On this day February 26: William Whattoff, blackmailer

William Whattoff february 26

Not every convict transported to the penal hellhole of Van Diemen’s Land was a 12-year-old condemned for stealing bread to feed their starving family. On February 26 1842, the Leicester Mercury reported on the crimes of baby-faced blackmailer William Whattoff.

*Whatt the F: Willie’s name is spelled variously as Whatoff and Whattoff in different documents and newspaper reports. I’ve gone with the extra T in the hope of finding more to spill.

William Whattoff descended from a line of Leicester shoemakers — a respectable local family. A relative, also named William, owned a nearby farm, now a minor tourist attraction called the Whatoff Lodge Farm. (Though no longer in the family.)

The Leicester Chronicle described 19-year-old William Whattoff as a mere boy in appearance. Only 5′ 4½” tall, with brown hair, blue eyes and a dimpled chin, his lack of facial hair and fresh complexion gifted him a look of childlike innocence.

But the face of an angel masked a sinful soul — if you’ll excuse the excursion into 19th-century melodrama. Justice Williams concluded in the Leicester Assizes that Whattoff’s youthful appearance disguised a ‘depravity of character’.

Accusations of sodomy

William Whattoff conducted a successful one-man extortion racket for two years from the age of 17.

In October 1840, he sent a letter to a wealthy young unmarried businessman named John Edward Lawton threatening to accuse him of sodomy if he did not send £2 (nearly AU$400 today).

Lawton lived with his parents about 8 minutes walk from Whattoff. He paid the money. That only encouraged William Whattoff. He successfully hit up Lawton another four times.

However, Willie came undone when he sent a further two demands addressed to ‘John Lawton’.

John Edward Lawton’s father, a lawyer, went by that name. While his son, for whatever reason, unfailingly gave in to the blackmail, Lawton Senior sent for the constabulary.

In court, Whattoff pleaded guilty to extorting Lawton Junior. However, he denied he attempted to extort the father, claiming he also meant the last two letters for the son. That would seem true. Why suddenly stop milking the open-handed cash cow in favour of his father?

It seems William Whattoff omitted Edward from Lawton’s name when addressing the final two letters, with unfortunate consequences.

The court heard that young Willie also sent letters to a man named J. Abell who lived about a block from him. He threatened to murder Abell unless he also sent £2.

William Whattoff also denied that crime but the jury decided the handwriting matched.

Because Willie pleaded guilty, the court merely perused the letters without calling witnesses to give evidence. Although the newspapers of the day provide little detail, Whattoff’s convict record indicates he accused Lawnton Junior of sodomy with a young man named Turner.

If Lawnton sodomised Turner, how did Whatoff find out?

If he did not have sex with Turner, why did he keep doling out money?


Worse than murder

Judge Williams described the crime as more egregious than highway robbery or unlawful killing.

“To a man of fine feelings, the loss of character was worse than the loss of life itself.”

His Lordship sentenced William Whattoff to ‘transportation beyond the seas for the term of his natural life’.

William turned 20 on the voyage to Australia. In 1842, convicts were either assigned to ‘probation stations’ to work on road gangs or loaned out to farmers. Originally sent to the Slopen Island Station, Whattoff was assigned for 6 months in 1949 to a farmer on the Huon River.

Given a ticket of leave in March 1850, he was soon in trouble again. In October that year, he and nine other probationers and former convicts appeared in court over a break and entry. William Whattoff was again sentenced to transportation beyond the seas — this time, Norfolk Island.

Although his convict record previously described him as ‘well-behaved’, on Norfolk Island he was punished a number of times for misconduct. A notation in 1854 says he should not be granted any remission, making him one of the last convicts left on Norfolk Island before their final removal to Tasmania in 1855.

His convict record finishes in 1858 and he disappears from history thereafter.

Meanwhile, in England, John Edward Lawnton became a managing director of the English Sewing Cotton Company and a very wealthy man.

Read more: February 25 <— On this day —> February 27

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