The Dark and Gruesome Origins of Going Postal
If you’ve ever worked in an office, chances are at some point you’ve had to interact with that coworker. You know the one: miserable, antisocial, constantly grumbling about every minor inconvenience. The one who never takes lunch with the rest of the staff, is constantly late or underperforming, and responds to even the most reasonable request with barely contained rage. If so, then you’ve probably joked about said coworker being only one bad day away from walking into the office with a gun and shooting up the place – in other words, “going postal.” While in the United States and elsewhere “going postal” has become synonymous with sudden, often lethal bursts of workplace violence – with few questioning the origin of the term – this phrase didn’t come out of nowhere. Starting in 1970, United States Postal Service employees committed a string of horrific workplace shootings, leaving 60 people dead and dozens more injured and forever changing the popular perception of postal workers.
Mass shootings involving postal workers have been recorded since the 1960s, the most high-profile being the infamous “Son of Sam” killings. Between December 1975 and August 1977, USPS letter sorter David Berkowitz killed 6 people and wounded 9 in New York City before being arrested. During his trial, Berkowitz claimed to have acted on the instructions of a demon which had taken the form of a dog owned by a neighbour named “Sam”. However, the first incident to truly cement the link between postal workers and violence in the minds of the American people would not take place until August 20, 1986.
Patrick Sherrill, a 45-year-old letter carrier for the Edmond, Oklahoma post office, was the very model of a toxic employee. Known to his coworkers and neighbours as “Crazy Pat”, Sherrill had a long history of bizarre and unsettling behaviour, such as wandering around his Oklahoma City neighbourhood peering into windows, making obscene phone calls to neighbours, and tying up stray cats and dogs in his back yard with baling wire. An inveterate loner, Sherrill never had any close friends or romantic interests and could not hold down steady employment, drifting between various menial jobs before joining the United States Marine Corps in 1963. Here Sherrill found his one and only calling: shooting. A skilled marksman, Sherrill trained to become a Marine sharpshooter before being honourably discharged in 1966. Despite his frequent claims to have fought in Vietnam, Sherrill in fact never left U.S. soil during his service. In 1984 Sherill would join the Oklahoma National Guard, becoming a shooting instructor and competing on the marksmanship team.
But in the meantime, civilian life did not seem to agree with Sherrill, and following the death of his mother in 1974 he became increasingly withdrawn and unstable. He became obsessed with amateur radio, packing his house floor to ceiling with electronic equipment as well as guns, ammunition, and military and porno magazines. His roof soon sprouted four large antennas, while his back yard filled with rusty junk. Sherrill’s conduct at work was even worse. One coworker, a civilian employee at the National Guard, refused to be alone with him, claiming the way he stared at her made her feel “naked” and that:
“…he looked like someone who peeped in windows and molested little kids.”
During a brief stint at the Federal Aviation Administration, Sherrill received numerous complaints for leering at or rubbing against female coworkers, and was ultimately fired for cornering a woman in an elevator. In 1985, Sherrill landed a position as a part-time relief carrier for the Edmond Post Office. This hourly position did not come with the same job security or benefits enjoyed by his full-time salaried colleagues – a fact which greatly angered Sherrill. As before, Sherrill proved a poor and toxic employee, avoiding and making frequent snide comments towards his coworkers and constantly being reprimanded for tardiness, misdirecting mail, being rude towards customers, and, on one occasion, macing a dog that was safely behind a fence. Sherrill came to believe he was being deliberately targeted by his supervisors, and vowed to take revenge. On August 20, 1986, having received another formal reprimand, Sherrill finally made good on his threat.
That morning at 7 A.M, Sherrill reported to work as usual, dressed in his blue post office uniform and carrying his mail bag. But inside the bag were not letters but two National Guard-issue .45-calibre pistols, a .22-calibre pistol, and piles of ammunition. After locking the doors to prevent anyone escaping, Sherrill stormed into the office of his supervisor, Rick Esser, and shot him in the chest, killing him instantly. Sherrill had also intended to kill Bill Bland, another supervisor, but miraculously Bland had overslept that morning and did not arrive at work until Sherrill’s rampage had ended. Instead, Sherrill shot full-time letter carrier Mike Rockne – grandson of legendary football coach Knute Rockne – who was in Esser’s office requesting time off.
