Image of two men kissingHomosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook compiled by Rictor Norton

James Donally, Extortionist, 1779

The following nwspaper reports refer to the trial of James Donally for extortion, which became the legal precedent for treating extortion of someone by threatening to accuse them of sodomy as a case of robbery, a felony punishable by death. For full analysis of the James Donally case, see Legal Precedents in Blackmail Cases, 1792 and Legal Precedents in Blackmail Cases, 1824.]

12–19 February 1779

Yesterday Morning, at Nine o'Clock, came on at the Old-Bailey the Trial of James Donolly, for a Highway-Robbery on the 18th of January last, at Noon, in Soho-Square, on the Honourable Mr. Fielding, youngest Son to the Earl of Denbigh. The Prisoner's Offence was stopping Mr. Fielding, and getting Money from him under Pretence of charging Mr. Fielding, a Youth under Age, with unnatural Practices. The Facts were fully proved by Mr. Fielding and his Brother, John Fielding. The Prisoner in his Defence urged a Point of Law, and submitted it to the Judges, Buller and Perryn, whether it was a Street-Robbery. He also said that the Charge was never thought of till Mr. Fielding came to the Public-Office in Bow-Street, where Sir John Fielding put it into the Prosecutor's Head. This was positively denied by Lord and Mr. Fielding, on Oath. Judge Buller observed to the Jury, that the latter Part of the Prisoner's Defence was an high Aggravation of his Offence, for he accused Sir John Fielding of Subornation, and Lord and Mr. Fielding with absolute Perjury. With regard to the former part of it, his Lordshiip observed, that to constitute a Highway Robbery there was no necessity for Corporal Fear; for if a Person gives his Money under Terror of Mind, and compulsively, and against his Will, or for fear of Loss of Character, it is in Law established to be a capital Offence, nor was there any Necessity for a Person so giving his Money to be in dread of his Life by a Charge exhibited against him, it was sufficient that the Money was obtained under Terror of Mind, &c. Under this Direction the Jury found him guilty, but Judge Buller respited Sentence until the Opinion of the twelve Judges can be had, he taking the Verdict of the Jury, that "the Money was obtained under Terror of Mind." (Derby Mercury)

Monday 22 February 1779

Yesterday the Sessions ended at the Old-Bailey, when only three Persons were tried, one of whom was capitally convicted, viz. James Donally, alias Patrick Donally, for assaulting the Hon. Charles Fielding, Esq; on the Highway, putting him in Fear, and taking from him one Guinea and a Half; the Robbery was committed under the Threat of charging the young Gentlemen [sic] with an unnatural Crime, in Case he did not give him Money. . . . the Judgment against James Donally being respited for the Opinion of the Twelve Judges. (Northampton Mercury)

Saturday 8 May 1779

On Thursday last the twelve Judges met at Chief Justice De Grey's houe in Lincoln's-inn-fields, to give their opinion on the case of James Donolly, convicted the session before last for a robbery on the Hon. Charles Fielding, son of the Earl of Denbigh, when counsel being heard, their Lordships were clearly of opinion, that the threat of the prisoner, when he demanded Mr. Fielding's money, viz. "You had better comply, or I'll take you before a magistrate, and charge you with an unnatural crime," was equivalent to an actual violence, and was such a method as in common experience was likely to occasion fear, and induce any man to part with his property. Lord Mansfield with great energy observed, that it was a specious mode of robbery of late grown very common, invented to fraud to evade the law, but which would not suffer itself to be evaded. (Ipswich Journal)

Monday 24 May 1779

ON Wednesday the sessions began at the Old Bailey, when Patrick Donolly was brought to the bar, and Justice Willes informed him and the court in general, of the purport of the opinion of the twelve Judges upon his case; which was, that his crime with the description of robbery as stated in the most approved law-books, as it had the three chief requisites there mentioned as necessary to constitute that offence; to wit, a felonious intention, a violence, and a taking; all of which attended Donolly's case, because he had asked for money he had no title to, had threatened a prosecution against Mr. Fielding for an unnatural attempt upon him, if his request was not complied with, and had in consequence received of Mr. Fielding, at two different times, a half guinea and a guinea. Sentence of death will accordingly be passed on him. (Hampshire Chronicle)

CITATION: If you cite this Web page, please use the following citation:
Rictor Norton (Ed.), "James Donally, Extortionist, 1779", Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England: A Sourcebook, 25 February 2021 <>.

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