Wednesday, November 10, 2010

19th C spammers & scammers

Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Loretta reports:

Spam, apparently, is nothing new.  In 1839, in Every day life in London, James Grant tries to track down the number of Begging Imposters:  people who make their living by writing fake letters of distress.  It was a high-volume trade and, as is the case with our spammers, they were hard to catch.  The majority, he notes, write exclusively to the upper classes, because (1) aristocrats have too much else to do to bother with ferreting out and prosecuting imposters and (2) they give more money per letter than the middle classes. 

“… I saw a letter from a nobleman of a very humane and benevolent disposition, in which it was stated that, in the course of the year, he had received nearly three hundred and fifty begging letters, all of which were dated from London, and detailed trumped-up cases of the deepest distress.”  This nobleman did investigate:  49 out of 50 letters were fakes.

Grant estimated that about 250 people in London lived on these fake begging letters, that the highest income from the business was £1000 per annum, the lowest £100, averaging out, over the 250 scammers to £200 pa.  “This, then, would give no less than 50,000l. out of which the benevolent public of London, chiefly the nobility, are annually swindled by the begging-letter imposters.”

There were also imposters who wrote mainly to the clergy and other known benevolent sorts of the middle ranks.  Grant knew one who wrote at least 20 such letters a day. 

“Not long since, sixteen letters of this description, all sealed and ready for delivery, were found in a basket at the house of one of these persons, in Blackfriars Road ;and it was ascertained that all the sixteen had been intended to be forwarded to their respective destinations within a few hours after the discovery.  If then some of these rogues are so indefatigable in their epistolary attempts on the pockets of the charitable and humane, as to pen twenty letters in one day, surely, considering their number, and after making every allowance for the comparatively contracted labors of the least industrious portion of the swindling community, there is nothing extravagant in the supposition that 1000 such letters are daily indited and forwarded to their several destinations in London."


Deb said...

You have to wonder if Grant wasn't doing his bit to create a sort of "Welfare Queen" myth for his day and time. (For those who don't remember politics in the early 1980s, you'll have to google that phrase.) Didn't postage have to be paid by the recipient back then? Why would anyone (even a wealthy nobleman) accept and pay for a letter when they didn't know the sender?

Sorry, but I just have to wonder how accurate Grant's statistics really were.

Anonymous said...

If the letters were all sent within London, couldn't the penny post have been used?

LorettaChase said...

Deb, I'm inclined to disagree. Nothing I've read made Grant's calculations suspect to me--he does admit, in the book itself, that he's estimating, but he explains what he bases his numbers on. There were myths like the Welfare Queen at the time, but they would be far more easily recognizable to us as such. Dickens frequently takes strenuous (often sarcastic) objection to equivalent myths e.g., people live high off the parish and workhouses encourage laziness and idleness. OTOH, in at least one book (I think it's Our Mutual Friend), a character is beset with begging letters as Grant described, and it's clear that most are fraudulent. Given Dickens's sympathies with the poor and downtrodden, I can't see him as one who'd perpetuate a Welfare Queen kind of myth. Too, given the amount of criminal activity in London, the figures didn't strike me as exaggerated. As to postal costs, Anonymous is correct. The letters could be mailed prepaid in London for a penny each, well worth the investment. However, if you've got info that contradicts this viewpoint, we Nerdy History Girls are always willing to learn!

Deb said...

I stand corrected!

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