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Now That’s Scandalous!

Let’s be honest, everyone loves a good scandal—at least once in a while. They typically come with a good dose of intrigue, rumor, and information that always seems to reveal itself at just the right time. These are the kinds of stories that the media jumps on! And what sells better than a juicy story?

In the early 1880s, newspapers were covering a scandal that had captured the nation’s attention. As the Star Route Scandal played out on the pages of the press, readers kept coming back for more. In Indiana, these reports hit close to home since a key player was from a longstanding Hoosier family with important ties to the community of Muncie.

Thomas Jefferson Brady
Minnetrista Heritage Collection

Born in Muncie in 1839, Thomas Jefferson Brady was a Republican politician and had served as a General in the United States Army during the Civil War. His father, John Brady, was the first mayor of Muncie. His daughter, Elizabeth (“Bessie”) Brady, would marry Frank C. Ball, first president of Ball Brothers Glass Manufacturing Company, in 1893. As a young man he studied law; later practicing in Missouri for a year before returning home. At the outbreak of the Civil War Brady raised a company of soldiers from Delaware County. He continued in service throughout the conflict, eventually gaining the rank of Brigadier General.

After the close of the war Brady returned home. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him Consulate of the Island of St. Thomas, West Indies. Five years later he took on the role of Supervisor of Internal Revenue for the States of Ohio and Indiana. It was while in that role that rumors began to swirl of fraudulent dealings . . . but that’s another story. So, let’s fast forward to the scandal at hand: the Star Route Scandal.

Grand Army of the Republic items that belonged to Thomas Jefferson Brady. The GAR was a fraternal organization made up of Union veterans of the Civil War.
Minnetrista Heritage Collection

First things first, what is a star route? Basically, they were rural mail delivery routes in the American West intended to reach residents in isolated areas. To accomplish this, the Postal Service utilized private contracts for horse and wagon transport. It seemed that in issuing these contracts, numerous corrupt officials in the postal department conspired with mail contractors to charge inflated prices and establish unnecessary routes. This produced illegally obtained profits that were split between the contractors and postal officials.

Thomas Jefferson Brady enters the story in 1876 when President Grant appointed him Second Assistant Postmaster General. Investigations into rumors of fraudulent dealings had started as early as 1872, but those probes quickly ended. As suspicion mounted and little solid evidence of corruption was produced in the 1870s, the need for a serious investigation became evident. That said, in 1881 after taking office, President James Garfield demanded an investigation.

This silver tea service was presented to Thomas Jefferson Brady as a gift at the time of his resignation from his post as Second Postmaster General.
Minnetrista Heritage Collection

This revealed a number of major players in the scheme. In addition to several of the large contractors, Brady, Bradley Barlow (an ex-U.S. Representative from Vermont), Stephen W. Dorsey (a U.S. Senator from Arkansas), and other postal officials were identified as guilty parties. Two court trials followed in 1882 and 1883. Before the trials had even begun however, Brady’s reputation was sullied and in 1881 he resigned his post under pressure from the Postmaster General.

Although the trials revealed that corruption was widespread and the fraud ring was shut down, there were few convictions despite the fact that the Post Office had been defrauded of about $4,000,000. The scandal attracted significant public attention and was covered in newspapers across the country. It was an embarrassment to the government and public disgust over the scandal helped lead to civil service reform legislation.

Thomas Jefferson Brady caught his break in 1883 when he and Dorsey were both acquitted by the jury. While Brady defended his innocence until his death, the damage to his reputation may have already been done. As late as 1909, the New York Times reported in its pages that Brady had most certainly been part of a secret ring to defraud the government in the 1870s.