Cymon is a geeky historian with a passion for finding out and researching peculiarities and historical coincidences and unsung heroes.
Where is he now?
The Hunterian Museum in London is the last resting place for many old bones, being the museum for the Royal College of Surgeons. The skeletons on display, which were used for training purposes, date from several hundred years ago and some of them are the remains of known individuals. One such exhibit is the skeleton of Jonathan Wild, who, at the time of his death by hanging, was known widely as The Thief Taker General.
Having this epithet one can be excused for thinking that our subject was on the right side of the law, whereas the reality is that Jonathan stood very much astride the line between the law and the criminal underworld.
Early life and the beginnings of a career
Born in 1682 or 1683 either in the English midlands town of Wolverhampton or village of Boningale - neither date nor location are known for sure - the son of a carpenter and a herb and fruit seller, he received a rudimentary, if normal for the time, education and was apprenticed to a buckle maker. He married and had a son but by 1710 he had evidently made his way to the capital and is recorded to have been arrested for debt, being sent to the Wood Street Counter, a debtors’ prison, in the City of London.
Jonathan thrived in this environment, where corruption was rife, and he soon found favour with his gaolers by running errands for them. He was given “the liberty of the gate” which meant that he was allowed out at night in order to assist with the apprehension of thieves. It was during these outings that he met a prostitute called Mary Milliner, who introduced him to London’s criminal underworld.
Released in 1712, Wild moved in with Mary, as her husband, although there are no records to suggest that they were actually married and both being already wed. He acted as her protection when she went street walking. Mary branched out and was soon employing other prostitutes, Wild acting as both pimp and fence for stolen goods. Using his contacts amongst the gaolers of Wood Street and other prisons, he bribed his way to arrange the release of thieves in order to employ them to steal “to order”.
In 1713 Wild was recruited by Charles Hitchen, who held the position of Under Marshal - a post he had acquired through bribery and which was an appointment made by the Aldermen of London. The two may have had an affinity between them as they were both born in or near Wolverhampton. Hitchen, the elder by seven years or so, was notoriously corrupt and lost his position for a time while he was being investigated for this corruption. He, however, managed to elude charges and bribed his way back into office. Wild worked for Hitchen as a thief taker, a lucrative trade as the authorities paid up to £40 for each criminal caught.
A year or so later we find Wild with his own set-up based out of the Blue Boar Tavern, still posing as Hitchen’s deputy but without any official position; he strode London’s streets with an air of position, wearing a sword and appropriate clothes for a person of means and status.
Becoming a celebrity
In the early C18th news-sheets, pamphlets and newspapers were gaining popularity, including the first daily paper, the Daily Courant. Roads throughout the country were under siege from highwaymen and London was all but lawless. There was no established police force and enforcement of the law was determined by local authorities.
The rise of newspapers spread the word of this unsafe world for the emergent middle classes, who became both afeared and fascinated by criminals and vigilantes, glamorising individuals on either side. Jack Shepherd, a notorious thief, is thought to have had his autobiography written by Daniel Defoe. Whilst the “Mohawks”, a gang of well born violent men, terrorised society.
Crime worsened after the end of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1714, flooding London with returning, and now unemployed, soldiers and sailors. Again Wild thrived, employing these men to both thieve and catch thieves. His methods were simple and brought him wealth. He would arrange for the theft, after which his “agents” would recover the haul and arrest innocent individuals and bribe witnesses to testify against them. In fact the “innocent” individuals charged were often rivals who had refused to join his organisation.
He would be paid a reward for the return of the stolen goods, get paid by the authorities for catching criminals and rid the streets of competition. A bonus came along occasionally when the haul included illegal contraband; he could then blackmail the party from whom it had been stolen and sell the swag.
He controlled his gang through fear. They were paid in stolen goods, hardly ever did his “agents” recover all of the items that had been stolen. This way his people were forced to sell these goods in order to make a living, and selling stolen property brought a heavy sentence if caught. Should any of them displease Wild then he would simply turn the authorities on them, knowing full well that they had stolen goods in their possession.
Wild and Hitchen entered into a gang war, each trying to diminish the criminal power of the other by bribing officials to have the other’s followers arrested. They also ridiculed, accused and defamed each other in the bourgeoning press. Hitchen named Wild publicly as the underworld boss, while Wild refuted this and informed the public that it was Hitchen and that he was a frequenter of “Molly Houses”, which were homosexual brothels. This was the damning final straw for Hitchen; try as he might he could not cleanse himself of the accusation of homosexuality, which was considered heinous at the time.
