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One reason the foundation of our great hobby is solid is because of the continuing degree to which excited collectors seek answers and share their knowledge.
Even with the vast number of resources available from individuals and places like the American Philatelic Research Library, there will always be questions that puzzle us, and secrets to explore. The quest to solve those riddles is an ongoing task, and it is a marvelous thrill when striking stories reveal themselves and are then freely shared.
What began for me as a simple project to design a pamphlet and numbering system for souvenir stamps pertaining to the 1901 Pan American Exposition, eventually grew into an investigative philatelic adventure.
Two men were associated with those stamps that we now call cinderellas. One was a good fellow named Raynor Hubbell, of Buffalo, New York, and the other was an extremely intriguing bad guy. I found well over a dozen repetitive, perplexing statements concerning the fate of this “huckster” that required investigation.
The huckster who created fake stamps for the Pan American Expo was a stamp dealer named William B. Hale (Figure 1), from Williamsville, a small town in the bucolic Berkshires of central Massachusetts, where illustrator Norman Rockwell later created many of his beloved images of Americana.
Figure 1. Two unauthorized cinderellas William B. Hale created for the 1901 Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York.
Born in 1871, Hale came from a well-to-do family. His father, Seth P.H. Parker Hale, owned a general store, was an American Express agent, justice of the peace, and the town’s postmaster.
Hale was an educated lad, who as a teenager began selling coins and stamps by mail. His first known advertisements were in Golden Argosy (Figure 2), which many would later know as Argosy Magazine. At age 17, William became member No. 507 of the American Philatelic Association, the predecessor to the American Philatelic Society.
Figure 2. Early on, William Hale advertised his business in Golden Argosy magazine, was corresponding with clients and joined the American Philatelic Association as society member No. 507, as advertised in the May 10, 1888, edition of The American Philatelist.
Hale then placed seven consecutive ads in the magazine that you are reading right now, The American Philatelist, and continued to promote his business in numerous stamp magazines for almost two decades (Figure 3). He grew into a well-known character in late-1800s philatelic journals and enjoyed a positive rapport with many publishers. There were literally hundreds of magazines devoted to stamp collecting at that time, representing the entire United States, as well as a large portion of the world, and Hale’s name was frequently seen in numerous publications.
Figure 3. William Hale advertised regularly in several stamp publications.
Around the mid-1890s, Hale claimed that poor eyesight drove him to transition from exclusively selling stamps by mail to becoming a traveling philatelic dealer. One would assume that a similar optical range would be required whether stamps were being put into an envelope or a stock book. Regardless, Hale’s name was becoming synonymous with fascinating adventures, as well as tall tales. He became known nationwide as “The Stamp Drummer”, a drummer being a term associated with traveling salesmen.
The editors of many stamp journals loved it when Hale came through their town, as it provided interesting copy for upcoming issues. A number of them declared how exciting it was to have Hale stop by their offices or attend a local stamp club meeting, where he shared his wares and fantastic stories (Figure 4).
Figure 4. Stamp collecting societies and clubs enjoyed visits from the personable William B. Hale.
When one meticulously views 1890s philatelic publications, it becomes clear that Hale likely found it difficult to visit certain locations over and over again because it was revealed that he was selling fakes and reproductions. Many collectors who made purchases in good faith were later disappointed to find out that some of Hale’s stamps were forgeries and they’d been hoodwinked. So, instead of visiting the same old stomping grounds, Hale became not just a nationwide traveler, but over many years, a worldwide globetrotter.
It seems to me astounding that he lived on the edge of integrity for so long before his indiscretions became widely known.
Hale’s corruption catches up to him … twice!
The practice of “stamp washing” has been around since the first Penny Black was issued in England in 1840. The concept refers to the practice of erasing cancellations from postally used stamps and then offering them for sale “as unused” at a price less than face value.
For many years, governments and postal entities employed a variety of methods to thwart this illegal activity. These security methods included applying grills, special inks, surface coatings, and perfins to limit stamp cleaning and resale. The cutting or slashing of U.S. revenue stamps, many with high face values, was an effort to stop their reuse and to prevent the loss of a huge amount of income.
However, since stamps were first issued, nefarious scoundrels have attempted to use potions, chemicals or a combination thereof to remove cancellations with varying success. Even to this day, postal authorities remain vigilant. In 2019, a stamp-washing couple in Britain was convicted of “adapting, supplying and possessing articles for fraud” (i.e., “stamp washing”) that resulted in loss of £421,000 to the Royal Mail.
Stamp journals of the 1890s and early 1900s regularly contained mentions of arrests being made for stamp washing (Figure 8). When caught, perpetrators were fined and usually given anywhere from a suspended sentence to up to three years in prison. Besides these reports, most journals denounced the idea of stamp washing, yet a few actually boldly offered some examples of how to do so.
Like today, philatelic dealers back then were grateful to sell large accumulations or collections of used stamps. Yet they were almost universally united against the underhanded idea of cleaning stamps, as it cast a negative light on the hobby. Reputable sellers felt that the quicker the issue of stamp washing was eradicated; honest business reputations could be protected. Their hope, too, was that editorial focus would then completely return to legitimate hobby topics.
About 100 years ago, Hale was becoming one of the most prolific stamp washers ever documented. His initial challenge was to figure out how to make direct public appeals to purchase used stamps. Since he’d already tarnished his name via his fraudulent selling activities in philatelic trade magazines years before, Hale decided to advertise using the moniker “Spot Cash Williams,” an alias noted in a 1926 court docket and a 1929 indictment (Figure 9).
