Posts Tagged ‘Kate Hume’

Sunday, January 21st, 2018

Fake news is nothing new (Part 2).

This is a follow-up post to Fake news is nothing new (Part 1), where I began to tell the story of Kate Hume, a young office worker from Dumfries who in September 1914 forged two letters, purportedly evidence that her sister Grace, a nurse, had died horribly at the hands of the Germans in Belgium. Her sister turned out to be alive and well and living in Huddersfield.

Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 12.30.49Screen Shot 2018-01-21 at 15.43.05Kate, who was just 17 at the time, was arrested and put on trial. She admitted writing the letters, which were in her normal handwriting. There was no attempt to forge her sister’s handwriting, or disguise her own. And they were written on paper from the office where she worked. The letters were published in the Dumfries Standard, though Kate did not take the letters to the newspaper herself. Word of the ‘murdered’ nurse had got round and a reporter had come to the house where she lodged asking to see the letters. Kate was ill in bed at the time but her landlady’s daughter asked if she could show the reporter the letters. Kate didn’t object and allowed them to be taken away for publication.

It all seems very passive, as if she felt she had no power to stop what she had set in motion. The story had taken on a life of its own, and she seems to have surrendered to it. The fact that she had taken to her bed, most likely suffering from depression, which she had a history of, suggests not a wicked hoaxer determined to cause panic and alarm, but someone  lost, confused, hurting and emotionally unbalanced. The whole thing reads like a classic cry for help.

Kate’s father, Andrew Hume, was a music teacher. We learn from the newspaper reports that he had remarried in 1905 after the death of his first wife. By my reckoning, Kate would have been about seven or eight when her mother died. This tragedy was compounded when her beloved brother John went down with the Titanic in 1912. He was first violin in the band. You know, the band that famously played Nearer, My God, to Thee as the boat sank. That band.

Wow. What an effect that must have had on the young Kate! By all accounts she was very close to John – or Jock as he was known. When his name was mentioned in court, she buried her face in her handkerchief and wept.

‘Kate and John were bound up in each other, and she had never been the same girl since,’ the account ran. That was when her depression started. She also suffered from headaches and insomnia.

But even if they hadn’t been close, it was still an appalling event for a young girl to deal with. Drowning is a horrible way to die. She was evidently a sensitive and creative person. Her imagination must have pictured the scene to her many times as she struggled to process it. That’s one of the curses of having a fertile imagination. We often imagine disasters that haven’t happened yet. But when we have a disaster that already has to work with, it’s almost too much.

Kate was a talented musician as well, which may have explained her closeness to her big brother. Even so, her father had arranged for her to take an office job, snuffing out any musical ambitions she might have had. So, as well as the deaths of her mother and brother, she had also to contend with the death of her dreams.

Then there’s the relationship with her stepmother. The newspaper accounts don’t give much away, probably because the main testimony concerning this comes from Kate’s father, who was the first witness called. He acknowledged differences between Kate and her stepmother, but described them as ‘small’ and ‘nothing serious’. ‘Kate was a good girl, but she desired more freedom and rather resented control’. We can only speculate what form that control might have taken, but there’s a possibility that Andrew Hume was underplaying the differences out of loyalty to his wife. He certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression that she was responsible for Kate’s actions, or that she had pushed a highly-strung girl too hard.

At any rate, Kate was so unhappy at home that she moved out. You might have thought that if she had any issues with her stepmother, being separated from her would have settled them. But depression isn’t as easily cured as that. The feeling that she wasn’t welcome in her own family home must have been incredibly alienating.

Kate herself said she didn’t know why she wrote the letters. In her defence, she cited her brother’s death, her depression and headaches, and the fact that she was unhappy at home. She claimed that she had heard that Grace, the sister she claimed had been mutilated and killed by Germans, was going to the front. (There is no evidence that this was the case, incidentally.) As the Dundee People’s Journal of 2 January 1915 reports: ‘[A]nd in the absence of word from Grace she concluded that she was at the front. [Kate] had read and been told of German atrocities in regard to women. She began to think of the Germans and what they were doing. It got on her nerves… She had got it into her head that Grace was killed. She had no intention of creating a sensation, or to harm her father or stepmother. She fancied that that would be the way her sister would write to her in her last moments.’

I think Kate was a catastrophist. She had imagined the worst possible thing that could happen and had imagined it so deeply and vividly that she had convinced herself that it was true. And so she wrote the letters, perhaps half in a trance, to provide substance for this fantasy. Possibly, originally, the letters were intended to be private documents. Or possibly she had always intended to share them with other people, so that they would become as convinced as she was.

