Jonathan Wild was a notable crime figure who enjoyed walking a fine line between helping criminals one day and posing as an extraordinary crime fighter the next, somewhat similar to
Eugène François Vidocq. Wild, or Wyld, as “he himself did not always agree in one method of spelling his name,” was born in either 1682 or 1863 to a poor family. He was the oldest of five children and his family lived in Wolverhampton where Wild’s father worked as a carpenter and his mother as a costermonger.
As a lad, Wild attend school and became apprenticed to a local buckle-maker. He married, had a son, and eventually abandoned his wife and son ending up in London but “being of extravagant disposition, he was [soon] arrested and thrown into [debtor’s prison at] Wood-street Compter.” In prison, he ran errands for the guards and soon earned enough to repay his debts and receive liberty, which allowed him to go out and help arrest thieves. It was also during this time that he met Mary Milliner (or Mary Mollineaux), a notorious pickpocket and active prostitute.
Mary was also supposedly the person who introduced Wild to London’s criminal underclass where she baptized him in criminal ways and helped him get released from debtor’s prison in 1712. After his release, Wild began live to with Mary, and, after some time, they opened “a little public-house in Cock-alley, facing Cripplegate-church, as a receptacle for stolen goods.” He also began to “rapidly accumulate [property and] began to think himself a man of consequence: he dressed in laced clothes, and wore a sword, which he exercised on the woman he cohabited with.” He cut off her ear, branded her a prostitute, and earned a separation from her because of such actions.
Mary was not the only women Wild romanced. After Mary left, several other women came into his life, but Wild’s main interest was crime and that’s how Wild met Charles Hitchen, who won London’s top police job in 1711 as Under Marsha. However, Hitchen abused the position extorting bribes from brothels and pickpockets and then attempting to force criminals to fence their goods through him. His underhanded ways were soon discovered, and he was suspended in 1713.
During Hitchen’s suspension, he approached Wild and asked him to keep his illegal activities going. Wild did and also became a thief-taker, a position where a private person was hired to capture criminals. When Hitchen was reinstated in 1714, Wild’s expertise was no longer needed and he became Hitchen’s rival. Because of this, in 1718, Hitchen attempted to expose him and named him a major source of crime. But Hitchen’s attempt to discredit Wild backfired. Instead, Wild retaliated and claimed Hitchen was a homosexual and with Hitchen’s prior suspension, Wild virtually eliminated Hitchen as a threat and a rival.
With Hitchen out of the way, Wild had free rein. He was clever and never explicitly implicated himself in any wrong doings. Additionally, he would have his gang steal goods, usually by pickpocketing or mugging victims, and then he would wait for the theft to be announced in the newspapers. Once it was announced, he would claim his thief-taking agents had discovered the stolen goods and would return them for a reward. He would also contact police and see if they wanted him to find the thief for a fee. In the meantime, Wild also continued to fence stolen goods and turn in rival gang members.
He maintained control over his own gang for three reasons: First, there was the public’s belief he was a heroic figure; second, because “the artful behaviour and punctuality with which Wild discharged his engagements, obtained him a share of confidence among thieves,” and, third, because of the threats that loomed over gang member’s heads, Wild threatened to turn them into authorities if they crossed him. He also crowned himself the “Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland,” and with tales circulating that he had sent over 60 thieves to the gallows, Wild seemed invincible.
Wild’s knack for finding stolen goods became legendary. In fact, he became so adept at retrieving lost goods, victims would visit his office in the Old Bailey and retrieve their goods before they had a chance to announce they were stolen. His ability to ferret out thieves and his seeming concern for cleaning up the streets and protecting the public soon grabbed the attention of the Privy Council, and, in 1720, they consulted him on how to reduce crime.
His suggestion, not surprisingly, was one that would enrich his own pockets. He claimed that by raising rewards for evidence against thieves, it would reduce crime. His suggestion was eventually put into action, and Wild’s profits suddenly skyrocketed from 40 pounds to 140 pounds per thief. Eventually, however, laws were tightened against those receiving stolen goods, but instead of harming Wild, it made him even more powerful as thieves could not fence their goods through anyone but Wild.
