It was a warm Florida morning in October, 2001 when Megan Merritt got the letter.
A volunteer at Planned Parenthood, it was Merritt’s job to sift through the mail each day, at a time when Americans were developing a pathological fear of envelopes.
That October 5th, a Florida photojournalist had died after handling an anthrax-contaminated letter in his company’s newsroom.
Since then, anthrax letters had been recovered from NBC and the office of the Senate Majority Leader. The FBI was investigating a possible bio-terror plot.
So when Merritt opened the official-looking envelope marked “Time Sensitive, US Marshals Service” to find it full of white powder, she was already primed to believe the worst.
To believe she was now the latest anthrax victim.
Yet Merritt wasn’t destined to become a character in the tale of America’s deadliest bioterror attack.
Instead, it would be her fate to star in a story that – in its own way – is far stranger. A story that, to this day, costs the government millions each year.
The story of America’s fake anthrax letters.
It’s unknown who first came up with the idea of sprinkling white powder into an envelope and calling it anthrax, but the hoaxes go back a long way.
Type some combination of these keywords into Google, and you’ll find articles from as early as 1998 about fake bioweapon letters.
But it would only be after September 18, 2001 that these hoaxes became a national nightmare; a costly, unnerving threat authorities can’t stamp out.
That’s because September 18 was the day the first real anthrax letters were dropped in a mailbox, kickstarting an new era of American paranoia.
For those who didn’t live through them, it can be hard to imagine the intensity of those fall weeks.
Although the anthrax letters would only kill 5 people, the threat of germ warfare so soon after 9/11 caused the nation to suffer a collective meltdown.
In New York City, rumors of white powder on the subway paralyzed the transit system. Elsewhere, a United Airlines flight was grounded after a passenger opened a card containing confetti.
Across the country, hazmat teams were called in to schools and workplaces to test everything from chalk residue to dust. As the Christian Science Monitor wrote:
“While not nearly as devastating as the Sept. 11 attacks, the anthrax cases have been arguably more powerful in getting under Americans’ skin.”
It wasn’t long before the nation’s crazies began to take notice.
That October, 45-year old Clayton Waagner checked into an Atlanta hotel armed with a bag of flour and a stack of envelopes.
An anti-abortion extremist, Waagner had been on the run since escaping a maximum security jail in Illinois half a year earlier.
As news of the first anthrax infections began to filter through, he wrote out the addresses of 285 abortion clinics and sent each one a teaspoon of white powder.
It was one of these letters Megan Merritt opened in Florida just days later, causing her to fear for her life.
Remarkably, Merritt was one of the luckier ones. A hazmat team tested the powder that same day and announced it was harmless.
When Waagner mailed his next batch of 269 white powder letters, he mixed in a chemical agent known to cause false positives in anthrax tests.
The result was dozens of innocent people, convinced they were going to die.
By the time he was finally caught that November, Waagner had mailed over 500 letters, and left scores of abortion clinic workers traumatized.
But while Waagner remains the most-prolific anthrax hoaxer in US history, he’s far from the only one.
During fall of 2001 – when real anthrax letters were still killing people – the FBI estimated an average of 637 hoaxes were mailed every single day.
Although the numbers subsequently declined, they’ve remained at crazy levels ever since.
When Slate investigated the phenomenon in 2012, they found 800 white powder letters were still being logged every single year.
In our own time, it’s estimated that fake anthrax still causes notable emergencies on average once every week.
The question is: why? Why do people still mail white powder two decades after Clayton Waagner was arrested for it?
The answer is depressingly simple: money.
Aside from a phoned-in bomb threat, hoax anthrax may be the cheapest, easiest way to frighten your enemies.
As Waagner himself remarked of his faux-terror campaign:
“Considering that the whole thing, including driving, cost less than $300, it was an extremely successful effort.”
And, unlike Waagner, most of those sending fake anthrax never get caught.
Of the 5,800 white powder letters intercepted by U.S. postal inspectors in 2007 and 2008, slightly over one percent resulted in an arrest.
Those who do get caught are usually extreme repeat offenders.
