Jonathan Wild—Thief Taker
In his day, Jonathan Wild was a man of great influence in London. In a city plagued by crime, Wild brought dozens of petty thieves and rogues to justice; a public service that created for him the gratitude of the general public and the authorities.
The government of the day sought his advice on laws aimed at curbing the crime wave. He operated a business that found and returned stolen goods to their grateful owners - for a fee. Behind the scenes, Jonathan Wild masterminded a vast criminal empire that involved robbery, extortion, blackmail, receiving stolen goods, prostitution, and any other means of earning a dishonest living he could think of.
Jonathan Wild’s Chequered Career
Born in 1682, Jonathan Wild abandoned a wife and child in his mid-20s and headed for London. It didn’t take him long to end up in debtor’s prison where he mingled with members of the criminal class.
He put his four years in prison to good use learning the dark arts of the underworld, and cultivating relationships that he thought might be useful later. He became friends with Mary Milliner, a prostitute.
When they got out of prison, Mary and Jonathan set up shop together in Covent Garden.
They operated a scheme called “Buttock and Twang.” 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 round 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.
Receiver of Stolen Goods
Jonathan Wild probably heard complaints from his regulars about the rotten deals they got when selling their stolen goods, so he set out to help them and, incidentally, himself.
He opened an office and offered to retrieve stolen goods for robbed clients and charged them for the service. At the same time, he took stolen items from his pub customers and gave them a slice of the reward money.
When victims came into his office asking for help in retrieving a valuable painting or a snuff box of sentimental value, Wild probably already had it or knew who did. Money was gratefully handed over and everybody was happy.
The business boomed and soon Wild was operating gangs that were stealing to order. He ran prostitution rings and protection rackets. He became the king of London’s criminal underworld, while his public persona was that of an implacable crime fighter.
Before an organized police force was established in Britain the authorities relied on the work of thief-takers to bring miscreants to justice in return for a bounty.
The people who engaged in this dubious craft were a rough sort with connections in criminal circles who were quite open to committing skulduggery themselves. They operated as a kind of neighbourhood watch with fangs.
As an added bonus, the thief-taker would get a pardon for any crimes he might have committed; tacit acknowledgement by the justice system that the trade was likely to attract an unsavoury type of character. Few were more unsavoury than Jonathan Wild; a man who was merciless with those who had done him wrong.
Doing wrong to Wild usually involved being a member of a rival gang or refusing to submit to his authoritarian rule.
When Wild’s wrath was stirred the gangster turned gangster-catcher, an activity that earned him the unofficial title of “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland.” He is said to have sent 120 people to the gallows and to have personally attended many of the hangings.
Jonathan Wild is Undone
Jonathan Wild had enjoyed a prosecution-free run of seven years, living in grand style with a higher-class of mistress than Mary Milliner. But, by the winter of 1724/25, the authorities were getting suspicious and public opinion towards him had turned sour.
Jack Sheppard had been a member of Wild’s circle of crooks but decided to strike out on his own, and this displeased the chief villain. Wild sent his men, one of them known as James “Hell-and-Fury” Sykes, after Sheppard. Between 1723 and 1724 Wild’s thief-takers arrested Sheppard fives times and handed him over to the authorities. Five times he was imprisoned and four times he escaped. This made a folk hero among the city’s poor and Wild’s role in pursuing him did not sit well with the public or the criminal classes. This was especially so when Jack Sheppard swung at the end of a rope after his fifth capture.
Whispers from foes led the authorities to a warehouse stuffed with stolen goods. Wild tried to pin the ownership of all the booty on one of his cohorts but that didn’t work.
He was found guilty of theft and sentenced to death.
Folk Song about Jack Sheppard from the 1969 movies Where's Jack?
Jonathan Wild’s Final Journey
With hours to go before the trip to his execution at Tyburn, Jonathan Wild swallowed a large dose of laudanum mixed with alcohol. It wasn’t enough to kill but sufficient to make him groggy and delirious.
However, nothing could upset the grim timetable for his death and that of three others on May 24, 1725. The open cart carrying the condemned rumbled out of Newgate Prison to start its two-mile journey to Tyburn Tree. The trip would take about three hours past crowds, giving citizens the opportunity to express their feelings towards the criminals.
Flamboyant and daring scoundrels often were cheered; there was no such sympathy for Jonathan Wild. He was pelted with feces, dead animals, rotten fruit, and anything else obnoxious that came to hand.
The cart, as was customary, made three stops at pubs on the way so the condemned could fortify themselves to face the ordeal ahead.
At Tyburn, one of the largest crowds ever waited to watch the downfall of a man once revered and now hated. Probably because of the wine, beer, and laudanum swilling around inside him Wild did not give the usual final speech.
When the cart pulled away and the four convicts were dangling on the end of their ropes, Wild tried to save himself by grabbing onto the man next to him, one Robert Harpham. The executioner, Richard Arnet, separated the two and soon enough Jonathan Wild stopped kicking and was dead at the age of 42.
“Everything comes in circles—even Professor Moriarty. Jonathan Wild was the hidden force of the London criminals, to whom he sold his brains and his organization on a fifteen per cent. commission. The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up.” The Valley of Fear, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Charles Hitchen was what passed for an officer of the law in 18th century London. As under marshal of London, Hitchen had to buy his position at a cost of £700 a year but he drew a salary of £200. How to close the gap? Go into partnership with the likes of Jonathan Wild of course. A cut of Wild’s income was an insurance policy against a visit to the hangman.
Jonathan Wild was a violent man in a violent profession. By the time he went to the gallows he had two skull fractures and 17 wounds from swords, knives, and gun shots.
- “Murderers, Robbers & Highwaymen.” Stephen Brennan, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., December 13, 2013.
- “Jonathan Wild – London’s First Organized Crime Lord.” BBC h2g2, November 4, 2004.
- “Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General.” In London Guide, undated.
- “1725: Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General and Receiver of Stloen Goods.” Anthony Vaver, Executed Today, May 24, 2010.