File 0126-0127: Going Wilde in 18th Century London


March 29 2024 / April 5 2024

In this two-part episode our hosts, Cayla, Nathan, Halli and Courtney take a look in a Wilde case

  • Jonathan Wilde: Thief-Taker General: Often called the first fence, Jonathan Wilde lived a bizarre and devious life, one where he took advantage of both the public and law enforcement. A criminal Robin Hood who didn't share the wealth he conned people out and even had an office in the Old Bailey for a time, Wilde was a fascinating figure and a trash human

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The Thief-Taker General

"And it is certain, that the greatest Part of his dark Proceedings wou'd have still continu'd a Secret to the World, had it not been, that in his gay Hours, when his Heart was open, he took Pleasure in recounting his past Rogueries, and with a great Deal of Humour, bragg'd of his biting the World; often hinting, not without Vanity, at the poor Understandings of the greatest Part of Mankind, and his own superior Cunning."

–From The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death by 'H.D.", Clerk to Justice R. – 1725

– as cited in Thief-Taker General: Jonathan Wild and the Emergence of Crime and Corruption as a Way of Life in Eighteenth-Century England by Gerald Howson

Police forces, such as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries in London, were at their wits end. They "rarely co-operated with and generally obstructed one another", and were often deeply involved in crime themselves. Streets were in total darkness thanks to the loss of a patent for convex-glassed lanterns. The man who had invented and financed them, Edward Hemming, couldn't afford to support the endeavor anymore, and the streetlights Londonites had enjoyed were now dark.

"We were being robbed, as it were, both from above and below. No man's house was safe unless it was fortified by palisades and redoubts and defended by a small private army of servants; and no man might dine out unless armed to the teeth with swords, pistols, muskets and blunderbusses, as though he were 'going into a desperate Battle'."

Enter a man named Jonathan Wild. He settled in London in 1709 and immediately began to provide a service "by which those who had lost their possessions, through theft or even through mere carelessness, could get them back again for a fee, at least appreciably less than their value, and when as an adjunct to this he showed himself to be an extremely skillful and courageous hunter-down of criminals and breaker of gangs, it is hardly surprising that the public first welcomed and then enthusiastically applauded him."

You heard and read that correctly. This man, this seemingly too good to be true vigilante, would find people's possessions for them, but also took his own safety into his hands by hunting down notorious criminals and gangs. What a hero. What a treasure.

Except for the little fact that Wild was in on the game from the start.

London at this time was a dangerous place. Police didn't exist and keepers of the peace were neck-deep in crime themselves, as if taking bribes were at the top of the list of qualified skills for the role. Highwaymen terrorized the roads, such as they were. Criminals skulked about in dark alleys, and as we just learned, on dark streets, because they all were dark. Gangs frequently fought amongst themselves over territory and booty, leading to even more bloodshed.

But in the middle of all of this was the Thief-Taker General himself.

Let's start at the beginning….

Jonathan Wild

Jonathan Wild was born in Wolverhampton (a city located in the West Midlands in England, 12 miles north of Birmingham) in either 1682 or 1683, we're not entirely sure about this. He was the first of five children in a poor family. Much about his early life isn't known, and records only start to show up once Wild marries and has a son, then moves to London in 1704 as a servant. He didn't last long in that job, so he returned to Wolverhampton, bounces around a bit, then goes back to London in 1708.

At this time, London had a population of around 600,000, with roughly 70,000 of those living in the ancient city walls of the City of London.

Here's where I briefly sidetrack about one of my favorite things about London, which is its ancient Roman history. What's known as the City of London is one of the leading financial centers of the world, but as a place it has existed since the Romans settled it in 1 AD

As any history buff (or player of Assassin's Creed Valhalla) knows, London, or Londinium as the Romans called it, was a diverse city, with inhabitants from all across the Roman empire. It had a population of between 45,000–60,000 people and served as a "road nexus and major port…and as a major commercial center in Roman Britain until its abandonment during the 5th century."

