Some historical events Toledo can lay claim to and be proud of, others,… not so much. The Owney the postal dog story is one of the latter. This week, the U.S. Postal Service will pay tribute to the famous little postal pooch by honoring him with his own postage stamp which will officially celebrate Owney as one of America’s great animal heroes, if not the first. If you don’t know the story of Owney, it all started by in 1888 when this scruffy Irish-Scottish Terrier mongrel took up residence in the Albany, New York post office. It is recounted that Owney loved the scent of the mail bags and began riding the mail wagons and then one day hopped onto a rail car and started riding the trains. It was here where Owney’s legacy was carved. Within a few years, Owney managed to travel on these cars quite extensively and quite independently, and as he appeared at various postal stations along his routes, postal employees would affix a postal tag to his harness and collar. He soon became laden with hundreds of tags as he routinely criss-crossed the United States on the rail cars. He even ventured in 1895 on an international journey and showed up in Japan, parts of Asia, and Europe until he safely returned to the U.S. and his home in Albany. In short Owney was a star , perhaps the first “dog-star” in the United States long before Lassie and Rin-Tin-Tin. He was beloved by postal employees and members of the general public alike who wanted to get a glimpse of this famous world traveling mutt.
But not everyone loved Owney. In April of 1897, the Chicago Postmaster was disgusted by Owney’s presence on the rail cars and postal stations, calling him a mongrel cur who was nothing more a nuisance to employees and that he should be banned from the rails. His remarks were widely reported at the time, and who knows if his sentiments were shared by others. A few months later, on June 11th, 1897, Owney had made his way to Toledo and it would be his last. There are several varying accounts of what took place, but according to the Chicago Tribune, when Owney got to Toledo’s Union Station, a postal clerk called a newspaper reporter and photographer to get some pictures and a story. The clerk had chained Owney up to a post to keep him there while awaiting the arrival of the photographer. One account says that Owney detested being tied up or restrained and starting protesting loudly and when the clerk tried to get him to quiet down, Owney bit him on the hand. That action prompted the Toledo Postmaster, Rudolph Brand, to call for a policeman to come to the scene and that an officer named Fred Free, shot and killed Owney while he was still chained to the post. The Chicago Tribune called it an “execution”. While other newspaper accounts(perhaps engaging some damage control), said Owney had been running loose and ”had gone mad” when he was shot. We may never know exactly what happened in Toledo, or why Owney met his fate that day, but Owney’s legacy was hardly forgotten. When word surfaced around the nation that the famous mail-pooch’s stamp had been cancelled, mail clerks throughout the country raised funds to have the cinnamon colored terrier stuffed and preserved. His mounted body was eventually given to the Post Office Department’s headquarters in Washington. It remained there, on display, until 1911, when it was transferred to the Smithsonian in Washington where Owney has been on display in a glass case, ever since. Now 114 years after his death in Toledo, Owney is not only getting his own postage stamp, but his mounted remains have been restored and his exhibit, which includes hundreds of his postal tags will be displayed prominently at the museum.
If you know more about Owney’s travels and experiences in Toledo, including his death, please share. I will post any additional material here.