See W. R. Irwin, The Making of Jonathan Wild (1941); G. Howson, Thief-Taker General (1970).
Wild attended the Free School in St John's Lane, and was apprenticed to a local buckle-maker. He married and had a son, but came to London in 1704 as a servant. After being dismissed by his master, he returned to Wolverhampton, before coming back to London in 1708. London was by far the largest city in England, with a population of around 600,000, of whom around 70,000 lived within the ancient city walls of the City of London.
Little is known of Wild's first two years in London, but he was arrested for debt in March 1710, and sent to Wood Street Counter, one of the debtor's prisons in the City of London. The prisons were notoriously corrupt, with gaolers demanding a bribe, or "garnish", for any minor comfort. Wild became popular, running errands for the gaolers and eventually earning enough to repay his original debts and the cost of being imprisoned, and even lend money to other prisoners. He received "the liberty of the gate", meaning that he was allowed out at night to aid in the arrest of thieves. There, he met one Mary Milliner (or Mary Mollineaux), a prostitute who began to teach Wild criminal ways and, according to Daniel Defoe, "brought him into her own gang, whether of thieves or whores, or of both, is not much material." He was also introduced to a wide range of London's criminal underclass. With his new skills and contacts, Wild was released in 1712 under an Act of Parliament passed earlier that year for the relief of insolvent debtors.
Upon release, Wild began to live with Mary Milliner as her husband in Lewkenor's Land (now Macklin Street) in Covent Garden, despite both of them having prior marriages. Wild apparently served as Milliner's tough when she went night-walking. Soon Wild was thoroughly acquainted with the underworld, both with its methods and its inhabitants. At some point during this period, Milliner had begun to act as something of a madam to other prostitutes, and Wild as a fence, or receiver of stolen goods. Wild began, slowly at first, to dispose of stolen goods and to pay bribes to get thieves out of jail.
He later parted with Milliner, cutting off her ear to mark her as a whore.
In around 1713, Wild was approached by Hitchen to become one of his assistants in thief-taking, a profitable activity on account of the £40 reward paid by the government for catching a felon. Wild may have become known to Hitchen's associates, known as his "Mathematicians", during his lengthy stay in Wood Street Compter; certainly one, William Field, later worked for Wild.
The advent of daily newspapers had led to a rising interest in crime and criminals. As the papers reported notable crimes and ingenious attacks, the public worried more and more about property crime and grew more and more interested in the issues of criminals and policing. London depended entirely upon localized policing and had no city-wide police force. Unease with crime was at a feverish high. The public was eager to embrace both colourful criminals (e.g. Jack Sheppard and the entirely upper-class gang called the "Mohocks" in 1712) and valiant crime-fighters. The city's population had more than doubled, and there was no effective means of controlling crime. London saw a rise not only in thievery, but in organized crime during the period.
The ending of the War of the Spanish Succession meant a further increase in crime as demobilized soldiers were on the streets. By this time, 1714, Hitchen was restored to his office, but Wild went his own way, and he opened a small office in the Blue Boar tavern, run by Mrs Seagoe in Little Old Bailey. He continued to call himself Hitchen's "Deputy", entirely without any official standing, and took to carrying a sword as a mark of his supposed authority, also alluding to pretensions of gentility.
Jonathan Wild was not the first thief-taker who was actually a thief himself. Charles Hitchen had used his position as Under-Marshal to practice extortion. He had pressured brothels and pickpockets to pay him off or give him the stolen goods since purchasing the position in 1712, and the extortion was already an established practice at that time. When Hitchen was suspended from his duties for corruption in that year, he engaged Jonathan Wild to keep his business of extortion going in his absence. Hitchen was re-instated in 1714 and found that Wild was now a rival, and one of Wild's first bits of gang warfare was to eliminate as many of the thieves in Hitchen's control as he could. In 1718, Hitchen attempted to expose Wild with his A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers in and about the City of London. There he named Wild as a manager and source of crime. Wild replied with An Answer to a Late Insolent Libel and there explained that Hitchen was a homosexual who visited "molly houses." Hitchen attempted to further combat Wild with a pamphlet entitled The Regulator, which was his characterization of Wild, but Hitchen's prior suspensions from duties and the shocking charge of homosexuality virtually eliminated him as a threat to Wild.
