The great Victorian letter swindle

Royals, politicians and famous authors were all duped by begging-letter writers in the 19th century. Antonio Melechi probes a precursor of today's email scams...

A letter-writer depicted by Janez Subic, c1878. (© Getty)

This article was first published in the July 2014 issue of BBC History Magazine

Charles Dickens was a good friend to the ‘deserving poor’, but if tricked or traduced he was famously short on sympathy. In 1850, after discovering that he had made several donations to a man who was later found in good health, and far from dire circumstances, Dickens marched the begging-letter writer to his local magistrate. Aggrieved that the magistrate seemed “deeply impressed” by this literate rogue – and “quite charmed to have the agreeable duty of discharging him” – Dickens took aim at his new foe in his magazine Household Words: “He is one of the most shameless frauds and impositions of this time,” snarled Dickens, recalling the glut of pathetic appeals that had recently found their way to his home. “In his idleness, his mendacity, and the immeasurable harm he does… he is more worthy of Norfolk Island than three-fourths of the worst characters who are sent there.”

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