The rise of the poison pen: 6 cases of anonymous hate mail in Britain
The 19th and early 20th centuries saw an explosion of malicious letters penned by anonymous authors. As Emily Cockayne reveals via six cases, these messages often reflected the fears and prejudices that stalked Britain
“Red ink is fit enough I hope ha ha.” So read the infamous first ‘Dear Boss’ letter, written in September 1888 in the aftermath of the first gruesome murders in London’s East End.
Penned in red ink and signed ‘Jack the Ripper’, it was sent to a London-based news distribution service. Hoax letters about the crimes continued to appear until 1896.
By that time, unsigned letters – or those signed with initials, symbols or a pseudonym – had become fairly common. Some were intended to unsettle the recipient; others were written to undermine a third person. Letters were sent to individuals, authority figures and even entire communities.
Most malicious anonymous letters were concerned with reputation, or were written in response to real or imagined grievances and designed to wreak revenge. Most were destroyed after receipt, but a few became the focus of investigation if they were obscene, threatening or libellous.
We can’t be entirely sure what types of people wrote anonymous letters, because we can only analyse those that were investigated, and that sample will reflect the biases, norms and preoccupations of society at the time. However, examining the letters does offer us certain clues.
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The introduction in 1840 of the pre-paid Penny Post improved the privacy of the mail, which increased still further in the 1850s with the installation of pillar boxes. In 1870, attention was drawn “to the nuisance that the new half-penny post was likely to become by mischievous persons sending obscene, slanderous, or grossly offensive remarks on the open cards”.
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Half a century later, during the interwar period, the media fixated on reports of ‘epidemic’ campaigns during a heyday of anonymous letter-writing.
Victorian fears that poor people with ill intent would be likely to send abusive anonymous mail had turned out to be unfounded. Anonymous writers were often affluent men who appeared, outwardly at least, to be respectable members of their communities.
Some messages took the form of tip-off letters, accusing officials of malpractice. In Somerset in 1846, brothers John and William Rees-Mogg (great-great-grandfather of Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg), clerks to the Guardians of the Clutton Poor Law Union, were forced to respond to an anonymous allegation sent to the Poor Law Board that the inmates of the local workhouse were fed dripping in place of butter. They didn’t deny the allegation.
Yet, as the six cases on the following pages show – involving everything from allegations of cattle mutilation to malicious warnings of the imminent implosion of a bank – other letters were more troubling still...
A slur on ‘spunging sisters’
In 1829, a Georgian gossip cast aspersions on a former artillery officer and his middle-aged siblings.
When sent directly to the target, anonymous letters often tapped into personal shame, identifying a recipient’s secrets. In May 1829, Lt Colonel William Granville Eliot, formerly a major in the Royal Regiment of Artillery, received this missive:
Sir, A Gentleman on Blackheath is just returned from Brighton where he heard a Certain Lady spread a report that your sisters two maiden Ladies were kept out of Charity by General Mann and that your Family endeavours to marry into Familys to live and spunge on them.
Gossip about Eliot was already circulating in fashionable circles, declaring that his sisters were freeloading. In passing on this gossip, the letter reinforced and amplified it.
It’s possible that the author overheard Anne gossiping, and wanted to deepen Eliot’s shame
The “Certain Lady” mentioned in the letter was probably Eliot’s second wife, Anne, with whom he was engaged in a legal battle about a pre-nuptial arrangement.
General Mann was the father of Eliot’s first wife, Harriet, who had died in 1812. As for the “maiden Ladies”, they were Eliot’s sisters, both now accused of spunging.
So what would drive someone to write such a letter? It’s possible that the anonymous author overheard Anne gossiping, and picked up a pen either because they felt duty-bound to inform Eliot so he could take measures to protect his reputation – or because they wanted to deepen Eliot’s shame.
Whatever the motivation, the letter speaks to the importance of family honour in polite society in the late Georgian period, when anonymous letters could undermine carefully cultivated constructions of selves. Knowing this, anonymous letter writers used it for their advantage or pleasure.
Beware being buried alive!
A short, splotchy note suggested that a woman’s son, believed dead, should not yet be interred.
