Jonathan Wild was a notorious London Thief-Taker in the early part of the eighteenth century. He styled himself “Thief-taker-General of Great Britain and Ireland” and ran a vast corporation of criminals. The partnership with Hitchin was very successful until the latter’s disgrace for a crime “too detestable to mention”. Wild’s empire and influence grew apace and he he ruled the London underworld managing to side-step the new laws enacted against receivers. As thief-taker he sent more than 100 people to the gallows. However, the gallows beckoned for him also and his luck began to tun out in 1725.
NewgateWild and Hitchin were now rulers of the London underworld. One or two instances of their mode of doing business may not be uninteresting. They are taken from a pamphlet written by Wild, and may therefore be supposed to be correct:”A biscuit-baker near Wapping having lost a pocket-book containing, among other papers, an Exchequer bill for one hundred pounds, applied to Wild for its recovery. The latter advised him to advertise it, and stop the payment of the bill, which he did accordingly; but getting no account of his property, he came to Wild several times about it, and at length told him that he had received a visit from a tall man, with a long peruke and sword, calling himself the City Marshal, who asked him if he had lost his pocket-book.
He said that he had, and desired to know the inquirer’s reasons for putting such a question, or whether he could give him any intelligence; but he replied no, he could not give him any intelligence of it as yet, and wished to be informed whether he had employed any person to search after it. He said that he had employed one Wild; whereupon the Marshal told him he was under a mistake: that he should have applied to him, as he was the only person in England who could serve him, being well assured it was entirely out of the power of Wild, or any of those fellows, to know where the pocket-book was (this was very certain, he having it at that time in his custody); and begged to know the reward that would be given. The biscuit-baker replied that he would give ten pounds, but the Marshal said that a greater reward should be offered, for that Exchequer bills and those things were ready money, and could immediately be sold; and that if he had employed him in the beginning, and offered forty or fifty pounds, he would have served him.
Wild and friends “discover” a thiefWild gave it as his opinion that the pocket-book was in the Marshal’s possession, and that it would be to no purpose to continue advertising it; and he advised the owner rather to advance his bidding, considering what hands the note was in, especially as the Marshal had often told him how easily he could dispose of bank-notes and Exchequer notes at gaming-houses, which he very much frequented. Pursuant to this advice, the losing party went to the Marshal and bid forty pounds for his pocket-book and bill, but ‘Zounds, sir,’ said the Marshal, ‘you are too late!’ and that was all the satisfaction he gave him.”Thus was the poor biscuit-baker tricked out of his Exchequer bill, which was paid to another person, though it could never be traced back. But it happened that a short time after some of the young fry of pickpockets, under the tuition of the Marshal, fell out in sharing the money given them for this very pocket-book; whereupon one of them came to Wild and discovered the whole matter, viz. that he had sold the pocket-book, with the one-hundred-pound Exchequer note in it, and other bills, to the City Marshal, at a tavern in Aldersgate Street, for four or five guineas.”The Marshal going one night up Ludgate Hill observed a well-dressed woman walking before him, whom he told Wild was a lewd woman, for that he saw her talking with a man. This was no sooner spoken but he seized her and asked who she was. She made answer that she was a bailiff’s wife. ‘You are more likely to be a prostitute,’ said the Marshal, and as such you shall go to the compter.’ ” Taking the woman through St Paul’s Churchyard, she desired liberty to send for some friends, but he would not comply with her request. He forced her into the Nag’s Head tavern, in Cheapside, where he presently ordered a hot supper and plenty of wine to be brought in, commanding the female to keep at a distance from him, and telling her that he did not permit such vermin to sit in his company, though he intended to make her pay the reckoning.
When the supper was brought to the table he fell to it lustily, and would not allow the woman to eat any part of it with him, or to come near the fire, though it was extremely cold weather. When he had supped he stared round, and applying himself to her, told her that if he had been an informer, or such a fellow, she would have called for eatables and wine herself, and not have given him the trouble of direction, or else would have slipped a piece into his hand; adding: ‘You may do what you please; but I can assure you it is in my power, if I see a woman in the hands of informers, to discharge her and commit them. You are not so ignorant but you must guess my meaning.’ She replied that she had money enough to pay for the supper, and about three half-crowns more; and this desirable answer being given, he ordered his attendant to withdraw while he compounded the matter with her.