At first, Sherrill’s coworkers elsewhere in the building thought someone was setting off firecrackers. That was, however, until Sherrill started striding through the building, shooting anyone who tried to flee and locking the rest of the exits. One employee managed to escape the building, only to bleed out in the parking lot. With everyone now trapped inside, Sherrill swept once again through the office, gunning down anyone he found hiding in cubicles or under tables. Meanwhile, the police arrived in the parking lot and tried to contact Sherrill via telephone and bullhorn. There was no reply. Then, at 8:30 AM – an hour and a half after Sherrill began his rampage – a SWAT team stormed the building. They found a scene of absolute horror, with bloody, bullet-riddled bodies strewn about the office. Among them was that of Patrick Sherrill, who had retreated back to Rick Esser’s office and shot himself in the head. In all, Sherrill’s had wounded six people and killed 15, including himself.
The next morning the surviving post office employees returned to work to find the floors newly mopped and waxed and the bullet holes in the walls patched and painted over – as if nothing had happened. The only signs of the tragedy that had unfolded the day before were the empty cubicles and the flowers left outside the building by sympathetic citizens. Meanwhile, the Edmond Postal Massacre shook the nation to its very core. While there had been mass shootings before – most notably on August 1, 1966 when former Marine sharpshooter Charles Whitman climbed a clocktower at the University of Texas in Austin and gunned down 14 people at random – Patrick Sherrill added a new dimension to senseless violence: he brought it into the workplace, suddenly making everyone extremely wary of their disgruntled coworkers. But while Sherrill’s rampage was – and remains – the worst workplace massacre in U.S. history, it was far from the last. Over the next decade, many more postal workers would take out their grievances in equally horrific ways.
Much like Patrick Sherrill, 34-year-old Joseph Harris of Ridgewood, New Jersey had a history of unsettling behaviour. Described by his coworkers as “quiet”, “tense”, and “odd”, Harris was obsessed with weapons and the military, and was often observed:
“…walking around like some karate guy, chopping his hands in the air.”
A mediocre worker who responded poorly to authority, Harris frequently clashed with his supervisor, Carol Ott. This feud reached its peak in April 1991 when Ott filed a report with the police, accusing Harris of harassing her on the job. Ott then ordered Harris to submit to a fitness of duty exam. Harris refused, and was subsequently fired. On his way out of the office, coworkers heard Harris growl to Ott:
“I’m going to get you.”
While many of us have said – or at the very least thought – similar things about our bosses, Harris actually made good on his threat. Just after midnight on October 10, 1991, Harris donned black military-style fatigues, combat boots, a bullet-proof vest, a black ninja-style hood, and a gas mask, and armed himself with a 9mm Uzi submachine gun, a .22 calibre handgun fitted with a suppressor, three hand grenades, some homemade pipe bombs, and a Japanese katana sword. After writing a two-page manifesto alleging unfair treatment by the U.S. postal service and booby-trapping his house with explosives, he made his way to Carol Ott’s apartment in Wayne, New Jersey, forced his way inside, and slashed at her with his sword, killing her instantly. He then made his way downstairs where Ott’s boyfriend, Cornelius Kasten, was watching television, and executed him with a pistol shot behind the ear.
But while Harris had succeeded in killing who he saw as his main tormentor, he wasn’t finished yet; his grievance lay with the entire United States Postal Service. From Ott’s apartment, Harris made his way to his former workplace, where he shot and killed mail handlers Joseph Vander Paauw and Donald McNaught. These killings were witnessed by a passing truck driver, who approached the post office to investigate. Harris opened fire, but the driver managed to escape and contact the police. Officers arrived on the scene within minutes, but were forced to retreat when Harris lobbed several pipe bombs at them.
But Harris was surrounded with nowhere to flee, and after only a half hour of negotiations he agreed to give himself up.
