The Psychopathology of a Correspondence Column

The British Journal of Medical Psychology, Vol. 21, Part I, 1947, pp. 50-60


In the summer of 1939 a lady wrote to the correspondence columns of a popular British weekly illustrated journal to complain of the habits of the modern girl. She found particu­larly objectionable the custom of wearing shorts, and gave her opinion that what these hussies wanted was a good caning for their conceit. A number of other letters were sent in reply, all dealing with the desirability of this form of punishment, and in a week or two the correspondence became very voluminous. In about four weeks, with the publication of a representative bunch, the Editor had to close his columns to the subject. The letters that had been published, however, were such an odd mixture of the normal and the ob­viously pathological, that the matter called for investigation. The paper that follows is the result of the examination of the letters that was eventually made with the kind co‑opera­tion of the Editor of the journal concerned.

   Had the Editor not closed the correspon­dence when he did, it might have continued indefinitely. One of the correspondents drew attention to an earlier correspondence on the same theme in the Gentlewoman's Domestic Magazine which lasted for two years from 1868 to 1870, and at one time aroused so much interest and became so voluminous that it was published as a special supplement. It is odd in these letters to see the same subdued erotism peeping through the prudery of Victorian verbiage.

   We examined in all 347 letters by 342 different writers. This was by far the largest number of letters received by the journal on any subject in its history till that time. The letters were analysed as to their content and their ordinary external characteristics, and in addition were subjected to a graphological analysis (by M. J. M.) for qualities of cha­racter and for sex and age.


A fairly sufficient idea of the content of the letters will be gained from the illustrative examples given at the end of this paper; but some general account is also necessary. The justification of the correspondence was that it was a discussion of the desirability or un­desirability of the corporal punishment of young people, particularly girls. Nearly all the letters therefore presented a point of view, either in favour of or against such punish­ment. The majority of males were in favour (61 for, 56 against, 38 doubtful), the majority of females opposed (73 for, 93 against, 17 doubtful). Most of the letters, whether for or against, were written with a lively emotional tone; but of the really passionate and violent letters seven‑eighths were against caning, the emotion expressed being as a rule one of great resentment and indignation (see Letters 1, 14).

   In some of the letters arguments were illustrated by accounts of whippings personally administered or received, and in many more these stories occupied the whole body of the letter, such argument as there was being reduced to a mere formal line, such as 'I don't think my parents should treat me like this, do you?' (Letters 8, 9, 12, 13). The writers could be divided into three groups, one group who debated the topic, another more concerned to lighten their chests of a story they wished to tell, and a third small miscellaneous group (44 letters) who pursued different and remote ends.

   In this last group (Letters 2, 3, 5, 7, 15) are some of the most interesting letters of all. Be­sides the examples given there were a number impugning the genuineness of the letters or the healthiness of the correspondence, and others demanding it should be continued after its allotted span. There were also others in a jocular vein. Only one writer complained in a shocked manner and threatened withdrawal of the subscription. Several male writers asked to see the unpublished correspondence, one saying he would pay the whole cost of its transcription, though giving no hint of his purpose. One of these men was also the author of several other letters of a highly psychopathic kind, verging on the obscene, purporting to come from different names and addresses, and showing sadistic, masochistic and voyeur trends. This man's handwriting showed him to be an infantile, feminine type, weak, unstable, touchy, anxious, given to day­dreaming. Various other readers, one a doctor, asked the editor for his assistance in getting into touch with readers interested in caning. And a child of seven or eight sent in a picture entitled 'Six Stingers across Mother's Knee'.

   The letters containing detailed stories of canings (120 in number) deserve fuller descrip­tion. In general they proved to be associated with a higher frequency of neurotic traits in the writers (Table 4); 80 % of them showed neurotic traits, compared with 55% of other letters. In the majority the author wrote as the recipient (72); 35 as whipper, 4 both, 9 neither. They were not openly erotic in tone; whippings of members of one sex by members of the other were rare. In the majority (94) the whipping was supposed to be administered by a parent, and only occasionally by other relatives, teachers, and coevals of the same or opposite sex. In 96 of the 120 the victims were said to be girls.

