A Game of Give and Take: The Crimes of Jonathan Wild

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As London developed into a thriving commercial centre in the early 18th century, property crime boomed. London’s underclass seized the opportunities to make money provided by the theft of the wealthy’s valuable possessions. Terrified that their property was under constant threat, Londoners developed an obsession with the prevention of crime and the colourful characters involved in its commission. A man named Jonathan Wild exploited this fear and London’s legal system to build what might fairly be described, for the short time that it lasted, as history’s most successful empire of organised crime. 

Jonathan Wild arrived in London for the second time in 1708 – his first visit in 1704 to work as a lawyer’s servant had punctuated his attempt to forge a career as a buckle-maker in his native Wolverhampton. He soon found himself inundated with debt and, unable to reimburse his creditors, was thrown into Wood Street Compter debtors’ prison in 1710. His gaolers were deeply corrupt, demanding payment for treating prisoners humanely, while the prisoners themselves were allocated to areas of varying comfort according to how much they could afford to pay in bribes. 

It was here that Wild first encountered London’s criminals, earning their respect by engaging with them – something that debtors were usually too frightened to do. His interactions with these people meant that, for Wild, prison served as a “university of crime.” Shrewdly ingratiating himself with the gaolers by running their errands, Wild was soon able to pay off his debts and even loan money to other prisoners. The gaolers also came to trust Wild, to the extent that they granted him the ‘liberty of the gate’, which allowed him to accompany them on their nightly expeditions to arrest thieves.

During his time in prison, Wild met a prostitute named Mary Milliner, who, according to Daniel Defoe, “brought him into her own gang, whether of thieves or whores, or of both, is not much material.” Milliner instructed Wild in the art of crime, so that by the time an Act of Parliament designed to relieve insolvent debtors led to his release in 1712, Wild was well accustomed to the workings of London’s criminal underworld. So taken was he with Milliner that, upon his release, Wild lived with her as his wife, despite still being married to another woman, whom he had abandoned with his son when he left Wolverhampton. Wild and Milliner were bound to each other not just by their bigamous marriage but also by their shared criminal scheme. The ‘Buttock and Twang’ theft involved Milliner, the buttock, luring lustful clients into dark alleyways, where Wild, the twang, would hit them over the head and take their property while they were in no fit state to either resist or pursue him. The profits from this enterprise enabled Wild to purchase his own establishment, ‘The King’s Head’.

Due to Wild and Milliner’s criminal connections, thieves comprised a significant proportion of their clientele. Having frequently heard these thieves complain about the difficulties of selling stolen goods, Wild decided to become a ‘fence’ – a criminal middleman who knowingly bought stolen possessions and then sold them on to unsuspecting customers. It is likely that Wild became a rather prominent figure through this activity, as soon after his release he was propositioned by Charles Hitchen to become his deputy thief-taker. Hitchen had paid £700 (£99,000 today) in 1711 to be appointed as London’s Under Marshall, effectively making him the city’s most senior policeman. Seeking to make a return on his investment, Hitchen had conducted wide-ranging extortion of criminals and took bribes in return for releasing prisoners. A 1712 government investigation into this corruption had led Hitchen to be suspended from duty as Under Marshall for a period of two years. In the meantime, Hitchen’s most prevalent venture was thief-taking. At this time, policing was localised, and London did not yet have a city-wide police force. Its first formal police service – the Bow Street Runners – would not be formed until 1749. Justice was meted out by means of citizens’ arrests and bounty hunters, who were known officially as thief-takers. Hired privately by the victims of crime, thief-takers would capture criminals and hand them in to the authorities in return for a reward of £40 (£6,000 now). 

Hitchen was then the head of a criminal gang called ‘The Mathematicians’, and expected Wild, as his deputy, to use this network to run his enterprise. However, Wild was displeased by the incautious way that Hitchen operated, personally signing extortion notes and paying those in his employ too little, straining their loyalty. Although his scheme was inspired by Hitchen’s, Wild felt that he could operate his own organisation far more efficiently. Therefore, when Hitchen returned to his post as Under Marshal in 1714, Wild seized his chance and “struck out on his own.”

Wild’s method was one of sheer brilliance and would have been worthy of admiration, had it not caused such profound suffering. His gang of thieves (who had worked under him when he was subordinate to Hitchen) would steal property to order, and then retain it until the theft was reported in the rapidly emerging daily newspapers. Wild would announce that his thieves had managed to obtain the stolen property and would then return it to the owners for a small fee. This fee did not represent the value of the owner’s item, but rather a payment to cover the expenses of Wild and his network. This crucial distinction negated any risk that the transaction posed, as selling stolen goods (like Wild had done as a fence) was a serious offence that could carry a death sentence. Wild never pretended that the goods he returned to his clients were not stolen, but claimed that he had recovered the property out of a desire to serve justice, cynically hiding his true objective of benefitting from his criminal activity. Wild placed himself in a position of absolute power over his men, as if ever they served out their use, Wild could eliminate them by apprehending them as thieves and handing them to the authorities. At the same time, he made cunning use of the law to remove his criminal competitors, as he would legitimately capture thieves working for other gangs and hand them in to the authorities, each time collecting his reward of £40. In this way, Wild managed to acquire a monopoly over both London’s criminal underworld and the legitimate business of thief-taking. 

Wild was, in every way, a duplicitous figure. He was both a master criminal and a prolific agent of the law, and the legality of a significant part of his activities enabled him to cultivate a public image that allowed him to become one of the most famous and popular figures of his day. Concealing his fraudulent “recovery” of stolen goods by extinguishing any possible source of threat, Wild unofficially proclaimed himself “The Thief-Take General of Great Britain and Ireland”. The public lapped up the newspapers’ many accounts of Wild’s daring pursuits of justice, reassured that he had reportedly sent more than 60 thieves to the gallows. 

