The Encyclopedia Americana (1920)/Blackmail

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The Encyclopedia Americana
Blackmail
Edition of 1920. See also Blackmail on Wikipedia, and the disclaimer.

BLACKMAIL, originally rent paid in labor, grain or baser metal as distinguished from silver or white money; a certain rate of money, corn, cattle or the like, anciently paid, in the north of England and in Scotland, to certain men who were allied to robbers, to be protected by them from pillage. It was carried to such an extent as to become the subject of special legislation by the English Parliament in 1601, and also in Scotland. Blackmail was levied in the unsettled districts bordering the Highlands of Scotland till the middle of the 18th century. In the United States, in common language and in general acceptation it is equivalent to and synonymous with extortion — the exaction of money, either for the performance of a duty, the prevention of an injury or the exercise of an influence. It supposes the service to be unlawful and the payment involuntary. Not unfrequently it is extorted by threats, or by operating upon the fears or the credulity or by promises to conceal, or to expose, the weaknesses, the follies or the crimes of the victim. There is moral compulsion, which neither necessity nor fear nor credulity can resist. The New York statutes upon the subject have been adopted in substance by many other States of the Union. These statutes provide, substantially, that a person who, knowing the contents thereof, and with intent, by means thereof, to extort or gain any money or other property, or to do, abet or procure any illegal or wrongful act, sends, delivers or in any manner causes to be forwarded or received, or makes and parts with for the purpose that there may be sent or delivered, any letter or writing threatening to accuse any person of a crime, or to do any injury to any person or to any property or to publish or connive at publishing any libel, or to expose or impute to any person any deformity or disgrace, is punishable by imprisonment for a term usually not exceeding five years. In New York and in various other States it is also a misdemeanor for any person who, under circumstances not amounting to robbery, or an attempt at robbery, with intent to extort or gain any money or olher property, verbally makes such a threat as would be criminal under the statute mentioned above; and it is immaterial whether a threat made as specified in the statute is of things to be done or omitted by the offender, or by any other person.