Daniel Halliday
Oct 8 · Last update 1 mo. ago.
What are some of the most historically interesting letters ever written and why?
To mark World Post Day let us consider some interesting letters of history and appreciate the impact this tradition has had on society…
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Albert Einstein (via Leó Szilárd) wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt
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Arthur Zimmermann's secret telegram to Mexican government
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Charles Darwin writes to Alfred Russel Wallace
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Britons write to the Roman Military (5th Century AD)
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Abraham Lincoln wrote to A.G. Hodges
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An anonymous letter warns of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605
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“Jack the Ripper” writes to the press
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Martin Luther King Jr writes to Fellow Clergymen
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Albert Einstein (via Leó Szilárd) wrote to Franklin D. Roosevelt

In August 1939, Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt suggesting that an atomic bomb were not only possible but that Germany maybe be developing one. The letter was the idea of Hungarian physicist Leó Szilárd who approached Einstein as a person of influence who’s suggestion would be taken seriously by the president. The letter was finally only signed by Einstein, who admitted weaponising uranium had never occurred to him. The letter resulted in the immediate funding of the Manhattan Project and the eventual development of the first atomic bomb in 1945.

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Arthur Zimmermann's secret telegram to Mexican government

In January 1917 German Foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann sent a coded message to the Mexican government proposing a military alliance between the two countries if the United States entered the First World War. The message was intercepted by British Intelligence, deciphered and played a large role in the United States reluctantly entering World War One. This event ultimately swayed the outcome of the war and marks one of the earliest occasions of intercepted signal intelligence, and the subsequent importance of codebreaking.

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Charles Darwin writes to Alfred Russel Wallace

In 1866 Darwin wrote a letter while travelling in Indonesia to fellow biologist, naturalist and professional specimen collector Alfred Russel Wallace, himself working in the Malay Peninsula. Wallace had previously written to Darwin having independently developed a theory of evolution by natural selection, which immediately prompted Darwin to publish his own ongoing book On the Origin of Species. This book would ultimately go on to popularise evolution by natural selection and lay the foundation for one of the cornerstones of modern science, evolutionary biology.

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Britons write to the Roman Military (5th Century AD)

The “Groans of the Britons” message was the last appeal remaining Britons made to the Roman Empire following their withdrawal from the island in 407. The message was recorded by the monk Gildas’ in his De Excidio Britanniae and pleaded for Roman assistance against the “barbarian” Picts and Scots raiding from the North. This plea remained unanswered by the declining Roman Empire, but closely precedes the settlement of Anglo-Saxon’s in Britain marking the beginning of Anglo-Saxon culture and roots of the modern English language.

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Abraham Lincoln wrote to A.G. Hodges

This was part of a series of five open letters that Lincoln wrote during the American Civil war. This particular letter dated 4th April 1864 starts with a strong anti-slavery sentiment; “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong”. These public letters had such a huge morale boosting effect on Northern States that historians regard them as having an effect on winning the war, one of the defining moments of US history.

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An anonymous letter warns of the Gunpowder Plot, 1605

The Gunpowder Plot was a failed assassination attempt against King James I of England in an attempt to restore a Catholic monarch to country. On the 26th October 1605 an anonymous letter was sent to William Parker, a member of the house of Lords, warning of the Catholics intentions to assassinate James I by blowing up parliament with a large amount of explosives. This letter was later revealed to the King and the plot was terminated by the 4th November when one of the Catholic plotters, Guy Fawkes, was discovered in the House of Lords with 36 barrels of gunpowder. This event is celebrated to this day in England every November 5th, the date Guy Fawkes was executed and then hung, drawn, and quartered. Although the anonymous letter was obviously from one of the Catholic plotters of heavy conscience, the letter remained anonymous with no historian being able to figure out the identity of the author.

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“Jack the Ripper” writes to the press

In 1888 London’s Central News Agency received the infamous “Dear Boss” letter, signed by East London serial killer Jack the Ripper. This letter along with a subsequent letter signed by the same name were published by newspapers which lead to hundreds of copycat letter being sent to the press and police. Although there is doubt surrounding the identity of Jack the Ripper, and later confessions seem to point to the letter being a media fake to help sell newspapers, the effect this had on the general public was that of freneticism. Serial killers had existed before but none had gained such a level of worldwide media coverage, this arguably lead to Jack the Ripper entering modern folklore and remaining one of the most notorious murderers in history.

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Martin Luther King Jr writes to Fellow Clergymen

After being jailed in Alabama following a nonviolent protest against segregation, Dr King wrote a now famous letter (Letter from Birmingham Jail) on 16th April 1963. The letter was in reply to a statement made and supported by many Alabama clergymen of both Christian and Jewish faith, calling for an end to demonstrations against segregation, urging King to allow the issue to be settled in court. Dr King’s eloquent response demonstrated his moral conviction and intelligence, and included a famous quote of his: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”.

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