Y ears ago ​ , a poison pen letter dropped onto my doormat. It was a rambling affair in uneven capitals, accusing me of all sorts of lurid wicke

Dinah Birch · Go to Immirica: Hate Mail · LRB 21 September 2023

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2023-09-18 22:30:05

Y ears 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.

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