Mack the Knife – the true story

Mack the Knife is a fine addition to the canon of “cheerful songs about serial killers” (others including Maxwell’s Silver Hammer and Still Alive). It’s been covered by Bobby Darin, Louie Armstrong and (ugh) Robbie Williams among others. Of course, it originates in Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, albeit in a less swinging and more disturbing form. This in turn was based on John Gay’s 18th century play The Beggars’ Opera. Which in turn was based on the exploits of a real person.

The real-life model for Mack the Knife was, it has to be said, somewhat different from the character envisioned by Brecht and Weill. His name was Jack Sheppard, and he was a thief and folk hero operating in the 1720s.

Now, I tend to take the view that most folk heroes are just thugs with good publicity. However, in Sheppard’s case, it’s easy to understand. First of all, he was the original lovable rogue. Born into poverty in Spitalfields, he gave up the life of an apprentice carpenter for a more profitable career in thievery. He was a handsome and witty chap, and probably the closest thing you could get in those days to the “working-class boy made good.” He had a particular knack for escapology, and first came to public attention by escaping from the Roundhouse in St Giles (a sort of temporary prison) by cutting through the roof and using the classic rope-made-of-sheets trick. He was discovered to have escaped almost immediately, and the alarm was raised. Jack’s trick was to hide in the crowd, point towards the rooftops and shout, “Look, there he is!”

Not put off by his encounter with the law, Sheppard took up residence with a young lady known as Edgworth Bess, real name Elizabeth Lyon, and continued in the filching trade. Alas! Within a month he was captured once again, this time for pickpocketing. Bess visited him in prison and was arrested herself. The authorities thought it would be a good idea to put them both in the same cell, a secure one in the New Prison. Unfortunately, visiting friends were able to smuggle tools in, and Jack and Bess were able to saw their way out of their irons. They cut through the window bars and lowered themselves to the ground using a rope made of bedlinen and petticoats. Unfortunately, they discovered that they had just lowered themselves into the yard of Clerkenwell Prison (d’oh!). Undeterred, Jack drove spikes into the wall and the two of them climbed out again.

At this point, he incurred the wrath of Jonathan Wild, who was simultaneously the best policeman in London and the biggest gangster. Wild deserves his own entry, really, but suffice it to say for now that he was a two-faced bully and generally an utter shit. A thief-taker, his legitimate job was to capture criminals for the authorities. Meanwhile, he secretly operated the biggest gang of thieves in London and used his day job (as it were) to keep his criminal employees in line and to remove any obstacles to his position as the city’s Godfather. Sheppard observed of him and his ilk, “They hang by proxy while we do it in person.” Wild saw Sheppard as a potential rival. He got Edgworth Bess hammered on gin and managed to get the whereabouts of Jack out of her.

Jack was arrested and sent to the notorious Newgate Prison, pictured left. He was sentenced to hang under the Bloody Code, a draconian system of laws by which one could be executed or transported for stealing as little as a pocket handkerchief. Of course, this wasn’t the end of the story. Bess made up for her inadvertent betrayal by smuggling a dress into his cell. Meanwhile, Jack loosened a bar in his window and, the very night before he was due to be turned off, Bess and an accomplice pulled him out of the window and they fled.

By this stage, Sheppard was an infamous figure. Wild’s men were in hot pursuit, and I like to imagine at this point that Wild was sitting at his desk muttering, “I’ll get you, Jack Sheppard, if it’s the last thing I do!” Jack was recaptured on Finchley Common, and this time they decided it was going to stick.

He was kept in the most secure cell in Newgate, chained to the floor with specially-made leg irons and under constant observation. Nevertheless, somehow one of the warders caught him strolling around entirely unencumbered, to which he observed that “‘Twas troublesome to always be in one posture.” By this stage I think he was just taking the piss. Nonetheless, they loaded him down with bigger, heavier and even less escapable chains.

And yet, he managed to escape again. That very night he picked one the locks on his irons using a bent nail and then, using bits of the actual irons and pieces of metal found along the way, he broke through various walls in the prison and ended up on the roof. Then – this is my favourite part – he rethought his plan and returned to his cell to get a sheet. Then he went back up to the roof, used the sheet to lower himself on to the next building and simply walked down the stairs to freedom.

Robert Walpole, first Prime Minister of Britain

Things were getting embarrassing for poor old Jonathan Wild (the arsehole), whose previously impeccable reputation was taking a dive. Furthermore, the general public were very clearly on the side of Sheppard. Bear in mind that, as I have said, the laws in place were excessive. One could be hanged for such offences as “kicking Westminster Bridge,” “being seen on the King’s highway with a sooty face” and “impersonating an Egyptian.” The modern prison system didn’t exist, and so if one was found guilty of a felony, the penalty was transportation or death. Mysteriously, though, these harsh sentences didn’t seem to affect the wealthy quite as often as the poor. The Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, was himself an utterly corrupt individual with interests in dodgy speculation and smuggling, and was so good at covering up the activities of himself, his friends and associates that he became known as “Skreen-Master General” to satirists (which he loathed – Walpole could not take a joke). So it’s really not surprising, given the hypocrisy of the upper classes and the poverty of the working classes, that people were on Shepperd’s side.

He was arrested for the last time on 1st November 1724. By this stage, he had developed the belief that he was all but untouchable, and it could be argued that had he fled the country, as advised by friends, he might have avoided justice entirely. Alas, it was not to be, and he was sent to hang fifteen days later.

The execution at Tyburn was not the sobering and educational lesson in justice that the authorities hoped it would be, and the route from Newgate to the gallows was lined with women throwing flowers and men wanting to shake his hand. Abuse was hurled at the chaplain present. Jack’s slight build meant that he found himself throttled by the rope, and sympathetic onlookers rushed forward to pull on his legs in the hope of breaking his neck and shortening his suffering. The mob also protected his body from the surgeons eager to dissect him. The hope had been that Jack might be revived by a local physician, but alas, this didn’t quite work out.

Various dramatisations of Sheppard’s life were produced in the years following. Of course, the best known is the aforementioned The Beggars’ Opera, which premiered in 1728 and not only dramatised the struggle of Sheppard and Wild (in the form of the characters Macheath and Peachum), but satirised the Walpole government viciously. Walpole, as I say, could not take a joke and had John Gay’s next play banned. Which, I think, was perhaps the most effective satirical punchline one could hope for.


Filed under 18th century, Arts, Crime, History, Literature, London, Music, Notable Londoners, Politics, The City, The Gates, Theatre, West End

4 responses to “Mack the Knife – the true story

  1. Brenda M Cook

    Your illustration of Newgate is a good half century out. The picture of the prison you have put up is the post 1770 rebuild. The one you want is the real NEW GATE prison of the 1720s. (Otherwise I like what you said and how you said it!!)

  2. Pingback: “A most infamous, vile scoundrel.” | London Particulars

  3. Pingback: The (Jonathan) Wild Bunch | London Particulars

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