In the course of the subsequent investigation, the police discovered that Harris was also responsible for a brutal unsolved murder committed three years earlier. In 1988, Harris discovered he had lost $10,000 to shady investment broker Roy Edwards. Seeking revenge, on November 16 of that year, Harris broke into the Edwards home in Montville, New Jersey, fatally shot Roy, and raped his wife and two daughters. Given the emotional nature of both crimes, during his trial Harris’s lawyers attempted to argue that their client was not guilty by reason of insanity. The jury, however, was not convinced, and in May 1993 Harris was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death. Numerous appeals for clemency were denied, but in the end Harris never faced the gallows, dying in prison of natural causes in 1996.
The same year as Harris’s spree, another recently-dismissed postal worker, 31-year-old Thomas McIlvane, stormed into the post office in Royal Oak, Michigan with a sawed-off .22-calibre rifle and opened fire, wounding four people and killing five, including himself. But the peak of the postal shooting epidemic would come two years later when, in a strange coincidence, two massacres nearly 3000 kilometres apart took place within hours of each other. The first took place in Dearborn, Michigan, where post office mechanic Lawrence Jasion, having recently been passed over for a promotion, shot three people – one fatally – in a USPS garage before turning the gun on himself. In the second, former letter carrier Mark Hilburn of Dana Point, California, killed his mother and her dog before storming into the local post office and shooting two postal workers, killing one. Hilburn, who was later arrested, convicted, and sentenced to life imprisonment, had recently been dismissed from USPS for stalking a coworker.
While not the first high-profile postal shootings, the 1993 incidents have the distinction of adding a new idiom to the American vernacular, which first appeared almost simultaneously in two different newspapers. On December 17, 1993, the Florida paper the St. Petersburg Times wrote:
“The symposium was sponsored by the U.S. Postal Service, which has seen so many outbursts that in some circles excessive stress is known as “going postal.” Thirty-five people have been killed in 11 post office shootings since 1983.”
…while on December 31, the Los Angeles Times said:
“…unlike the more deadly mass shootings around the nation, which have lent a new term to the language, referring to shooting up the office as “going postal”.”
The phrase “going postal” immediately became synonymous with deadly workplace violence, the cliché of a disgruntled postal worker snapping and shooting up their workplace becoming a staple of late night comedy routines; popping up as a punchline in movies and TV shows such as The Naked Gun 33+1/3, Jumanji, and Seinfeld; and even forming the central premise of the controversial Postal series of video games. Unsurprisingly, the United States Postal Service was less than enthusiastic about being associated with mass murder, the St. Petersburg Times article going on to state:
“The USPS does not approve of the term “going postal” and has made attempts to stop people from using the saying. Some postal workers, however, feel it has earned its place.”
Indeed, there seemed to be no end to post office-related violence. In 2003, Jennifer San Marco, a postal employee from Goleta, California, was forced to retire due to worsening mental health issues. On January 30, 2006, San Marco shot a resident of her condominium before making her way to the Goleta postal processing centre and killing seven people, including herself. This was the deadliest massacre in U.S. history committed by a woman. That same year, Grant Gallaher, a disgruntled postal employee from Baker City, Oregon, arrived at work armed with a .357 Magnum revolver, intending to kill his postmaster. Arriving in the parking lot, Gallaher spotted his supervisor, Lori-Hayes Kotter, and proceeded to run her over several times with his vehicle before entering the building in search of postmaster Michael McGuire. Unable to find him, Gallaher instead returned to the parking lot and shot Kotter dead. Gallaher later testified that he resented the extra workload and stress his superiors had recently placed upon him. On December 23, 2017, postal worker DeShaune Stewart of Dublin, Ohio, arrived at work naked and fatally shot his supervisor, Lance Hererra-Dempsey. He then made his way to a nearby apartment complex and killed the Dublin postmaster, Ginger Ballad, by throwing her to the ground head-first. Stewart as subsequently arrested and tried for murder, but found not guilty by reason of insanity and confined to a psychiatric institution. Finally, on April 15, 2021, 19-year-old Brandon Scott Hole drove into the parking lot of a FedEx ground facility in Indianapolis, Indiana and opened fire with a rifle, injuring 7 and killing 9 including himself. Hole had just been fired from FedEx for failing to show up to work.
