Penning Poison: A History of Anonymous Letters 
by Emily Cockayne.
Oxford, 299 pp., £20, September, 978 0 19 879505 6
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Years ago​ , a poison pen letter dropped onto my doormat. It was a rambling affair in uneven capitals, accusing me of all sorts of lurid wickedness. As no threats were involved and the allegations were evidently crazy, I put it straight in the bin and tried to forget about it. But I was unsettled. Who had written it? How had they found my address? Why me? Was worse to follow? Nothing else happened, but for a long time I was careful about locking doors and windows at night, and faintly uneasy when out walking alone.

Sending venom through the post, rather than using email or social media, today appears an old-fashioned gesture. The laptop provides easier options. Yet abusive letters haven’t altogether gone away, and receiving one now might feel even more uncomfortable. You can reply to an email if you choose, or entangle yourself in a Twitterstorm. Or you can block an unwelcome sender. Anonymous letters are different. You can react, but you can’t respond. Whatever the medium, the corrosive sense of disquiet generated by the knowledge that you have unknown enemies lurking in the shadows hasn’t changed. Such attacks may have serious consequences, and this is formally recognised. Like their numberless digital counterparts, assaults on paper are a criminal offence. The Malicious Communications Act (1988) makes it illegal in England and Wales to ‘send or deliver letters or other articles for the purpose of causing distress or anxiety’. But perpetrators are difficult to identify, and successful prosecutions are rare. Victims often feel miserably powerless.

Poison pen letters have a long history, and much of it will never be known. Most recipients just want to get rid of them, as I did. Perhaps they have been more widespread than we suppose, and their effects more pervasive. But some letters have been preserved – either by chance, or because they became a matter of public interest, or evidence in a criminal trial. They have much to reveal about the preoccupations that lay behind the behaviour of their authors and recipients. Emily Cockayne’s history focuses on anonymous letters written between 1760 and 1939. This makes the title of her book slightly misleading, since the phrase ‘poison pen’ didn’t enter the language until 1911 (when it appeared in a headline in a Maryland newspaper), and it isn’t quite the right term for some of the correspondence examined here.

Cockayne’s early examples include letters written to expose the sexual peccadilloes of wealthy individuals, often with the primary purpose of extorting money. Blackmail and personal animosity occupy the same toxic territory. Patiently unravelling the details of these long-forgotten scandals, Cockayne follows the convolutions of self-interested gossip that could extend over generations. Family secrets mattered, especially if they involved illegitimate offspring. The Countess of Coventry was exasperated to receive a letter from ‘a well-wisher’ in 1815, referring to ‘the gaiety of your husband’, whose servant-girl mistress was to bear a son. The countess’s acerbic note on her copy of the letter, referring to ‘pecuniary sacrifices from his fondness & his folly’, was prophetic: the boy, William, received financial support for years to come. Cockayne suggests that the philandering earl may not, in fact, have been William’s father: perhaps it was Frederick, a dashing naval officer and a favoured nephew of the countess. Despite her determined efforts, unanswered questions remain. More important than the precise truth was that such secrets had currency, and anonymous letters could endanger the reputation of wealthy families in disturbing ways. They were a reminder that high social standing was never entirely secure.

Other letters – to industrialists, mine-owners, landed gentry – were designed to unmask corruption, or secure the means to escape poverty. Hopeless rage smoulders throughout these communications. In 1797, William Brown of Benton, Northumberland was sent a menacing letter from somebody claiming to be a former servant, ‘turned away for no reason’, asking that £20 be left under a stone in Tynemouth: ‘me famalry are now starving the Butchers will let them have no more meet, the Bakers will let them have no more bread what must we do, I’m resolved now to go to Immirica.’ The letter was published in the London Gazette, since Brown had nothing to lose from making it public. We don’t know the circumstance of the grievance or the outcome of the demand, but it seems unlikely that the author arrived safely in America on the strength of what Cockayne calls the ‘language of despair’.

These bitter letters might be seen as ‘weapons of the weak’, explained by changing economic circumstances that eroded relations between the classes. E.P. Thompson saw them as ‘a characteristic form of social protest’, their anonymity serving as a measure of protection. Many threatened murder, or arson. Cockayne resists Thompson’s analysis, urging the need for a more personalised approach that takes into account local conditions and acknowledges that the powerful, too, can manipulate anonymity to further their own purposes. Generalisations don’t always work well in this complex field of research.

