The (Jonathan) Wild Bunch

In my last entry, I mentioned that Jonathan Wild was deserving of an entry on his own. So here it is. Wild, as I said earlier, was a deeply unpleasant man. How unpleasant? Well, he literally invented the double-cross.

A little background information. Back in the early eighteenth century, London didn’t really have any police force to speak of. The concept of a police force was seen as the sort of thing that was all very well in France, but wouldn’t do for the freedom-loving people of Britain. I’d say that in these times of constant surveillance and stopping-and-searching we can see that they had a point, only they actually didn’t, being as how crime was rife. Many parts of London were simply no-go areas. Even in busy parts of the city, robberies took place in broad daylight. Laws became increasingly harsh in an effort to combat the crime rate, with hanging or transportation (to America in those days) being the standard sentence for crimes as minor as pickpocketing.

Henry Fielding, alias Captain Hercules Vinegar. Yes, really.

Novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding pointed out that this was a stupid idea, as people would cease to be deterred by hanging if it was happening on a daily basis and, furthermore, that if you could be hanged for a minor crime, why not commit a major crime if the sentence was the same? By the way, he and his half-brother John would later go on to found the Bow Street Runners, the first police force in the city.

Law enforcement was a strictly local affair, organised on a parish-by-parish basis. There were the constables, who were elected from the ordinary citizens. The position was unpaid and untrained. Then there were the watchmen. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books, but if you are, think Sergeant Colon. They were usually elderly and unemployable elsewhere, so they didn’t exactly strike fear into the hearts of wrongdoers. Worse, because their jurisdiction was only within the boundaries of the parish, all a criminal had to do was go into another parish and the watchman couldn’t give chase.

The solution was the thief-takers. These chaps, much like modern-day bounty hunters, would track down the criminals and turn them in for the substantial reward money. Jonathan Wild was the best-known of these, and the most effective. He was imprisoned for debt in 1710, and swiftly figured out how to play the (corrupt) system, becoming top dog through a combination of bribery and toadying to the gaolers.

When he was released, he became a pimp and a fence. As he had done in prison, he developed an understanding of how things worked. A gentleman named Charles Hitchen suggested to Wild that he try the profitable career of thief-taking. Hitchen himself was Under-Marshal for London, and made a tidy profit both from his post enforcing the law and from bribery and extortion on the side. Wild was persuaded, and took up office in the Old Bailey.

The service he provided was unique. Victims of robbery would come to Wild and ask for his assistance in retrieving their stolen property. Wild would gladly oblige, for a price. To be fair, he was superb at recovering the stolen goods. That’s largely because he controlled a huge gang of thieves. If it hadn’t been one of his thieves who’d taken the property, he could usually find out who it was. He would work through agents in order to reduce the risk of being fingered for handling stolen goods (I’ve just realised how dirty that sounds).

Not only was he hugely successful as a law enforcer, but his official position also made him hugely successful as London’s first Godfather. He was able to pressure his rivals into joining forces with him or, if that failed, have them executed, thus gaining a virtual monopoly on organised crime in the city. And if any of his own thieves messed up or weren’t showing ’nuff respect, he’d turn them in as well. He even had Hitchin, his old mentor, arrested for sodomy and imprisoned (although that sounds a bit like punishing an alcoholic with a trip to a pub if you ask me). His knowledge of brothels and gambling dens meant he was also able to indulge in a bit of blackmail here and there. Effectively, he was untouchable – he controlled crime and punishment.

To legitimate society, he was a hero. He was a man who made a difference, the most effective law enforcer in the entire country. And he wallowed in it, enjoying the high life much as the prominent East End gangsters would in the twentieth century. He would attend upper-class parties and took to pimping his outfit up with a sword. To the criminal underworld, he was a two-faced snake who would get his yet.

And so he did. You may recall in the previous entry that he made the mistake of going after the popular lovable cockney thief Jack Sheppard. Out of the two, respectable society infinitely preferred Sheppard, who wasn’t on the side of hated authority. His repeated failure to put Sheppard away (or at least, to put Sheppard away without him escaping twenty minutes later) caused others to doubt his infallibility.