In the forged letter from the fictional Nurse Mullard, Grace’s supposed friend, was the sentence ‘She would be going to meet her Jock.’ An explicit link with her brother who died on the Titanic, which is reinforced by the fact that Kate seems to have come up with the name Mullard because she was thinking of another boy from Dumfries who went down with the Titanic, called Mullins. Somehow, the terrible and extreme fate that her brother had suffered had changed Kate’s reality, which now had to be modified to a reality where beloved brothers drowned at sea. And if that was the reality now, then it was one step from that to a reality where sisters were mutilated and killed by German soldiers.

I’m a bit of a catastrophist myself. I have often imagined the worst that can possibly happen, and worked myself up into quite a state over it. For me, it’s a way of fending off the disaster that I fear most. If I think of it happening, it won’t happen. It’s a deal I make with whatever powers control our fates. (I even wrote a novel about it.) I don’t know if that’s what Kate was seeking to do. But I do know that these catastrophic fantasies can be very overwhelming and upsetting. And they can feel disturbingly real. More than once I have reduced myself to tears.



Friday, January 19th, 2018

Fake news is nothing new (Part 1).

An interesting titbit from Peter Simkins’ book, Kitchener’s Army, which I mentioned in my last post. It’s the story of a young nurse, Grace Hume, whose horrific death and mutilation at the hands of the Germans in Belgium in September 1914 was reported in the Dumfries Standard. According to the report, the Germans attacked the field hospital where Grace was working, killing wounded men. A horrific war crime in itself, but it wasn’t the worst of it. The invading soldiers then ‘cut off Nurse Hume’s right breast, leaving her to die.’

Naturally, the account, based on a letter produced by Grace’s 17-year-old sister, Kate, provoked a wave of outrage, hysteria and anti-German hatred.

The only problem was, it wasn’t true. The letter was fake. Kate had made the whole thing up.

Grace Hume was alive and well, living in Huddersfield. She was a nurse, but she had never set foot in Belgium.

Screen Shot 2018-01-19 at 12.00.43

The story of Grace Hume and her sister piqued my curiosity. I dug a little deeper, logging into the online British Newspaper Archive to try to find out a bit more.

The ‘Bogus Letters Case’ was reported in a number of newspapers.  The account in the Scotsman, reporting Kate’s trial in Edinburgh on 29 December 1914, is particularly full and illuminating. It even quotes from the two letters that sparked the whole thing. The first purported to be from Grace, and is so preposterous that it’s unclear how anyone could have taken it seriously. It was supposedly found clutched in the dead nurse’s hand:

‘Dear Kate,

This is to say goodbye. Have not long to live. Hospital has been set on fire. Germans cruel. A man here has had his head cut off, and my right breast taken away. Give my love to – .


Grac.’ [sic]

The second letter appeared to be from one J.M. Mullard, a nurse with the Royal Irish Troop. Nurse Mullard claimed that she had been with Grace when she died and had been charged with delivering Grace’s letter to her sister. She supplied further gruesome details of Grace’s murder: two Germans had cut off her right breast and were in the process of cutting off her left when they were killed by a British soldier. Nurse Mullard related how Grace had died ‘in great agony’. She also related details of Grace’s life in Belgium, which apparently involved riding a horse around the battle field, looking for wounded men:

‘On one occasion, when bringing in a wounded soldier, a German attacked her. She threw the soldier’s gun at him and shot him with her rifle. Of course all nurses here are armed…’

Again, how could anyone believe this nonsense? And how could the Dumfries Standard have published the letters? It’s clear the reporter and editor made no attempt to confirm the details. If they had spoken to Grace’s father, they would have discovered that he had received no telegram from the War Office informing him of Grace’s death. And also that she wasn’t even a fully certified nurse, and so was unlikely to have been sent to the front at this time. Neither did she know how to ride a horse or shoot a rifle. The journalists made no attempt to verify the facts at all.

But by then the story was already widespread in Dumfries. Word had got around. Kate had shown the letters to the family she lodged with. They had obviously repeated it and now the horrible fate of the heroic ‘murdered’ nurse was on everyone’s lips. The reporter who got the forged letters from Kate was feeding a monster that had already been created. Perhaps he and his editor never believed in the authenticity of the letters. But they knew it would make good copy and sell newspapers.

It’s easy now to say ‘how could anyone believe it?’, knowing as we do that it’s false. But the story fed into people’s beliefs at the time. This was the kind of atrocity they had been told the Germans perpetrated. It confirmed their prejudices. And doesn’t everyone love to have their prejudices confirmed?

When it comes down to it, they wanted it to be true. They needed it to be true.

But for me, the biggest question of all is, why did Kate do it?

The answer to that will have to wait for another post.

Read Part 2 here.

All content © Copyright 2018 by R. N. Morris.
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