The most eloquent anonymous letters from the period are directed to bodies of authority rather than individuals and speak of shared distress. One such letter was dropped in the high street of Hereford in 1767, addressed to the city magistrates. It was signed by the ‘3 parts starved’:

the dear times has almost Ruined me & hundred beside are Starveing for want of Bread: ’dis is give notice that if you do not make the farmers bring the Grain to Markey and Sell it a 5 Shillins a Bushell that we shall destroy both them and you theirs and yours by soord or gun … We Are above 7 hundred Cancerned And as Many more redy to Assist so looke to it & do it Spedile.

Whether or not hundreds were involved in this potential insurrection (probably not), the tone of furious desperation is unmistakeable.

Although the arrival of the radical printing presses in the 1830s tended to displace letters of this kind, other forms of anonymous letter-writing developed as literacy spread through the population and postal services began to improve. The newly professionalised Post Office, optimistically described by Rowland Hill in 1837 as an ‘engine of civilisation’, introduced convenient pillar boxes and prepaid stamps, helping secretive senders to conceal their identity. The number of unsigned letters expanded with the increasing volume of postal traffic. Denunciations of sexual aberration featured as much as ever, but religious tensions were also a frequent trigger. In the 1860s the High Church principles of Thomas Keble (brother of John Keble, a leading figure in the Tractarian movement) became unpopular in his Gloucestershire parish, producing resentment that might have exacerbated opposition to the enclosure of local common land. In 1864, a disturbing letter arrived for John Edward Dorington, lord of the manor, and his son:

you are robing the working class of the Parish and their offsprings for ever in fact you are not Gentlemen but robbers and vagabonds, however if it is enclosed you shall never receive any benefit thereby as there are several on the lookout for you both and so help my God I am on the Alert for you and if I have one chance of you I will shoot you as dead as mortal.

Perhaps religious discontent had a part to play in this outburst; perhaps not. The Doringtons, at any rate, came to no harm.

Cockayne’s chosen tactic, shared with many contemporary social historians, is to find eye-catching ways of scrutinising the underside of history. Hubbub: Filth, Noise and Stench in England 1600-1770, published in 2007, explored the noisome detritus of urban life (‘not for the squeamish’, as her publishers warned); Cheek by Jowl: A History of Neighbours (2012) was an enjoyable account of the ways in which those who share space can destroy the peace (piano practice, noisy pets, giant leylandii) or build communities (gossip, childcare, consolation). Cockayne is always inclined to sympathise with those who might be seen as underdogs. Her study of recycling – Rummage: A History of the Things We Have Reused, Recycled and Refused to Let Go (2020) – clarified her purpose: ‘The vanquished and the forgotten have value of their own. More recently, neglected people have finally received more attention from historians, and in parallel, things previously deemed irrelevant or commonplace have acquired new significance.’ Her method is at its most effective in the later chapters of this new book, where individual stories are more fully evidenced. But as examples of scandalous imbroglios and venomous relationships proliferate, the outlines of her argument fade into the seething mass of malevolence and damage she uncovers. Her earlier work gives a broadly positive view of human interactions, but it’s hard to find anything uplifting in these stories.

Recognisable patterns​ of activity emerge from this crowded narrative. Some letter-writers sought to prompt inquiries into wrongdoing, occasionally resulting in arrests or convictions that otherwise wouldn’t have taken place. Ethel Major, the notorious ‘Corned Beef Killer’, was hanged in 1934 after an anonymous tip-off (signed ‘Fairplay’) accused her of poisoning her husband. More frequently, the letter itself was the crime. Colonel John Alexander Forbes was committed to trial in 1859 for sending material ‘of the most filthy and obscene character’ to Adelaide Fenton, a fashionable lady of Bath who was ‘not in the least acquainted’ with him, charged with the intention to ‘corrupt and debauch’ her. Colonel Forbes fled to France, and a £50 reward was offered for information leading to his arrest, together with a description: ‘about 64 years of age, five feet nine or ten high, florid complexion, stout made, grey hair, thick bushy whiskers, which he sometimes dyes, walks very erect, with a short quick step, usually wears a silk hat with flat brim placed much over his eyes’. This is a man who would have been quite at home in the pages of Thackeray.

Only the most resolute investigations could pin down the identity of some of the men who sent obscene messages to women, and the transgressors didn’t always turn out to be the likeliest of suspects. Frederick Mason and Percy Farnfield were both respectable and reasonably well-to-do, and their offensive correspondence seemed inexplicable to observers. Mason, whose lascivious letter-writing was unusually prolific, was identified because he was careless. His letters were all written in the same hand and sent from the same Ipswich post office, allowing the police to catch him as he was about to dispatch five at once, all addressed to different women. Mason claimed not to have been ‘master of his own mind’, though he seems to have been functioning perfectly well as a prosperous engineer while all this was going on. In 1877, when he was tried, it emerged that he had been upsetting and unnerving local women for almost ten years. Percy Farnfield, a schoolteacher, was similarly indiscriminate in his harassment, making a nuisance of himself to numerous women and using the telephone (a new method of generating alarm) alongside his lewd postcards and letters. ‘I don’t know why I did it,’ he told his wife. He was convicted in 1918 and sentenced to custody as a ‘criminal lunatic’ in Brixton.