Wild held a virtual monopoly on crime in London. Legends arose surrounding his management of his "empire." One held that he kept records of all thieves in his employ, and when they had outlived their usefulness, Wild sold them to the gallows for the £40 reward. This supposed system inspired a fake or folk etymology of the phrase "double cross." It is 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 fabulous story is contradicted by the fact that the noun "double cross" did not enter English usage until 1834.)
In public, Wild presented an heroic face. He was the man who returned stolen goods. He was the man who caught criminals. In 1718, Wild called himself "Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland". By his testimony, over sixty thieves were sent to the gallows. His "finding" of lost merchandise was private, but his efforts at finding thieves were public. Wild's office in the Old Bailey was a busy spot. Victims of crime would come by, even before announcing their losses, and discover that Wild's agents had "found" the missing items, and Wild would offer to help find the criminals for an extra fee. However, while fictional treatments made use of the device, it is not known whether or not Wild ever actually turned in one of his own gang for a private fee.
In 1720, Wild's fame was such that the Privy Council consulted with him on methods of controlling crime. Wild's recommendation was, unsurprisingly, that the rewards for evidence against thieves be raised. Indeed, the reward for capturing a thief went from forty pounds to one hundred and forty pounds within the year. This amounted to a significant pay increase for Wild. There is some evidence that Wild was favoured, or at least ignored, by the Whig politicians and opposed by the Tory politicians. In 1718, a Tory group had succeeded in having the laws against receiving stolen property tightened, primarily with Wild's activities in mind. Ironically, this strengthened Wild's hand, rather than weakening it, for it made it more difficult for thieves to fence their goods except through Wild.
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 July to August 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 £25,000 in the year 2000). 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 defense of order. In reality, it was a gang warfare disguised as national service.
When Wild solicited for a finder's fee, he usually held all the power in the transaction. For example, David Nokes quotes (based on Howson) the following advertisement from the Daily Post in 1724 in his edition of Henry Fielding's Jonathan Wild:
The advert is extortion. The "notes of hand" (agreements of debt) mean signatures, so Wild already knows the name of the book's owner. Furthermore, Wild tells the owner through the ad that he knows what its owner was doing at the time, since the Fountain Tavern was a brothel. The real purpose of the ad is to threaten the notebook's owner with announcing his visit to a bordello, either to the debtors or the public, and it even names a price for silence (a guinea, or one pound and one shilling).
In late April 1724, the most famous housebreaker of the era, Jack Sheppard, was apprehended by one of Wild's men, James "Hell-and-Fury" Sykes, for a burglary Sheppard had committed in Clare Market on 5 February. Sheppard had worked with Wild in the past, though he had struck out on his own. Consequently, as with other arrests, Wild's interests in saving the public from Sheppard were personal.
Sheppard was imprisoned in St Giles's Roundhouse, but escaped within three hours. On 19 May, Wild again had Sheppard arrested for pickpocketing, and this time he was put in St. Ann's Roundhouse in Soho, where he was visited by Elizabeth "Edgworth Bess" Lyon the next day; she too was locked up with him, and, being recognized as man and wife, they were sent to the New Prison at Clerkenwell. They both escaped on 25 May. In July, Field informed Wild about Sheppard, so Wild sought for Lyon on 22 July and plied her with drinks at Temple Bar until she betrayed Sheppard.
The following day, Wild sent another one of his men, Quilt Arnold, and had Sheppard arrested a third time and put into Newgate Prison to await trial. On 13 August he was tried on three charges of burglary, but was acquitted of the first two due to lack of evidence. However, Wild, along with Field and William Kneebone, Sheppard's former master, presented evidence against him on the final charge of the burglary of Kneebone's house on 12 July; and Sheppard was convicted, sentenced to death, and put in the condemned hold of Newgate Prison.
