Blackmail is a form of extortion, and becomes fraud when either the incriminating circumstances have been set up for the express purpose of getting money out of the victim, or the victim has done nothing, but can’t prove it.
Both are variants of the badger game, possibly so called because of the nasty sport of badger baiting, where the poor innocent badger is attacked by a ruthless pack of dogs for the entertainment of the crowd and the enrichment of the animal’s owners and canny gamblers on the outcome.
The classic badger game
The essence of the trick is to lure the victim into behaviour of which they are ashamed, or that will get them into hot water with family or employers.
The classic ploy involves two fraudsters. One sets the trap, and the other springs it.
A Good Samaritan meets a badger
I was reading a case in point in the Old Bailey records. In the mid-nineteenth century, an immigrant from Germany sought financial help from a well known member of the German expatriate community in London. Poor woman. Her husband needed money in order to travel to join her.
Once she received the first handout, she needed another. She couldn’t live on air until her husband arrived, after all. Then she discovered that she was with child. Then she was ill. Then the child was ill. And all the time, her husband was delayed and the philanthropist continued to provide funds. Until the day that she threw herself into his arms to express her undying gratitude. Just as her husband burst into the room and declared himself wronged.
The philanthropist then faced a demand for even more money. Far more money. A thousand pounds would soothe the wounded feelings of the devastated husband.
Unfortunately for the fraudsters, the philanthropist was made of stouter stuff than they expected. He laid an information with the police, and the couple were arrested, tried, and convicted.
Of course, he must have been confident about his reputation, and the record does not show whether he had a loyal and trusting wife, was a single gentleman, or slept on the couch for the next year.
A single trick with countless variations
You can imagine the many variations on the ploy, especially in the straight-laced moral environment that was the public face of the Victorian era. Embarrassment, marital disharmony, and social ostracism were all weapons in the hands of the fraudster.
Nothing was off-the table apparently as a potential con: inappropriate sexual advances, child pornography, bizarre fetishes, sexual or otherwise, sexual harassment in the workplace, or professional misconduct (those are but a few). One that gained national attention via the August 25, 1930 edition of Time magazine involved a “sick” woman visiting a doctor, who after describing symptoms that would require her to disrobe, would claim misconduct. Sometimes an “outraged husband” would burst into the room and threaten the doctor with criminal charges or a lawsuit. (Sharon Hall on Felonious Females)
And there was worse. When acting on same-sex attraction was punishable by death, playing the badger game could be a very lucrative activity for the fraudulent lover and that lover’s partner. Acquire a set of incriminating letters, and the victim had no choices beyond paying up, killing the fraudsters, or fleeing the country.
And the badger game still worked if the victim was poor but had wealthy relatives who cared about their family reputation. “Your grandson has compromised my daughter and the problem will go away for ten thousand pounds.”
Or perhaps the victim was innocent but couldn’t prove it. To save his reputation, he might well pay up anyway. “This is your baby and I am going to tell your wife.”
Today, badger games have moved to social media. Which you might want to keep in mind next time you’re tempted to share a revealing photograph with an intimate friend.