Transcript: 121. The Santa Claus Man |USA

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Warning: If you believe in Santa Claus, this episode contains information that could make you question his existence. Listener discretion is advised.

Montage of letters to Santa, read by kids:

“Dear Santa Claus. Will you please send me a box of paints,

also ‘9 cent reader’

and a school bag to put them in.

And if you have any nuts or candy

or toys to spare,

would you kindly send me some,

and will you please a 7-year-old boy?

Homer Mellan.”

“Dear Santa Claus. Please send me a box of licorice candy , a desk for my room, a bill, a tool chest, a rug for my room, a fountain pen, sled like James’s, a plow for my garden, some live plants, some vegetable seeds, some games, some books, an ink eraser, a bottle of peroxide, a hatchet that is sharp, a box of crayons, some candy for Duke and some warm blankets for Daisy. With love, Elise Eppes. PS Daisy is the name of my kitten.”

“Dear Santa Claus,

I’m very glad that you are coming around tonight.

My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon wheel.

 I know that you cannot afford it,

so I will ask you to bring him whatever you think best.

Please bring me something nice – what you think best.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a happy New Year.

From your loving friend Mary.

PS do not forget the poor.”

Writing letters to Santa has been a part of season celebrations for many years. These are actual letters written by kids in the early 1900s. Many of these letters were addressed to Santa Claus, with no address. Sometimes there were made-up addresses, like 1 Snowflake Lane, North Pole, 12/25.

Letters were sent using mainstream mailboxes and post office workers were inundated with colourful envelopes. Sadly, because the addresses did not exist, letter to Santa ended up at the ‘dead letter office’. Once postal workers determined that a letter could definitely NOT be delivered, it was destroyed.

It was very sad that these wishes went to dust, and that is where one man saw an opportunity. A man who became known as the Santa Claus Man.

Intro Music

Christmas has not always been as big a deal as it is today. It was only declared a holiday in 1870 and many people disregarded it, still going to work and seeing it as any other day.

In the late 19th century, correspondence with Santa looked quite different to what it is today. In fact, it was the complete reverse. Parents used the myth of Santa as an opportunity to encourage good behaviour, or to impart life lessons to their children. Parents wrote to their kids, pretending to be Santa, imploring them to be good.

Kids replied to Santa, expressing what they wished for. Some would confide in Santa, telling him their biggest secrets. There were also questions, so many questions. This famous letter is from a girl named Virginia. She had been pestering her father, a coroner from the Upper West Side, with questions he did not know how to answer. He suggested she wrote a letter to the newspaper ‘The Sun’, maybe they could answer.

Virginia’s letter was short and sweet and once published, won over many hearts. It read:

“Dear editor, I’m 8 years old. Some of my little friends say there is no Santa Claus. Papa says ‘If you see it in the Sun, it is so.’ Please tell me the truth: is there a Santa Claus? Virginia O’Hanlon. 115 W 95th St.”

The editor did not take his reply lightly, as he knew how many children wondered about the same thing. His thoughtful reply was as followed:

Virginia, your little friends are wrong. They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, they are little . In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an Ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world that him as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole truth and knowledge. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa clause. He exists and as certainly is love and generosity and devotion exist, and do you know that they are bound to give to your life too it’s highest beauty enjoy. Alas! How dreary would be if there were no Santa clause. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias there will be no child like facing them no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment except in the sense insight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your Papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa clause, but even if they did not see Santa clause coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa clause, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor man can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine at all the wonders that are unseen an unseeable in the world.

You may tear apart the babies rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a way to veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man nor the United strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith fancy poetry love romance can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal  beauty and glory beyond. Is that all real? Ah, Virginia in all this world there is nothing real and abiding.

As the early winter air chilled the streets of New York in 1912, one beacon of hope brought joy to all residents. The 60-foot-tall tree in Madison Square Park was lit up with 2,300 coloured electric bulbs and it was an awesome sight. Everyone, regardless of religion or cultural background, shared in the joy it brought. A newspaper article of the time reported:

“Above the bustle and and tear – of a city’s life in a busy square

The Christmas tree stands with its open hands, a symbol of love for all to share

And great and small respond to the call of the chimes of the belfry, till one and all

Forsake the shop and the gilded home, for the voice of the Christ child calling

“Come O Come my festival is free”

And love is the host at my Christmas Tree

They gather –  the rich and poor or one parent and child and stranger lone

For the heart of the city goes out tonight in a chorus of music – a flood of light

And the Christ child spirit, divinely fair, that illuminated the manger cold and bare

Is born again in the City Square.”

