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A case of jealous handwriting

Posted in This months highlight on 02 Jul 2024

Within the Society of Friends collection, there is a somewhat surprising bundle of records containing handwriting analysis as part of a case regarding anonymous letter writing. In around 1903, a series of anonymous letters were received by members of the Henley Meeting. The letters displayed ill feeling and jealousy against a Mr and Mrs Lewis and sympathy for a Mrs Fletcher and her husband, referred to as ‘Old Fred’. However, Mrs Fletcher did not exist, nor did ‘Old Fred’ so who could the letters be about?

Letters in English handwriting, 1903 ref. D/F2/B3/129/4/5

Suspicion fell upon a Mrs Dorothy Thatcher as being the author of the letters. She denied the allegation but there would be further developments.

In August 1909 an anonymous postcard was received described in a report “as abusive…being addressed to “Bill” …the son of the woman of whom the writer has already expressed jealousy [Mrs Lewis]”. The Reading Overseers took this very seriously and set out to prove who was the author of the letters.

Handwriting analysis referring to peculiarities, ref. D/F2/B3/129/9

The letters and postcard were analysed for peculiarities of writing and the way certain letters were formed, they found uniqueness in the letters ‘r’, ‘w’, ‘t’, ‘v’, ‘F’ and ‘f’. They also made note of different spellings, although some were thought to be deliberate mistakes. Other writing by Mrs Thatcher, including letters and hand-written minutes, were then compared to the anonymous letters and facsimile copies were made.

Handwriting analysis notes c.1909, ref. D/F2/B3/129/22 & 26

The result, as recorded in the Reading Monthly Meeting Minutes was that “After careful comparison of handwriting and spelling, and study of internal evidence, we are agreed that there is little doubt that two of the earlier letters at least were written by our Friend Dorothy Thatcher. Some of us are convinced that all the documents, including the post card, have been written by her.”

She was confronted with the evidence and on four separate occasions was visited by members urging her to confess and seek forgiveness. She continued to deny her involvement, so the Overseers were forced to go to the Monthly Meeting to resolve the matter. They also applied to Mrs Thatcher to confess but her refusal to do so meant they decided to send testimony of disownment and she was removed from the members list in June 1910.

This was not quite the end of the story. After his wife was removed from the members list, a letter was received from her husband, Frederick Thatcher stating that “I think it will be the best thing for you to scratch my name off and also my children…I must say it does seem rather hard to think that all the blame should be put upon my wife & myself & family”. Two members were assigned to visit the family and whilst they had a pleasant visit, although disappointed not to see the children, they did not change his mind. Frederick Thatcher and his children were therefore also removed from the members list in November 1910.

So it was that a case of anonymous letters resulted in six members leaving the Society. We will never know for sure if Mrs Thatcher was the author of the letters and if so, why she wrote them. All we have evidence of is the diligent work completed by other members seeking to resolve the matter.