History can scarcely furnish an instance of such complicated villainy as was shown in the character of Jonathan Wild.
I promised in one of my ‘Just the Facts’ posts last year that I would return to the blood-soaked pages of the Newgate Calendar with a summary of the career of Wolverhampton’s most famous son, Jonathan Wild.
Wild is one of the most significant figures in the history of organised crime, known to the residents of eighteenth-century London as the Thief-Taker General.
He was born in my home town of Wolverhampton, around 1682, and trained as a buckle maker. All was well until he foolishly abandoned the Midlands, moved to London, and fell into a bad crowd:
many months had not elapsed after his arrival before be was arrested for debt, and thrown into Wood Street Compter [a debtors’ prison], where he remained upwards of four years.
Emerging from prison thoroughly habituated to crime, he became a receiver of stolen goods. Incredibly, this was legal until Parliament woke up and made it a crime.
Wild’s practices were considerably interrupted by the above-mentioned law; to elude the operation of which, however, he adopted the following plan – he called a meeting of all the thieves known to him, and […] informed them that he had devised a plan for removing the inconveniences under which they laboured, recommended them to follow his advice, and to behave towards him with honour; and concluded by proposing that, when they made prize of any thing, they should deliver it to him, instead of carrying it to the pawnbroker, saying he would restore the goods to the owners, by which means greater sums might be raised, while the thieves would remain perfectly secure from detection.
This was so successful a practice that Wild soon had an office in Cripplegate and was the first port of call when somebody was robbed – at the time it was cheaper to pay a ‘reward’ for finding the goods than it was to catch and prosecute the thieves. He became a well-known figure around town and soon opened another office. He was the hardest working guy in crime:
By too strict an application to business Wild much impaired his health, so that he judged it prudent to retire into the country for a short time.
The next step was to take control of supply. Wild appointed gangs of thieves to cover the different districts of London, and more specialist squads to focus on churches, balls, country fairs and other occasions. He bought several warehouses for storing stolen goods, and employed a team of artists to remove identifying marks from stolen goods. If the goods weren’t claimed, he shipped them to an agent in Holland for sale. Wild was no rear-echelon crimelord – he also personally participated in robberies, at which
he usually carried a short silver staff, as a badge of authority from the government.
One of Wild’s confederates was the possibly even more famous (certainly at the time) Jack Sheppard*. Wild failed to control Sheppard, made several attempts to catch him, and at Sheppard’s trial his friend ‘Blueskin’ Blake tried to cut Wild’s throat with a blunt penknife. Wild survived his wounds, but began to lose his grip on the underworld, and was soon brought to trial after one of his confederates informed on him.
Wild, when he was under sentence of death, frequently declared that he thought the service he had rendered the public in returning the stolen goods to the owners, and apprehending felons, was so great as justly to entitle him to the royal mercy […] he thought it not unreasonable to entertain hopes of obtaining a pardon through the interest of some of the dukes, earls, and other persons of high distinction, who had recovered their property through his means.
After an attempt at suicide, Wild was executed in 1725 at a hanging attended by tens of thousands of people. Below is a contemporary ‘invitation’ to the hanging.
By the way, there are a couple of good biographies of Wild.
Gerald Howson’s Thief-Taker General: The Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (1970) is densely written and is very good on the operation of the criminal world.
Lucy Moore’s The Thieves’ Opera: The Remarkable Lives and Deaths of Jonathan Wild, Thief-taker and Jack Sheppard, House-breaker (1997) is a lighter read.
* Jack Sheppard had an incredible, if short, career as a gaol-breaker. Wikipedia sums up one of Sheppard’s incredible escapes from Newgate prison:
He unlocked his handcuffs and removed the chains. Still encumbered by his leg irons, he attempted to climb up the chimney, but his path was blocked by an iron bar set into the brickwork. He removed the bar and used it to break through the ceiling into the “Red Room” above […] Still wearing his leg irons as night fell, he then broke through six barred doors into the prison chapel, then to the roof of Newgate, 60 feet (20 m) above the ground. He went back down to his cell to get a blanket, then back to the roof of the prison, and used the blanket to reach the roof of an adjacent house, owned by William Bird, a turner. He broke into Bird’s house, and went down the stairs and out into the street at around midnight without disturbing the occupants.
Past Offences by Rich Westwood is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.