Many Jewish people, and many migrants that never celebrated Christmas, but because decorations were on the streets, it became a joint celebration. And so the magic of Christmas as a communal celebration was born.

Gift-giving was an element that arose from industrialization. Gifts were never elaborate and expensive, but rather practical. Toys were a treat: sometimes kids were given toy trains, teddy bears or rag dolls. Homemade presents like cookies or clothing were also popular.

Department store, Macy’s saw a money-spinner in Christmas and made the most of advent-time to sell presents. The store decorations and window displays drew crowds from far and wide. No one could escape the Christmas spirit, no matter if you celebrated it or not.

The 1910s were also a booming time for newspaper advertising. Literacy was on the rise and more and more newspaper publications saw the light. With more newspapers, came more advertising. Readers learnt about new products, possible presents and how happy it made the recipients. Editorial specials showed how the Royals and other significant people celebrated Christmas. Celebrating Christmas became ‘the thing to do’.

Kids also became excited about the frenzy with which Christmas was embraced and lists to Santa became longer and longer. However, not all wishes were elaborate. Letters reached the ‘dead letter office’ and postal workers felt too bad to destroy it. They did what most people did with controversial letters at the time, and sent it to newspapers.

Newspapers published the letters, hoping someone somewhere would step up and grant the children’s wishes. Letters were not asking for elaborate toys, but for basic needs, like food or soap. Occasionally people responded and sent gifts out. But the whole thing wasn’t well-organised. There was no one to oversee correspondence, so most of the time, nothing much happened. There was no vetting process, so anyone could write, pretending to be kids, just so they could get something for nothing. Charity organisations pointed out that they were already in place to help the needy and if resources were being handed out, it should go to them.

For the most part, people read the with great interest. They discussed it with sadness, but no one did anything about it. In the end, the post office stopped forwarding the letters to newspapers. This caused an outrage, seeing as readers loved reading the letters. Publishing the letters was selling more newspapers, so editors were keen to put some kind of system in place.

It was an opportunity for someone with charitable instincts and organisational skills. Someone had to come to the rescue!

The answer was a man by the name of John Duvall Gluck. Some might say he was destined to save Christmas, seeing as he was born on December 25th. He came from a big family, he was the oldest of five brothers and grew up in New Jersey. Christmas was always a big deal in his family, his

In 1913, John was a customs agent who was down on his luck. His wife had left him and he was living in the back room of his friend’s restaurant. He always had a side-hustle going on, he had product ideas, business ideas… He worked as a promoter for bull fights at the Coney Island Mardi Gras.

With all his promoting and hustling deals, he had built up quite a number of contacts in high places. When he became aware of the letters-to-Santa problem, he saw a golden opportunity.

John founded The Santa Claus Association, a clearing house for all the letters. The post office would have a place to send the letters to and he would serve as a matchmaker of sorts. With a long list of contacts, he was able to reach out to some of New York’s wealthiest families, like the Pulitzers and the Vanderbilts. He was an eloquent writer, a great promoter and knew how to sell an idea. In the letters, he explaining what The Santa Claus Association did, and most of them gladly agreed to receive letters and send presents to children. When John pitched his idea to the post office and they were only too happy to have a solution to their problem.

All letters addressed to Santa was henceforth sent to John Gluck. Next door to his lodgings, was an empty office, also owned by his restauranteur-friend. The friend said John could use the office rent-free, as it was for a good cause.

The Santa Claus Association was a not-for-profit organisation. Because is was not classified as a charity as such, John did not have to worry about charity watchdogs. There were no rules to abide to and he could run the Association any way he saw fit. He was a gifted writer:

He loved titles: charity expert, etc.

Volunteers helped him to go through all the mail. They had a system of sifting through all the thousands of letters. They had to confirm that the letters were indeed legitimate letters from children addressed to Santa Claus. Actual people had the surname Claus, so if a letter was addressed to S. Claus, the volunteers had to check if the address was real or not.  

In their first season, the Association answered an unbelievable 17,000 letters. The more successful they were, the more volunteers came forward and offered to either donate time. Donations also came in the form of cash: to pay for stamps and stationary.

John was a genius when it came to handling the media. Journalists were invited to the ‘workshop’ to show and inform people what they were doing. He looked at the Red Cross and copied their idea of issuing a commemorative stamp. An artist donated the painting and a stamp was made. The Red Cross took legal action, but did not get too far with it.