As Wild became more powerful, he made sure newspapers printed his amazing deeds. For instance, after capturing and turning in the Carrick Gang, Wild provided information to the papers about his exploits. The public ate it up and were even more impressed when one Carrick Gang member was released, and Wild found more incriminating evidence against him and got him rearrested. People called him a national hero and he was praised as a relentless pursuer of evil-doers.
In April of 1724, Jack Sheppard, the most notorious housebreaker of them all, was captured by one of Wild’s men and imprisoned at St. Giles’s Roundhouse. He escaped a few hours later. He was rearrested in mid-May and eventually incarcerated at Clerkenwell, where he escaped six days later. He was arrested a third time in July by Wild’s men and put in Newgate Prison. He was tried, sentenced to death, and put in Newgate’s condemned hold but somehow escaped again. He was recaptured a fourth time, put back in Newgate and this time chained, padlocked, and put behind an iron door.
A confederate of Sheppard’s, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake was also captured. During Blueskin’s trial, on 14 October 1724, he slashed Wild’s throat in attempting to murder him. A ballad was soon sung throughout Newgate about Wild being cut “ear to ear,” and although Wild collapsed, he survived. However, with rumors of his supposed death, an uproar swept through Newgate and aided Sheppard. He escaped for a fifth time leaving behind his chains, padlock, and the six iron-barred door that confined him. Sheppard was again tracked down and recaptured, and, this time, in November, he and Blueskin were hanged for their crimes.
With each escape by Sheppard, Wild’s super hero status fell, and within a few months, Wild was disliked as much as Sheppard. After Wild recovered from the injury caused by Blueskin, he assisted one of his gang members in making a jailbreak and was then hunted by thief-takers and police. He was caught and arrested in February 1725. Wild attempted to keep his operations going while behind bars, but, unfortunately, the public’s mood had changed. Moreover, his own gang members had now lost confidence in him, and they began turning against him, providing officials with information about his criminal deeds.
This led to his conviction and death, and, although he begged for a reprieve, it was refused. Wild was terrified of being executed and to avoid it, on the morning of his execution, he drank copious amounts of laudanum, which caused him to vomit, although he remained heavily medicated. By the time of his execution, one source noted:
“[H]e was somewhat recovered … and in this situation he was put into the cart and conveyed to Tyburn … [where] the populace treated him with remarkable severity, incessantly pelting him with stones and dirt.”
On 24 May 1725, Wild was taken to the gallows at Tyburn, where he was allowed to recover for some time. However, the crowd grew restless and were soon “enraged at the indulgence shown him … called to the executioner to perform the duties of his office, violently threatening him with instant death if he presumed any longer to delay.” The executioner, a man who had been at Wild’s wedding, saw he could stall no longer and Wild was hanged by his neck until he was dead.
The excitement surrounding Wild’s execution was stupendous. Tickets were sold in advance, and, of all the events of 1725, his macabre hanging drew one of the largest and most excitable crowds. His body was buried secretively sometime after midnight at St. Pancras Old Church next to his third wife, Elizabeth Mann. His body did not rest in eternal slumber for long. It was dug up shortly thereafter because, at the time, dissections were by law performed on the most notorious murderers. Today, his remains can be viewed at the Royal College Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
-  Fielding, Henry, The History of the Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great, 1840, p. 7.
-  The Annals of Crime, and New Newgate Calendar, Issue No. 7, 5 October 1833, p. 49.
-  Caulfield, James, The Lives and Portraits of Remarkable Characters, Drawn from the Most Authentic Sources, 1819, p. 58.
-  Ibid.
-  Ibid.
-  Northamptonshire Notes and Queries, Vol. 5, 1894, p. 240.
-  Pelham, Camden, The Chronicles of Crime: or, The New Newgate Calendar, 1887, p. 64.
-  Ibid.