Accused of an “abominable crime”: punishing homosexual blackmail threats in London, 1723–1823


For much of the eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century, the criminal justice system in the United Kingdom operated under “the Bloody Code” in which more than 200 crimes were punishable by death. Despite the apparent severity of this punitive system, the laws around extortion during this period were ambiguous and unclear. Drawing on records from London’s Old Bailey over the century from 1723 to 1823, this research examines the specific offence of threatening to accuse a person of criminalised homosexual acts for the purposes of extortion. Drawing on a range of cases in London over a century, this research examines the varying judicial treatment of crimes committed in person versus extortion conducted in written form — a major distinction under the conditions of the Bloody Code. It highlights the inconsistency in the application of the law, as well as presenting potential explanations as to why similar crimes were punished so differently in Georgian Britain. Based on case file analysis, it comes to an intriguing conclusion about how these cases were handled by the Old Bailey, coming to the conclusion that sentences for homosexual extortion attempts were often mitigated in cases where there was a question as to whether the victim was, in reality, a gay man. This conclusion has serious implications for our understanding of the nexus between homosexuality and the English legal system in this complex period.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. 1.

    The Black Act 1723 (UK), 9 Geo. 1 c. 22.

  2. 2.

    McLynn, F. (2013), Crime and punishment in eighteenth century England. Routledge.

  3. 3.

    R v Donnally (1779) 1 Leach 193.

  4. 4.

    R v Southerton (1805) 6 East 126.

  5. 5.

    Nash, D. (2010), ‘Moral crimes and the law in Britain since 1700’, in A. Kilday and D. Nash, eds., Histories of Crime: Britain, 1600–2000, 17–38. Palgrave Macmillan.

  6. 6.

    King, P. (2000), Crime, justice and discretion in England 1740–1820. Oxford University Press.

  7. 7.

    Yeomans, H. (2018). Historical context and the criminological imagination. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 19(4), 456–474.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Skocpol, T. (1984), ‘Sociology’s historical imagination’, in T. Skocpol, ed., Vision and method in historical sociology, 1–21. Cambridge University Press.

  9. 9.

    Bleakley, P. and Kehoe, T. J. (2020), ‘Historical Criminology as a Field for Interdisciplinary Research and Transdisciplinary Discourse’, in T. J. Kehoe and J. Pfeifer, eds., Researching History and Crime: A Transdisciplinary Approach, forthcoming. Emerald.

  10. 10.

    May, T. (1997), Social research: Issues, Methods & Process. Open University Press.

  11. 11.

    Scott, J. (1990), A matter of record: Documentary sources in social research. Polity Press.

  12. 12.

    Thompson, E. P. (1975), Whigs and hunters: The origins of the black act. Pantheon Books.

  13. 13.

    Hay, D. (1975), ‘Property, authority and the criminal law’, in D. Hay and P. Linebaugh, eds., Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, 17–63. Allen Lane.

  14. 14.

    Radzinowicz, L. (1945). The Waltham black act: A study of the legislative attitude towards crime in the eighteenth century. The Cambridge Law Journal, 9(1), 56–81.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Gattrell, V. A. C. (1994), The hanging tree: Execution and the English people, 1770–1868. Oxford University Press.

  16. 16.

    Follett, R. R. (2001), ‘Mitigating the “bloody code”: An introduction’, in R. R. Follett, ed., Evangelicalism, penal theory and the politics of criminal law reform in England, 1808–30, 1–20. Palgrave Macmillan.

  17. 17.

    Landau, N. (2002), ‘Introduction’, in N. Landau, ed., Law, crime and English society, 1660–1830, 1–16. Cambridge University Press.

  18. 18.

    Sharpe, J. A. (1984), Crime in early modern England, 1550–1750. Pearson.

  19. 19.

    Innes, J., & Styles, J. (1986). The crime wave: Recent writing on crime and criminal justice in eighteenth-century England. Journal of British Studies, 25(4), 380–435.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Woods, J. B. (2014), ‘“Queering criminology”: Overview of the state of the field’, in D. Peterson and V. R. Panfil, eds., Handbook of LGBT Communities, 15–41. Springer.

  21. 21.

    Johnson, P. (2019). Buggery and parliament, 1533-2017. Parliamentary History, 38(3), 325–341.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22.

    Grosclaude, J. (2014). From bugger to homosexual: The English sodomite as criminally deviant (1533-1967). French Journal of British Studies, 9(1), 31–46.

    Google Scholar 

  23. 23.

    The Buggery Act 1533 (UK), 25 Hen. 8 c. 6.

  24. 24.

    Greenberg, D. F. (1988), The construction of homosexuality. University of Chicago Press.

  25. 25.

    Winder, W. H. D. (1941). The development of blackmail. Modern Law Review, 5(1), 21–50.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26.

    McLaren, A. (2002), Sexual blackmail: A modern history. Harvard University Press.

  27. 27.

    Norton, R. (2005). Recovering gay history from the old bailey. The London Journal, 30(1), 39–54.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28.

    Norton, R. (1999), Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, available at (accessed 9 November 2020).

  29. 29.

    Mangan, C. (2016). “Not fit to be mentioned”: Eighteenth-century sodomy and Francis Lathom’s The Midnight Bell. Studies in Gothic Fiction, 5(1), 4–12.

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30.

    De Jouvenel, B. (2017), The art of conjecture. Routledge.

  31. 31.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1725, 15 January), available at: (accessed 27 May 2020).

  32. 32.

    Evans, H. (2013). The bloody code. Manchester Student Law Review, 2(28), 28–40.

    Google Scholar 

  33. 33.

    R v Woodward (1707) 11 Mod. 137.

  34. 34.

    R v Robinson (1792) 2 Leach 749.

  35. 35.

    Ackroyd, P. (2017), Queer City: Gay London from the romans to the present day. Random House.

  36. 36.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1728, 28 February), available at: (accessed 28 May 2020).

  37. 37.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1729, 16 April), available at: (accessed 19 May 2020).

  38. 38.

    Markwell, K. (1998). Space and place in gay men’s leisure. Annals of Leisure Research, 1(1), 19–36.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. 39.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1730, 4 December), available at: (accessed 19 May 2020).

  40. 40.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1794, 4 June), available at: (accessed 20 May 2020).

  41. 41.

    Hall, L. A. (2000), Sex, gender and social change in Britain since 1800. Palgrave Macmillan.

  42. 42.

    Tryal for a Conspiracy (1751). George Faulkner.

  43. 43.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1759, 17 July), available at: (accessed 18 May 2020).

  44. 44.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1767, 3 June), available at: (accessed 18 May 2020).

  45. 45.

    Trumbach, R. (2007). Blackmail for sodomy in eighteenth-century London. Historical Reflections, 33(1), 23–39.

    Google Scholar 

  46. 46.

    An Act for Allowing the Benefit of Clergy 1823 (UK), 4 Geo. IV ch. 54.

  47. 47.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1822, 4 December), available at: (accessed 19 May 2020).

  48. 48.

    Proceedings of the Old Bailey (1823, 9 April), available at: (accessed 19 May 2020).

Download references

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Paul Bleakley.

Additional information

Publisher’s note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bleakley, P. Accused of an “abominable crime”: punishing homosexual blackmail threats in London, 1723–1823. Crime Law Soc Change (2021).

Download citation