Halloween, a spooky stamp collecting season

Nov 1, 2005, 6 AM

By Janet Klug

When October rolls around, people today start planting tombstones and skeletons in their front yards. It seems as though some folks decorate more for Halloween than they do for Christmas..

When did this start to happen? When I was a kid, all we did was stick a pumpkin with a not-too-spooky smiley face out on the front porch.

Stamp collecting also is loaded with Halloween decorations. You just have to know where to look.

It's easy enough to find monsters from literature and films on stamps, such as those issued in 1997 by the United States Postal Service that picture classic movie monsters. One 32¢ stamp in the set features American Philatelic Society member Bela Lugosi as Count Dracula (Scott 3169). Figure 1 shows the stamp.

But there are more challenging spooky things to collect than a movie Dracula.

In the post-Civil War era, many American postmasters carved killer cancels out of cork. For their cancels, they used all sorts of images that have become synonymous with Halloween. One is the skull-and-crossbones cancel used on the 3¢ green George Washington stamp shown in Figure 2, and another is the jack-o'-lantern cancel used on the 2¢ carmine Washington stamp shown in Figure 3.

That jack-o'-lantern looks remarkably like the ones I carved as a youth.

"Tombstones" is the name for an entire category of postmarks. They get their name from their appearance, which bears an uncanny resemblance to a, well . . . tombstone. Similar tombstone-style postmarks were used in many countries, primarily in the 19th century and the early 20th century. A Montreal tombstone postmark graphically cropped from a Canadian stampless cover is shown in Figure 4.

This style of postmark fell out of fashion, but was resurrected during World War II for British tombstone naval censorship markings, such as the one shown in Figure 5 graphically cropped from its cover.

Well, if we are going to look at tombstones, I suppose we can also see some extremely weird death mask stamps.

In 1904, Serbia issued a set of eight stamps commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Karageorgevich dynasty and the coronation of King Peter I.

The five lower value stamps (Scott 79-83) show Karageorge (Black George), the founder of the dynasty, and his descendant Peter I.

King Peter I came to the throne after King Alexander from the rival Obrenovich dynasty was assassinated in 1903, ending the Obrenovich dynasty.

When the Serbian stamps are inverted, Alexander's death mask can be seen. It is made up of parts of the faces of both Karageorge and Peter I. The 50-para stamp (Scott 83) is shown upside down in Figure 6.

It might not be easy to make out from the illustration, so Figure 6 outlines the face to make it easy to see. Ghastly, huh?

Eugene Mouchon, the stamp designer, claimed the death mask was unintentional, but many people believed that supporters of the Obrenovich dynasty deliberately made rival Alexander's face appear on the stamps.

A real death mask is depicted on a 1943 stamp from the Nazi puppet state of Bohemia and Moravia.

The story behind this is certainly grisly enough for Halloween. Nazi SS Obergruppenfuhrer Reinhard Heydrich was assassinated in Czechoslovakia in 1942 after he had promised to "Germanize the Czech vermin," as he put it.

In retaliation for Heydrich's death, Hitler ordered that the mining village of Lidice be liquidated.

On June 9, 1942, five days after the assassination, security police surrounded the village. A woman and a boy were shot while trying to escape. All the men and boys over 16 years of age, 172 in number, were confined in a barn. On June 10, they were taken out in groups of 10 and shot.

Later 19 men from the village who were working in the mines were taken to Prague and shot.

Seven women from the village were taken to Prague and shot. The other 195 women of the village were sent to the Ravensbruck concentration camp, where seven were gassed and 42 died of mistreatment, starvation and disease.

The village's 90 children were examined for racial characteristics and then were given to German families to be raised as Germans.

The village itself was burned, dynamited and bulldozed. The name, Lidice, was removed from all maps and written references.

The 60-haleru+4.40-koruna Heydrich Death Mask semipostal stamp (Scott B20) is shown in Figure 7.

In years gone by, it was customary to place a wreath on the front door of a house when a loved one passed away.

Men wore black arm bands. A widow wore a black mourning gown, called widow's weeds, for at least a year after her husband's death.

Taking this to extremes was Queen Victoria, whose husband Prince Albert died in 1861.

Thereafter she wore black in his memory for the rest of her long life. Stamps bearing Victoria's portrait after Albert's death are sometimes called "widow's weeds" because of Victoria's attire.

It was also customary to use black-bordered stationery during the time of mourning. Envelopes that have black borders are called "mourning covers," and they are very collectible.

I have heard varying explanations of why some mourning covers have wide bands of black and others have much narrower bands. One theory is that the closer the relationship to the deceased, the wider the bands of black on the stationery.

Another theory is that as the period of mourning progressed, the width of the band decreased in size until eventually it disappeared entirely.

Figure 8 shows a mourning cover sent May 25, 1895, from Providence, R.I. It has a wide band and matching wide-band letter paper inside.

Taking the black edging one step further, some countries have issued mourning stamps. Figure 9 shows a 30-dinar Franklin D. Roosevelt stamp (Greece Scott 469).

The black-bordered stamp is from a set of three issued in December 1945 to mourn the loss of this world leader.

Greece also issued mourning stamps for King Constantine and King George II.

Of course, Greece was not the only country to issue mourning stamps.

Belgium, for example, upon the death of King Albert in 1934, issued a 75-centime stamp (Scott 257) in black with black borders, and Yugoslavia issued black-bordered mourning stamps (Scott 102-15) after the assassination of King Alexander in 1934.

Where do letters go when they die? To the dead letter office, of course, often abbreviated DLO. A letter can be undeliverable for many reasons. Perhaps the address is incorrect or incomplete. Maybe the recipient moved and left no forwarding address. Perhaps the address is undecipherable.

When such occurrences happen, the letter is returned to the sender.

If there is no return address, the letter goes to a DLO, where clerks can attempt to complete the address, find the recipient who moved or look for a return address within the contents.

If the DLO clerk is successful, the letter goes out in a new outer envelope.

Figure 10 shows a cover mailed from Sydney, Australia, in 1950. The letter was unclaimed by the addressee and was sent to the DLO, where a clerk noted by pen inscription that the recipient "left 25/7/50" (July 25, 1950).

The cover bears a rubber-stamped pointing hand directing that the letter be returned to the sender.

Halloween can be pretty spooky.

Stamp collecting, with all of its death masks, mourning stamps, tombstone cancels, and dead letters can be pretty spooky too.

You might want to be particularly cautious on Halloween night — especially if you go near your stamp albums.

Happy Halloween!