On the night that the death warrant arrived, 31 August, Sheppard escaped. By this point, Sheppard was a working class hero for apprentices (being a cockney apprentice in love, non-violent, and handsome). On 9 September, Sheppard avoided capture by Wild's men, but he was caught for a fourth time by a posse from Newgate as he hid out on Finchley Common, and Sheppard was placed in the most secure room of Newgate. Further, Sheppard was put in shackles and chained to the floor.
Meanwhile, on 9 October, Wild and his men arrested Joseph "Blueskin" Blake, a highwayman and Sheppard's partner-in-crime. On 15 October Blueskin was tried for the same act of burglary committed on 12 July, with Wild, Field, and his men giving evidence. Their accounts were not consistent with the evidence given at Sheppard's trial, but Blueskin was convicted and sentenced to death anyway. After the trial, Blueskin pleaded with Wild in the courtroom to have his sentence commuted from hanging to transportation (since he had worked with Wild before), but Wild refused. Enraged, Blueskin attempted to murder Wild, slashing his throat in the process and causing an uproar, and Wild collapsed and was taken to a surgeon for treatment.
Taking advantage of the disturbance that spread to Newgate next door and continued into the night, Sheppard escaped yet again in early 16 October. Sheppard had broken the chains, padlocks, and six iron-barred doors. This escape astonished everyone, and Daniel Defoe, working as a journalist, wrote an account. In the early morning on 1 November, Sheppard was found for a fifth and final time by a constable and arrested. This time, Sheppard was placed in the centre of Newgate, where he could be observed at all times, and loaded with three hundred pounds of iron weights. He was so celebrated that the gaolers charged high society visitors to see him, and James Thornhill painted his portrait.
On 11 November, Blueskin was hanged. Five days later Sheppard was similarly executed at Tyburn. Wild missed out on the execution while he was confined to his bed for several weeks and his throat was recovering.
During the pursuit of Sheppard, Wild appeared as much to disadvantage in the press as Sheppard did to advantage. Wild was now despised. When, after his recovery, Wild used violence to perform a jail break for one of his gang members, he was being sought out and went into hiding for several weeks, and returned to business when he thought the affair had blown over. On 6 February 1725, he was summoned to Leicester house, where he failed to recover a gold watch for one of his attendants because of the jail break and the incident with Blueskin at the Old Bailey.
On 15 February Wild and Quilt Arnold were arrested for helping one of his men in a jailbreak. Wild was placed in Newgate, where he continued to attempt to run his business. In the illustration from the True Effigy (top of page), Wild is pictured in Newgate, still with notebook in hand to account for goods coming in and going out of his office. Evidence was presented against Wild for the violent jailbreak and for having stolen jewels during the previous August's installation of Knights of the Garter.
The public's mood had shifted; they supported the average man and resented authority figures. Wild's trial occurred at the same time as that of the Lord Chancellor, Lord Thomas Parker, 1st Earl of Macclesfield, for taking £100,000 in bribes. With the changing tide, it appeared at last to Wild's gang that their leader would not escape, and they began to come forward. Slowly, gang members began to turn evidence on him, until all of his activities, including his grand scheme of running and then hanging thieves, became known. Additionally, evidence was offered as to Wild's frequent bribery of public officers.
Wild's final trial occurred at the Old Bailey on 15 May. He was tried on two indictments of privately stealing of lace from Catherine Steatham (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 Steatham'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, he attempted suicide by drinking a large dose of laudanum, but because he was weakened by fasting, he vomited violently and sank into a coma that he would not awaken from.
When Wild was taken to the gallows at Tyburn on 24 May 1725, Daniel Defoe said that the crowd was far larger than any they had seen before and that, instead of any celebration or commiseration with the condemned,
Wild's hanging was a great event, and tickets were sold in advance for the best vantage points (see the reproduction of the gallows ticket). Even in a year with a great many macabre spectacles, Wild drew an especially large and boisterous crowd. 18-year-old Henry Fielding was in attendance. Wild was accompanied by William Sperry and the two Roberts Sanford and Harpham, three of the four prisoners who had been condemned to die with Wild a few days before. Because he was heavily drugged, he was the last to die after the three of them, without any difficulty that had happened at Sheppard's execution.