Once the stamps have been made, the painting remained at the location where letters were answered, then one day, it disappeared. Someone had stolen it. That was an unthinkable greedy thing to do, and no one knew who could have taken it. Everyone who had access to the place was charitable people who volunteered their time out of the goodness of their hearts. Before long, the painting was returned with a note, apologising for taking it.

This story was juicy and made it into the papers. Who stole from Santa’s secretaries? Many people suspected that it had been a publicity stunt and that Gluck was behind it all. He was always looking for new angles to keep so his Association in the news.

As time went on, people became so trusting of the Santa Claus Association, they did not go through the trouble of sending gifts directly to the children, they preferred sending it to the Association to forward it.

They were running short of hands.

‘The United States Boy Scout’ (NOT ‘Boy Scouts of America’) – they were similar.

They actually received guns for target practice. 9/10 year old kids.

The USBS volunteered and offered that their boys would deliver the presents. They needed good press, as two kids got into an argument and one shot the other, killing him. The banned guns after that, but they needed to show that they were good.

They needed money (for stamps, stationary) – Gluck asked people for money, something he was very comfortable doing. He said he needed money for things that were donated: like rent and stationary

People became suspicious of Gluck. Charity watchdogs expressed their concerns that Gluck was only lining his own pockets. Gluck was never someone to shy away from confrontation. He did what he did best, and contacted the media.

He was untouchable, because he was NOT a charity, he was flying under the radar and did not have to comply with any rules, really.

The United States Boy Scout asked him to help them with fundraising, which he was very good at. Conflict of interest, because he helped them raise funds, took his cut, but relied on free labour from the scouts. People frowned, and wondered if Gluck was maybe doing it all for personal gain. Gluck was quick to point out his ‘nice guy, service to poor children’ persona, and people left him alone.

Gluck spread a rumour that he worked for the Secret Service. He recruited people to work with him, ordinary members of the community could join his Citizenry Secret Service – after paying a fee of course and volunteer your input – be vigilant (time of war) – looking for spies or possible enemies of the state.

But it was no patriotic service, it was just yet another way for Gluck to find charitable people and add them to his mailing list. The actual Secret Service learnt about his association and put a stop to it.

Gluck had commissioned architects George and Edward Blum to create “the most unique building in America.”

The Santa Claus Building, in Manhattan, would be made of white marble, with a massive arched portal, nearly 20 feet deep as a front entrance. The façade would depict versions of Santa Claus from all the countries of the world, each created by an artist native to that country.

The ground floor would house the offices of the association as well as other willing charities. On the second floor would be the Lilliputian Bazaar — a huge market where toys from around the world would be sold or given away. “The proposed Santa Claus Building will be a national monument,” Gluck declared — a real-life Santa’s workshop, as well as a place of international celebration of the “Christmas spirit.”

Bird S Coler the commissioner of welfare in New York City felt uneasy about Gluck and his Association. Coler did not celebrate Christmas, so he was immune to Gluck’s sentimental letters, aimed to pull at his heart strings. Some people even called Coler Scrooge, because he was unaffected by the joy and magic of the season. Coler was also unaffected by criticism, and became determined to take Gluck down.

He sent an auditor to look at Gluck’s operations, as he was convinced donations made their way into her personal accounts. At that point, the Association had five volunteers and they were working out of a hotel room. Gluck used the media again, releasing his bookkeeping to newspapers. The white-washed version of his affairs made Gluck look like a saint. Gluck vehemently denied all allegations of fraud and said:

“The best I can do is charge the whole affair off to ‘gossip founded on rumor.”

Coler realised he was not going to win against Gluck, so instead, he decided shut the smooth-talking hustler down at the source. Coler went to the post office and revealed the results of his audit: that Gluck was in fact embezzling funds intended to purchase gifts or to pay for postage and logistics. Where the money went, was anyone’s guess. The United States Post Office ended their association with Gluck and eventually re-routed all letters to Santa to their own service ‘Operation Santa Claus’.

Gluck was never charged with fraud. He left New York and moved to Florida where he lived out his days. He was considered to be the who once saved Christmas, but in the process, saved himself a little bit more. The thing about John: he saw how easy it was to extract money and good-will from people if you had the right motivation. Perhaps we should give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he started with an honest, charitable idea. But being the big talker, and always the hustler, eager to get more money, became his undoing in the end.

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