He eventually managed to capture Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, Sheppard’s partner-in-crime. Now, remember what I said about how the death sentence might prompt people to commit worse crimes than they might otherwise have done? Well, when Blueskin went to trial, he requested a penalty of transportation, hoping that Wild might be lenient given that they had worked together in the past. This was crediting Wild with too much humanity, and Blueskin was sentenced to death. Deciding things couldn’t get any worse, he knifed Wild in the neck and observed that “never did such a rogue as Wild live, and go unpunished for so long.” At this point, one assumes the guard responsible for searching Blueskin discreetly slipped out.

And then the poo really hit the air circulation device. Some constables, who generally couldn’t be relied upon to find their arses with both hands and very specific directions, somehow managed to arrest Roger Johnson, one of Wild’s men. Suddenly, Wild was exposed. What little of his reputation as remained swiftly evaporated and he was arrested.

Even in gaol, he considered himself untouchable, even continuing to advertise his services. He simply couldn’t believe that respectable society would turn its back on him, and didn’t seem to make the connection between “respectable society” and “those people who’d just found out he’d been robbing them for years.”

When he went on trial in May 1725, he found himself the victim of two ironies. Firstly, he was presented with an incredibly detailed list of his crimes. So much so, one might almost think the forces of justice had used insider knowledge. You know, much as Wild had been doing all these years. And secondly, when he produced a list of all the criminals he’d had executed, the jury took it as a sign not that he was a tireless servant of the law, but that he was a heartless bastard. In desperation, Wild even petitioned the king, pointing out that he hadn’t actually committed murder or treason. When that’s the best thing you can say to recommend yourself, you know you’re in trouble.

And so Wild was sentenced to hang. The mob at his execution was exactly the opposite in temperament to that which had turned out for Jack Sheppard. Mock invitations were sold with the words,

To all the Thieves, Whores, Pick-pockets, Family Fellows &c. in Great Brittain & Ireland.

Gentlemen & Ladies, You are hereby desir’d to accompany yr. worthy friend ye. Pious Mr. J___ W__d from his seat at Whittington Colledge to ye. Tripple Tree, where he’s to make his last Exit on __________, and his Corps to be carry’d from thence to be decently Interr’d amongst his ancestors.

Pray bring this ticket with you.

Wild had attempted suicide the previous night with an overdose of laudanum, and was, as they say, tripping balls at this point. The crowd didn’t care, they were baying for blood and actually urged the hangman on when they thought he was being too slow.

Even his death wasn’t enough for them. A few days later, it was discovered that his grave had been opened and his remains cast about the churchyard.

After his death, he provided much fuel for popular writers, with biographies appearing by Daniel Defoe and Captain A Smith among others. John Gay put him into The Beggars’ Opera in the disguised form of the character Peachum. Arthur Conan Doyle would compare Professor Moriarty to Wild a century and a half later. And even Henry Fielding got in on the act with his satirical novel The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, The Great – a vicious attack that satirises the corrupt Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (remember him?) as much as it does Wild.

Jonathan Wild is neither forgotten nor entirely gone. If you should get the chance to visit the Hunterian Museum, you can take a gander at his skeleton. If that’s your pleasure.

Wait, what’s that you said at the beginning about the double cross?

Ah, thanks for reminding me. Yes, we get the term “double cross” from Jonathan Wild. You see, in order to keep an eye on his vast criminal empire, he had a big ledger of thieves in his employment. Those who were active had a cross next to their name. For those who weren’t up to scratch, he’d put a second cross next to their name, indicating he was going to turn them in. Thus, betrayal was represented by the double-cross.



Filed under 18th century, Crime, History, Literature, London, Museums, Notable Londoners, Politics, The City, Theatre

3 responses to “The (Jonathan) Wild Bunch

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

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  3. Pingback: He went to a land down under | London Particulars

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