(Thanks to Anthony Vaver, author and publisher of EarlyAmericanCrime.com for the guest post. Vaver is the author of Bound With An Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America. -ed.)
A buzz filled the air as people stood on their toes and filled every window in an attempt to get a glimpse of the great Jonathan Wild as he was paraded through the London streets on Monday, May 24, 1725. Despite the festive atmosphere surrounding the procession, Wild appeared to be unmoved by the shouts of the crowd, his attention focused instead on the Bible held open in his hands. After traveling about a third of the way to his destination, the procession stopped at the Griffin Tavern, so that Wild could drink a glass of wine.
Not long after leaving the Griffin Tavern, a rock thrown from a window hit Wild in the head, and blood began to pour down his face. The crowd roared with approval and people started to hurl insults at him, along with more stones and dirt. The cart stopped twice more before reaching its final destination: first at the White Lion, where Wild drank another glass of wine, and once again at the Oxford Arms, home of the bare-knuckle boxing champion James Figg, where Wild drank a tankard of beer and even more wine. His next and final stop was Tyburn Hill, where he was scheduled to be executed.
Convicts often stopped for drinks at various taverns during their march from Newgate Prison to Tyburn to be executed, so the fact that Wild stopped at three along the way to his execution was not unusual. What was unusual, however, was the fact that he was able to hold down his liquor, given that the previous night at two in the morning he had tried to kill himself in his jail cell by drinking a large dose of laudanum, a concoction of opium dissolved in alcohol. Wild was already in a half-stupefied state before his slow journey to the gallows and his wine drinking had even begun.
Wild’s dramatic execution marked a precipitous fall for a man who was perhaps the most influential person in England’s criminal justice system, even though he never held an official government position. As the self proclaimed “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland,” Wild was instrumental in capturing and bringing to justice scores of petty thieves that plagued the London streets. He consulted the government on the passage of laws intended to encourage the capture of criminals. He also oversaw a vast criminal empire, the likes of which has never been duplicated.
Wild ran an Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property where people could apply to him for help in recovering their possessions for a fee that fell below what it would cost them to replace the objects. Wild would then use his connections in the criminal underworld to recover the goods and return them to the owner. His business proved to be extremely popular.
In addition to recovering lost and stolen property, Wild was particularly adept at catching and prosecuting criminals, a public service that enhanced his general reputation and gained the approval of the authorities. In the absence of a true police force, the government relied on rewards to encourage people to police the streets themselves. Anyone who could capture a thief and convict him or her with evidence received a reward of £40, far more than what most people in England could earn in a year. Wild benefited from this policy by collecting a fee every time he was able to prosecute a criminal. His office, then, essentially served as the de facto “Scotland Yard” of the day.
Wild’s knack for catching criminals brought him great renown. He often appeared at trials to give evidence against the criminals he helped to capture. He got to know the bailiffs of the prisons and could be seen socializing in the local taverns with Justices of the Peace. He entertained government officials in his house.
The public remained blissfully unaware that there was another, more sinister, side to Wild.
In point of fact, the man supposedly responsible for clearing the streets of criminals was also the head of a vast criminal empire and a well-oiled criminal machine. Wild’s Lost Property Office turned out to be a clearinghouse for stolen goods that members of his own organized gang had themselves acquired. The thieves he apprehended, supposedly for the good of the community, were fall guys; they either belonged to rival gangs, or were members of his own gang who tried to double-cross him, quit his business, or had ceased to be more valuable than the £40 reward given by the government for capturing and convicting a criminal. Wild sent many of these criminals to the gallows by appearing in court to give evidence — real or otherwise — against them. The unofficial head of crime prevention was in actuality the foremost perpetrator of crime and organizer of criminals in London and throughout Great Britain.
Wild’s downfall began when he helped prosecute the thief and burglar Jack Sheppard, whose daring and dramatic escapes from the notorious Newgate Prison turned him into a folk hero. Public opinion soured on the “Thief-Taker General” and his involvement with Sheppard’s execution … and when details of Wild’s criminal operation emerged after his arrest for receiving stolen goods, the public was furious.
When Wild finally reached the gallows at Tyburn, the noise from the crowd was so loud that the Ordinary of Newgate found it almost impossible to say his prayers with Wild and the three other criminals scheduled to die. The hangman, Richard Arnet, who years before had been a guest at Wild’s wedding, tried to give Wild as much time as he needed before preparing him for execution. The crowd, however, grew restless and threatened to tear Arnet to pieces if he did not proceed in carrying out his duties immediately. Reluctantly, Arnet placed a noose around Wild’s neck.
A great shout went up from the crowd as the cart drove away leaving the convicts dangling from the ropes tied around their necks. After the drop, Wild desperately grabbed onto Robert Harpham, who was being executed for coining, in an attempt to lift himself up and slacken the rope connected to his neck. Arnet intervened and separated the two, and after a few minutes, the life of Jonathan Wild came to an end at the age of about 42.
Almost as soon as Wild’s body was cut down, a rumor began to circulate that it was being carried off to the Surgeon’s Hall for dissection. The bodies of executed criminals were often used for such a medical purpose, but the practice usually led to a struggle between the surgeons, who were trying to take the body of the criminal away, and the disapproving crowd. In this case, Jonathan’s wife, Mary Wild, had arranged to circulate the rumor that he had been turned over to the surgeons as a ruse, so that his body could be properly buried without interference. Her plan didn’t work. Three or four days after it was buried Wild’s body was dug up from the St. Pancras churchyard by the surgeons.
Today, Jonathan Wild’s skeleton can be seen on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields.