Between 1674 and 1829, a British citizen witnessing a crime was legally obliged to apprehend the perpetrator if possible. At a minimum, one was expected to report the crime to a magistrate or other law official. The witness was also expected to join the “Hue and Cry” in pursuit of the felon. However, as the crimes became increasingly more violent and invasive, the general public of the 1700s turned to private “police officers.” Pardons were offered to accomplices for snitching on their former gang members. Rewards were offered for repeat offenders. Generally, half the value of the stolen goods was offered to those who caught the attackers. “Thief takers” were often thieves themselves. They organized gangs of robbers, fenced the stolen goods, returned parts of the goods to prove their worth as thief takers, and even turned in members of their own gangs to the authorities. Such men ignored parish boundaries to claim the bounty on the heads of offenders. (Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General)
The authorities set a fee for burglary, highwaymen, and coiners at forty pounds per head plus a bonus of one hundred pounds “if the crime was committed within 5 miles of Charing Cross. A single capture in London would earn the thief taker the equivalent of 5 years earnings in average employment.” In addition, “any crime committed by the thief taker during his apprehension, was also pardoned.” (Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General)
The most famous of London’s thief takers was Jonathan Wild. Born in 1682, Wild began his early employment as a buckle maker. He abandoned his wife and child in the early 1700s to travel to London, only to be tossed into debtor’s prison. While in the prison, Wild courted those who could help him when he was released, including thieves and tradesmen. A few months before he was released, Wild took up with a prostitute named Mary Milliner. When they left prison, Mary became his mistress. Milliner held many contacts within London’s underbelly, contacts Wild would exploit.
While Mary entertained clients in dark alleys, Wild would rob her companions. They earned enough to purchase a public house known as the King’s Head, a place often frequented by other criminals. Wild would often buy his customers stolen goods and resale the items for a profit.
Wild eventually set up an office in Newtoner’s Lane, where he took upon himself to recover the stolen goods for victims. Ironically, when a person hired Wild to recover his missing items, Wild either already had the items in his possession or he knew who did. He enjoyed stealing specific items and then returning them to their owners for a hefty reward. The thieves were paid by Wild for the stolen items, and Wild was paid by the victims for the items return. If one of his thieves was foolish enough to raise his voice against Wild, Wild would turn the man over to public officials, customarily conducted at Tyburn Tree. (Jonathan Wild – London’s First Organised Crime Lord)
As a London magistrate, Wild operated under the guise of an upstanding citizen. “Wild controlled an enormous syndicate of organized thieves. Those which had returned from the colonies for prior crimes were in a difficult position, work-wise. Jonathan Wild would recruit them and once they’d dabbled in criminal activity, he had them over a barrel. As former convicts they would be unable to give evidence against him in court, leaving him free to openly blackmail them. His protection racket operated under the legitimate umbrella of his social standing in the community – the upright citizen, the businessman, the magistrate. Wild attempted to become a freeman of the City of London (but failed) and was often seen patrolling the streets carrying a short silver staff as a badge of authority.” (Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General)
Wild effectively expanded his empire by dividing London into districts, each covered by one his gangs. He also created mobile gangs, which followed country fairs. Some of his employees specialized in highway robberies, while others dealt with small items of sentimental value for their owners, as well as prostitution. Wild dealt in “information.” He learned who to target and when to target his victims. Because he had built the persona of an upstanding citizen, his men could not speak out against him without knowing both Wild’s wrath and that of the general public. He kept his gangs in line with blackmail. He employed craftsmen to alter jewelry and artwork, as well as having warehouses where he stored stolen goods. Wild ran a sloop across the channel to transport stolen property to Europe and to import smuggled brand and lace. From the public, Wild was given the unofficial title of “Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland.” (Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General)
The authorities eventually passed the “Jonathan Wild Act,” but because Wild did not employ anyone directly, it was difficult to pin crimes upon him. He worked through a network of middlemen. The Act forced him to close his office, but he later petitioned the authorities for “freeman” status. Wild had “returned” stolen goods to many influential people, and they spoke in his defense. There was no denying the streets were less dangerous with Wild in control.
“In 1724, Wild’s empire began to collapse. The captain of his sloop docked the value of a shipmate’s share of smuggled lace, and so began a tenuous link between Jonathan Wild and his criminal activities. Wild later sent a couple to Seven Dials to steal some lace, and then attempted to collect the reward from the shop owner. His further involvement in a riot to spring his former captain from Newgate Gaol, led to the authorities beating a path to his door. He was convicted under his own act and sentenced to execution at Tyburn.
“He attempted suicide the night before his handing by ingesting laudanum, but failed, and was taken to Tyburn Tree (where present day Marble Arch is) in a delirious state. En route he was jeered, booed, and pelted with faeces and dead cats & rats from some accounts and cheered like a hero from others (Daniel Defoe). Perhaps the largest crowd ever seen at Tyburn turned up, but there was no final speech from the heavily drugged Wild. He was the last to die from his group of four and cut down to prevent surgeons taking his body. He was buried in St Pancras churchyard, however, days later his body was exhumed, and the empty coffin was discovered in Kentish Town.
“A body washed up on the shore of the Thames near Whitehall, which due to its extremely hairy chest, many believed belonged to the missing Jonathan Wild. Many, however, alternatively suspected that body-snatchers, acting on behalf of experimental surgeons had successfully claimed the body from the coffin in Kentish Town. Whichever route it took, the skeleton of Jonathan Wild arrived at, and is still on display in the Hunterian Museum in Lincoln’s Inn, The City of London. “ (Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General)
The name of Jonathan Wild has been immortalised in a book written 20 years after his death. The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great by Henry Fielding is still available to buy. It can be downloaded from Project Gutenberg, as it is not covered by copyright. Mainly read by English Literature students, it should not be read as a biography, but as a political satire.
About the Author:
Regina Jeffers is the author of Austen-inspired novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, Vampire Darcy’s Desire, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, Honor and Hope and The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. She also writes Regency romances: The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, A Touch of Cashémere, A Touch of Grace, and The First Wives’ Club. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, Jeffers serves as a consultant in media literacy. Currently living outside Charlotte, North Carolina, she spends her time with her writing, gardening, and her adorable grandson.