E. Belfort Bax

Legal Encouragements to Blackmail

(August 1897)


E. Belfort Bax, Legal Encouragements to Blackmail, Humanitarian, August 1897, pp.104-110.
Transcribed by Ted Crawford.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

MR. STEWART HEADLAM in his recent article in this magazine on “blackmail,” dealt with the subject more particularly from the standpoint of that form of blackmail in which the blackmailer threatens to tell his victim’s wife, to expose him before his constituents, to send letters, anonymous or otherwise, to his best or most influential customers, patients, or clients, as the case may be, and thereby ruin or seriously damage him socially or financially, but without actually dragging him before the judgment-seat, either criminal or civil. This sort of thing, as Mr. Headlam well points out, can only be got rid of by the formation of a healthy public opinion, which refuses to see a “hanging matter” in every breach of the conventional sexual ethics (for it is undeniable that the enormous majority of cases of blackmail refer to acts of this nature).

There is one effective way in which every healthy-minded person who holds reasonable views on these subjects may set an example of discountenancing the blackmailer, and that is by (if I may so say) ostentatiously disregarding him. For example, I as a Social Democrat would as a general rule, abstain from voting at an election in any constituency where there was only a Liberal and Conservative candidate standing. But were I in such a constituency, and the attempt had been made to destroy the chances of one of these candidates by raking up some scandal of this description against him, I might very likely feel it my duty to give him my “vote and influence” explicitly on this ground alone, as a protest against a vile and infamous hypocrisy, a hypocrisy directly encouraged and pandered to by that section of the Press representing the shop-keeper’s morality, known as the “non-conformist conscience.” Similarly in a business, professional, or social connection. Even if a man had committed some delinquency of this kind under circumstances which no one could altogether morally justify, I maintain still it is our duty to make no concealment of our continued patronage of, or friendship with the man as such, as a demonstration against an odious system. For it is certain that the offence in question, even if itself deserving reprobation, is not so harmful to public morality as the countenancing of a state of things which inevitably, at one and the same time, breeds moral cowardice, lying and hypocrisy, and acts as a direct incentive to the most despicable form of crime. Like the Spartan practice as regards theft, a man may do what he likes and suffer what he may, without any troubling themselves about it, provided only he is not found out. If he be but found out he is hunted down with a savage vindictiveness by the Chadbands and Stigginses of the nonconformist conscience on the one hand, and sneered at by “men of the world” on the other for being such a fool as to let himself be “found out.” Says the one – “Serve the scoundrel right!” Says the other, “If he is such a God-forsaken idiot as not to be able to avoid such a mess he deserves all he’s got!” The evil is a living one, and requires to be combated with drastic remedies. But the fact remains that few have the courage to face “public opinion,” one section of which is the quintessence of lying and humbug, and the other a sodden mass of cynical indifference. The modern knights who are prepared to slay this modern dragon of Wantley, are few and far between, though Mr. Headlam must certainly be reckoned amongst the number. It is only to be regretted that no single voice or pen is sufficient to effectually destroy the monster.

The article in the last number, however, as above said, is almost exclusively confined to the social side of blackmailing, to where it preys upon the sense of shame or fear of social ruin on the part of the blackmailed. The side of the question with which the law is concerned, which law-made crimes and the administration of the law renders possible and even directly encourages – this aspect of the question is very slightly touched upon. Hence a few words on it may not be out of place, as also the favour shown by the law to the prosecutor, but more especially to the prosecutrix [1], in all cases of a sexual nature. A false charge need not necessarily involve an attempt to extort so and so much in hard cash, but it may take the form of an attempt to obtain marriage or to exercise an oppressive influence over a person, nay a prosecution may actually be entered upon and carried through primarily from spite, but also from a desire to display power and cow the victim into subsequent submission. Many prosecutions of husbands by wives are undoubtedly due to the last-named causes, and these we may reckon, I take it, as partaking of the nature of blackmail in the wider sense. For what constitutes the essence of blackmail? Surely the attempt to extort something from an unwilling giver by threats expressed or implied. Now whether that something be an actual sum of money or merely general subserviency of conduct, may be, I admit, a material element from some points of view, but does not affect, I contend, the essential nature of the offence. Again, in the case of actual money-blackmail a prosecution may be entered upon and persevered in, apart from any direct pressure put upon the particular person accused, in the form of money-extortion, but solely or mainly from the point of view of general trade-policy, for the purpose, that is, of showing the power wielded by the blackmailer in destroying the victim selected, in connivance with the law, backed as it is by a hysterical public opinion.

