1781: Tupac Katari 1802: Jacques Maurepas and his entire family

1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist

November 16th, 2011 Headsman

“Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me.”

-Jack Sheppard

On this date in 1724, the hangman finally got Jack Sheppard.

Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no prison could hold.

It had become possible in his time to ride criminal notoriety into celebrity: Jack Sheppard, a mere 22 at his death, proved as adept with that quicksilver element during his personal annus mirabilis of 1724 as he was with a lockpick.

Sheppard’s world had him fitted to wield a hammer better than thieves’ tools — but at about age 20, a young man awash in the illicit liberty of London’s underbelly, he ditched the square carpenter to whom he was apprenticed to live free by his wits.

Peter Linebaug’s The London Hanged finds in Jack Sheppard’s career and his runaway popularity an important marker of the capital city’s “refusal of subordination: — contra Foucaultian discipline, which “makes the rulers of government and society seem all-powerful.”

An important meaning of liberation … [consisted of] the growing propensity, skill and success of London working people in escaping from the newly created institutions that were designed to discipline people by closing them in. This tendency I have dubbed ‘excarceration’ because I wish to draw attention to the activity of freedom in contrast to its ideological or theoretical expressions…

This lithe youth is most famous for his literal talent for freedom: four times in 1724 he escaped from custody in ever more dramatic fashion.

He busted out through the ceiling of St. Giles Roundhouse. He rappelled with a bedsheet rope down the 20-foot wall of Clerkenwell Prison with his lover.

This sort of thing won the enterprising rogue growing folk hero status. The vaunted Sheppard “made such a noise in the town, that it was thought the common people would have gone mad about him, there being not a porter to be had for love nor money, nor getting into an ale-house, for butchers, shoemakers and barbers, all engaged in controversies and wagers about Sheppard.”*

It also drew the unwanted attention of 1720s London’s Jabba the Hutt: “thief-taker” Jonathan Wild, who managed a vast thieving cartel enforced by Wild’s willingness to turn in non-participants in his ingenious cover role as the city’ preeminent lawman. That’s some protection racket.

Sheppard, to the fame of his memory, scorned obeisance to the crime lord as much as to any guild carpenter and worked for no man but himself. A vengeful Wild shopped him to the authorities.

This time, Sheppard was actually condemned to death for burglary but broke prison again, using yet another classic ruse: the “disguised in smuggled women’s clothes.”

Back on the lam, he posted a cocky letter to his executioner “Jack Ketch” giving his regrets at not having joined two fellow-sufferers on the scheduled hanging date. (September 4.)

I thank you for the favour you intended me this day: I am a Gentleman, and allow you to be the same, and I hope can forgive injuries; fond Nature pointed, I follow’d, Oh, propitious minute! and to show that I am in charity, I am now drinking your health, and a Bon Repo to poor Joseph and Anthony. I am gone a few days for the air, but design speedily to embark, and this night I am going upon a mansion for a supply; its a stout fortification, but what difficulties can’t I encounter, when, dear Jack, you find that bars and chains are but trifling obstacles in the way of your Friend and Servant

JOHN SHEPPARD

London’s finest were determined to put an end to this character’s preposterous run of prison breaks, so when they caught him the fourth time Sheppard found himself loaded with manacles and chained to the floor of a special strongroom in Newgate Prison. Get out of that, Jack.

Somehow, Jack got out of it.

On the night of Oct. 14, Sheppard authored the sublimest breakout in Newgate’s voluminous annals. Picking the locks of his fetters with a small nail, our acrobat scurried up a chimney, picked, prised, or otherwise passed a succession of locked doors in the dead of night, paused to rest on the condemned pew of the gaol chapel, forced a grille, reached the roof, and threw another homemade rope over the wall to scamper down to safety.

And then “he promptly went forth and robbed a pawnbroker’s shop in Drury Lane of a sword, a suit of apparel, snuff boxes, rings, &c., and suddenly made a startling appearance among his friends, rigged out as a gentleman from top to toe.”

There’s no doubt but that Jack had showmanship, but at a certain point he could have done with just the tiniest measure of discretion. But then, this was a man writing his own legend. Sure, he could have put his head down and tried to disappear into some nameless Puritan settlement in the New World. (His distraught mother kept telling him to get out of the country.) He traded those dull and toilsome years for the fame of generations: his candle burned at both ends.

When next Sheppard was detained, it was towards his apotheosis. It was the only time he would be arrested and fail to escape.

A throng of thousands mobbed London’s route to execution this date, almost universally supporting the ace escapologist. And Sheppard very nearly had for them the piece de resistance in his career of magical disappearances: it was only at the last moment before boarding the fatal tumbril that Sheppard’s executioners found the penknife their prey had secreted on his person, evidently intending to cut his cords and spring from the cart into the safety of the surging crowd. What an exploit that would have been.


