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Society was to blame for the letters, not twisted psychologies

In complex ways, social inequalities create the conditions for people to feel that writing anonymously might be useful for them. On top of this, social crises create anxious contexts, when the receipt of a threatening, obscene, or libellous anonymous letter might seem especially hazardous. Throughout history, ‘experts’ have put out careless suggestions about the types of people likely to write these letters, with poor people, busybodies, menopausal, repressed women being identified as likely ‘types’. I do not think that particular personality types are more or less likely to write anonymously, but that some people, for various reasons, respond to moments in their lives, or react to social or personal situations by writing such letters.

We must be careful, when discussing anonymous letters, to not assume we have a full or typical sample. The anonymous letters that were considered sensational by the press, or actionable at law, were probably atypical. Very many were disregarded, burned, ignored, or thrown away. In the twentieth century, for example, the media and the police became particularly focused on letter campaigns where there was a female suspect and where letters were sent within a tight neighbourhood, especially if these letters were deemed to be obscene or threatening. Similar letters with an obvious male suspect, or sent to workplaces and not homes, were, in contrast, not the focus of significant legal attention.

In only 39 of the 105 cases I examine in Penning Poison do we have a known writer. Despite the fact that men would have written the vast majority of anonymous letters throughout history (often because of disparities regarding available time, resources, abilities, and money), 17 of these ‘unmasked’ writers were women and 22 were men, implying a much greater focus on identifying female writers. One suspect, Annie Tugwell, was watched around the clock by three policemen for over three weeks in the summer of 1913. This seems to be a disproportionate response. It also appears that material evidence was planted by the police in that case to secure a conviction.

In the Victorian period, there were many assumptions that only the poor would write anonymous letters. 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’. This came with the assumption that a cheaper delivery system would encourage poor people to write anonymously. However, until the early twentieth century, most of the convicted writers of anonymous letters were affluent men who appeared to be respectable members of their communities. The people in control of the medium—the male, the respected and the rich—were those who appeared to abuse it. In the book, I include the case study of Rev Robert Bingham, the curate of Maresfield in East Sussex, who in 1810 wrote fake threatening letters, penned as though from the ‘Foresters’, local people connected to enclosures in nearby Ashdown forest. These letters threatened arson, and in January 1811 Bingham’s parsonage burned down. Eventually suspicion settled upon the curate himself; Bingham was seen moving stacks of wood the day before the fire, and had planted a flower over his books, buried in the garden. Despite very weighty evidence against him, Bingham was acquitted.

In later cases, the local police, juries, and judges refused to accept that respectable people accused of letter-writing episodes were actually the most likely culprits (unless the accused person was a menopausal woman). In many cases, the legal system first prosecuted a person who seemed to be rough or uneducated, before finally convicting the actual perpetrator, often a person with education and cultural capital who was pretending to be less respectable in their letters. This happened in Redhill, Surrey, in the 1910s, when greengrocer Mary Johnson was repeatedly accused (and twice convicted) of writing letters that were actually penned by her more respectable neighbour, Eliza Woodman. Johnson was hounded out of the town, and settled in Croydon, despite being proven to be innocent. In Littlehampton in the 1920s a similar situation occurred, with Rose Gooding imprisoned for letters written by her more outwardly respectable neighbour, Edith Swan.

Something like what social psychologists call ‘the fundamental attribution error’ pushes us to seek individual psychological explanations for letter-writing campaigns when social contextual explanations could be much better. The majority of speculation as to the mental dispositions of writers (their ‘personality types’), hinged on perceptions of respectability and preconceived ideas about the particularity of feminine malice. An unbalanced fascination with female letter-writers in the twentieth century was influenced by a wider cultural and social fascination with deviant women. It was not an epidemic of female mental illness, but British society was not interested in complex societal explanations and instead sought psychological factors—being uptight, sexually repressed, menopausal, having a ‘dual personality’, enviousness. No doubt some of the writers discussed in Penning Poison could have been diagnosed with psychological disorders if they were assessed today, but the fact of the matter is that, in most cases, their mental states were not assessed properly at all and cannot now be reconstructed.

Anonymity creates disinhibition—people feel freer to write because they are less likely to be challenged about their words. Many anonymous letters show the author to be play-acting a role—as a member of a gang or even as the moral voice of the community itself. Social psychologists call this deindividuation. In particular, it is noticeable that in quite a few of the cases discussed in Penning Poison, the writers lived marginalised and often powerless lives within their respective communities. Not signing their name permitted these writers to create an entirely new persona for themselves: they became powerful not powerless; popular not lonely; racy not mousy. They had (at least in their own imaginations) a crew, a gang, a village, a street, a housing estate, behind them. Seen this way, anonymous letters share many similarities with online anonymity, apart from the potential size and scope of the audience.

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