The Indianapolis shooting was only the most recent in a long list of post office massacres, which are too numerous to list in their entirety here. Between 1970 and 2021, 60 people were killed in 27 rampage killings by current or former post office employees. During the worst years of the epidemic, between 1986 and 1997, these shootings took place at a rate of nearly two per year, with an average of 11.8 people killed every year.
It is important to note here that despite what popular culture would have us believe, studies have shown that postal workers are, in fact, no more likely to commit acts of workplace violence than workers in other fields, and that equally deadly shootings have occurred in many other industries. Yet examining the bloody history of post office shootings, it is hard not to suspect that there is something uniquely stressful about postal work that pushes its practitioners to commit such extreme acts of violence. After all, in the wake of Thomas McIlvane’s 1991 Royal Oak massacre, few of his coworkers expressed surprise, stating that such an incident was a long time coming. Stranger still, upon hearing of the massacre, they reported thinking that the perpetrator could have been just about anyone, indicating a widespread culture of discontent within the Post Office. Indeed, following the 1986 Edmond massacre, Vincent Sombretto, president of the National Association of Letter Carriers president Vincent Sombrotto, made the following public statement:
“While we are shocked and dismayed by what happened and offer our prayers to those surviving victims now in the hospital, we cannot help but believe that Mr. Sherrill was pushed over the brink by irresponsible and coercive management policies by the Postal Service in the Oklahoma City region.”
It was not until after the twin 1993 massacres, however, that the USPS launched a large-scale investigation into the “going postal” phenomenon, appointing Workplace Environment Analysts to 85 post office districts across the nation to report on working conditions. The analysts’ reports revealed that there was indeed something rotten in the state of the post office, and that it all had to do with Reaganomics.
The Post Office is among the United States’ most venerable institutions, with the power of Congress to establish and regulate a postal service being enshrined in Article 1, Section 8, Clause 7 of the Constitution. While the Constitution was ratified on June 21, 1788, the Post Office Department was not officially established until February 20, 1792, with Timothy Pickering as the first Postmaster General. The Founding Fathers saw a well-run post office as key to a robust, functioning democracy, allowing news about national and international affairs as well as electoral ballots to reach every American citizen regardless of location or status. From this beginning the Post Office expanded rapidly, and by 1800 there were over 900 post offices and over 20,000 miles of post road across the country. The Post Office Department continued to operate on this model for nearly 200 years, but while it generally succeeded in its stated mission of providing reliable postal services to all citizens, it was far from a perfect system. Being a government department overseen by an appointed member of the cabinet, the Post Office required an act of Congress in order to make any changes to its operations, such as increasing the price of stamps, authorizing pay raises for its workers, or introducing new products and services. Consequently, the Post Office was extremely slow to adapt to changing conditions, and by the mid-20th century most postal workers were overworked, underpaid, and equipped with antiquated, poorly-maintained facilities and vehicles. This situation came to a head in 1970 when postal workers in New York City launched an illegal eight-day strike, crippling the U.S. postal system and prompting President Richard Nixon to pass the Postal Reorganization Act. This act dissolved the United States Post Office Department and replaced it with the United States Postal Service or USPS, a semi-private corporation. This reorganization freed the Post Office from direct Congressional control and guaranteed its workers the right to collective bargaining – though not, significantly, the right to strike. In exchange, the Act required USPS to wean itself off government subsidies and support its operations entirely through postage and other services by 1985 – a feat it accomplished two years early in 1983.
