Part of a two-week series on the pull of bad influences in our lives and in the culture.
The word “blackmail” has deceit written all over it. Nine letters to connote all the dirtiness and manipulation that comes with the threat of disclosure. But when you think of “blackmail,” do you picture, well, mail? Confidential missives that threaten to enter the wrong hands? I’m always reminded of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” where the narrative winds to follow the possible locations of an incriminating letter. In daytime soaps and murder mysteries, blackmail regularly happens through the transfer of mail. As we know, letters are by nature compromising—not only forms of material evidence, they’re also an intimate form of communication, presumed to be penned with the intention of being for your eyes only.
But when it comes to the word’s actual origins, the association is a false one. “Blackmail” does not derive, as one might conjecture, from “letters of evil intent.” Instead, the word originates from the 16th century “black-maill,” where “maill” had nothing to do with letters, but instead meant “rent” or “tax.” Landowners paid “black-maill” in return for protection from looters. The etymological through-line—at least given our current understanding of the word—was that payment was made to the looters themselves. A lose-lose situation, indeed, when one is coerced into preemptively paying one’s robbers.
The can’t-win-ness of the situation didn’t end there. 16th-century legislature tried to put a stop to the injustice by threatening to kill whoever engaged in black-maill, regardless of whether you were doing the robbing or the one being robbed. The first textual account of black-maill appears in a 1530 Scottish document where serial looter, one Adam Scot, ended his career with a beheading.
Blackmail, in this sense, had finite limits—a concrete amount of possessions or money that people could “willingly” give up. While we may no longer think of blackmail in terms of material objects of exchange, the initial meaning of blackmail actually stays pretty close to contemporary understandings of the act. Blackmail is what happens when a person accedes something, not because he or she wants to, but because it’s better than losing something else.
As a narrative, however, modern blackmail has evolved. The choices presented by 16th-century blackmail were limited: either one gave up one’s possessions, or had them taken by force. The outcome remained, more or less, the same. By comparison, the crimes and consequences of 19th-century blackmail were vastly more sophisticated. As literary canon spanning from the British sensation novel to French realism (Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret, Émile Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series, most of Sherlock Holmes) will tell you, there are worst things than losing money. One example: losing your dignity. Sometimes, no amount of money can ease the devastation of a roomful of judgmental stares (Lily Bart, I’m looking at you). Alexander Welsh’s landmark book George Eliot and Blackmail (buy it! read it!) focuses only on Eliot’s oeuvre, but his thesis expands across the long 19th century: at the heart of the Victorian novel is the blackmail plot.
If the whole point of blackmail is to control your victim without leaving any trace of doing so, then how does one research truly successful acts of blackmail? Blackmail only works when the information that would indict one’s victim is not leaked. Both blackmailer and victim share the desire to keep information private. Blackmail is counterintuitive. In the 1890s, banker Edwin Main Post and his wife Emily Post (yes, of the etiquette books) shocked New York when they disclosed their personal secrets rather than accede to the blackmail threat of a newspaper publisher. In theory, the Posts did something no one—blackmailer and victim alike—wishes to see happen. But if blackmail is fundamentally a question about control, then Edwin Post decided that telling on himself was better than giving that option to anyone else.
In “The Purloined Letter,” police spend days scrounging through the criminal’s apartment, cracking apart every book spine in the hope of finding the stolen letter. Little do they know (or expect) that the dirty data is hidden in plain sight, hanging on a card rack. Poe’s purloined letter reminds us that knowledge is often most menacing when easily accessible. The art of blackmail means never having to release information, but always suggesting that one could.
For the shy and passive aggressive, blackmail might be the perfect means of control. Hone your blackmailing chops and you can utilize them in a range of scenarios: betrayal, revenge, moral castigation (theirs, not yours). With the cat not yet out of the bag, you can sit back and watch others enact dramas as they try to keep that cat safely confined. The less you tell, the more they’re likely to do. No wonder soap opera plots run on the clichés of backmail narratives—blackmailing is just a synonym for cliffhanger. It’s not over until the blackmailer squeals.