A powerful aid of the blackmailer is the inability of certain non-luminous magistrates and justices to distinguish between a serious offence and a serious charge. A charge may be serious because backed up by the strongest evidence, of furious driving or smashing street lamps. On the contrary, a charge of murder may be preferred on farcical evidence. The addle-headed magistrate treats, let us say, any charge of indecent assault, even if in the face of it dictated by malice and unsupported by a shred of reliable evidence, as a “serious charge.” The only equitable principle is obviously that the degree of importance attached to a charge should be based solely on the relative strength of the evidence as measured by the heinousness of the alleged offence. If the evidence is prima facie inadequate, no charge ought to be so much as entertained. In order to be considered at all, a charge of a serious offence ought to be backed by proportionately greater evidence than a charge of a slight offence. To conduct the business of courts of first instance (police courts, etc.) otherwise is simply to play into the hands of the blackmailer and malicious prosecutor, and commit a cruel wrong on the innocent for fear of allowing the guilty to escape. The only alternative is a severity of dealing with the charge-maker (imprisonment till the charge is substantially made out), which would certainly not be tolerated in this country, although it obtains, I believe, in China, and if I am not mistaken, under certain circumstances in some of the Western American States. The notion that the preferrer of a charge is a person to be coddled and encouraged, or, in fact, to be regarded otherwise than with the gravest suspicion, is a monstrous inversion of the only fair and just attitude towards an accused person not taken in flagrante delicto, or at least not charged on prima facie overwhelming evidence. That the whole force of the State is placed at the disposal of the accuser, whilst the accused is left defenceless, is itself an iniquity showing the bête humaine coming out in the law – the desire to crush rather than protect a fellow creature. It is this tendency which, of course, does the blackmailer yeoman’s service, and on which he steadily reckons. Public opinion could certainly help to stem this as regards certain offences which, in the nature of the case, afford the greatest field for the blackmailer by systematically ostracising to a greater or less extent all prosecutors in such cases. In such charges the presumption should always be against the prosecutor, and this presumption should not necessarily be regarded as completely rebutted by the fact that the prosecution has succeeded, i.e., that the accuser has, backed by the Treasury and probably by the judge, been able to convince a dozen shop keepers (possibly fools) of the truth of his charge. Proved to the hilt, such a charge can seldom be, and it is assuredly much more important to shield innocent men from an accusation easily made and usually impossible to disprove than it is to risk sacrificing the innocent and encouraging blackmail in order that a few disreputable persons should not escape punishment. The greatest reluctance ought, I contend, to be shown to recognise or associate with any person, male or female, who has instituted or instigated a prosecution for indecency, especially when it is connected with their own persons.

But, unfortunately, the bulk of these individuals, including all those who systematically carry on blackmail, could not be reached by any amount of social ostracism, since they belong purely and simply to the criminal classes. The latter can be dealt with solely by a change in the law and its administration, which again can only come about through a change in the attitude of public opinion from a grovelling surrender to superstition and the hypocrisy that keeps it alive, to a reasonable way of looking at the class of offence with which, as already observed, blackmail is mainly concerned.

First, the category of law-made crimes called “unnatural offences,” considered as crimes per se – and apart from surrounding circumstances such as corruption of minors, etc. – ought to be swept from every self-respecting statute-book, as they are to a great extent from those continental codes which are founded on the “Code Napoleon.” Nobody in the present day who has given any thought to the subject at all, probably really believes that the acts named, unpleasant and repulsive as they are to the vast majority of us, constitute crimes in themselves. Call them vices if you like, though there is little doubt they are in reality due as departure from normal functioning in the human organism. They are undoubtedly occasioned by Physico-psychic states which have not yet been sufficiently investigated. Repulsive personally, they necessarily must be to every approximately normal human being. But the man who professes to be cast into throes of horror by them (in the spirit of the blatant balderdash affected by our criminal law, of the “not-even-to-be-mentioned-among-Christians” style) we may be sure, if he speak truth, is well-nigh as morbidly constituted as the habitual indulgers in them, and if, as is most probable, he is shamming, is the most contemptible kind of humbug. The well-balanced mind sees in them a problem, and is neither affected by a morbid physical fascination nor an equally morbid moral loathing, when he hears of them. As an instance of the cruel superstition dominating, we may mention the monstrous legal infamy that a poor ignorant country lad may be, and is constantly sentenced to ten years’ penal servitude for a fantastic “crime,” while a wretch who three parts murders another man with the most cold-blooded premeditation, gets from three to five years.