Despite this, following the election of president Ronald Reagan in 1980, a widespread perception arose of the post office as a bloated, inefficient government bureaucracy wasting citizen’s tax dollars, with neoliberal economists and politicians calling for the organization to be privatized or disbanded entirely. As a result, the Post Office came under increasing pressure to operate more efficiently and handle an ever-increasing volume of mail while still independently supporting itself. But there was a problem: though nominally an independent corporation, the USPS was still overseen by the Postal Regulatory Commission, which had to approve any proposed postal rate increases. It was also still bound by the Constitution to deliver mail to every single American household – no matter how remote. And with an almost fully-unionized workforce, mass layoffs were not a viable option. The only solution to this dilemma was for the USPS to squeeze its existing workforce even harder, forcing its employees to work ever longer and harder hours. The burden of enforcing these productivity demands typically fell on supervisors and middle managers, fostering toxic and often abusive relationships between workers and management and a highly-stressful workplace culture government analysts described as a “pressure cooker.” As a report prepared by the office of Senator Carl Levin of Michigan following the Royal Oak massacre revealed:
“[The workplace environment exhibited ] patterns of harassment, intimidation, cruelty and allegations of favoritism in promotions and demotions … [and] testimony relating to wide-ranging delivery and service problems.”
At the same time, the Post Office was one of the few employers willing to provide middle-class wages with benefits to workers without a college education or trade skill set. And while nearly all postal workers were unionized, abusive supervisors often reprimanded employees who filed grievances and interfered with union operations. Thus many workers, seeing no recourse and fearful of losing their benefits, chose to suffer in silence. For some, the pressure would prove too much to handle. While numerous General Accounting Office reports had identified these issues long before the 1986 Edmond shooting, for years the USPS chose to turn a blind eye to the problem – with tragic consequences.
While the postal killing epidemic of the 1980s and 90s prompted USPS to implement a variety of reforms, such as more stringent screening procedures for new hires and improved Workplace Health and Safety measures, unfortunately many of these reforms have since been clawed back as part of ongoing cost-saving measures. And as the Post Office and many other businesses continue to struggle in the face of inflation, stagnating wages, economic instability, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is perhaps only a matter of time before yet another worker is pushed beyond their limits and decides to “go postal.” Thankfully, there is no danger of that over here in YouTube Land. After all, it’s not like we have to work an ever-greater number of hours to put out more and more content to satisfy an increasingly unstable, fickle, and oversaturated market and the whims of the algorithm Gods… No, no danger at all… *cocks gun*
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Middis, Jessie, The Shocking Murders Which Sparked the Phrase “Going Postal”, Yahoo! Life, October 10, 2021, https://ca.style.yahoo.com/the-tragedy-which-sparked-the-phrase-going-postal-210001287-180932795.html
Bartlette, DeLani, The Origin of “Going Postal”, Medium, June 29, 2020, https://medium.com/lessons-from-history/the-origin-of-going-postal-90992ce6fa6a
Bovsun, Mara, Mailman Massacre: 14 Die After Patrick Sherrill “Goes Postal” in 1986 Shootings, New York Daily News, August 15, 2010, https://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/mailman-massacre-14-die-patrick-sherrill-postal-1986-shootings-article-1.204101
Ex-Postal Worker Accused of Killing Postmaster, Postal Supervisor Found Not Guilty by Reason of Insanity, Postal Reporter, September 24, 2019, https://www.postal-reporter.com/blog/ex-postal-worker-accused-of-killing-postmaster-postal-supervisor-found-not-guilty-by-reason-of-insanity/
Gallaher Sentenced in Baker County Circuit Court, Hells Canyon Journal, August 16, 2006, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=aeA4AAAAIBAJ&pg=1870,1355376&dq=grant-gallaher&hl=en
Mark Richard Hilburn, Murderpedia, https://murderpedia.org/male.H/h/hilbun-mark-richard.htm
Mydans, Seth, 2 Killed 3 Hurt in 2 Separate Post Office Shootings. Disgruntled Postal Workers Blamed in California, Michigan Incidents, Baltimore Sun, May 6, 1993, https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/bs-xpm-1993-05-07-1993127126-story.html
A Former Postal Worker Commits Mass Murder, History, November 13, 2009, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/a-former-postal-worker-commits-mass-murder
Former Postal Worker Gets Death Penalty For Murder of Montville Man, Associated Press, May 28, 1993, https://apnews.com/article/73f6c05ced6635a48f7c593cfcb67ec8
McConnell, Mike, Royal Oak Post Office Shooting 30 Years Later, Royal Oak Tribune, November 12, 2021, https://www.dailytribune.com/2021/11/12/royal-oak-post-office-shooting-30-years-later/
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