The letter-writers who figure in the first part of Cockayne’s survey were predominantly male, but as women gained access to literacy and writing materials, they appear more prominently in the public record of malicious mail. If discovered, women were often subjected to disproportionately harsh treatment. Cockayne identifies the influence of misogyny: ‘Women were thought to be weak, or evil-minded, but were probably actually bored, confused, or frustrated, seeking out alternative lives through their letters.’ The dogmas of social class also crept into legal responses to poison pen letters, as in the case of the Littlehampton Libels, a particularly dispiriting demonstration of prejudice at work.* Edith Swan and Rose Gooding were neighbours who quarrelled, a disagreement which began in 1920 and led to a spate of abusive letters, most of them sent to Swan. In 1921, Swan launched a private prosecution for criminal libel against Gooding. Despite the lack of solid evidence, Gooding was found guilty, and went to prison. Further letters followed on her release, and Gooding was imprisoned again. In fact Swan had written all the letters. Because she was seen as a respectable woman, while Gooding was thought to be a rough character who had been heard to swear, judge and jury felt that the letters must have been written by Gooding. How could Swan, apparently modest and neat, have come up with such outrageously dirty words and phrases? Gooding’s convictions were eventually overturned, and in 1923 Swan (who had continued to produce a stream of poisonous letters) was tried, convicted and sent down for twelve months. The extent to which perceptions of class and gender had conspired to obstruct rational scrutiny of the evidence is sobering.

In practice such evidence was hard to come by and frequently unreliable. Hand-writing experts seemed to add a degree of certainty to the legal process, but they make a poor showing in Cockayne’s survey. In the second half of the 19th century they were called on with increasing regularity, despite lingering doubts about the value of their work. Confident and assertive, they were far from dependable. ‘I very deeply regret the error,’ Thomas Henry Gurrin said, after it was shown that his mistakes had sent an innocent man to prison. The arrival of the typewriter made a difference to the sources of potential evidence, and a careful examination of typed pages could reveal the condition of the type, broken serifs, clogged-up letters or misalignments. But that only proved useful if the machine could be found and an indisputable association with the suspect established. The evidence underpinning prosecutions was often wobbly, and judgment susceptible to the weight of social prejudices and assumptions.

Racism was a driving force in the case of Shapurji Edalji, an Indian-born clergyman, and his son George. In 1888, contemptuous and threatening letters began to arrive at the Edalji family’s vicarage, and the persecution continued for the next seven years. The offender – or offenders, for more than one person may have been involved – was never identified. Soon, the Edaljis were in trouble again. Cattle, sheep and horses in the area had been mutilated (the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’) and an anonymous note pointed to George, who had become a solicitor in Birmingham, as their attacker. There was no firm evidence, but he was nevertheless convicted and sent to prison. Gurrin’s dubious handwriting ‘expertise’ played a central part in the trial. George’s plight attracted much public interest, and his subsequent pardon was in part the result of an energetic campaign for justice organised by Arthur Conan Doyle. George had been in prison for three years, and was awarded no compensation. The injustice he endured is the subject of Julian Barnes’s novel Arthur & George (2005).

Poison pen letters as covert expressions of hatred are a rich source of subject matter for fiction and they feature in any number of crime novels: Dorothy Sayers’s Gaudy Night (1935) and Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942) are distinguished examples. Richard Llewellyn’s 1937 play Poison Pen (later a film with Flora Robson) proved popular. Even Enid Blyton took advantage of them. In The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters (1946), a troublemaker intent on wrecking the contentment of a quiet village is no match for the Find-Outers – five enterprising children and their dog, Buster. The plot of John Lanchester’s Capital (2012) turns on a series of disconcerting postcards sent to the wealthy inhabitants of a prosperous South London street: ‘I want what you have.’ Instability is both reflected and created by worrying reminders of the predators who may be watching our lives.

But there was nothing fictional about the epidemic of poison pen letters that hit in the 1930s, or its consequences. In 1930, the secretary of a sports club killed himself after an anonymous letter had suggested that there was a problem with the club’s funds. A year later, a retired major also took his own life, apparently as a result of receiving ‘scurrilous anonymous postcards’. Suspected offenders could be equally devastated. In 1936, a farmer’s wife in Cornwall heard that local gossip was accusing her of writing poison pen letters. Evidence suggests that she was innocent, but she too killed herself. Her last words: ‘I never wrote those letters.’

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