“When Wild returned, the gentlewoman was civilly asked to sit by the fire and eat the remainder of the supper, and in all respects treated very kindly, only with a pretended reprimand to give him better language whenever he should speak to her for the future; and after another bottle drunk at her expense, she was discharged.”The object of these allegations on the part of Wildbe easily seen, and the effect which he desired was at length produced; for the Marshal, having been suspended, and subsequently fined twenty pounds and pilloried for a crime too loathsome to be named, was at length compelled to retire. And thus he left Wild alone to execute his plans of depredation upon the public. The latter, not unmindful of the tenure upon which his reputation hung, was too wary to allow discontent to appear among his followers, and therefore he found it to his interest to take care that where he promised them protection his undertaking should not be neglected or pass unfulfilled.His powers in supporting his word were greater than can be well imagined, in the present state of things, where so much corruption had been got rid of; and where his influence among persons in office failed him, his exertions in procuring the testimony of false witnesses to rebut that evidence which was truly detailed, and the nature of which he could always learn beforehand, generally enabled him to secure the object which he had in view. His threats, however, were not less amply fulfilled than his promises; and his vengeance once declared was never withdrawn, and seldom failed in being carried out. By his subjecting such as incurred his displeasure to the punishment of the law he obtained the rewards offered for pursuing them to conviction, and greatly extended his ascendancy over the other thieves, who considered him with a kind of awe; while, at the same time, he established his character as being a man of great public utility.A few anecdotes of the life and proceedings of this worthy will sufficiently exhibit the system which he pursued. A lady of fortune being on a visit in Piccadilly, her servants, leaving her sedan at the door, went to refresh themselves at a neighbouring public-house. Upon their return the vehicle was not to be found; in consequence of which the men immediately went to Wild, and having informed him of their loss, and complimented him with the usual fee, they were desired to call upon him again in a few days. Upon their second application Wild extorted from them a considerable reward, and then directed them to attend the chapel in Lincoln’s Inn Fields on the following morning, during the time of prayers. The men went according to the appointment, and under the piazzas of the chapel perceived the chair, which upon examination they found to contain the velvet seat, curtains and other furniture, and that it had received no kind of damage.A thief of most infamous character, named Arnold Powel, being confined in Newgate on a charge of having robbed a house in the neighbourhood of Golden Square of property to a great amount, was visited by Jonathan, who informed him that in consideration of a sum of money he would save his life; adding that if the proposal was rejected he should inevitably die at Tyburn for the offence on account of which he was then imprisoned. The prisoner, however, not believing that it was in Wild’s power to do him an injury, defied him. He was brought to trial; but through a defect of evidence he was acquitted.Having gained intelligence that Powel had committed a burglary in the house of Mr Eastlick, near Fleet Ditch, Wild caused that gentleman to prosecute the robber. Upon receiving information that a bill was found for the burglary, Powel sent for Wild, and a compromise was effected, according to the terms which Wild himself had proposed, in consequence of which Powel was assured that his life should be preserved. Upon the approach of the sessions Wild informed the prosecutor that the first and second days would be employed in other trials; and, as he was desirous Mr Eastlick should avoid attending with his witnesses longer than was necessary, he would give timely notice when Powel would be arraigned.But he contrived to have the prisoner put to the bar; and, no persons appearing to prosecute, he was necessarily dismissed, and the Court ordered Mr Eastlick’s recognisances to be estreated. Powel was ordered to remain in custody till the next sessions, there being another indictment against him; and Mr Eastlick represented the behaviour of Wild to the Court, who reprimanded him with great severity. Powel now put himself into a salivation, in order to avoid being brought to trial the next sessions but, notwithstanding this stratagem, he was arraigned and convicted, and was executed on the 20th of March, 1717.At this time Wild quitted his apartments at Mrs Seagoe’s and hired a house adjoining to the Coopers’ Arms, on the opposite side of the Old Bailey. His unexampled villainies had now become an object of so much consequence as to excite the particular attention of the legislature. Accordingly, in the year 1718 (at the instigation and by the procurement of Sir William Thompson, the recorder), an Act was passed for the further preventing of robberies and felonies, and for the more effectual transportation of felons. By a clause it was made felony for any persons to take a reward under pretence of restoring stolen goods, except they prosecuted the felons who stole them.This gave a check to Jonathan’s business for a while, but it was not long before he ventured to revive it again, though with more caution than before, and by altering his measures he thought still to evade the law. When people