A bid to make Owney famous again

owney postal dog

Dog star.

By Carl Johnson

There's a Kickstarter project currently up for funding that would create a graphic novel about Owney, Albany's famous traveling dog. From the St. Louis-based team behind The Secret Around-the-World Adventures of Owney, the Postal Dog:

What if Owney had made some unexpected detours during his travels around the world and had some exciting adventures along the way? He was always going his own way, so it wouldn't be altogether surprising.
We imagined him not just stopping in Japan and China, but crossing into India, the Middle East and Europe on his own before sailing back to the States. He would have had a chance to see a world very few people saw at that time. He might have befriended postal workers of distant countries or met famous contemporaries like the Lumiere Brothers in Paris...

If their project is successful, Albany's most famous pooch could be famous once again.

What? You don't know about Owney?

owney_postal_dog_profile.jpgIn the late 19th century, Albany was still an important place on the national political scene, and many of its residents were well known throughout the country. But one of its most famous residents was a homeless pooch who rode the rails: Owney, The Postal Clerk's Dog.

W.J. Dennis, in The Traveling Post Office: History and Incidents of the Railway Mail Service, wrote:

It is not an unusual thing for a dog to drift in unannounced, attach himself to some place or person, and remain a perfectly satisfied tho' uninvited guest. A few have made their homes in post offices and there become favorites and mascots with post office clerks. Such a dog was Owney, a Scotch-Irish cur, which was adopted by the clerks in the Albany, N.Y. post office in 1888. Owney, however, took a liking to railway mail cars, and after once making a trip in a mail car became a traveling post office dog, a great pet of railway postal clerks and an inveterate traveler.

Clerks at the Albany Post Office (which was then in the imposing federal building at the foot of State Street) gave the dog a collar with the inscription, "Owney, Albany Post Office, Albany, N.Y." Postal men in nearly every state in the Union attached checks, medals, inscriptions, verses, and post marks to his collar, such that the Postmaster General "took pity on Owney and had a harness made on which to carry the tags, medals, etc., that were attached to him." [Smithsonian]

That included a little memo book in which verses were written, including this deathless gem from a clerk in Detroit:

Owney is a tramp,
As you can plainly see,
Only treat him kindly,
And take him 'long wid ye.

All these souvenirs became too much for a little mutt to bear. A clerk in Boston took the whole outfit off and sent it to Albany, "where the souvenirs were placed in a glass case, along with a picture of the traveling postal dog." But he put the harness back on and started collecting tags again.

Owney went well beyond what were then the continental 38 or so. In 1895, on a journey promoted by the Post Office, he ventured to Alaska, and then sailed for Japan, where he arrived at Yokohama on October 3rd. Dennis reports that at Kobe, Owney received a medal from the Emperor, then visited Shanghai, Fuzhou, and Singapore, then to Port Said, making a return trip through the Suez Canal and the Azores. He landed in New York and then cross the country again to Tacoma, having gone around the world in 132 days. He had accumulated some 200 tags and medals, and was put on display to be viewed by thousands who had heard of his exploits. "At a Dog Show in San Francisco, Owney was given a silver medal, not for beauty, but for being the 'Greatest Dog Traveler in the World.'"

If the tales are to be believed, Owney was some mutt. The New York Times described Owney as "[not] a handsome dog, but he has excellent qualities, and is kindly and intelligent." He very much wanted to wear his medal-bedecked harness, crawling back into it when someone would take it off. He was also thought to be able to navigate the trains himself: put off the Albany-Boston train by a clerk, he hopped a local to Troy, took the Boston train from there (yes, we used to have two ways to get to Boston), and arrived there in time to greet the clerk from Albany. He also attended several conventions of postal clerks, where, according to Dennis, he received wild applause, "wagging his stump tail in delight."

If only this had a happy ending. In August, 1897, Owney went to Toledo. There are various accounts as to what happened; it seems that Owney was put on a chain and became agitated, and for some reason bit a postal clerk on the hand (in other accounts, he bit a reporter). The postmaster there, Rudolph Brand, called a policeman to dispatch the cur, but the cop who was called refused to do the job. It was the next day before another officer shot and killed Owney while he was chained to a post. [Toledo Gazette]

owney stamp

The good news? You can still see Owney today. Postal workers put up the money to have Owney stuffed and put on display at the National Postal Museum in Washington, DC. He was also honored with a commemorative stamp in 2011, which occasioned a celebration at the Albany Heritage Area Visitors Center.

Carl writes about history and other fun stuff at Hoxsie! and My Non-Urban Life.

Earlier on AOA:
+ A stamp for Owney, Albany's famous postal dog
+ Owney, postal dog and Albany ambassador

photos: Smithsonian Institute Flickr

Comments

I'm not so certain it's a good idea- if they are trying to teach history the story should be accurate, not full of "Might have done..." material. Books like this turn into a series of name drops: "Then I met President McKinley --- he petted me on the head"

If he bit a reporter, he would have gotten another medal for that so I guess he must have bit a postal worker.

Really, Eric? Haven't you read any historical fiction? It's a venerable genre mixing fact with fiction.

There's also a bronze statue of Owney at the Postal Museum in Washington, DC. I never knew how Owney met his end--very sad for Albany's canine son.

Thank you for including our Kickstarter campaign in your article. We really believe in this project and our main objective is to put a truly fascinating character, Owney, back in the spotlight in a story with a historically accurate backdrop and a plot that is entertaining and captivating. Owney hasn't been done as a comic book before and we think his trip around the world provides a visual feast perfect for this format.

No, we are not claiming to be a history book and yes, Owney will be taking a few detours for dramatic effect, but we will be including factual essays in the introduction and extras section of the book to put into context where our historical fiction graphic novel fits within Owney's official history. We hope this will allay any fears that we are in any way trying to falsify Owney's story; we are simply part of the larger tradition of historical fiction, and we hope you will enjoy our efforts to honor one of Albany's greats!

Sincerely,
Marcelo Vital, writer
David Montgomery, illustrator
"The Secret Around-the-World Adventures of Owney the Postal Dog"

Oh, I've read plenty of historical fiction, and too much of it is like

"She held him close to her throbbing bosom, but knew that all the kisses in the world could not wipe the horror of Antietam from his eyes"

Eric, you are reading the wrong stuff. Sounds like you wandered into the Romance aisle. Try something by E. L. Doctorow or T. Coraghessan Boyle, just a couple of examples of brilliant writers who have used historical figures or events as the basis of their novels.

chrisck, I do see your point, but we aren't going to agree.

I've read two novels by Doctorow and didn't like them. I think Boyle is better writing short original fiction- I've enjoyed his stories but I've read three of his novels (Road to Wellville, Riven Rock, Drop City) and though they were well written I didn't like them.

End.

I think a graphic novel about Owney would be great.

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