A Family Story of Slander & Suicide From The 19th Century

The shaming of others has a long history

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Photo by Álvaro Serrano on Unsplash

When the body of 27-year-old Ann Howls was pulled from a river in the British town of Hereford, the exact circumstances of her death were far from clear.

It was the winter of 1844. The body was discovered by a local man and later brought to an inn near the river, as the coroner’s inquest made clear:

Ann Howls was a servant at the household of a wealthy clergyman’s widow. She was also the fiancé of one of my ancestors, a man named William Perrow, which is why I’ve come to know this story well — a story that continues to fill me with sorrow and regret.

Murder was ruled out, but at the coroner’s inquest a sad tale of slander emerged. It was, above all, a story of a young woman’s distress at accusations made about her by an anonymous letter. The accusations were of immoral conduct and sexual promiscuity, insinuations that eventually led her to take her own life.

Ann Howls was born into a family of blacksmiths in 1816. She became a cook at the home of Mrs Brickenden and began “courting” my ancestor, William, in November 1843.

She lived at a time when “good character” meant everything within society. For a servant like Ann, getting the right reference between employers was vitally important, for the reputation of the household was at stake. Legally, a servant could be dismissed instantly and without pay for a variety of “reasonable causes” including immoral conduct or disobedience.

So when Ann’s employer received an anonymous letter accusing her of “walking the streets for hours” and behaving like “a common prostitute”, her job and reputation were suddenly under threat. Mrs Brickenden eventually made up her mind and Ann was forced to leave her post without a reference.

Here is the letter in full, as read out at the inquest:

At his appearance at the coroner’s inquest, my ancestor William Perrow — who was described as “a very respectable young man dressed in deep mourning, and who was deeply affected during the inquiry” — told the coroner that he and Ann were due to be married and that notice had already been given at the registry office. They had found a house in town to live in, and he had already began to find furniture for it.

He then went on to describe the effect of the anonymous letter on Ann:

By all accounts, Ann was so distressed by the nature of the letter and the effect it had on her prospects that she took herself to the local river and waded into the cold February waters.

At the inquest, after a short consultation, the jury returned a verdict that “the deceased destroyed herself whilst in a state of temporary derangement,” adding their opinion that the terrible result was caused by the anonymous letter.

A newspaper’s report captured the mood of the inquest:

This is a tender story, one in which a young woman was victimised for unknown reasons — perhaps spite or jealousy. I can’t help but feel the ultimate consequences of the letter were a great deal more tragic than intended. And yet the story is proof — if proof were needed — that the shaming of others can have woeful consequences and change the course of many lives.

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Christopher P Jones writes about art and culture. Sign up for more.

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Art historian and art critic, writer, artist. Author of “How to Read Paintings” https://books2read.com/u/bw7vNY

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