Berry, but those sorts of reverse directories existed across the US.
posted by dhartung at 11:16 PM on May 28, 2013

The "mailing address" includes a zip code, which had not been invented in 1944.

That's just in the website write-up and is likely an oversight. A shot of the envelope in the video shows the last line of the address written as "New York 12, N. Y."
posted by Spatch at 12:15 AM on May 29, 2013

I checked the 1940 census for the address given, and the Matthews were not listed. It's enumeration district 31-132 if anyone else wants to look at it. It doesn't mean a whole hell of a lot, frankly. They could have moved in to that apartment between April 1, 1940 and December 2, 1944. They could have been skipped or misplaced in the census (census data has definitely not been the height of accuracy in my experience).

Since Camp Lejeune is a Marine Corps base, I checked the U.S. Marine Corps Muster Rolls, 1798-1958 and found a Joseph O. Matthews enlisted 20 Nov 1942 and mustered Jul 1943 as a Private. These are the notes in the file, but I don't understand them: 1, assgd to act d; 2, jd in person fr 5th ResDist.; 2-31, stud. and Md, Navy V-12 Unit, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

Someone else has found a Joseph Olye Matthews buried at Arlington, who coincidentally has the same enlistment date, but there's currently no evidence he resided in Manhattan.

So... theoretically this could be legit. But it's also pretty easy to construct a hoax/"art project" around such a common name and scant details. We'll see, I guess.
posted by asciident at 1:33 AM on May 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

1, assgd to act d;

"assgd" is "assigned." Normally, act is "acting," but "acting d" eludes me.

2, jd in person fr 5th ResDist.;

Here, "jd" is "joined", fr is "From", "ResDist" is "Reserve District. Or, "Joined in person from the 5th Reserve District." They're now simply called "Marine Corps Districts", when the Recruiting Districts and Reserve Districts were combined. During WWII, it was very common for people (either enlisted or drafted) to be drafted into a reserve unit with no training or drill until a slot opened up in the relevant training command. They would then be ordered out of the reserve and into basic training.

Currently, 5MCD doesn't exist, but that's not unusual given the drawdown in personnel after WWII ended. Currently, NC is served by 4MCD, and NY by 1MCD.

2-31, stud.

"stud" is student. I'm lost on 2-31, it's not an MOS, at least, I can't find a 231 MOS for the USMC in WWII.

Md, Navy V-12 Unit, Yale University, New Haven, Conn.

"md" is "Marine Detachment", assigned to a navy unit. In this case, it's the V-12 Navy College Training Program, which was designed to help future Navy and USMC officers get college degrees before enlistment, and to keep these schools open -- so many were enlisting in the military and not going to college that there was a real chance they'd fail for lack of students.
posted by eriko at 5:00 AM on May 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

That's not a very common name. Ancestry.com only finds one, born in Cabell, West Virginia in 1923; MA from Yale in 1945; subsequently working on his PhD at Yale; "divorced in 1949" and re-married to Allison Butler; one son, Scott Lyman, born in 1946. Joseph Olye Matthews died around 1999.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:48 AM on May 29, 2013

Oh, and a link to a record of his grave.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:51 AM on May 29, 2013

Eriko, perhaps “assigned to active duty”?
posted by Alt F4 at 6:30 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Eriko, perhaps “assigned to active duty”?

"ad" was "active duty." That may be what they meant to say, but "acting" is a very common word in the military, in the sense of "filling the role, despite being not assigned to it."

It's different that Temporary duty (td, later tdy), which is "You are assigned to this for a short period, then you will return to your previous post." Acting is "Someone needs to do it, and you're here, so you're it." You may become the actual role-holder, or someone else may be brought in to fill the role, depending on circumstances. During wartime, you see lots of this as officers and senior noncoms become casualties or are relieved -- so you may see an ops officer become the acting CO, because the actual CO is now the acting CO of the parent unit, who's actual CO was injured or relieved, or whatnot.
posted by eriko at 8:21 AM on May 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you search on the ANC Mapper for Joseph Matthews you get a slightly wider picture of his marker at the cemetery. The names shown on the marker below are "Ruth Charlotte", which is a weird coincidence.
posted by IanMorr at 10:27 AM on May 29, 2013

That's not a very common name. Ancestry.com only finds one

When I said it was a common name, I meant Joseph O. Matthews and a lot of records leave off middle name/initial, so in that sense it is fairly common. If Joseph Olye ever lived in Manhattan, it certainly could have been him, but at the time I posted I didn't see any signs pointing to him having lived there. Admittedly, I didn't spend a long time looking, either.
posted by asciident at 4:31 PM on May 29, 2013

Oh, but it appears Megan Smolenyak, noted genealogical researcher, has helped identify the Matthews family.
posted by asciident at 4:34 PM on May 29, 2013

The Matthews family has gotten in touch with the Lost Letter Project
posted by Ranucci at 11:14 PM on May 29, 2013

I bet making the website was much more expensive than taking the obvious step of asking a genealogist. I just do this sort of thing for my own family history, but could have found him even without the extra information provided by asciident.
posted by Joe in Australia at 7:50 AM on May 30, 2013

Sure Joe, but where's the fun in that ?
posted by IanMorr at 7:54 AM on May 30, 2013

« Older Your wife is brutally murdered and you have to...   |   Opening lines of philosophy articles Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments