Where did ‘Poison Pen’ Come From?

You’ve probably heard the term “poison pen” before.

There was a recent article in The Times reporting that actress Claire Forlani is being sued by an antiques dealer over a “poison pen” note about him that she sent to friends. People Magazine used it in a headline this summer to describe a letter that Tori Spelling’s mom wrote to “Middle-Aged Reality Show Stars (Like My Daughter).”

Poison Pen

Being fond of pens, and not fond of seeing them maligned by associations with poison, we were curious about the exact meaning of this term and where it originated. So far, we haven’t had much luck discovering how it came to be, but we thought we’d share what we’ve learned.

As you might already know, a poison pen describes a letter, often written anonymously, that viciously attacks another person or group. The term also applies to the writer of such a letter. The metaphor means that the writer is dipping his or her pen in poison, rather than ink. By the way, did you know that you cant get ink poisoning from a pen? Which leads us on to

Basically, it’s an old-school way of describing what we would now call a “flame.”

Where the term got started seems to be something of a mystery.

We emailed associate editor Bernadette Paton at the Oxford University Press to ask her about it. Part of her job is antedating words and phrases for the Oxford English Dictionary to find their earliest uses. She helpfully provided us with a revised draft entry from the dictionary.

According to the Oxford researchers, the earliest published use of “poison pen” was 6 Sept 1911 in The Evening Post, a newspaper in Frederick, Maryland. The headline read, “More ‘poison-pen’ letters received.” What the story was about isn’t clear.

The phrase was used two years later in the 10 Jan 1913 edition of The New York Times in a story describing how a “poison pen” writer was sending anonymous postcards to coffee roasters in an attempt to disrupt the sale of 950,000 bags of coffee.

Another New York newspaper repeated it in 1914 in a sentence describing women crowding into a courtroom “hoping to hear some plausible elucidation of the ‘poison pen’ mystery.”

Does all that mean it originated in the US just after the turn of the century? Maybe, but who knows.

It was in use in the UK by at least 1939. We found a listing on the Internet Movie Database for a British movie produced that year called Poison Pen starring Dame Flora Robson. The IMDB description says:

“a small, sedate British village is shocked when its residents begin receiving hate-filled diatribes, known as ‘poison pen letters.’”

In 1942, Agatha Christie based one of her Miss Marple mysteries on the concept of the poison pen letter in “The Moving Finger.” She even refers to the anonymous letter writer who sets up a murder as “Poison Pen” until the resolution of the mystery. (We won’t tell you whodunit.)

There’s a well-known independent bookstore in Scottsdale, Arizona called The Poisoned Pen, so we figured we’d ask the people at the store, in case they had an idea. Owner Barbara Peters didn’t know where the term originated, but had this to say:

“Used as the basis for some classic crime plots to illustrate the effect of gossip, usually in a small community, often driving recipients to either suicide or murder. Now they come in email and are posted on line, thus at once widespread and diluted but always upsetting, sometimes harmful, and probably subject to increasing scrutiny.”

So that’s it, readers, that’s all we know. We’re hoping there may be an historian or an etymologist among you who has some information on the subject. If so, please share.

3 thoughts on “Where did ‘Poison Pen’ Come From?”

  1. I’ve found the term used in an American newspaper in 1906, five years earlier than the OED citation (I’ve also sent details of this to the OED so that they can update their entry).

    In this case, it’s used to criticise a writer who has herself criticised the lifestyle of the Mormons. The article reads, in part:

    “What do we think of one who has been hospitably entertained by these people—the “Mormons” … and then with a poison pen maliciously slanders them wholesale, collectively and individually…”

    https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045555/1906-03-10/ed-1/seq-29/

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  2. Poison Pen can also apply to a journalist or reporter whose primary motive is digging up any and all possible “dirt” and negativity on anyone and everyone without exception. The primary motive is NOT to inform the public of information that they need to know. The primary motive is intended to get back at people who picked on the (reporter/journalist) in grade school or highschool. That is until she discovered the school paper could be used as a weapon of REVENGE. Liking this weapon, this person went on to make a “career” of it it, by studying journalism and becoming a “reporter”. The only good thing that one can say is that this person is indiscriminate – any and everyone is a target. The bad thing is that the people she picks on as an adult had absolutely nothing to do with her being bullied and picked on during her school years.

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  3. From the Antietam Historical Society facebook page:
    “The Potomac Street Irregulars let their hair down this evening when Todd Dorsett presented “The Poison Pen of Miss Anna Zimmerman.” Smithsburg, Md., took centre stage as the PSIs discussed the sad but shocking 1913 case. If we were to say that it is always the most unlikely persons who commit crimes, Miss Marple would probably reply, “On the contrary, I find that the most obvious explanation is also the correct explanation.” But who would have thought that an otherwise respectable spinster of Miss Zimmerman’s day would write the filthiest letters to and about her fellow townspeople! but she did, and she did it scores of times over a period of seven years. The speaker kept the eager audience in suspense until the last segment of his presentation, when he read four of her “obscene, lewd and lascivious” missives (with appropriate bleeping of one partickular word). Why did she do it? The generally accepted explanation is that she became somewhat deranged as the result of a failed engagement to marry, abandonment, and the subsequent scorn she endured from the village gossips. “The poison pen is generally dipped in bile.” In 1913, a District Court jury in Baltimore convicted Miss Anna Zimmerman, of Smithsburg, of three counts of sending obscene and defamatory letters in the US Mail. The decision ended Miss Zimmerman’s seven years of sending scores of “obscene and scurrilous” letters to nearly every family in Smithsburg and some in Hagerstown, Maryland. The letters caused professional men to become open enemies, spouses to become estranged, and entire families made uncomfortable. She didn’t even spare children! “

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