"a band of rascals who may blackmail" [3GAB]
For anyone who's been paying attention to the news cycle in the last 12 hours, we've seen a barrage of coverage of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and his salvo against the extortionate attempts of American Media, Inc. and David Pecker, owners of the tabloid The National Enquirer ("No thank you, Mr. Pecker").
We don't intend to spend any time on those salacious details, but we did want to call out Bezos's mention of extortion and blackmail to consider all the times that blackmail played a part in the Sherlock Holmes stories.
There are a number of examples of blackmail in the Canon, and they make the perfect case for bringing Sherlock Holmes into a situation. Typically, the victim would not wish to go to the police, nor do they prefer to capitulate to whatever demands there are, which would then leave them exposed. Who better than Sherlock Holmes to come to their aid?
“Your Majesty has indeed committed an indiscretion.”The first mention of blackmail in the Canon is in "A Scandal in Bohemia." The King of Bohemia pays a visit on Sherlock Holmes to inform him of a difficult situation in which he finds himself with Irene Adler. The two carried on a relationship, and Holmes sums up the situation succinctly:
“Your Majesty, as I understand, became entangled with this young person, wrote her some compromising letters, and is now desirous of getting those letters back.”Holmes dismissed the notion that those letters would be considered authentic, bringing up forgery, stolen note-paper, an imitated seal, and a purchased photograph. It was only when His Majesty indicated that they were both in the photograph that Holmes knew he had to act.
“His grip has been upon me for twenty years”While the word "blackmail" isn't mentioned in "The Boscombe Valley Mystery," it's the motive behind the death that Sherlock Holmes investigated. John Turner and James McCarthy met in Australia and became part of the Ballarat Gang, who were highway robbers. Turner moved back to England and eventually ran into his old partner in town:
“ ‘Here we are, Jack,’ says he, touching me on the arm; ‘we’ll be as good as a family to you. There’s two of us, me and my son, and you can have the keeping of us. If you don’t—it’s a fine, law-abiding country is England, and there’s always a policeman within hail.’ ”Certainly a heavily implied form of blackmail. And it only got worse for Turner when the McCarthys moved out to Herefordshire:
“Well, down they came to the west country, there was no shaking them off, and there they have lived rent free on my best land ever since. There was no rest for me, no peace, no forgetfulness; turn where I would, there was his cunning, grinning face at my elbow. It grew worse as Alice grew up, for he soon saw I was more afraid of her knowing my past than of the police. Whatever he wanted he must have, and whatever it was I gave him without question, land, money, houses, until at last he asked a thing which I could not give. He asked for Alice.”
“ ‘Bless you, sir, I know where all my old friends are’ ”Similarly, in "The Gloria Scott," we find another example of old criminals (in this case who were sentenced to transportation in Australia) who make a renewed acquaintance decades later. Hudson reappears and gives Victor Trevor, now a J.P., a fright, and implies that such a distinguished gentleman can't afford to have his past brought to light:
“ ‘Thank you, sir,’ said the seaman, touching his fore-lock. ‘I’m just off a two-yearer in an eight-knot tramp, short-handed at that, and I wants a rest. I thought I’d get it either with Mr. Beddoes or with you.’Things got worse in the Trevor household, as young Trevor described.
“ ‘Ah!’ cried Trevor. ‘You know where Mr. Beddoes is?’
“ ‘Bless you, sir, I know where all my old friends are,’ said the fellow with a sinister smile.”
“ ‘My father made the fellow gardener,’ said my companion, ‘and then, as that did not satisfy him, he was promoted to be butler. The house seemed to be at his mercy, and he wandered about and did what he chose in it. The maids complained of his drunken habits and his vile language. The dad raised their wages all round to recompense them for the annoyance. The fellow would take the boat and my father’s best gun and treat himself to little shooting trips.’ ”Finally, Trevor Sr. did exactly what Jeff Bezos did: he made a full confession to his son in a long document, before Hudson could expose him.
“I kept my knowledge to myself and waited to see what would come of it.”Peter Cairns was a spare harpooner who joined the Sea Unicorn for a voyage when they picked up Neligan, who had escaped with some securities following the failure of Dawson and Neligan. He witnessed “the skipper tip up [Neligan's] heels and put him over the rail in the middle watch of a dark night.”
From there he shared his plan to blackmail Peter Carey:
“I found out where he was through a sailor man that had met him in London, and down I went to squeeze him.”But rather than squeezing him, Cairns ended up poking him—clear through the chest with harpoon.
“He is the king of all the blackmailers.”Sherlock Holmes held a special place in his heart for blackmailers, and in particular for Charles Augustus Milverton, whom he called "the king of all the blackmailers."
“Do you feel a creeping, shrinking sensation, Watson, when you stand before the serpents in the Zoo and see the slithery, gliding, venomous creatures, with their deadly eyes and wicked, flattened faces? Well, that’s how Milverton impresses me. I’ve had to do with fifty murderers in my career, but the worst of them never gave me the repulsion which I have for this fellow.”High praise, indeed. When Holmes went on to describe exactly what Milverton did and how he did it, Watson remarked that he had seldom heard Sherlock Holmes speak "with such intensity of feeling."
“With a smiling face and a heart of marble he will squeeze and squeeze until he has drained them dry. The fellow is a genius in his way, and would have made his mark in some more savoury trade. His method is as follows: He allows it to be known that he is prepared to pay very high sums for letters which compromise people of wealth or position. He receives these wares not only from treacherous valets or maids, but frequently from genteel ruffians who have gained the confidence and affection of trusting women...Everything which is in the market goes to Milverton, and there are hundreds in this great city who turn white at his name. No one knows where his grip may fall, for he is far too rich and far too cunning to work from hand to mouth. He will hold a card back for years in order to play it at the moment when the stake is best worth winning. I have said that he is the worst man in London, and I would ask you how could one compare the ruffian who in hot blood bludgeons his mate with this man, who methodically and at his leisure tortures the soul and wrings the nerves in order to add to his already swollen money-bags?”A visit to Baker Street by Milverton showed him to be prepared and shrewd in his dealings with Holmes and Watson, and must have frustrated Sherlock Holmes, given the latter's inability to effect a positive outcome for his client.
A classic villain, Milverton managed to stay outside of the law by virtue of the embarrassing nature of the documents which he possessed.
“But surely,” said I, “the fellow must be within the grasp of the law?”And thus, Sherlock Holmes went to work.
“Technically, no doubt, but practically not. What would it profit a woman, for example, to get him a few months’ imprisonment if her own ruin must immediately follow? His victims dare not hit back.”
Back in present day, Mr. Pecker of AMI was like Milverton, holding onto sordid material, keeping it out of the public eye until such time that it profited him or his associates. His organization then threatened to release the materials related to Mr. Bezos's case.
But this time, the victim dared to hit back.