Detail view (click for full image) of George Cruikshank‘s illustration of Sheppard’s death for William Ainsworth‘s Victorian novel about the legendary criminal. More of these illustrations here.

This indomitable soul has enjoyed a long afterlife as a subversive hero.

A celebrity in his own time, his execution-eve portrait was taken by the Hanover court painter himself, James Thornhill. Sheppard is a very likely candidate as an inspiration for the criminal Macheath in The Beggar’s Opera completed just a few years after his death; likewise, his abandoned apprenticeship makes him the most apparent model for Hogarth‘s “idle prentice” plates.

A century later, prolific historical novelist an 1839 retelling. This popular potboiler — read it free online here — came in for a spate of 19th century social panic when it was learned that a notorious servant-on-master murder had been carried out by a young man who had recently read it. A two-decade ban on public plays based on the Jack Sheppard novel ensued.

For as much as Jack Sheppard is romanticized in his remarkable individual characteristics, his story has always had a class undertow that raises the hackles of the powerful — and been celebrated by the people who menace that power. Linebaugh, again:

Jack Sheppard, housebreaker and gaol-breaker, was once the single most well-known name from eighteenth-century England. His fame spread across oceans and the centuries. When the bandit Ned Kelly was alive, the Australian press was full of comparisons between him and Sheppard. At the same time on the other side of the globe in Missouri, Frank and Jesse James wrote letters to the Kansas City Star signed ‘Jack Sheppard’. In England his name cut deep into the landscape of popular consciousness. Henry Mayhew noted that Cambridgeshire gypsies accepted Sheppard stories as the archetype of ‘blackguard tales’. Among English sailors anyone with the surname of ‘Sheppard’ was automatically called ‘Jack’. Within the Manchester proletariat of the 1840s his name was more widely known than that of the Queen herself. One of these lads said, ‘I was employed in a warehouse at 6s. 6d. a week, and was allowed 6d. of it for myself, and with that I went regularly to the play. I saw Jack Sheppard four times in one week.’

The oral history of Sheppard has maintained his memory within human contexts where books were scarce and working-class resources for an independent historiography were non-existent. Moreover, that memory was kept in contexts of social struggle in which a continuity, if not a development, with earlier moral and political conflicts was suggested.

* cited in Andrea McKenzie, “The Real Macheath: Social Satire, Appropriation, and Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography,” Huntington Library Quarterly, December 2006

** Ainsworth is also known for a novel about Sheppard’s near-contemporary, highwayman Dick Turpin.

Also on this date

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Escapes,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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7 Responses to “1724: Jack Sheppard, celebrity escape artist”

  1. 1
    ExecutedToday.com » 1741: Jenny Diver, a Bobby Darin lyric? Says:

    [...] This song is an English riff on a German tune from The Threepenny Opera, concerning its principal male character, the highwayman Macheath. (Possibly inspired by the recently-executed Jack Sheppard.) [...]

  2. 2
    Le Loup Says:

    Excellent post, thank you. I will post link on my blog.
    Regards, Keith.
    A Woodsrunner’s Diary.

  3. 3
    ExecutedToday.com » 1769: Two weavers, for the Spitalfield riots Says:

    [...] the East London district also known as the stomping-ground of legendary jailbreaker Jack Sheppard, was the capital of a thriving English silk-weaving industry. It had attained 18th century [...]

  4. 4
    ExecutedToday.com » 1840: Francois Benjamin Courvoisier, for the murder of Lord Russell Says:

    [...] And that ever-popular fear of youth amok, when the 23-year-old claimed inspiration from William Harrison Ainsworth‘s then-popular potboiler about the beloved underclass robber Jack Sheppard.* [...]

  5. 5
    5 Real Prison Escapes That Shouldn’t Have Been Possible - catchup24 Says:

    [...] a crowd gathered when he hit the bottom. He quickly pulled a Bugs Bunny, telling everyone “He’s over there!” and then ran off with the cops in hot pursuit. So, yeah, he was something of a [...]

  6. 6
    Five Improbable Prison Escapes | YouViewed/Editorial Says:

    [...] a crowd gathered when he hit the bottom. He quickly pulled a Bugs Bunny, telling everyone “He’s over there!” and then ran off with the cops in hot pursuit. So, yeah, he was something of a [...]

  7. 7
    Jack Sheppard: Housebreaker & Escape Artist Extraordinaire « dancing the tyburn jig Says:

    […] Sheppard was a thief, a romantic hero, a highwayman of the urban proletariat, a Houdini whom no pr… […]

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