In the dead of night, Wild's body was buried in secret at the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church next to Elizabeth Mann, his third wife and one of his many lovers (who had died in about 1718), as he had wished. His burial was only temporary. In the 18th century, autopsies and dissections were performed on the most notorious criminals, and consequently Wild's body was exhumed and sold to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection. His skeleton remains on public display in the Royal College's Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields.
When Wild was hanged, the papers were filled with accounts of his life, collections of his sayings, farewell speeches, and the like. Daniel Defoe wrote one narrative for Applebee's Journal in May and then had published True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild in June 1725. This work competed with another that claimed to have excerpts from Wild's diaries. The illustration above is from the frontispiece to the "True Effigy of Mr. Jonathan Wild," a companion piece to one of the pamphlets purporting to offer the thief-taker's biography.
Criminal biography was already an existing genre. These works were popular then, as now, because they could offer a touching account of need, a fall from innocence, sex, violence, and then repentance or a tearful end. Public fascination with the dark side of human nature, and with the causes of evil, has never waned, and the market for mass produced accounts was large.
By 1701 there had been a Lives of the Gamesters (often appended to Charles Cotton's The Compleat Gamester), about notorious gamblers. In 1714 Captain Alexander Smith had written the best-selling Complete Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Defoe himself was no stranger to this market: his Moll Flanders was published in 1722. Further, he had, by 1725, written both a History and a Narrative of the life of Jack Sheppard (see above). Moll Flanders may be based on the life of one Moll King, who lived with Mary Mollineaux/Milliner, Wild's first mistress.
What differs about the case of Jonathan Wild is that it was not simply a crime story. Parallels between Wild and Robert Walpole were instantly drawn, especially by the Tory authors of the day. Mist's Weekly Journal (one of the more rough-speaking Tory journals) drew a parallel between the figures in May 1725, when the hanging was still in the news.
The parallel is most important for John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728. The main story of the Beggar's Opera focuses on the episodes between Wild and Sheppard. In the opera, the character of Peachum stands in for Wild (who stands in for Walpole), while the figure of Macheath stands in for Sheppard (who stands in for Wild and/or the chief officers of the South Sea Company). Robert Walpole himself saw and enjoyed Beggar's Opera without realizing that he was its intended target. Once he did realize it, he banned the sequel opera, Polly, without staging. This prompted Gay to write to a friend, "For writing in the cause of virtue and against the fashionable vices, I have become the most hated man in England almost."
In 1742, Robert Walpole lost his position of power in the House of Commons. He was created a peer and moved to the House of Lords, from where he still directed the Whig majority in Commons for years. In 1743, Henry Fielding's The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, the Great appeared in the third volume of Miscellanies.
Fielding is merciless in his attack on Walpole. In his work, Wild stands in for Walpole directly, and, in particular, he invokes the Walpolean language of the "Great Man". Walpole had come to be described by both the Whig and then, satirically, by the Tory political writers as the "Great Man", and Fielding has his Wild constantly striving, with stupid violence, to be "Great". "Greatness," according to Fielding, is only attained by mounting to the top stair (of the gallows). Fielding's satire also consistently attacks the Whig party by having Wild choose, among all the thieves cant terms (several lexicons of which were printed with the Lives of Wild in 1725), "prig" to refer to the profession of burglary. Fielding suggests that Wild becoming a Great Prig was the same as Walpole becoming a Great Whig: theft and the Whig party were never so directly linked.
The figures of Peachum and Macheath were picked up by Bertolt Brecht for his updating of Gay's opera as The Threepenny Opera. The Sheppard character, Macheath, is the "hero" of the song Mack the Knife.
In 1969, James Clavell's screenplay for the film "Where's Jack?" told the story of Jack Shepherd (played in the film by the pop singer Tommy Steele) with Wild (played by Stanley Baker)as a suave and sinister criminal mastermind.
More recently, Jonathan Wild appeared as a character in the David Liss novel A Conspiracy of Paper, ISBN 0-8041-1912-0. Jonathan Wild is also the title character in the 2005–2006 Phantom stories "Jonathan Wild: King of Thieves" and "Jonathan Wild: Double Cross".
Other 20th century sources
18th century sources