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What are Poison Pen Letters?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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Poison pen letters are nasty anonymous letters which are intended to upset the addressee. They differ from blackmail, which is intended to extract something, in that they are purely malicious. A poison pen letter can elicit anger, fear, and a general feeling of upset from the person who receives it, much to the delight of the author. The highly manipulative letters are not as common as they once were, since paper correspondence is declining, but they pop up more frequently than many people realize.

The “poison” in the term refers to the often inflammatory, vitriolic contents of the letter. Poison pen letters will typically hammer at a weak point in the addressee, and they may include falsehoods or abusive statements which are intended to spark a reaction. On the more mild scale, poison pen letters can be merely malicious, and sometimes laughable.

When poison pen letters contain threats or slander, the recipient may choose to take them to the police, out of concern for personal safety or reputation. A variety of law enforcement techniques may be used in an attempt to identify the author of the hate mail, and if he or she is found, prosecution is not uncommon. In some regions of the world, a single individual may have a notorious “poison pen,” taking it upon him or herself to send nasty letters to a large portion of the community. This, of course, makes the author ultimately more easy to identify.

Receiving poison pen letters can be quite frustrating, because the recipient is unable to address the contents of the letter, since the author hides behind anonymity. This can be doubly upsetting when the letter contains falsehoods or sensitive information which the author would not like to see widely disseminated. These sorts of letters are sent to all sorts of people, from politicians to teachers, and most agree that the best reaction is no reaction. People with particularly thick skins sometimes sharing the letter with friends for the purpose of mockery and general amusement.

Should you be the recipient of a poison pen letter, try not to be too upset, no matter what the author says. Anonymous authors are cowardly and ultimately unworthy of your attention, and by not reacting, you will deprive the author of satisfaction. If you think that the letter merits the attention of law enforcement, bring it in to your local police department. Otherwise, you may want to consider filing it away as evidence, in the event that hostilities escalate.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Language & Humanities researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By anon333359 — On May 04, 2013

I keep getting threatening mail from an anonymous stranger about attempts on my life. Should I contact the police?

By anon138568 — On Jan 01, 2011

I have been divorced 17 years and my ex still displays evidence of domestic violence. He has recently sent a poison pen letter to someone to cause maximum upset. This letter was shown to me and I have proof who the sender is - a nasty small minded apology of a man.

By anon35183 — On Jul 03, 2009

Why was this approach not used for the communications of Lori Drew which led to a young girl's suicide? Isn't material transmitted on the Internet written. Haven't poison pen letter incidents that did not involve the US mail been prosecuted successfully?

By anon32113 — On May 16, 2009

What to do if you get repeat letters challenging your authority?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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