“The Begging-Letter Writer” – an Article Written by Charles Dickens


The Begging-Letter Writer – A short story by Charles Dickens.

Myself . 

By T.V. Antony Raj

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Lately, did you receive any email or posts on the social networks asking for money? If so, beware! This is could be the prelude to “The Begging-Letter” scam.

In a begging letter, a person claiming to be poor, or impoverished due to prevailing circumstances begs for money or help, from a rich person or a philanthropic organization. The writer asks for monetary assistance to meet the expenses for an emergency surgery, money for orphaned children, help to recover the money of their parents or kin from banks, and often offer a percentage of the recovered sum.

These begging letters are not new. Even as far back as the late 19th century scammers sent begging letters by traditional mail.

The Begging-Letter Writer” an Essay by Charles Dickens

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Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Source: Jeremiah Gurney / Heritage Auction Gallery)
Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Source: Jeremiah Gurney / Heritage Auction Gallery)

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From the time Charles Dickens rose to fame with The Pickwick Papers, he was constantly plagued by begging-letter writers. In May 1850 edition of Household Words (Volume I, Magazine: No. 8), Dickens wrote an essay titled “The Begging-Letter Writer” wherein he describes examples of the many begging letters he had received over the years, and the ruses employed by their writers to gain funds from the recipients.

John Forster (1812–76)

John Forster (1812–76), a noted biographer, critic, essayist and historian, met Charles Dickens in 1836 while they worked as young journalists for the ‘True Sun‘. Forster became Dickens’ closest friend and trusted adviser. Dickens appointed him as his literary executor. After Dickens’ death, Forster published a biography of Charles Dickens in three volumes (1872–4).

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John Forster - Oil portrait by Charles Edward Perugini
John Forster – Oil portrait by Charles Edward Perugini

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In Volume 2, Ch. 8, Forster commented that there is not ‘a particle of exaggeration‘ in Dickens’s description of his victimization as narrated by him in “The Begging-Letter Writer“:

Once he [Daniel Tobin] wrote me rather a special letter, proposing relief in kind. He had got into a little trouble by leaving parcels of mud done up in brown paper, at people’s houses, on pretence of being a Railway-Porter, in which character he received carriage money. This sportive fancy he expiated in the House of Correction. Not long after his release, and on a Sunday morning, he called with a letter (having first dusted himself all over), in which he gave me to understand that, being resolved to earn an honest livelihood, he had been travelling about the country with a cart of crockery. That he had been doing pretty well until the day before, when his horse had dropped down dead near Chatham, in Kent. That this had reduced him to the unpleasant necessity of getting into the shafts himself, and drawing the cart of crockery to London — a somewhat exhausting pull of thirty miles. That he did not venture to ask again for money; but that if I would have the goodness TO LEAVE HIM OUT A DONKEY, he would call for the animal before breakfast!Forster adds, “for much of what he suffered he was himself responsible, by giving so largely, as at first he did, to almost everyone who applied to him“.

In the next paragraph, Dickens describes the case of John Walker, to whom Dickens had given money several times in 1844.

At another time, my friend (I am describing actual experiences) introduced himself as a literary gentleman in the last extremity of distress. He had had a play accepted at a certain Theatre — which was really open; its representation was delayed by the indisposition of a leading actor — who was really ill; and he and his were in a state of absolute starvation. If he made his necessities known to the Manager of the Theatre, he put it to me to say what kind of treatment he might expect? Well! we got over that difficulty to our mutual satisfaction. A little while afterwards he was in some other strait. I think Mrss . Southcote, his wife, was in extremity — and we adjusted that point too. A little while afterwards he had taken a new house, and was going headlong to ruin for want of a water-butt. I had my misgivings about the water-butt, and did not reply to that epistle. But a little while afterwards, I had reason to feel penitent for my neglect.

Walker continued to write begging letters, which Dickens ceased to answer until he got one telling him that Walker’s wife had died and begging ‘a few crumbs from your table‘ to feed the children. Dickens sent his brother Fred to check whether Walker was really in distress.

He wrote me a few broken-hearted lines, informing me that the dear partner of his sorrows died in his arms last night at nine o’clock!

I despatched a trusty messenger to comfort the bereaved mourner and his poor children; but the messenger went so soon, that the play was not ready to be played out; my friend was not at home, and his wife was in a most delightful state of health. He was taken up by the Mendicity Society (informally it afterwards appeared), and I presented myself at a London Police-Office with my testimony against him. The Magistrate was wonderfully struck by his educational acquirements, deeply impressed by the excellence of his letters, exceedingly sorry to see a man of his attainments there, complimented him highly on his powers of composition, and was quite charmed to have the agreeable duty of discharging him. A collection was made for the ‘poor fellow,’ as he was called in the reports, and I left the court with a comfortable sense of being universally regarded as a sort of monster. Next day comes to me a friend of mine, the governor of a large prison. ‘Why did you ever go to the Police-Office against that man,’ says he, ‘without coming to me first? I know all about him and his frauds. He lodged in the house of one of my warders, at the very time when he first wrote to you; and then he was eating spring-lamb at eighteen-pence a pound, and early asparagus at I don’t know how much a bundle!’ On that very same day, and in that very same hour, my injured gentleman wrote a solemn address to me, demanding to know what compensation I proposed to make him for his having passed the night in a ‘loathsome dungeon.’

Have you received any similar email?
Were you tempted to respond to them?
Did you respond and burnt your fingers?

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