In May 1918, to mark the inauguration of its regular air mail service, the United States Post Office rushed out a wildly overpriced stamp bearing an image of the very plane that was to carry the first batch of mail. The Curtiss JN-4HM, a modified version of the Curtiss JN-4 biplane commonly known as the Jenny, had been used for pilot training and as an aerial ambulance during World War I. “The Model T of the Skies” would later become the go-to for barnstormers, acrobats, and Charles Lindbergh.
The Jenny stamp was a two-color image, which meant each sheet of 100 stamps had to be run through the printing press twice: once to print a red border and lettering, and a second time for the airplane and its blue background. In the rush, you guessed it: somebody inserted some sheets into the press the wrong way on the second pass, resulting in what the PO called an “invert error.” In layperson’s terms: an upside-down airplane. Most of the Jenny Inverts were destroyed, but at least one batch made its way to a post-office window in Washington, DC, and out into the public, becoming the wet-dream-golden-unicorn-Bigfoot of stamp collectors for a century to come. In 2005, four Jenny Inverts sold for just under $3 million.
During the early twentieth century, my great-grandfather Luther Mustard was the postmaster in Pocahontas, Virginia, a booming coal town in Tazewell County on the West Virginia border. According to family lore, two sheets of the Jenny Inverts also came his way in 1918. Immediately recognizing their future value, he secreted them home to his wife for safekeeping, curled up in a tube in the bottom drawer of a black desk in the living room. “Save these, they will educate the girls someday,” he commanded, meaning the sale of the rare stamps would fund college for their daughters, my grandmother Mary and her sister, Betty.
Both daughters did go to college—though no thanks to the stamps, which apparently remained in that desk, untouched and unthought of, for decades. In the ’40s, after their parents had died, Mary and Betty—by then grown with children—divvied up the family furniture, some to go to Alderson with Mary, some to go to Morgantown with Betty, and some to go to the Tricky Cousins—the “Mustard Girls” who still lived in Pocahontas. According to my beloved aunt Amanda, who knows everything: “The desk drawer was emptied, and Mother says she and Aunt Betty both saw the tube with the stamps. . . . Mother claims that Aunt Betty left the stamps in a piece of furniture that went to Pocahontas. Aunt Betty thinks Mother put them in the furniture to Pocahontas or even somewhere else.”
Not only did my grandmother go to college, she also married a man who went on to run a hugely successful limestone quarry. In Alderson, West Virginia, my grandparents were as close to royalty as it comes. They literally lived in the big white house at the top of the hill. They had a housekeeper, they had costume balls, they sent both my aunt Amanda and my father away to fine Virginia prep schools and colleges. So why, then, did the missing Jenny Inverts come to quietly eat my grandmother alive?
No one knows exactly how or when the obsession started. But everyone agrees that it got worse as she grew older. At some point, she heard or read that a batch of the Jenny Inverts had been found and put up for sale, and insisted that they had come from Pocahontas. According to my aunt, she used to call her nephew Jim (Betty’s son) every few months “and demand that he go to Pocahontas and find those stamps that she was sure the Mustard Girls had squirreled away.” It is only a minor exaggeration to say that my grandmother spent the final years of her life thrashing in bed and gnashing her teeth over those stolen upside-down airplane stamps.
There’s a vast difference between new West Virginia royalty and old Virginia royalty, between hundreds of thousands and millions, between comfortable and rich. And for my grandmother, the Jenny Inverts embodied that difference. They were the gap between the life she had and the life she aspired to.
Long after my grandmother’s death, while poking around Tazewell on a family reunion, Amanda and Jim came face to face with the Mustard Girls after church and finally got around to clearing up the stamp mystery. The cousins were living “modestly,” Amanda reports, in an apartment. There was no trace of an inherited fortune, neither banked away nor squandered, and they had no memory of the stamps. All the Mustard Girls had was a 70-year-simmering outrage of their own: whenever he came to visit, young Jim would pee in their rain barrel, which they used for washing.
My father rebelled against the privilege he grew up with and gave up DC law for small-town academia. My aunt married a French professor and moved to Michigan. The liquidation of the limestone company in the 1990s gave everybody a nice little cushion for about 18 months. Hundreds of thousands became tens of thousands. Today, my siblings and cousins and I face ballooning mortgages and bankruptcy, impossible healthcare costs, unfundable college educations for our children, home loss, and chronic unemployment.
We have all inherited the Jenny Invert Curse in some way or another, but only my sister and I regularly speak of it aloud. Late at night, in my father’s apartment after he’s gone to sleep, we guzzle bourbon and yell about how we thought we were rich, we were raised to think we were rich, and then we turned out not to be. How somebody, sometime before us, had misplaced or squandered the fortune that should have been passed down to us. We’ve gnashed our own teeth over the Jenny Inverts for decades and even, finally, allowed ourselves to ponder the most mundane possibility of all: Maybe Granny or Betty just threw the stamp tube in the trash, later remembered or realized their worth, and then spent a lifetime blaming first each other and then, in an act of sibling reconciliation, those Mustard Girls. Nobody stole the Jenny Inverts; they were just thrown away.
Or maybe it was something else.
In 2016, the New York Times and Washington Post started writing about the Jenny Inverts. Specifically, a few that had turned up in the past couple of years and been traced back to a little-publicized theft . . . from a stamp show in 1955 . . . in Norfolk . . . Virginia.
But don’t smash your bourbon into your sister’s forehead just yet.
The digitizing of history is a cold and heartless thing. Last night, I felt flush enough to renew my subscription to Newspapers.com and searched for Luther Mustard in Pocahontas, Virginia. Here’s what came up from late 1913:
Spitting tobacco juice in the eye of an old man who was politically opposed to him, and toting a six-shooter for defense, is one of the many acts of pernicious activity in politics charged to William L. (Luther) Mustard, postmaster for the past three years at Pocahontas, Tazewell County, Virginia, in the report of a post office inspector which recommends his immediate removal.
Deriding grammar errors was of little comfort. As I went on to learn, luckily for Luther, the inspector died before any action from Washington could be taken. But my great-grandfather resigned nonetheless in early 1914. Four years before the Jenny Inverts were issued.
Maybe, I tell myself, he reclaimed his position after the 1914 scandal. Newspapers say no. Maybe he got the Jenny Inverts another way, as a customer even. Grasping at straws. Maybe it wasn’t the 1918 Jenny but another less-famous invert that I’ve come across from 1901: an upside-down train. “Plane and train—they rhyme!” my sister helpfully squeals over the phone, in a desperate bid for vindication.
Or maybe: my grandmother inherited the shame and/or indignation of her father’s forced resignation, later heard of the 1955 Norfolk theft . . . and somehow combined the two into a face-saving family myth. Did Mary and Betty create their family’s connection to the Jenny Invert legend together? To make sense of their father’s Pocahontas downfall and/or to come together in his death?
They dreamed of a lost fortune that never existed, and then the rest of us did, too.