During the 2008 Financial Crisis, Richard Goyette mailed white powder to 53 branches of a bank he believed had screwed him over, causing hundreds of employees to be evacuated.
Two years later, Marc Keyser was sentenced to 51 months for mailing 120 packages of sugar marked “anthrax”.
In Keyser’s case, the 70-year old author was trying to promote a book he’d self-published about the risk of another bioterror attack using the mail.
When it came time to appeal, he argued his letters fell under protected speech as defined by the First Amendment.
The judges didn’t agree.
Perhaps more sympathetic is the story of Terry Olson.
An unemployed Utah man, Olson was convicted in 2002 of mailing anthrax to himself.
Depressed and seeking attention, Olson had filled an envelope with white powder, shown it to his neighbor and said:
“I think someone’s trying to scare me with anthrax”.
For this stunt, he got nearly 8 months in jail.
Still, guys like Olson, Goyette, Keyser, and Waagner are in the minority, in that their stories made national headlines.
Most fake anthrax mailings barely break the local news.
Every year, for example, the IRS receives a handful of envelopes filled with white powder at filing time.
Prisons also have a problem. Not just from disgruntled relatives trying to scare jailers, but from inmates themselves, who sometimes see anthrax hoaxes as the quickest way to get transferred to comfier federal prisons.
Yet while many of these hoaxes go underreported, that doesn’t mean they don’t have an impact.
For both victims and the state, the costs of fake anthrax can be painful and lasting.
Let’s imagine for a moment that you open a letter today and – like poor Megan Merritt – find yourself doused with white powder.
Despite the astronomically overwhelming odds that it’s harmless, chances are you’ll have a hard time convincing your brain of that.
People exposed to hoax letters often develop psychosomatic symptoms of anthrax infection, creating a vicious cycle where they become convinced they’re dying.
While a hazmat team can do a field test to try and rule out anthrax, conclusive results can take 48 hours to come back from the nearest lab.
Not surprisingly, many targets of white powder letters have called the experience “life-changing”.
Between 2016 and 2019, 15 female politicians in the UK were targeted by a spree of anthrax hoaxes.
At least one quit her job due to the experience, while several others reported ongoing issues with anxiety and panic.
From the government’s perspective, the costs may be less personal, but still excessive.
Every time the FBI’s WMD Directorate responds to an envelope filled with white powder, the bill comes to tens of thousands of dollars.
In the worst cases, entire buildings may have to be evacuated and dozens of people hospitalized, leading to hundreds of thousands more lost to the economy.
The obvious solution would be to stop responding to these threats. To accept that America has suffered only five fatalities from anthrax terrorism in history and try to move on.
But that would be as impossible as allowing decent-sized containers of liquids back on airplanes.
Since fall, 2001 it’s estimated that over $50 billion has been spent to improve bioterror defenses.
In all that time, the closest there’s been to another Amerithrax was when two people separately mailed the poison ricin to Barack Obama in 2013.
Both ricin attacks failed to sicken anyone.
Yet while actual deaths linked to white powder envelopes stubbornly remain at zero, it seems likely hoax mailings will cause problems for the foreseeable future.
The last half-decade alone has seen anthrax scares shut down the New York Opera; close several mosques in London; force the evacuation of Borussia Dortmund soccer team’s HQ in Germany; and cause security alerts everywhere from Israel’s embassies to Britain’s House of Commons.
Meanwhile prominent figures like Megan Markhle, Donald Trump Jr., former British PM Theresa May, and Dr. Anthony Faucci have all been targeted by hoax letters.
To give some sense of the frequency of these mailings; during time it took to research and write this video’s script, seven NYC schools received white powder letters.
By the time this video is produced and uploaded, it’s likely there will be dozens more people like Megan Merritt out there – terrified that the letter they just opened may be their last.
In its own way, hoaxers’ ongoing fascination with white powder threats shows just how potent the 2001 anthrax attacks were; how deeply they dug into America’s psyche.
When all manner of terrorist bombings and shootings have been consigned to history, we may find that it was a teaspoon of dried spores placed in envelopes one long ago September day that had the greatest psychological impact of all.