I’ve written about Kate Hume before, the seventeen-year old girl from Dumfries, who went on trial for forgery in December 1914; in September she had written a letter apparently from her sister Grace, a nurse in Belgium. It read:
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 head cut off. My breast taken away. Give my love to —. Goodbye, Grace.
Another forged letter, apparently from a friend, described Grace’s fate:
She endured great agony in her last hour. One of the soldiers (our men) caught two German soldiers in the act of cutting off her left breast, her right one having been already cut off. They were killed instantly by our soldiers.
A search in the Manchester Guardian archive has unearthed more details of the trial. An expert witness tried to medicalise Kate’s actions:
‘Sir Thomas Clouston, an expert in mental and nervous disease, of Edinburgh, expressed the opinion that the prisoner at the time was in a state of adolescent hysteria, and such conditions might have made her quite abnormal in fancy and action.’
Sir Thomas’s distancing vocabulary (‘adolescent’, ‘hysteria’, abnormal’) tries to present Kate Hume as an aberration, and yet examination of the stories of 1914 suggests that she was actually typical of her time, replicating and developing an emotive myth of the War. Her defence counsel claimed:
‘The letters were literary creations only, and in writing them the accused had been a slave to her emotions. What she did was under the influence of emotions only partly normal.’
Perhaps the most convincing explanation is Kate’s own:
I do not know now why I wrote it, but I fancied what I said would be the way Grace would have written of herself in her last minutes. I could fancy the whole thing as it was written […] I cannot say what made me do it, except the cruelties which the Germans were committing. I firmly believed what was in the letters was true, and that Grace had been killed. I had worked myself into that belief. I did not think I was doing anything improper.
Disturbed and possessed by stories of the War, she had personalised them by imagining her own sister as part of them, so vividly and so indignantly that she seems genuinely to have believed in her own fabrications.
The more I think about Kate, the less she seems an aberration, and the more she seems an early example of the kind of writer for whom the extremity of a story is absolute proof of its authenticity.