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1725: Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General and Receiver of Stolen Goods

11 comments May 24th, 2010 Anthony Vaver

(Thanks to Anthony Vaver, author and publisher of 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.

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1726: Mary Standford, shunning convict transportation

2 comments August 3rd, 2009 Anthony Vaver

(Thanks to Anthony Vaver of Early American Crime for the guest entry, reposted from a fascinating entry in his series on convict transportation. 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.)

Mary Standford was convicted of privately stealing a shagreen pocket book, a silk handkerchief, and 4 guineas from William Smith on July 11, 1726. After her conviction, she strongly rejected transportation to the American colonies as an alternative to execution.

Early Years

Standford was raised just outside of London by good parents who sent her to school and educated her in the principles of Christian values. Standford, however, showed more interest in the “Company of Young Men,” so she was sent to London to become a servant, where she lost several positions due to her behavior. In her last position she was seduced by a footman, which subsequently forced her into prostitution.

Standford quickly fell in company with Mary Rawlins, “a Woman of notorious ill fame,” and the two of them walked the streets between Temple Bar and Ludgate-Hill looking to empty the pockets, one way or another, of gullible men. Later, they had considerable success targeting sailors who, after returning from their voyages, had money to spend for their favors. Standford eventually married a man with the last name of Herbert, but after a year and a half she left him or, by her account, he abandoned her. Soon afterward, she had a child out of wedlock from another man, who was a servant.

Standford’s Arrest

With two mouths to feed, Standford set out to practice prostitution on her own, and it was then that she was arrested for theft. William Smith, who brought her to trial and was surprisingly frank in his testimony, related that he was walking along Shoe Lane after one o’clock in the morning when he was approached by Standford, who offered him to “take a Lodging with her.” He spent 2 or 3 three hours with her, all the while ordering drinks to be brought up from downstairs. He soon realized that he was missing money, and when he confronted Standford about it, she bolted from the room.

A constable caught Standford running away from Smith in the street. He picked up one of Smith’s guineas after Standford had dropped it, and he found another in her hand and two in her mouth. He also discovered Smith’s handkerchief and pocket book on her. In his testimony, the constable called Smith a “Country Man” and described him as very drunk at the time.

Standford’s version of the event was quite different. She claimed that Smith was drunk when she met him, and that he forced himself up to her room. There, he placed the four guineas one by one in her bosom and then threw her onto the bed. In the struggle, she speculated that his pocket book must have fallen out of his pocket, and when she discovered it after he left, she ran after him to return it. Not believing her story, the jury found her guilty, and she was sentenced to death.

A Rejection and a Defense of Transportation

After receiving her sentence, Standford’s friends pleaded with her to ask for a pardon in exchange for transportation. Standford refused, “declaring that she had rather die, not only the most Ignominious, but the most cruel Death that could be invented at home, rather than be sent Abroad to slave for her Living.”

The author of the Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals was baffled by Standford’s position and presents a lengthy defense of the institution of convict transportation:

such strange Apprehensions enter into the Heads of these unhappy Creatures, and hinder them from taking the Advantage of the only possibility they have left of tasting Happiness on this side the Grave, and as this Aversion to the Plantations has so bad Effects, especially in making the Convicts desirous of escaping from the Vessel, or of flying out of the Country whither they were sent, almost before they have seen it. I am surpriz’d that no Care has been taken to print a particular and authentick Account, of the Manner in which they are treated in those Places; I know it may be suggested that the Terrour of such Usage as they are represented to meet with there, has often a good Effect in diverting them from such Facts as they know must bring them to Transportation, yet . . . if instead of magnifying the Miseries of their pretended Slavery, or rather of inventing Stories that make a very easy service, pass on these unhappy Creatures for the severest Bondage. The Convicts were to be told the true state of the Case, and were put in Mind that instead of suffering Death, the Lenity of our Constitution, permitted them to be removed into another Climate, no way inferiour to that in which they were born, where they were to perform no harder tasks, than those who work honestly for their Bread in England do, and this not under Persons of another Nation, who might treat them with less Humanity upon that Account, but to their Countrymen, who are no less English for their living in the New, than if they dwelt in Old England, People famous for their Humanity, Justice and Piety, and amongst whom they are sure of meeting with no variation of Manners, Customs, &c. unless in respect of the Progress of their Vices which are at present, and may they long remain so, far less numerous there than in their Mother-Land. I say if Pains were taken to instill into these unhappy Persons such Notions . . ., they might probably conceive justly of that Clemency which is extended towards them, and instead of shunning Transportation, flying from the Countries where they are landed, as soon as they have set their Foot in them, or neglecting Opportunities they might have on their first coming there, be brought to serve their Masters faithfully, to endure the Time of their Service chearfully, and settle afterwards in the best Manner they are able, so as to pass the Close of their Life in an honest, easy, and reputable Manner; whereas now it too often happens, that their last End is worse than their first, because those who return from Transportation being sure of Death if apprehended, are led thereby to behave themselves worse and more cruelly than any Malefactors whatsoever (Vol. III, pp. 287-289).

The author’s cheery account of life as an indentured servant in the American colonies certainly makes transportation sound like a compelling alternative to execution. The reality of life overseas under such conditions, though, does not match this picture, and some criminals valued their liberty over enforced servitude, even if it meant their own death.


In his account of her execution, James Guthrie, the minister at Newgate Prison, described Standford as “grosly Ignorant of any thing that is good.” He went on to say that “she was neither ingenious nor full in her Confessions, but appeared obstinate and self-conceited.” Standford continued to maintain her innocence in the affair with Smith, and she appeared indifferent about the fate of her child, expressing to Guthrie the hope that the parish would take care of it. Guthrie claimed, however, that “she acknowledg’d herself among the chief of Sinners.”

Mary Standford was executed on Wednesday, August 3, 1726 at Tyburn. She was 36 years old. Executed alongside her were 3 other criminals. Thomas Smith and Edward Reynolds were both sentenced to die for highway robbery. John Claxton, alias Johnson, was put death for returning twice from transportation before his 7-year sentence had run out.

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