Figure 9. A 1926 Court Docket lists William B. Hale, who sometimes went by “Spot Cash Williams.”
While doing research, it was thrilling to pick up Hale’s trail again in a 1922 U.K. journal called The Postage Stamp. Hale simply advertised (Figure 10), “Second quality stamps, of U.S. and Canadians, bought and sold cheap.” An influx of used inventory from whatever deals he could coordinate fueled his underhanded activities; yet before long, the law caught up with him.
Figure 10. William B. Hale’s ad in a 1922 British journal sought “second quality” (used) stamps.
Hale was arrested on March 16, 1926, for cleaning used postage stamps, as detailed in Section 205 of the United States Criminal Code. A grand jury returned five counts against him, including one that alleged he supplied “washed” postage in the amount of more than $500 to H.E. Harris & Company, the well-known philatelic firm. After initially pleading not guilty, when disposition of his case occurred on June 30, 1926, Hale flipped his plea. Hale was sentenced to one year and a day in the House of Corrections in Worcester, Massachusetts. Due to ill health, part of his punishment was served in the town’s City Hospital before he experienced freedom again.
Did jail time rehabilitate William B. Hale? Absolutely not!
The truth behind philatelic tall tales, finally revealed
Frank L. Coes (also known as F.L. Coes) was from Worcester, Massachusetts, and came from an affluent family. His grandfather made a fortune after inventing and patenting a monkey wrench; Frank later wound up with a $200,000 inheritance. Coes, just a year younger than Hale, was a stamp dealer and collector, and served in several capacities in philatelic organizations. He was a lifetime member of the Society of Philatelic Americans, for which he was a periodic officer, and the stamp editor of Boys Life magazine, for which he wrote regular philatelic columns.
At some point, it logically seems likely that Hale crossed paths with Coes due to their interests and proximity. Hale’s hometown of Williamsville / Hubbardston is just 20 miles northwest of Worcester, and when Hale went overseas in 1900, he took a stamp dealer from Worcester to be his interpreter.
Because of what unfolded many years later, I’m drawn to the conclusion that it is quite likely that a case of bad blood developed between Coles and Hale. Could Hale have burned Coes with some of his nefarious forgeries?
In the late 1920s, when Hale’s two arrests occurred, there was little mention in the philatelic press. Nothing about his activities appeared in any stamp journals after Hale’s sentencing in 1929 for his second stamp-washing offense. My resolve was strong to find the end of William’s drama somewhere. In my quest to tell the entire life story of this charlatan, I turned to conventional newspapers so a proper final chapter to his narrative could be told. After aggressive research, still nothing!
The next publication to include information about Hale was the December 20, 1936 edition of Postal Markings (Figure 15). The cover article was the first of a multi-issue report titled “Some Hale Handstamps,” which also appeared in the January 20 and February 20, 1937 editions.
Figure 15. Frank Coes’ cover story in a 1936 edition of Postal Markings reports fake cancellations falsely attributed to William B. Hale. Coes claimed Hale died in 1935 in a federal prison and had bogus canceling devices in his cell. The author found evidence to the contrary.
The premise of this section you’re reading right now emerges from that three-part Postal Markings feature that was written by none other than Frank Coes. Coes proclaimed that in 1935 Hale died in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta and that when he passed away, a number of forged handstamps Hale used to make fraudulent covers were found in his cell. I sat with these details for a bit so I could figure out what it all meant. Yet to me, when pondering the information in Coes’ articles, it just seemed extremely odd that a federal inmate could have wooden handstamps and cancellation blocks in his cell, especially ones that could be used for forgery! It just didn’t make sense.
When trying to finalize the timeline for Hale’s life and write about his demise, collaborative verification became difficult. I spent many days going through stamp journals from the mid-1930s and none of them ever mentioned Hale, nor was his name anywhere in the mainstream press during that time.
I continued digging and looked for more answers at several philatelic libraries. What I found was that the information that Coes wrote in Postal Markings was digested, referred to, and reprinted in at least 12 other publications for nearly eight decades, one as recently as 2012.
Yet, even though I found the same story repeated over and over again, things still didn’t seem reasonable to me. I made it an adventure to either authenticate Coes’ story or uncover the real truth. In my mind, things simply didn’t add up. As it turns out, the collecting community was done a big disservice when Postal Markings printed misinformation written by Coes, and some terrific philatelic talents later repeated it. Some of these were obscure stamp journals, while others were very well-known periodicals.
I put on my Sherlock Holmes hat and grabbed my laptop once again. My attempts to get to the bottom of things took me on a meandering road over the course of many months in 2017. In the end, persistence was the best virtue I could have employed.
Rick Barrett has collected stamps for the past 55 years thanks to his late Uncle Clark. Barrett worked in a stamp store for three years as a youngster and has always enjoyed expanding his philatelic awareness. He joined the American Philatelic Society in 1982, and is a member of several other collecting organizations. Barrett loves sharing interesting philatelic stories, many of them uncovered at the American Philatelic Research Library. His first book, Buffalo Cinderellas, was wonderfully received and has won two awards, including an APS gold medal literature award. The high-quality hardcover details the fascinating life stories of two men who distributed souvenir stamps for the 1901 Pan American Exposition. One was a reputable man, and the other was a traveling charlatan, William B. Hale, who later drifted into the darkness of forgery and swindling. Buffalo Cinderellas is available at the APS gift shop or at the APS website. Barrett’s APS Chatty Award-winning Stamp Chat presentation about William B. Hale, “The Wild Life of a Philatelic Swindler,” can be viewed on the APS YouTube channel.