   Although, as has been said, the letters were not openly erotic, they showed many of the characteristics of the large erotic literature extant in every language which has whipping as its main theme. The supposed victims were almost exclusively young people in late ado­lescence or early adult life, with but rare reference to children, quite unlike what must be the probabilities in real life. The age distribution of the supposed victims was: 13 and under, 5; 14,9; 15,9; 16, 31; 17, 35; 18, 20; 20, 9; 21 and over, 25. The excuse for the whipping was nearly always trivial, sometimes absurdly so, occasionally sexual in nature, in order of frequency: being late, rudeness, dis­obedience, wearing shorts, smoking, lying, stealing, putting on paint, flirting, careless display of drawers, making a suggestive re­mark, reading certain books, leading a fast life, a bad habit of many years' standing, being photographed in the nude, etc. The stereotyped and unreal nature of these excuses was very evident in many of the letters. The instruments supposed to have been used showed consider­able variety: a cane (78), the hand (14), strap, slipper, hairbrush, birch, tawes, riding‑switch, thong, twig, dog‑collar, umbrella, stinging nettles. Some of the letters describe a ritual, such as being strapped down on the bed. But the most striking evidence of half‑uncon­scious erotism is the almost complete unani­mity with which the nates are chosen as the site of the punishment, the great frequency with which this part has to be bared for the operation, the relish with which the ritual is described. In about half the letters explicit mention is made in such phrases as: bared posterior, bare flesh, rear, behind, buttocks, seat, soft fat bare bottoms, hips, backside, cheeks, rear portions, hindquarters, tail‑end, tender rotundities, etc. In these cases one would be justified in postulating a well­marked anal erotism. The association of this with sadomasochism often occurs; but the most outspoken example of anal erotic interest is shown by an effusion exhibiting no hint of sadistic or masochistic preoccupation (Letter 5). The great majority of these stories were obviously untrue, many of them masturbatory fantasies (Letters 3, 9, 13); a certain number were possibly true but were more likely to be daydreams (Letter 12); only a handful were probably reliable (Letters 11, 14). The conclu­sion to which one is led is not that the caning of young people is at all common in Britain, but that sadistic and masochistic whipping fantasies are frequent in both sexes and in all classes of the population.


It soon became clear that the correspondence had attracted principally an abnormal type of personality. Not the least striking indication of this was the surprising number of letters received from fetichists of various kinds (Letters 2, 3). This was borne out by grapho­logical analysis of character traits. The results of this analysis have been subclassified by age and sex.

   From handwriting alone no certain dia­gnosis can be made of sex and age. Neverthe­less, an opinion of high reliability can often be reached, and this opinion was often to be preferred to the writer's own statement. On the point of sex a correction was made in 18 cases; in 11 it seemed that men were pre­tending to be women, in 7 the reverse. Strong indications that the stated age was false were present in 27 cases; 11 adults wrote pretending to be young girls, 16 mere children or youngsters pretended to be grown up. In our classification by age and sex there are of course sources of error, but it is thought that they are not so serious as to invalidate the conclusions.

   One could not fail to be impressed by the youthfulness of the correspondents, although the journal makes a special appeal to young people. As it was a material point, a high proportion of the writers stated their age specifically; and though as noted strong doubt could be thrown on this statement in some cases, as a rule other indications, including the graphological, were confirmatory. Table 1 gives the distribution of the writers by age and sex. The table shows the youthfulness of the writers; over 7 % were children under 15, over 37 % were still in their teens. The sexes are differently distributed; nearly half the male correspondents are over 30, but only a quarter of the females. It is tempting but speculative to suggest that the female sex is more open to sadomasochistic tendencies than the male in early years, but outgrows them more easily.

   One important character of the letters had been already investigated before they reached us. It was the practice of the journal to send a letter of acknowledgement to every corre­spondent who gave what appeared to be a sufficient address. If it proved to be a false one, the acknowledgement was returned in due course by the Post Office, thereby allowing a check on anonymity or genuineness. Of the 342 correspondents 188 gave no address or an insufficient one, and a further 50 gave false addresses; 70 % of all letters were therefore anonymous. Of letters from men 60 % were anonymous, from women 77%. This high anonymity rate may, however, be a charac­teristic of letters written to newspapers on other subjects than the present one.

    The cultural level of the correspondents was analysed by general content, grammar, style, etc., and by handwriting indications. It was classified into three levels: 'low', i.e. definitely uneducated, 'average', and 'good', i.e. show­ing some evidence of culture or at least secondary education. These levels would also very roughly correspond with levels of intel­ligence. In the men these three levels from low to good were represented by 29, 38 and 33 %' in the women by 27, 54 and 19 % The men therefore show a wider scatter and a better representation of the highest cultural level. In the men the anonymity rate drops from 80 % in the low cultural level to 56% in the average group and 47% in the good cultural level; in the women there is no note­worthy variation between the three groups in this respect. Taking the correspondents as a whole, despite the high frequency of anony­mity, they are quite well educated and of probably average intelligence.


