A Family Story of Slander & Suicide From The 19th Century
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:
Jonathan Preece, fisherman, of Green Lane, described that about 12 o’clock on Friday he discovered a body in the river, nearly opposite to Mr Pritchards, Bullingham. He immediately obtained the assistance of Stephen Hall, and the corpse was drawn to the sham side and moored by the arm to a sally tree where it was then left. Mr Charles Turner, baker, stated that at 4 o’clock he assisted in taking the body out of the water and conveying it to The Ship (Inn).
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:
Hereford, Dec. 21, 1843
Being a respectable housekeeper in this city, and knowing you, though not personally acquainted, I deem it an act of duty to do all the good I can to my fellow creatures; I therefore apprise you that your female domestic, in whom I believe you place much confidence, is a very disreputable person, and probably some time or other your house may be robbed by the low class of fellows she admits there; and frequently, after you are retired to rest, she is walking the streets for hours, in fact is often out for the whole night; her character previous to leaving Mr Davies, was that of a common prostitute, and I am surprised that you should have been so long imposed upon.
I would recommend your strictly interrogating your man-servant, as he appears a very well conducted person, but probably withheld from stating these fact thro’ fear of being supposed a mischief-maker. I have not wished to make myself known to him, or should have advised his telling you a long time since.
A Sincere Friend.
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:
The deceased made me acquainted with an anonymous communication which she said Mrs Brickenden had received respecting her; she told me it took away her character, and she appeared in a very desponding and low state; she said that in consequence of that letter and of having a sweetheart, she had received notice to quit; she left on the 1st of February; […] the last time I saw the girl was on Friday morning fortnight, the day before she left; I met her at Mrs Probert’s about half-past nine in the morning; she was then in a very cheerful state; I told her I was going to put the furniture into the house, and that if I met with no difficulty I should not call again that day, and she might conclude all was right; I was engaged till half-past nine in putting in the furniture, and did not see her; we had no quarrel; I never had an angry word with her, and I attribute her depression entirely to the letter.
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:
The Coroner was requested to preserve the communication, and a hope was expressed that it would be published. Certainly no one can envy the feelings of the author, whose imputations have been proved to be false in all essential particulars, and it is to be hoped that the consequences in this case will operate as caution to other making secret charges against their fellow-creatures — a practice which, it was observed in the room, had been rather common of late.
In the pocket of the deceased when found was a purse containing 7s.6d. in silver, and 2½d. in copper; the money has been given up to her brother. — The remains of the ill-fated young woman were yesterday interred at Walford, near Ross.
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.