had been two or three times with him in quest of what they had lost, he would tell them that he had made inquiry after their goods and received information that if such a sum of money was sent to such a place the goods would be delivered to the person who carried it. This being agreed on, a porter was called, the money put into his hands, and directions given him to go and wait at the corner of the street; when he came to the place appointed, or perhaps on his way thither, he was met by somebody who delivered him the goods upon his paying the money.At other times the owners of the goods, as they were going home, were overtaken by a stranger, who put the goods into their hands, and at the same time a note, in which was written the sum of money they were to pay for them. But in some hazardous cases he commonly put the people themselves upon taking the first step, by advertising what goods they had lost, and offering a reward to anyone who would bring them to Jonathan Wild, who was thereby empowered to receive them without asking questions.In the two former cases he never saw the thief, nor received the goods, nor took the money; and in the latter the principal part was the act of the parties robbed, and he appeared merely as a friend in whose honour they could safely confide; and in serving them this way there was no necessity of supposing him to be a confederate with the felons who had robbed them. When they had got their goods, and desired to know what he must have for his trouble, he would tell them, with an air of indifference, they might do as they pleased; he demanded nothing: he was glad it had been in his power to serve them; what he had done was from a principle of doing good, and without any view of self-interest; and if they thought proper to make him a present it would be their own act, the pure effect of their generosity, and he should not take it as a reward, but merely as a favour.Jonathan’s business being now greatly increased, he found it necessary to take a larger house, and accordingly removed to a more convenient habitation at the King’s Head, in the Old Bailey. It is said that Jonathan, resolving to carry on a trade with Holland and Flanders, purchased a sloop, and put in the famous Roger Johnson to command her; that he carried over gold watches, rings, snuff-boxes and other plate, and sometimes perhaps bank-notes, which had been spoken with by the way of the mail. His chief trading port was Ostend, from whence he travelled up to Bruges, Ghent, Brussels and other considerable towns, where he disposed of his effects and took in a lading of hollands [casks of gin] and other goods, returned to England, and usually brought his cargo to land in the night, without giving the least trouble to the officers of the custom-house.This business was carried on pretty successfully for about two years, when by some mismanagement two pieces of holland were lost, and Johnson stopped the value of them out of the mate’s wages. The man was so provoked at this that he went immediately and gave information of Johnson’s running a vast quantity of goods; whereupon the vessel was exchequered, and Johnson was cast in seven hundred pounds’ damages, which put an end to his trading to Holland. There had long been great animosity betwixt Johnson and Tom Edwards, who kept the Case, in Long Lane. One evening, as he was coming out of the Black Lion ale-house in the Strand, which was then kept by one Butler (the brother to Tom Butler, who received his pardon in order to be an evidence against Wild), he met with Johnson and seized him, and charging him with felony carried him to a tavern.The Marshalsea Prison
Johnson sent for one of Wild’s men, who came with a constable and a warrant against Edwards, and carried him before a justice, who committed him to the compter for a highway robbery. Some time afterwards, Edwards, being again at liberty, and having received intelligence of a large quantity of valuable stolen goods lodged in one of Jonathan’s private warehouses, got a warrant and seized them. Jonathan was so provoked at this, though he did not think it proper to claim the goods as his own, that he took out an action in the name of Johnson, to whom he said the goods belonged, arrested Edwards, and threw him into the Marshalsea, where he lay one night, but the next day gave ball for his appearance.Edwards vowed revenge. He got several informations against Johnson, and only wanted to find where he was. After a long search to no purpose he accidentally met with him on the Stratford Road, seized him, and, sending for a constable, carried him to an ale-house hard by. Johnson sent a messenger to inform Wild of what had happened. Wild and his man, Quilt Arnold, went down directly to Johnson; a quarrel arose, and Johnson made his escape. An information was made against Wild for his management in this affair, being informed of which, he absconded for three weeks; and then, imagining the danger was over, ventured to appear again in public; but he found himself mistaken, for the high constable of Holborn, hearing that he had returned to his own house, went thither with two assistants and apprehended him, on 15th of February, 1725.He was carried before Sir John Fryar, Bart., and charged upon oath with assisting one Johnson, a highwayman, to make his escape from a constable at Bow, near Stratford, in the county of Middlesex, and was thereupon committed to Newgate. The sessions at the Old Bailey beginning on Wednesday, the 24th of the same month, he entered his prayer to be tried that sessions, or bailed, or discharged. But on the Friday following there came down a warrant of detainer, which was produced in court with several