By the 16th century, London was again a center for commerce and finance, and by the time the 1700s rolled around, London hit another growth spurt, which reflected an "increasing national population, the early stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, and London's role at the center of the evolving British Empire" (note Queen Elizabeth I's court mage, John Dee, was the one to first coin the phrase "the British Empire").

So at this time, London was a massive hub for business, but that didn't mean the streets were safe.

By the time Jonathan Wild officially settled, for good, in London, we lose track of his history once more. He's arrested for debt in March of 1710, and sent to Wood Street Compter, one of the debtor's prisons in the City of London. "The prisons there were notoriously corrupt, with gaolers demanding a bribe, or 'garnish', for any minor comfort." Wild became quite the popular guy inside, currying favor with the gaolers by running their errands and eventually earning enough cash to repay his debts AND the cost of being imprisoned. And then he started lending money to other prisoners.

Astoundingly, Wild was eventually "allowed out at night to aid in the arrest of thieves", or "thief-taking", and it was on one of these nights that he met Mary Milliner (or Mary Mollineaux), a sex worker who started schooling Wild in the ways of the down and dirty criminal. It's here Wild is introduced to the vast criminal underclass in London, and with his knowledge of "the inside", he quickly enmeshed himself into their ranks, and their trust. He was released from debtor's prison in 1712 under an Act of Parliament which was passed for the relief of insolvent debtors.

At this time, as I noted before, crime was everywhere and no one was safe. Running parallel to this was a particular dark, gruesome fascination with crime and criminals. Hangings were spectacles for the entire family. "Plays such as The Beggar's Opera featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers 'a true, fair and perfect narrative' of the lives and trials of condemned criminals. In addition, there was a thriving trade in 'Last Dying Speeches' of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions." Other publications were essentially criminal gossip rags, breathlessly divulging, and of course exaggerating, the lives of criminals; full of vice and sin and dirty dealings, they all eventually wound up at the gallows.

Organized crime, and crime of any kind, truly flourished at this time, as English society suffered from a deep chasm of inequality.

Wild had a hell of a shrewd head on his shoulders. He was whip-smart, quick with the right words, and could easily figure out how to evade consequences. He's been described as the first "modern gangster, a shadowy precursor of Al Capone, whose world, London in the 1720s, was not unlike Chicago in the 1920s….Conversely, he can be regarded as the 'first' modern policeman…the Bow Street Runners were modelled to some extent on his posse of thief-takers, and so it would not be facetious to call him the 'Father of the C.I.D.'". (C.I.D. stands for Criminal Investigation Department, part of the police force in the UK, which anyone who watches British crime dramas probably knows.)

But before he built a criminal empire, he was hanging out with Mary Milliner and her husband in Covent Garden. And that's where he and Mary came up with the "Buttock and Twang".

Before the Bend and Snap was the Buttock and Twang

I'll let this just stand because it is ridiculous:

"Mary, the buttock, would entice a lusty customer into a dark corner where Jonathan, the twang, would whack the fellow with a cudgel. They would then rob him with little chance of being caught; semi-conscious men with their trousers around their ankles were unlikely to give hot pursuit.

The project was so good that the pair soon had enough money to take over a pub, the King's Head, which became a den for thieves and other ne'er-do-wells."

Wild was roughly 30 years old when he and Mary started this scheme. He was a man of small build, about five foot-six, and common refrain at the time was that schemers, fraudsters, and thieves should be of larger stock and build. At his final trial, Wild "was shown to be a veritable incarnation of Reynard the Fox, [so] the pamphleteers assumed he must be a coward. Before that occasion, however, his contemporaries thought of him as a brutally courageous man who would, without a thought, shoot his way into a den of thieves while the constables stood trembling at the end of the street." Engravings from the time don't tell us much, so we have nothing concrete to go on about Wild's stature, but from his acts we know he was rather bold.

Around this same time, Wild got involved in the world of criminal fencing - not the sport, but the sale of stolen goods while taking a percentage from the thieves who brought the goods to him. And thus his reputation began to really flourish.