The money starts to flow in
Wild was now in control of the London underworld and enriched himself through the proceeds of theft, blackmail and bribery. It is said that he kept a list of all the criminals in the city and should one cross him, that is exactly what he did – put a cross against his name. Should he transgress twice then a second cross, which meant that Wild would betray him to the authorities, see him hanged and collect the £40 reward. This is, supposedly, the origin of the term “double cross”, though it does not appear to be seen in writing until some hundred years or so later.
By 1718 Wild was regarded as a hero for returning stolen goods and his success at capturing the thieves responsible. Wild designated himself “Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland”, having indirectly sent several scores of people to the gallows and, of course collecting the £40 reward each time. He would collect fees from victims to find and apprehend thieves, charge “rewards” for finding stolen goods and sell the proceeds of theft that he did not return to their rightful owners.
His wealth grew. Many politicians saw through his devices and parliament passed stiffer laws and harsher punishments for receiving stolen goods. It worked to an extent, with thieves finding it harder and harder to find fences for their swag. However one person remained both capable and eager to fence these items, he was above the law – it was Wild.
He was so successful at portraying himself as an upholder of the law that in 1720 the Privy Council consulted him on how best to deal with crime. His advice was to increase the reward paid to those who handed in criminals. This was accepted and the pay-out was increased to £140, thus Wild’s income grew substantially. He enhanced his public reputation by feeding stories to the fledgling press and readers became enchanted by this god sent vigilante. The population were enthralled and when he arranged for the capture of the Carrick Gang in 1724, not only did he receive even more adulation, he also readily accepted the £800 reward. This alone equated to some fifteen times the national average annual income.
Taking on the newcomer
Things started to unravel for Wild when he initiated a feud of sorts with the aforementioned thief, the twenty-two year old, Jack Shepherd. Shepherd had found fame through the press as being somewhat of a gentlemanly thief, although he was low born from the slums of the city of London. Allegedly he never used violence and was “polite” when relieving victims of their possessions. He had worked for Wild but had set up on his own network as a rival. This was unacceptable to Wild for it threatened his monopoly, as Hitchen had done some ten years previously. He had Shepherd arrested no less than five times in a seven month period, each time the slight young man escaped and each time he was re-apprehended the authorities increased the security around him and used ever stronger chains and manacles.
Eventually Shepherd made it to the gallows on 16th November 1724 amid a carnival atmosphere as his route to the place of execution at Tyburn was lined with a crowd estimated at 200,000 strong. The procession stopped at a tavern, where the condemned was given a pint of sack (sherry) and his “autobiography”, which was actually probably written by the then journalist Daniel Defoe, was on sale; apparently Shepherd endorsed the book en route to encourage sales. Supposedly there was a plan to rush him to a doctor as soon as he was cut down in order to attempt to resuscitate him but, the crowds being so large, his friends could not reach his body in time.
This was however Wild’s undoing for Shepherd had become more popular than him in the press and his persistent pursuit of the young favourite was not popular with the readers of the newspapers and pamphlets. What had swayed the populace was Wild’s known violence against Shepherd’s more peaceable methods. Londoners in particular turned against the Thief-Taker General.
The end is nigh
His arrest came on 15th February 1725. While he was awaiting trial his gang members and rivals seized the opportunity to get rid of him as he had done to so many before. They started to inform on him, providing real or trumped up evidence in order to get him convicted and hanged. He was sentenced to death on 15th May, with his execution scheduled for nine days later on the 24th. Wild pleaded for his life but he had lost all support. On the morning of his death, terrified of the gallows, he attempted suicide by taking poison. However due to the fact that his fear had resulted in him not eating, his body rejected the poison and he vomited sufficiently to render the poison ineffectual.
His execution drew huge crowds, with the well-to-do buying seats in the most advantageous positions to be able to witness his hanging. There was not the jubilant procession that had been to the fore at Jack Shepherd’s execution just six months before. The people wanted to see the end of Jonathan Wild. Three of his fellow criminals, who had all worked for him, met their end first, with Wild being saved until last, he was top of the bill. The crowd, now totally against him, cheered and guffawed as he died.
His was buried in the graveyard at St. Pancras Old Church but not for long. It was common practise for surgeons to study the corpses of criminals and shortly after his burial his remains were exhumed and sold to The Company of Barber Surgeons, the forerunner to the Royal College of Surgeons, where it remains to this day, on display for all to see.
Cymon Snow (author) from Nice, Cote d'Azur, France on August 06, 2021:
I've only just started writing, so your kind words are much appreciated - please have a look at the others I have published and share with anyone that you think may be interested. I need the traffic!
Coming soon: The man who made tea affordable, the sad life of a German King and the British admiral who was a bit of a rogue but helped liberate several countries and inspired two fictional characters.
fran rooks from Toledo, Ohio on August 05, 2021:
Cymon, a very interesting article! The amazing details provided gives me the chills. Thank you for your aericle.