informations upon oath, to the following effect:-That for many years past he had been a confederate with a great number of highwaymen, pickpockets, house-breakers, shoplifters and other thieves.That he had formed a kind of corporation of thieves, of which he was the head or director, and that notwithstanding his pretended services, in detecting and prosecuting offenders, he procured such only to be hanged as concealed their booty, or refused to share it with him.That he had divided the town and country into so many districts, and appointed distinct gangs for each, who regularly accounted with him for their robberies. That he had also a particular set to steal at churches in time of divine service; and likewise other moving detachments to attend at Court on birthdays, balls, etc., and at both Houses of Parliament, circuits, and country fairs.That the persons employed by him were for the most part felons convict, who had returned from transportation before the time for which they were transported was expired, and that he made choice of them to be his agents because they could not be legal evidence against him, and because he had it always in his power to take from them what part of the stolen goods he thought fit, and otherwise use them ill, or hang them, as he pleased.That he had from time to time supplied such convictcd felons with money and clothes, and lodged them in his own house, the better to conceal them; particularly for counterfeiting and diminishing broad-pieces and guineas.That he had not only been a receiver of stolen goods for nearly fifteen years past, but had frequently been a confederate, and robbed along with the above-mentioned convicted felons.That in order to carry on these vile practices, and to gain some credit with the ignorant multitude, he usually carried a short silver staff, as a badge of authority from the Government, which he used to produce when he himself was concerned in robbing.That he had under his care and direction several warehouses for receiving and concealing stolen goods; and also a ship for carrying off jewels, watches and other valuable goods to Holland, where he had a superannuated thief for his factor.That he kept in pay several artists to make alterations and transform watches, seals, snuff-boxes, rings and other valuable things, that they might not be known, several of which he used to present to such persons as he thought might be of service to him.That he seldom or never helped the owners to the notes and papers that they had lost, unless he found them able exactly to specify and describe them, and then often insisted on more than half the value.And lastly, it appears that he has often sold human blood, by procuring false evidence to swear persons into facts they were not guilty of, sometimes to prevent them from being evidence against himself, and at other times for the sake of the great reward given by the Government.The jury found him guilty on one of the indictments and he was sentenced to death. He endeavoured to prevent his execution by drinking laudanum, but the largeness of the draught, together with his having fasted before, instead of destroying him immediately, was the cause of his not dying by it. After taking the liquid laudanum he grew so drowsy that he could not hold up his head nor keep open his eyes at prayers, and in this condition he was put into the cart and conveyed to Tyburn.Wild passing St Sepulchre on his way to TyburnIt is not easy to express with what roughness he was treated by the mob, not only as he went to the tree but even when he was at it. Instead of those signs of pity which they generally show when common criminals are going to execution, they reviled and cursed him, and pelted him with dirt and stones continually. By the time he came to the end of his journey he was considerably recovered from the disorder the laudanum had thrown him into. The other malefactors being ready to be turned off, and the executioner telling Jonathan he might take any reasonable time to prepare himself, he continued sitting in the cart for a little while, but the mob grew so outrageous at this indulgence that they called out incessantly to the hangman to do his office, and threatened to knock him on the head if he did not immediately perform it. He found delays were dangerous, and therefore no longer deferred giving the populace the satisfaction they demanded. Thus ended the life of Jonathan Wild, 24th of May, 1725.The full reckoning of his empire will never be known with any great accuracy. It is certain that he had armies of thieves, prostitutes, highwaymen, pickpockets and burglars working for him. His Spruce Prigs were famous. These were former valets and footmen, trained by a dancing master and always ready to attend the Court on “Birth-nights” and go to Balls, the Opera, the Theatre and all Assemblies. For the purpose, they were supplied with “Lac’d Coats, brocade Waistcoats, fine Perriwigs” and were even, at times, conveyed in handsome Equipages, such as Chariots, with Footmen in Liveries, valets de chambre and a range of servants. All, of course, thieves like the Master.He also had a list of seven thousand “Newgate birds” who were in Service in the City and the suburbs and all of whom were there to rob the house in which they had entered service. His life was not without its risks and on his death it was found that his body bore the scars of seventeen sword and pistol wounds and that his skull was morticed together with silver plates where it had been fractured. After his death his empire was broken up and parcelled out amongst smaller gangs and crime in London continued unabated with thieves continuing to operate with impunity.