By the 1710s, the criminal world had grown to a point where corruption was simply the way of life. Charles Hitchen, Wild's forerunner and future rival as thief-taker, said that "he personally knew 2,000 people in London who made their living solely by theft. In 1711, Hitchen had obtained public office as the City's Under Marshal, effectively its top policeman, paying £700 (£105,000 in 2024) to be appointed as such." He of course took bribes, abused the power of the office, selectively arrested people, and coerced sexual services from molly houses. Nice guy. He was suspended from the position in 1713, but at the same time, Wild approached Hitchen to be his assistant in thief-taking, with a reward of £40 (£6,000 in 2024) for every felon he caught, which was paid for by the government.

Hitchen and Wild parted ways in 1714 when Hitchen was restored to that lofty office he'd abused so readily, and Wild opened his own thief-taking office in the Blue Boar tavern. He was often seen walking around with a sword, giving him the allusion of gentility.

The Scheme

Thief-taking was only the beginning of how Jonathan Wild bilked everyone for cash. After all, catching the errant pickpocket or murderer was all fine and good, but there was serious money to be made pulling the wool over the eyes of those looking for their "lost" (aka stolen) personal goods.

This was all before the Industrial Revolution, before goods were made en masse, so most household goods – for those who could afford the niceties – were handmade for one person. Meaning they were made to specification, often carved or burned with someone's initials or otherwise personalized, and therefore not easy to fence.

Enter Jonathan Wild's scheme.

"He ran a gang of thieves, kept the stolen goods, and waited for the crime and theft to be announced in the newspapers. At this point, he would claim that his "thief-taking agents" (bounty hunters) had found the stolen merchandise, and he would return it to its rightful owners for a reward (to cover the expenses of running his agents). In some cases, if the stolen items or circumstances allowed for blackmail, he did not wait for the theft to be announced. In addition to "recovering" these stolen goods, he would offer the police aid in finding the thieves. The thieves that Wild would help to "discover", however, were rivals or members of his own gang who had refused to cooperate with his taking the majority of the money."

Wild would go so far as to put advertisements in the paper for items he knew were stolen, who had stolen them, and where they were located/stashed away:

"Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked' (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2)."

Wild would do a big show about finding the thief and the missing item, return the item, collect the reward, and send the thief out to steal something else. If the thief who brought him the stolen goods refused to cooperate, he would arrest them as a thief. The scheme was fairly simple, and it kept Wild in the good life for seven years.

Business kept booming. Wild was soon operating multiple gangs who were "stealing to order", and he also ran prostitution rings and protection rackets, soon anointing himself (and via others) as the king of London's criminal underworld. All the while his public persona was that of a crimefighter and do-gooder for the poor saps he stole from.

But Wild was never satisfied with what he had. When his self-proclaimed rival, Hitchen, was reinstated to the office of Under Marshal in 1714, "one of Wild's first acts of gang warfare was to eliminate as many of the thieves in Hitchen's control as he could".

Hitchen was furious and tried to catch Wild on the out, eventually resorting to writing a manuscript, A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers in and about the City of London, where he pointed the finger at Wild as a major source of crime. Wild replied with a manuscript of his own, An Answer to a Late Insolent Libel, and called Hitchen a homosexual who visited molly houses (gay brothels). Hitchen, already with a bad reputation, had no real recourse other than to write a pamphlet entitled The Regulator, but it largely was a dud. Being accused of homosexual conduct at the time was a huge stain on Hitchen's reputation.

Wild kept going. When a thief would outlive his usefulness, Wild would sell them to the gallows for a reward.

Fun bit of trivia/myth: "This supposed system inspired a fake or folk etymology of the phrase "double cross": it was alleged that, when a thief vexed Wild in some way, he put a cross by the thief's name; a second cross condemned the man to be sold to the Crown for hanging. (This story is contradicted by the fact that the noun "double cross" did not enter English usage until 1834.)"

"Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217)."

"Wild's battles with thieves made excellent press. Wild himself would approach the papers with accounts of his derring-do, and the papers passed these on to a concerned public. Thus, in the summer of 1724, the papers carried accounts of Wild's heroic efforts in collecting twenty-one members of the Carrick Gang (with an £800 reward — approximately £133,000 in 2024). When one of the members of the gang was released, Wild pursued him and had him arrested on "further information". To the public, this seemed like a relentless defence of order. In reality, it was gang warfare disguised as a national service."

