On the morning of May 14, 1918, William Robey was having his usual breakfast with his wife, Caroline, and thirteen-month-old daughter, Louise, in their one-bedroom apartment on Harvard Street in Washington, D.C. Louise had colic, and knowing of the neighbors’ frustrations when they heard the baby cry through the thin apartment walls, Caroline was planning to take her out of the house for a nice walk in the spring air. Robey planned to stop first thing at the post office near his job at W.B. Hibbs and Company to purchase some of the new stamps issued for airmail. He had already arranged to exchange envelopes bearing the stamps with other collectors in New York and Philadelphia so they could all have first day covers to collect and sell.
Before he left, he told Fairy, as he affectionately called Caroline, “I have a very strange feeling.”
When he stopped at the post office that morning, the clerk told him he only had a few of the new 24-cent stamps but was expecting more at noon. “I examined the stamps that he had on hand,” Robey said, “but due to the poor centering decided to wait until noon before making my purchase.”
After a routine morning at work, Robey took his lunch break and. before returning to the post office. withdrew thirty dollars from the bank. The same clerk was at the post office window when he arrived. When Robey asked if any additional copies of the 24-cent stamps had come in, the clerk reached down under the counter and brought up a sheet. “My heart stood still,” said Robey. “It was the sheet of inverts. It was what you might call a thrill that comes once in a lifetime.”
The rest of Robey’s day was busy. He sent telegrams to friends in New York and Philadelphia, telling them what he’d found. He also purchased additional 24-cent stamps and posted letters with some of them, mailing covers to his friends.
Robey talked stamps to the War Times on April 27, 1945.
He called local stamp dealer Hamilton Colman whose office in the Second National Bank Building on Seventh Street N.W. was a hangout for stamp collectors. Colman wasn’t in, so Robey told his story to Colman’s assistant, Catherine Manning, who answered the phone. “For some unknown reason,” said Robey, “she would not believe me.”
Manning had worked at the business even longer than her boss. When the previous owner, John Murray Bartells, had sold his stamp business to Colman, Manning had joked that Colman inherited her along with the furniture and stock books. In four years, Manning would succeed Joseph Leavy as the Smithsonian’s chief philatelist, making her the first woman federal philatelist and curator of the national philatelic collection.
Others believed the story about Robey’s find. Although he had not told the postal clerks who he was or where he could be found, a colleague who rushed out to the post office looking for inverts did. Within an hour of returning to work, two postal inspectors showed up at Robey’s office.
Years later, Robey would describe the postal inspectors’ visit as “very interesting.” They wanted to know if he had purchased a sheet of the 24-cent stamps with inverted centers. He said he had. They asked to see the sheet.
“I refused,” he said. “The conversation was hot and furious from then on.” The inspectors threatened to confiscate the sheet but Robey was having none of that. In fact, he defied them, as only an obsessed collector could.
“I said that before they tried to confiscate the sheet which I had purchased at the face value from the post office, they had better start confiscating the 1869 inverts, the Pan-American inverts, and all of the 5-cent errors. After securing them it was then time to talk about confiscating my property. No doubt, a novice might have been scared into relinquishing the sheet.”
Caroline had spent a pleasant afternoon pushing baby Louise around Meridian Hill Park, two blocks from their apartment. She was back home well before the time her husband usually returned from work and took a turn with Louise in the buggy while she made dinner. When he didn’t arrive, she took Louise to visit with her parents. Upon returning to her apartment after dark, she found two men waiting. They introduced themselves as postal inspectors and wanted to know where her husband was. “I told them I expected him any minute,” she said, but they didn’t wait long and soon left. “I was pretty tired of pushing that buggy by 9 o’clock, when Billy arrived and told me all about what had happened.”
Reluctant to anger the postal inspectors, Robey’s employer had refused to let him keep his sheet of inverts in the company safe overnight, so he had stayed away from home. He rode the streetcars, carrying his stamps in his briefcase, waiting to slip back into his apartment under cover of darkness.
At the Robey apartment, Caroline and Billy were “a little disturbed” that night about keeping the sheet of inverts at home. Since they had no place to lock them up, she said they “turned out the light, pulled down the shades and stuck the briefcase under the mattress at the foot of my side of the bed.” They could only try to sleep.
Source: This excerpt from Stamp of the Century is derived from a variety of sources, but chiefly from George Amick’s The Inverted Jenny: Money, Mystery, Mania and Robey’s own 1938 account, published in the Weekly Philatelic Gossip. Stamp of the Century will be published this fall.