Hitchen, however, was less than pleased with his protégé’s success, not least because Wild was destroying what remained of his own organisation. Attempting to shatter Wild’s reputation by exposing his criminal conduct, Hitchen wrote ‘A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers in and about the City of London’. Wild’s response, ‘An Answer to a Late Insolent Libel’ reveals the mastery that allowed him to remain undetected, as he ruthlessly and astutely exposed Hitchen as a homosexual, disgracing him and destroying any credibility his claims might have had. Wild’s star continued to rise, and in 1720 the Privy Council approached him for help to decide new schemes of crime prevention. With perversely delightful cunning, Wild recommended that the reward for captured thieves be increased from £40 to £140, more than doubling his own profit. 

By 1724, Wild had become immensely powerful, having eradicated every large gang (such as the Carricks) that could jeopardise his position. Indeed, so extensive was Wild’s criminal empire that he divided it into districts, in which appointed gangs of thieves carried out his bidding. Yet Wild could not account for something as unpredictable as London’s political climate, which was changing markedly. The South Sea Bubble episode of 1720 saw thousands of investors ruined when the South Sea company’s value abruptly plummeted from its peak to little above its original value as a result of unrealistic speculation. In the subsequent parliamentary inquiry, it was discovered that many politicians had accepted bribes to help enable the scheme. These revelations engendered much ill feeling towards the establishment, something of which Wild had, ironically, become a representative. 

Jack Sheppard, a carpenter’s apprentice turned master housebreaker and thief, was a hero for those who shunned authority, since he resisted Wild’s repeated attempts to solicit him to join his gang. Wild could not permit such a talented criminal as Sheppard to work outside his influence, and so sent his man James ‘Hell and Fury’ Sykes to arrest him in April 1724. Yet Sheppard escaped his imprisonment from St Giles’ Roundhouse in no more than three hours and would continue to prove almost impossible to hold. Having escaped from custody for a second time in May, Sheppard was sentenced to death on 13 August for a burglary committed in the house of his former master, William Kneebone. Somehow, Sheppard managed to escape the condemned cell in Newgate prison on 31 August, the day that his execution warrant arrived. By now, Sheppard’s bold escapes had made him a champion of the working-class and had even attracted the fascination of London’s high society, some of whom payed for the privilege to meet him during his stints in prison. When he was apprehended after escaping from Newgate’s most secure room in October, he was placed in the centre of Newgate wrapped in 300 pounds of chains.

Sheppard’s partner, Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake, was not so elusive. Arrested by Wild’s men on 9 October, he was sentenced to death for the same crime as Sheppard on 15 October. In the Old Bailey courtroom in which his trial was held, Blueskin pleaded with Wild, who had given evidence against him, to commute his execution to transportation instead. When Wild refused, Blueskin sliced his neck in a frenzied attack of rage. The event aroused public suspicion, as many wondered what justification there could be for Blueskin’s virulent hatred of Wild. Though he did not die from his injury, Wild did require a few weeks to recover, meaning that he missed both Blueskin’s and Sheppard’s executions on 11 and 16 November 1724 respectively.

Unfortunately for him, Wild’s absence would prove fatal. It became public knowledge that he had played a major role in bringing about the popular Sheppard’s execution, and so the “celebrated catcher of thieves and ‘master policeman’ became instead the incarnation of brutal, unjust, authority.” Wild became reviled and was indisposed to impose the authority on his gang required to maintain its total loyalty. When he did eventually return, Wild used violence to provoke a riot to allow one of his men to break out of prison. When his role in this was uncovered, Wild went into hiding, but then soon after, assuming the scandal was over, emerged, only to be arrested in February 1725. Locked up in Newgate, Wild was later also charged with stealing the regalia of the Knights of the Garter the previous year. While his previous popularity might have made an acquittal possible, the change in the public’s political views doomed Wild. When his gang members realised that he would not be released, they turned against him and presented damning evidence that revealed the full scope of his criminal empire.

Wild was convicted and sentenced to death on 15 May at the Old Bailey. Terrified, Wild became insane and would neither eat nor attend church. On the morning of his execution on 24 May 1725, Wild attempted to commit suicide by drinking a large quantity of laudanum. However, weakened by his hunger, Wild vomited and sank into a state of semi-consciousness, in which he would remain until his death. 

A Tyburn execution was always a major public event, but Wild’s hanging attracted an interest hitherto unmatched. Tickets were sold for the best areas from which to observe the execution, and Daniel Defoe recorded that “wherever (Wild) came, there was nothing but hollowing and huzzas, as if it had been upon a triumph.” Defoe’s simile is apt, because for the public, Wild’s death was truly a victory. London had finally uncovered the truth about its most vicious and deceptive son, who had been upheld as an exemplar in the fight against crime. Wild rose to the pinnacle of both the criminal and law-abiding worlds through his near-perfectly conceived plan. Motivated by his desire for profit rather than any noble wish to preserve the public good, Jonathan Wild took more than any underworld criminal ever had. Yet his pride and avarice compelled him to remove Sheppard, a theft too great for the public to accept. By overreaching, Wild disrupted the equilibrium that had always existed in his criminal enterprise and therefore lost the game of give and take.

Howson, G., 1985. Thief-Taker General: Jonathan Wild and the Emergence of Crime and Corruption as a Way of Life in Eighteenth-Century England. Transaction Publishers