Secondly, we have to get rid of the exaggerated sentiment which places all offences of this nature on a pinnacle of heinousness far exceeding crimes of brutality or those occasioned by greed for gain (other than actual theft, fraud, etc.). The man who, for the sake of making a few shillings extra profit, will sell meat “ unfit for human consumption,” that is, will sell poison instead of food, a proceeding whereby whole families may have their healths or even lives endangered, is visited in the majority of cases with a pecuniary penalty; in one or two instances only can I recall that the person convicted has got a term of imprisonment, and that no more than one month! Compare this with the light and airy way in which a sentence of six months for some paltry “indecent assault” will be passed. The disparity of sentence is rendered the more striking when we reflect on the difference between the character of the evidence in these two cases. In the first mentioned the evidence is generally so obvious that not so much as an attempt is made on the part of the defence to upset it. In the other, in most cases, it amounts to no more than the opinion of twelve men (all or the majority of whom may be possibly paragons of human wisdom, but more probably numbskulls of the thickest order) that a particular man or woman is speaking the truth. Now when we consider that a careful examination of several hundred cases of this class of charge in Birmingham by Mr. Lawson Tait elicited the fact that scarcely five per cent. of them had any foundation in fact, the extent to which the present system of police and criminal-court administration and the attitude of public opinion which supports it, plays into hands of the blackmailer, may be imagined. The only cure for the present abominable state of things is the acquirement by magistrates, judges and juries, and in the last resort of course by public opinion generally, of something like a true sense of proportion in the assessment of the heinousness of offences. Until the average man will drop superstition and take to a reasonable common sense in dealing with these matters, it is useless, I repeat, to hope for any serious or permanent improvement in the matter of blackmail in this country.

The greatest safeguard of the female blackmailer against conviction in the present day is the plea of hysteria. The defence is almost invariably set up in the extremely rare cases in which the female blackmailer is prosecuted at all, that she really believed the lying statements she has made. This defence is almost as invariably accepted by the jury. Hence, possibly, there may be some excuse for the reluctance of the authorities to prosecute in these cases, knowing as they do that the result will almost certainly he abortive, and public money uselessly expended. This consideration, however, should surely give them pause in the alacrity with which they take up cases on the other side. Its things now are, it is not too much to say that blackmail by women is one of the safest and most lucrative branches of female employment. Those who practise it know the extreme improbability of their being prosecuted at all, and the practical certainty that if they manage their case with exceptional clumsiness, and do by an off-chance get prosecuted, they will be acquitted as poor hysterical women not responsible for their actions.

Now it is plain that so long as this plea of irresponsibility on the ground of hysterical delusions is allowed to result in an acquittal and enlargement of the prisoner, and so long as the authorities remain indifferent to the prosecution for perjury of this class of female charge-bringer, the Metropolitan Railway, for example, will remain as unsafe for men to travel on alone as it is at present. Nevertheless, it is true that hysteria does occasionally produce a state of dementia, the symptom of which is this bringing of false charges in a manner so specious as to deceive the very judicial “elect.” I would suggest, therefore, that in all cases where the defence took the form of a plea of hysterical delusion, and when this plea was accepted by the jury, that the acquitted prisoner should be immediately consigned on the judge’s order to a criminal lunatic asylum. Such a woman is evidently, in her way, quite as dangerous left at large as the mere male homicidal lunatic who, acquitted on the ground of insanity, is promptly sent to Broadmoor. This coupled with an energetic action against the prosecution in all bogus charges of this nature, on the part of the Treasury, would soon render the female blackmailing profession less safe and less profitable.

If the law is partial to the female charge-maker, it is scarcely less so to the police-prosecutor. The object of the policeman in bringing false charges against the lonely wayfarer at night, is not only the obvious one of extorting money from his victims, but also of currying favour with his superiors and possibly receiving promotion, by a show of zeal and energy. The chief points to be noted here, are (1) the credulity with which police-evidence is received by magistrates as against civilian evidence, and (2) the favour accorded to a charge-bringing policeman by the police authorities. This whole question of police-blackmail was, however, so thoroughly thrashed out at the time of the false charge brought against Mr. Alexander some months back that it is sufficient here to call attention to the fact that the system is still going on which renders it possible, and that cases of it are doubtless happening well-nigh every night of which we hear nothing.



1. The ultimate prosecution in the cases named devolves of course now upon the Treasury, but for the sake of convenience I use the old terms for the charge-maker.


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