Sexual Blackmail: a modern history by Angus McLaren

In prewar courts or today's tabloids, always distrust the sexual accuser, advises Richard Davenport-Hines

Saturday 28 December 2002 01:00 GMT

Angus McLaren's brainwave has been to disinter old stories of sexual blackmail from newspapers and more arcane sources in England and the United States. He has used these to compile a fascinating, humane and thought-provoking history of social attitudes, human intimacy and sexual taboos. Sexual Blackmail is full of good stories and racy characters – rent boys, vamps, conmen, gold-diggers, soppy vicars, senescent lechers, pyjama parties, tabloid bullies and bossy prigs. Some of the tales in this book are jolly. Others are variously pitiful, cruel and sordid. Overall, they constitute a strong reminder of what should be the first law of sexual ethics: always distrust the accuser.

Blackmail emerged when 18th-century criminals realised that the laws against sodomy could enable them to entrap men, and extort their money. As early as 1757, an English statute made blackmail a criminal offence. Opportunities increased when sexual conduct became the index of respectability for the 19th-century middle classes.

In England, blackmail was more tightly linked to homosexuality than in the puritan US, where activities prohibited by law or social sanction included seduction, adultery, oral sex and inter-racial fornication. The notorious Labouchere Amendment of 1885, whose vague wording put more Englishmen at risk of prosecution for homosexuality, proved an incentive to false accusation and extortion.

So did America's Mann Act of 1910, targeting inter-state fornication and adultery. Like prohibition against alcohol or drugs, proscriptive sexual legislation created not only new classes of criminal but was an incentive to new forms of crime.

The peak period of sexual blackmail was the Twenties and the Depression years of the Thirties. This was partly because people were short of money, but surely also because what we term Victorian values were actually enforced most pervasively during the reigns of Kings George V and VI.

Newspaper reports of blackmail trials defended the reputation of men in authority. The well-off victim was portrayed as naïve or foolish: the youths, or designing women, as irredeemably corrupt. Most blackmailers were exceptionally nasty, but the violence with which judges denounced them seems designed to deflect attention from the sexual indiscretions of the professional men who had been victimised. There was a real element of class solidarity in judicial language.

Blackmail was not only associated with homosexuality. Courtesans threatened to publish indiscreet memoirs unless clients paid to have their names pressed. When Harriet Wilson tried this trick on the Duke of Wellington in the 1820s, he famously retorted, "Publish and be damned!" Criminals, particularly in the US, organised "shake-downs" in which a woman would target a susceptible man, who would then be trapped by an accomplice posing as her husband. "I caught them all," gloated an Irish blackmailer known as Chicago May in the 1890s. "University Professors, ministers, priests, gamblers, country yokels, sportsmen, gentlefolk and visiting grandees."

In fiction, from Poe's "The Purloined Letter" (1845) through the Sherlock Holmes story "Charles Augustus Milverton" (1899), it was women who were portrayed as weak and therefore natural blackmail victims. In fact, women were seldom vulnerable to blackmail because they were kept under family surveillance, which limited opportunities for sexual adventures, and usually had little money of their own. McLaren has missed one of the best-documented exceptions. Madeleine Smith, a rich man's daughter, had rapturous sex with a packing clerk, whom she afterwards sent explicit letters glorying in her pleasure. When in 1857 she became engaged to a prosperous suitor, the clerk threatened to create a scandal with these letters – at least until she had fed him a fatal dose of arsenic.

There were innumerable cases of women being blackmailed after abortions, especially during the Depression, when women needed to limit their family size. Similarly in the Thirties, when women were expected by employers to stop work on marriage, several career women were blackmailed with threats to put them out of their job by revealing that they were married.

Tulkinghorn, Dickens's blackmailing solicitor in Bleak House, was realistically drawn. McLaren has identified numerous blackmailing English solicitors and American attorneys through the years, although he omits the great Victorian solicitor Sir George Lewis, who used to hire narks or bribe servants so as to gather incriminating information with which to bludgeon witnesses into changing statements or opponents into settling cases. This practice doubtless continues.

In the early 20th century the press increasingly savoured stories of sexual blackmail with their sensational disclosures, ritualised humiliation and lip-smacking retribution. In English cases, anxieties about the breaking of class boundaries were the equivalent of American horror of inter-racial contact. American news reports were often even more titillating, with heavily drawn morals intended to deter men from temptation.

McLaren analyses such films as Hitchcock's Blackmail (1929), Busby Berkeley's The Gold Diggers of 1933, and Victim (1961), in which Dirk Bogarde gambled his reputation by playing a barrister blackmailed for being queer. He has unearthed a rousing House of Commons debate on blackmail in 1925, and quotes vividly from police files of the Thirties.

Although stories of blackmail receded during the Second World War, London policemen in the Fifties, as one admitted, "looked on homosexuals as a source of extra income". The ringleader of a highly organised gang of 70 members engaged in entrapping and blackmailing American fags in the Sixties was a Chicago cop.

Law reforms in the Sixties, and a lessening sense of shame, disarmed some extortionists. Only someone who feared a loss of reputation was an apt target for blackmail. McLaren notes the Nineties fashion for outing – ostensibly to reduce sexual duplicity – and demonstrates that cheque-book journalism, and the vile tabloid peddling of sexual secrets, have rejuvenated blackmail.

Some newspapers pay small fortunes to lying sneaks and print unsubstantiated accusations in order to soil reputations. There are lucrative cases where police arrest celebrities, and leak sensational insinuations to grateful hacks, but never press charges.

Although New Labour is visibly dismantling legal discriminations against homosexuality, its attitudes to sexual offenders are prolonging the old blackmailers' mentality by new means. Some details of the rewards system may have changed, but the threat of sexual revelations, and the trade in reputations, remains a paying business.

Richard Davenport- Hines's global history of narcotics, 'The Pursuit of Oblivion', is published in Phoenix paperbacks

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