BITE SIZED: The Origins of the Poison Pen Letter

1096962_origIn 1527 the first known letter to England from North America was received, sent by the mariner John Rut to Henry VIII. The world’s first adhesive stamp available for public posting at a single price, the Penny Black, was introduced in 1840, replacing the previous system which saw the recipient pay for postage based on the number of sheets and the distance covered.

Post isn’t always pleasant to receive, and the term ‘poison pen’ to refer to malicious and anonymous letters was first used, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, in 1911 in a Maryland newspaper although the context is unknown, and again in The New York Times two years later when anonymous postcards were sent. The term first appears in the UK in the 1930s and was in common use by the 1939 release of the film Poison Pen, and Agatha Christie employed a poison pen letter in The Moving Finger. Poison pen letters in the UK are covered by the Malicious Communications Act 1988.

5947221_origOne interesting case of a poison pen letter writer is that of James Forster, whose campaign of harassment in Manfield, Yorkshire, lasted for twelve years. He was convicted of seven offences in 2001 and sentenced to four months in prison. Forster, a lecturer who lived with his wife, initially targeted his 88-year-old neighbour, Molly Christian, in 1987, and when she sold her house he began sending letters to the new occupants, the Kellets, and their daughter, who he accused of being a prostitute. The village’s Neighbourhood Watch coordinator, Eric Collin, was his next target followed by other villagers who received letters informing them that Collin had reported them to the police.

Forster was finally arrested in 1999 after sending a letter to Rona Wane, Clerk of the Parish Council, which led to her discovering that her thirteen year old daughter had been sent pornography. Forster was also suspected of, but not charged with, throwing paint-bombs at elderly residents and sealing their door locks with superglue. Questioned over his night-time wandering around the village, Forster claimed he had been attempting to “find a vantage point from which to observe the moons of Jupiter”. Judge David Bryant, at Teesside Crown Court, described the case as “most unusual…the like of which we may not see again”.

JJ