Duhaime's Law Dictionary

Blackmail Definition:

The obtaining or attempting to obtain something by the use of threats.

Related Terms: Extortion

This word, blackmail, is not used anymore in criminal law as the formal title of a criminal offense. the conduct it sought to prohibit in centuries past, is now captured within the criminal offense of extortion.

"Charging a person with being a blackmailer is equivalent to charging him with being guilty of the crime of extortion."1

Consider the wording at §29 of the 1916 Larceny Act of England which Osborne relies on to define blackmail as the demand of money or property with menaces or threats to accuse of a crime or to expose some discreditable incident, or of injury to their person or some other person, or property :

29. Every person who (i) utters, knowing the contents thereof, any letter or writing demanding of any person with menaces, and without any reasonable or probable cause, any property or valuable thing; (ii) utters, knowing the contents thereof, any letter or writing accusing or threatening to accuse any other person (whether living or dead) of any crime to which this section applies, with intent to extort or gain thereby any property or valuable thing from any person; (iii) with intent to extort or gain any property or valuable thing from any person accuses or threatens to accuse either that person or any other person (whether living or dead) of any such crime; shall be guilty of felony, and on conviction thereof liable to penal servitude for life, and, if a male under the age of sixteen years, to be once privately whipped in addition to any other punishment to which lie may by law be liable."

Ernest Bowen-Rowlands reported these words of Harry Bodkin Poland, an old English barrister with, at the time, 72 years at the English bar:blackmail

"Blackmail ... surely connotes a greater moral to than the sudden killing of a man... Blackmail is the obtaining or attempting to obtain anything by threats or menaces, is a foul and most dastardly crime.

" A blackmailer is always dangerous. He trades on the weaknesses of men and woman. I have known heart rending cases where a blackmailer has driven his victim to suicide, and has plunged all families into room.

" No mercy should be shown to the blackmailer who is usually the worst type of humanity."

For some reason, American law professors became enamored with the term and started a series of dizzying articles on the otherwise simple concept of blackmail. "Richard Posner," wrote Anderson and Block of another academic in the affray, in their article in the New York Law School Law Review, "defines blackmail as the attempt to trade silence for money. But a more accurate definition would be willingness to trade money for silence."2


  • Bowen-Rowlands, Ernest, Seventy-Two Years At The Bar (London: MacMillan and Co., Limited, 1924), at page 128.
  • NOTE 1: Words adopted in Greenbelt Cooperative Publishing Association v. Bresler, 252 A. 2d 755, Court of Appeals of Maryland, 1969. But see Anderson and Block op.cit. below, at page 543: "Another critical definitional issue concerns the distinction between extortion and blackmail. Blackmail can only be an offer, not a threat; extortion can be only the latter. Further, extortion is the threat to do something which should be illegal (murder, rape, pillage), while in blackmail the offer is to commit the paradigm lawful act (i.e., engage in free speech or gossip about secrets which embarrass or humiliate other people). For example, since it would be legal to reveal a secret about adultery, it should also be lawful to offer to do just that, or to accept money, when offered, in exchange for not making such a revelation. In contrast, since it is illegal to murder or rape, it should also be a criminal act to threaten such acts."
  • NOTE 2: Anderson, Gary and Block, Walter, Blackmail, Extortion, and Exchange, 44 N. Y. L. Rev. 541 (2000-2001). The reference to the work of R. Posner is to Blackmail Privacy and Freedom of Contract, 141 U. PA. L. Rev. 1817 (1993).
  • Osborn, P. G., A Concise Law Dictionary, 4th Edition (London: Sweet & Maxwell, 1954).

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