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For my current genealogical research, I'm interested in how telegrams were sent inside the USA, in the 1890's through 1920's. I do not have copies of any actual telegrams that were sent or received; my question is just to understand what was possible at the time.

I'm assuming that the sender was always identified to the receiver of the telegram. Please correct me if this is not so.

Did telegraph operators simply accept whatever sender name was provided, without requiring any ID?

For example, to notify a woman of the death of her husband, could someone (such as her still-living husband!) send her a telegram informing her of his death, and provide an arbitrary sender name: her husband's employer, coworker, friend, or a complete stranger?

To my understanding, in that era, sending a telegram was an in-person activity, requiring the sender to visit the telegraph office and orally provide the text of the telegram, the recipient, and the sender's name. This is in marked contrast to anonymously dropping a letter or postcard in an outgoing mailbox. In a small town, the telegraph operator may personally recognize the sender; would they allow the sender to use a different name on the telegram?

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    Why would you expect a telegraph operator to require a greater proof of identity than the postal service? You can send a letter or postcard without any id (even now).
    – Steve Bird
    Jul 24, 2023 at 10:37
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    I suspect that if you were up to no good, you'd avoid using a telegraph office where you were personally known. However, being known to the operator introduces an ethical element to the operation that would vary case-by-case (some operators might decline, others might mind their own business and send it anyway). Jul 24, 2023 at 11:36
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    But why would the telegraph operator ask for ID? The transaction was to accept cash and send a telegraph. I don't have any evidence either way, but I'm skeptical that the telegraph operator was trained to authenticate customers. And how often would the customer have any kind of ID? I think it is unlikely that the operator would send a known false telegram, but I also think anyone intending to spoof would go to an office where they are known.
    – MCW
    Jul 24, 2023 at 11:38
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    On the use / possession of ID (covering the period of your question) have a look at the answers and comments for these two questions: What sort(s) of identification were used before driver's licenses were issued in the US? and How would an American returning from international travel prove his citizenship before 1914?. Jul 24, 2023 at 12:48
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    @MAGolding when used as a verb, spoof means "to deceive". Using a false identity is a commonly understood meaning when referring to digital communications such as email. It's somewhat of an anachronism to apply it to telegrams (in that there really isn't anything to "spoof" with a telegram), but I don't see anything wrong with it semantically.
    – PC Luddite
    Jul 26, 2023 at 12:37

1 Answer 1

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There is nothing to "spoof".

Note that a telegram did not have a "sender" field to begin with. There was the office of origin, the address of the recipient, and the message. That message may or may not include the name of the sender. It was customary (so the recipient did know who that message came from), but it was not a formal requirement. Neither was it a requirement that the telegram needed to be plain text. You could conceivably send a telegram in some kind of code that would identify you to the recipient, but did not include any sender information that would be generally intelligible.

If you wanted the last word in your message to be "Hans", that was up to you and none of the operator's business, really. You might be sending the message for someone else for all the operator knew.

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    For more info, read up on Commercial codes for telegraph. These were cost-saving codes, rather than privacy or security codes, and a number were widely published. The words could be made up for the purpose, and often were, but had to be pronounceable both to minimize transmission errors by the telegraph operators and to avoid a steep surcharge. Jul 24, 2023 at 15:36
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    It's a little misleading to say "Neither was it a requirement that the telegram needed to be plain text." Telegraphs were transmitted in something closer to text-message speak, and codes slowed them down. So different telegraph companies developed different requirements around message structure: If you got too clever, you paid significantly higher costs.
    – fectin
    Jul 24, 2023 at 19:17
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    Of course using code would be a nuisance to the operator (and prone to transmission errors as well). My point was that "sender ID" was purely optional to begin with.
    – DevSolar
    Jul 24, 2023 at 23:40
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    Regarding MITM attacks: Extremely difficult. Telegraph operators physically tapped the send key in morse, and you very quickly begin to recognize the "hand" of another operator. Even if you could splice into the cable or whatever, the receiving office would immediately know that the person tapping out the message wasn't the usual operator from the sending office.
    – gregomni
    Jul 25, 2023 at 22:18
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    @Indigenuity was optical telegraph but we have an actual man in the middle attack by the Blanc brothers andreafortuna.org/2018/06/15/… Jul 26, 2023 at 11:03

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