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.
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Bleakley, P. Accused of an “abominable crime”: punishing homosexual blackmail threats in London, 1723–1823. Crime Law Soc Change (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10611-020-09925-y