Perhaps in a “trance”
or Coma, don’t bury yet –
the other Curate was reported dead – some time
This note was sent in 1894 to Mary Cokayne, wife of the famous genealogist George, who received it a few days after her son, Morton, had died. The letter implies that Morton, an assistant curate, might have been buried alive.
Why send such a note to a grieving mother? Once that moral shock has registered, perhaps the next question is not “Who wrote it?” but “To what other curate does it refer?”
Then there are fundamental questions about the document itself. Why did Mary Cokayne retain it? It must have brought her sadness. Was it kept as evidence, in case more letters arrived?
We don’t know who wrote this letter, so can only guess at their motivation, but it is likely that it was sent by someone with a grievance against Mary or her family, or who was somehow invested in local religious matters.
There are similarities here with modern-day ‘flamers’ – people who post insults online, hoping to inflame readers – and to people who, posting anonymously on online memorial pages, taunt the bereaved.
Was this letter to Mary a warning, or was it actually a threat – a suggestion that some family history was known to the writer, and could be exposed? Studying such anonymous letters might give clues about how online abuse and trolling could develop, and how it can be managed.
Letters addressed to an Indian-born clergyman’s family led to his son’s conviction for a spate of livestock mutilations.
In the last decades of the Victorian era, a nightmarish volley of letters, likely fuelled by racism, circulated in the South Staffordshire mining village of Great Wyrley. The episode reveals the paranoia that such letters could provoke – and how investigations could provide a cover for prejudice.
In 1888, the household of Shapurji Edalji, an Indian-born clergyman, received the first of hundreds of anonymous and pseudonymous letters, with others sent to families nearby. Suspecting the vicar’s son, George Edalji – then a schoolboy – of penning the letters, police set watch on the vicarage. One letter sent to the Edaljis’ teenage maid explicitly referred to her “Black master”. From 1893, the letters’ tone became darker: some contained religious rants, while others included death threats.
Some intimated that the local police were in on a conspiracy. One letter began: “My Dear Shapurji, — I have great pleasure in informing you that it is now our intention to renew the persecution of the Vicar!!! (shame) of Great Wyrley.” Written in the first-person plural, some letters implied a larger conspiracy or a “gang of scoundrels”.
In 1903, the mutilations of several cattle, sheep and horses was dubbed the ‘Great Wyrley Outrages’. By then, George was 27, and working as a solicitor in Birmingham, but was drawn back into village affairs.
An anonymous postcard sent from Wolverhampton in August 1903 advised him to go back to his “old game of writing anonymous letters and killing cows”. This clearly reflected local sentiment and, though he had solid alibis, an investigation focused on George as the prime suspect for the attacks. He was tried, convicted on weak evidential grounds and sentenced to seven years.
Arthur Conan Doyle, interested in the case, employed a handwriting expert to prove George’s innocence. The police, presumably annoyed at what they viewed as the author’s meddling in the case, instigated a conspiracy against him, involving fabricated pseudonymous letters.
Captain Anson of the Staffordshire Constabulary wrote one fictitious letter, signing it “A Nark”, and boasting of “a vein of humour running through it which I fear was quite lost on the somewhat obtuse recipient”. George was released in 1906, and pardoned the next year.
Breaking the bank
When a typewritten letter warned of imminent bank collapse, account holders were consumed by a mass panic.
New technology enabled letters to be produced without writing by hand. In November 1910, somebody typed a warning to depositors at a London bank.
Signing their letter “A Friend”, the author wrote: “I beg you to withdraw your deposit from Birkbeck Bank, as I have heard on sound authority that the company are in very low water and there may be a run on the bank any day.” As a result, anxious account holders rushed to withdraw their savings, forming lengthy queues at the bank.
Using a typewriter was by no means an infallible method for evading identification. A machine’s alignment and the condition of the type created consistent artefacts on a typed page that could be used a evidence of authorship – provided the typewriter could be found and linked to an individual.
Experts deduced that the Birkbeck Bank letter had been typed on a four- or five-year old Remington No 7 typewriter, with a carriage “running sluggishly”. The type-bar bearing the ‘o’ was bent or loose, so the letter was not flush with other characters, and the upper-case C was ‘worn’. Despite these clues, and a £200 reward for information, nobody was charged. The Bickbeck Bank went into receivership in the summer of 1911.