Jack Sheppard and Wild's Downfall

The tides had turned around the 1720s. Criminals were no longer seen as entertainment, the public was growing restless about the rampant corruption, and authority figures were no longer trusted. In April 1724, the most famous break-and-enter man of the era, Jack Sheppard, was caught by one of Wild's men for a burglary he had committed. Sheppard had worked with Wild in the past, but struck out on his own, and Wild's ego couldn't take that blow. This "arrest" was personal.

Sheppard is imprisoned but escapes in just 3 hours. Months later, Wild has Sheppard arrested again, this time for pickpocketing. He escapes again the next day, but this time with a woman named Elizabeth "Edgworth Bess" Lyon. Two months later, Wild tracks Lyon down, gets her drunk, and she betrays Sheppard. Wild sends another man out to find and arrest Sheppard. These two have been dancing around each other for almost 7 months at this point, so you know something isn't going to end well.

Sheppard is put on trial for three charges of burglary, acquitted for the first two due to lack of evidence. Sheppard is slowly gaining something of a working-class hero mythology around him, and people are rallying around this man. Wild is in a bit of a bind, since Sheppard keeps slipping out of his grasp, but Sheppard is locked away on that last charge of burglary and given a death sentence. On the very night the death warrant arrived, August 31, 1724, Sheppard escapes AGAIN. He evades capture for about a week, but one of Wild's men manages to snag him, and he's locked away in the most secure room of Newgate Prison; he is also put in shackles and chained to the floor.

Wild's men also catch Sheppard's partner in crime, Joseph "Blueskin" Blake, a well-known highwayman; this is in October 1724. Blueskin is also convicted of burglary and sentenced to death. But before he can be taken from the courtroom, Blueskin begs Wild to "have his death sentence commuted to transportation (sending him off to a penal colony), Wild refuses, and in a rage, Blueskin jumps him and tries to slash his throat with a pocketknife. This sends the courtroom into an uproar, and Wild is taken to a surgeon and eventually survives the attack.

Sheppard escapes AGAIN (broke his chains and shackles, padlocks on the door, and six iron-barred doors), but is found again a few weeks later in early November. He was put in a room to be observed at all times and loaded down with 300 lbs of weights. Blueskin is hanged on November 11, and five days later, Sheppard is hanged. Wild didn't attend either of these convictions, since he was still healing from the attempt on his life.

One would think the public would have sympathy for Wild, given he'd been attacked, but it was his inability to keep Sheppard under control (which arguably wasn't his fault) and the changing public sentiment against authority figures, that led to his downfall. While he's recuperating, Wild loses control of some of his gangs, and people really started to loathe him. And then he did something I simply don't understand - after he's back on his feet, Wild used violence to perform a jailbreak for one of his gang members, and once it's discovered he's at fault, he goes into hiding for several weeks. Once Wild believed the issue had blown over, he returns to his business and things settle down. He was very wrong.

On February 15, 1725, Wild and one of his thieves are arrested for the jailbreak and Wild is put in Newgate. He attempts to keep running his business while locked away. With the shift in public mood, Wild's time was nearly up. Gang members offered evidence against him at trial, and eventually his massive criminal enterprise is fully uncovered. His final trial was at the Old Bailey on May 15, 1725.

"He was tried on two indictments of privately stealing 50 yards (46 m) of lace from Catherine Statham (a lace-seller who had visited him in prison on 10 March) at Holborn on 22 January. He was acquitted of the first charge, but with Statham's evidence presented against him on the second charge, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Terrified, Wild asked for a reprieve but was refused. He could not eat or go to church, and suffered from insanity and gout.

On the morning of his execution, in fear of death, Wild attempted suicide by drinking a large dose of laudanum, but because he was weakened by fasting, he vomited violently and sank into a coma from which he would not awaken."

Wild's hanging was a massive event, and tickets were sold in advance for the best vantage points.