PRELUDE: The Box

Wedged between two buildings in the Financial District of Manhattan—namely 13 and 15 Stone Street—exists a sliver of a property that officially stands as 13½ Stone Street.

Roughly four feet wide and composed of a colonial stone running the space between the buildings, capped off at thirty feet above the ground, this property serves no apparent purpose but to hold an unremarkable cast-iron Edwardian mailbox.

The Box has no ornaments, no distinguishing characteristics other than a large envelope slot, and there is no door or key to retrieve the mail once it is deposited.

Behind The Box, a solid wedge of stone and mortar.

The deed on this minuscule urban mystery dates back to Dutch colonial times, and the taxes on it have been punctually paid by the firm of Lusk and Jarndyce since 1822. Before that time, its property records exist only in reference, but all are in perfect legal standing.

The oldest recorded mention of The Box goes back indeed to a pamphlet published in what was then named New Amsterdam. The most complete narrative of the vicissitudes of Jan Katadreuffe and his Final, Virtuous Elevation to the Kingdom of Our Lord.

In said pamphlet—published by Long and Blackwood, 1763, Folio, four pages—a wealthy spice merchant makes a deal with a demon in order to secure the arrival of his ships and cargo.

The ships are delivered, but henceforth a foul spirit runs amok and tortures the merchant—every nightfall—biting him savagely, scratching his back, and riding his body like a jockey while the wretched soul screams in abject misery and commits sinful acts of great violence.

In the drama, a layman, trying to help, tells a learned priest of a possible solution:

“…The iron box on High street, your woes is there to greet. Sealed letter bears the Blackwood name. And in a forthnight thee shall meet…”

The priest praises the Lord and the sacraments as the only solution to pursue. Katadreuffe pays for a litany of masses and is liberated from his torment only hours before passing away, purified.

A small, unassuming gravestone memorializes the passing of Katadreuffe. On the Rector Street side of Trinity Church, the tombstone reads:

HERE LIES THE BODY OF JAN KATADREUFFE, LATE MERCHANT OF SPICE AND WOODS WHO DEPARTED THIS LIFE THE 16TH DAY OF OCTOBER 1709—AGED 42 YEARS. BEHOLD AND SEE THEE PASS BY. AS THEE ARE NOW, SO ONCE WAS ME, AS I AM, YOU SOON WILL BE. PREPARE FOR DEATH AND FOLLOW ME…

Over the centuries, 13½ Stone Street has withstood many a litigation: zoning, corporate, and otherwise. Every one of these legal battles has been won at great expense. And so The Box stands: a mystery standing in plain sight. Most people pass by without even giving it another glance.

A decade ago, a large insurance company across the street installed three security cameras. A dedicated observer could attest that, even though a few letters arrive to The Box—approximately one every three weeks or so—no one ever picks them up, nor does the mailbox ever overflow.

Of this small mystery, one thing has been corroborated time and again over the decades: Every letter that arrives at The Box is a letter of urgent need—a desperate call for help—and every single envelope carries the same name:

Hugo Blackwood, Esq.