Such tip-offs might have reflected genuine concern, but also might indicate a malicious competitiveness that undermined dealings in the banking industry at the time.
Loathe thy neighbour
Several women were convicted of sending obscene letters to neighbours – who actually penned the decoy notes themselves.
Before the 1910s, obscene or threatening letters had been primarily associated with men. Then a shift occurred, and ‘poison pen’ letters written by women became a focus of media and police obsession. This wasn’t because more were being written by women, but because they were easier to prosecute (having fewer resources and less access to legal support) and such actions were deemed more scandalous, contrary to societal expectations of femininity and unladylike behaviour.
When such letters proved to have been sent by the recipients’ neighbours, their perceived corrosive impact on the community only increased. Letters that included explicit language and threats baffled investigators and excited reporters, especially when women also sent decoy letters to themselves, designed to frame another person.
In general, female suspects faced greater scrutiny than their male counterparts. One, Annie Tugwell from Sutton, was watched by three policemen over the course of three weeks in 1913, each positioned at a different vantage point, in an extravagant undercover operation.
A notable feature of decoy cases was a police reluctance to look beyond an initial suspect – usually a woman deemed ‘rough’. In the 1910s, letters written by (and to) Eliza Woodman in Redhill, Surrey framed her neighbour, Mary Johnson, who was twice falsely convicted of libel and hounded out of town.
A similar scenario played out in the seaside resort of Littlehampton in the 1920s, when Rose Gooding was accused by her neighbour, Edith Swan, of sending obscene letters. Police refused to believe that the respectable-seeming Swan could write such “indescribably filthy letters”, including some sent to herself. Gooding, perceived as having looser morals, was twice falsely convicted, in 1920 and 1921.
Though new evidence came to light, an appeal failed. Eventually, an inspector from Scotland Yard intervened. He considered Swan, the only other viable suspect, to be “peculiar”. A surveillance operation was launched, involving marked stamps, a hidden mirror in a postbox, and a female police officer hiding in a shed. Searches uncovered blotting paper that incriminated Swan, who was found guilty in 1923. Yet Gooding still faced hostility, and was stigmatised by the community.
Often, the attribution of poison pen letters was the result of societal biases, gender expectations and the notion of the ‘poisonous’ woman. Johnson and Gooding were both swiftly found guilty of crimes they did not commit, simply because they seemed less respectable than their neighbours.
Victims of foul play
Footballers were among the celebrities who received anonymous hate mail from over-passionate fans in the 1930s.
The interwar years saw a rise in hate mail sent to celebrities including the car manufacturer Herbert Austin and the author and campaigner Marie Stopes, as well as prominent footballers.
A number of Bolton Wanderers players received anonymous letters from over-invested fans. Many were weeded out before reaching their intended recipients – but not all.
In December 1937 centre-forward Jack Milson sought a transfer, believing that the crowd was “not with him” after crank letters attacked his “type of play”. And after his transfer to Blackpool in 1939, Ephraim ‘Jock Dodds, formerly of Sheffield United, wrote of anonymous letters he’d received.
Players were not the only people singled out for attack – management was also targeted. The vice-chairman of Torquay United resigned from his seat on the board in November 1937 following a year-long campaign of letters whose authors disguised their identities by typing, writing in block letters or using pencil. One, signed ‘Shareholder’, asked: “Any wonder the team don’t win with you and them drinking?”
In 1938, Sir Francis Joseph, chairman of Stoke City, observed that “anonymous letters and postcards pour in when matches are lost”. Football was an important part of community life, and fans invested much emotion their local teams.
Some letters sent to clubs reveal a sense of community involvement and a need to feel part of decision-making, but also ultimately reveal a marginality and powerlessness in some parts of interwar society.
During the 1930s, attention increasingly focused on the behaviour of celebrities. When stories about them were reported by the national press, many started to receive anonymous letters. These stories demonstrate the interplay between the national media and anonymous writers – and how one could feed off the other.
This article was first published in the October 2023 issue of BBC History Magazine
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