How to debug email-related theme and plugin functionality in WordPress

Let's say you're having trouble with a WordPress theme or plugin that uses wp_mail. How can you inspect the email that wp_mail composes or verify that it is actually sending (or at least attempting to send)?

Well, one simple way is to tell WordPress to use Python's smtpd DebuggingServer to "send" email.

The DebuggingServer doesn't actually send email, so don't go checking your inbox. It's only meant to show you the email that would be sent, headers included, if it were an actual SMTP server.

Note that this guide assumes you're debugging wp_mail issues during local development.

Let's get started.

Set up the smtpd DebuggingServer

If you have Python installed (comes with Mac OS X and most distributions of Linux by default), this is the one-liner you can use to get the debugging mail server running. From the command line, run:

$ python -m smtpd -n -c DebuggingServer localhost:1025

So that you don't have to remember that command, you can add an alias to your shell profile (e.g., ~/.profile), making it super easy to run the debugging mail server at a moment's notice.

To do this, open your shell profile in your favorite text editor and add the following line:

alias mailserve='python -m smtpd -n -c DebuggingServer localhost:1025'

Save your shell profile and source it in your shell to make sure the new mailserve alias is available:

$ source ~/.profile

Note: ~/.profile is probably the most common shell profile location. If you don't have this file, you can create one by running:

$ touch ~/.profile

Keep in mind that you might already have a shell profile for your specific shell. For example, ~/.basrhc for bash or ~/.zshrc for zsh. If you have a ~/.bashrc or ~/.zshrc, you can try adding the mailserve alias to one of them instead.

Once you have the mailserve alias defined and your profile sourced, running the server is as simple as:

$ mailserve

Note: there won't be any output from running this command initially. The debugging server runs, waiting for an application to connect and attempt to send a message.

Tell WordPress to send mail via the DebuggingServer

Now, in your WordPress theme or plugin, you can add some debugging code that will tell WordPress to send email via the debugging server you have running.

To accomplish this, add the following code to your theme's functions.php or to your plugin's main file:

function phpmailer_debug_settings($phpmailer) {
    $phpmailer->Host = 'localhost';
    $phpmailer->Port = 1025;
add_action('phpmailer_init', 'phpmailer_debug_settings');

This code changes the configuration of the $phpmailer object used by wp_mail, telling it to use the SMTP server on localhost, port number 1025. If you look back at the Python command used to fire up the debugging mail server, you'll see the $phpmailer settings correspond to the arguments passed in that command:

$ python -m smtpd -n -c DebuggingServer localhost:1025

Once you have the debugging mail server running and the code above included in your theme/plugin, you can try sending mail with WordPress and see the entire message contents, SMTP headers, etc in your shell. Here's some example output:

vagrant@precise64:~$ mailserve
---------- MESSAGE FOLLOWS ----------
Date: Thu, 12 Mar 2015 16:21:54 +0000
Return-Path: <>
To: "\"Investigative News Network\"" <>
From: Ryan <>
Subject: [INN Website Contact] This is a test email subject line
Message-ID: <>
X-Priority: 3
X-Mailer: PHPMailer 5.2.7 (
X-Mailer: WP Clean-Contact (
MIME-Version: 1.0
MIME-Version: 1.0
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=UTF-8
Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit

This is the test email body.

------------ END MESSAGE ------------

Why do I need this?

This can be helpful if you're trying to track down missing parts of an email (e.g., hey, where'd my "from" address go?) or need to verify the contents or formatting of an email that your theme/plugin sends to users.

Keep in mind that, although this post describes how to use the Python smtpd DebuggingServer with WordPress, you can also use this guide with other applications as long as you can configure said applications to connect to the DebuggingServer.