An analysis of the handwritings, conducted after eliminating the typed letters, showed that the writers could be divided into four classes, those with normal, neurotic, very markedly neurotic and grossly psychopathic charac­teristics. When this analysis is correlated with the content, interesting results are obtained (see Table 2).


   From this table the following facts emerge. Normality of handwriting is strongly corre­lated with normality of content, but not abso­lutely so. A number of the letters from psycho­paths and the markedly neurotic disclosed no gross abnormality in what they had to say; and a few very abnormal letters, that cannot have come from normal individuals, showed a fairly normal handwriting (Letter 2). This is possible because an abnormal sexual atti­tude may be combined with fairly normal development of character, providing it has not too great a significance for the character as a whole.

   The frequency of normality as shown by handwriting is about the same in males and females (46 and 49%); but among the men there were more psychopaths (21 and 14%). The women gave beating stories twice as often as the men. The most striking difference between the sexes is shown, however, in the relative frequency of the sadistic and maso­chistic attitude. In the men sadism is twice as common as masochism, in the women the reverse is true. When sadism and masochism of content are correlated with abnormality of handwriting, a point of great interest emerges.

   There is a large increase in frequency of a sadistic attitude in both male and female with increasing abnormality of character; the same is not true of a masochistic attitude. Taking both sexes together, and ranking the hand­writings in the four groups normal, neurotic, markedly neurotic and psychopathic, the fre­quencies of a masochistic attitude in these groups respectively are 13, 37, 26 and 21%; of a sadistic attitude 14, 20, 29 and 57%. Using three degrees of freedom, to discrimi­nate masochistic and sadistic, c2 is 10•15, corresponding to a chance probability of less than 0•02. The conclusion seems to be justified that, although sexual sadistic tendencies are more frequent in the normal male than in the normal female, they are of a psychopathic quality in a way that is not true of masochistic tendencies.

   Abnormal traits read from the handwriting could be grouped under ten heads (see Table 3). From this table we note that there are no marked differences in the frequency of ab­normal traits between the sexes, although both anxiety conditions and instability are about half as common again in the male as in the female sex. But comparing letters of different content marked differences of frequency of the traits are seen. Letters of sadistic and maso­chistic content tend to differ both from the normal and from each other. The sadistic character is more mature than the average, but is much more aggressive, colder and more egotistical, and more frequently shows a tendency to instability, lack of self‑control and moral weakness. The masochistic cha­racter, on the other hand, is much more subject to anxiety conditions, worry and moodiness, and to self‑centredness and isolation.[1] Such teaching in psychopathology as tends to associate sadistic and masochistic tendencies as polar qualities frequently shown by the same individual is not supported. We are led to an opposite conclusion, namely, that sadism and masochism are independent tendencies, not particularly frequently asso­ciated together, which tend to appear in personalities of different kinds, sadism being much more frequently associated with an outright psychopathy.


A spontaneous outburst of interest in the correspondence columns of a popular weekly illustrated journal was made the subject of a graphological and statistical investigation. The subject of the correspondence was the desirability of the corporal punishment of young people, particularly girls. A total of 347 letters from 342 separate individuals was examined. The correspondence was pre­dominantly of an abnormal character, con­taining a number of letters from fetichists of various kinds, and very many letters from people with sadistic and masochistic ten­dencies. An erotic element was apparent in many letters. The great majority of the letters were anonymous. Among the writers females outnumbered males, and over a third were persons in their teens. In point of cultural standard, every class of the population was well represented. Anonymity was associated in the males with low cultural standard, but not so in the females. Examination of the handwriting showed that over half of the correspondents had outspoken neurotic quali­ties of character and about one‑sixth were gross psychopaths. Abnormality of content was associated with abnormal qualities in the handwriting. Sadistic tendencies were twice as common as masochistic ones in the males; in the females the reverse was true. In both sexes the grosser the degree of abnormality of character, as shown by handwriting, the more frequent were sadistic tendencies; this was not true of masochistic tendencies, which were associated with neurotic tendencies in more moderate degree. Sadism was found to be associated particularly with marked aggressive tendencies and with coldness of affect and egocentricity, to a lesser extent with moral instability and lack of self‑control; maso­chism, on the other hand, was associated with tendencies to worry, moodiness and anxiety, and with introspectiveness and lack of adaptability. Sadism and masochism are to be regarded as distinct qualities, tending to arise in personalities of very different structure.