Jack Sheppard, Extraordinary Thief
A favorite figure in verse, plays, and burlesque, John Sheppard was an 18th Century English thief. Born in Stepney on 4 March 1702, Sheppard spent several years (from the age of six) in the workhouse in Bishopsgate, where he was indentured to a cane chair maker, after his father passed. When the chair maker also died, Sheppard was apprenticed to a carpenter in Covent Garden. There he remained from ages fifteen to twenty. He learned to read and write, but instead of putting his skills to good use, Sheppard fell in with those who practiced thievery and duplicity upon the London populace. At age twenty, he met Elizabeth Lyon at the Black Lion in Drury Lane. He also met the infamous Jonathan Wild, better known as the “Thief-taker General.”
He was first arrested on 24 April 1724 and was committed to St. Giles Roundhouse, but Sheppard soon escaped this imprisonment. He tossed tiles at the guards during his flight. In May of the same year, with his companion, Elizabeth Lyon, he cut through the bars of New Prison in Middlesex, he descended a twenty-five feet wall, before scaling another to escape a second time. (Enclyclopedia Britannica)
September 1724 found Sheppard in a death cell at Newgate, having been arrested for the theft of three rolls of cloth, two silver spoons, and a silk handkerchief. He used a metal file, which was smuggled in by Elizabeth and wore one of her dresses as a disguise. This third escape solidified the two and twenty years old Sheppard’s reputation as a criminal extraordinaire. He “embodied the role of the charismatic desperado to such superlative effect that his colorful reputation for youthful defiance gleams in the popular imagination two centuries later.” (Spitalfields Life)
On 10 September 1724, Sheppard was rearrested and again taken to Newgate, but this time he was placed in a high security cell in the Stone Castle. The authorities handcuffed him, as well as binding his ankles and chaining him down in a chamber that was locked and barred. Despite all the precautions, Sheppard escaped a month later. This time he spent a “wild” fortnight in London, eluding the authorities by dressing as a dandy and carousing, with Elizabeth on his arm. After he bought a round of drinks for all those in attendance at midnight at a tavern in Clare Market, Lincoln’s Inn Fields, Jonathan Wild arrested Sheppard. He was returned to Newgate, where hundreds of people paid 4 shillings each to view him in his cell. Reports say that during this time, Sheppard had a drinking match with the prizefighter James Figg, an English bare knuckles champ, as well as having his execution portrait painted by Sir Henry Thornhill.
Over two hundred thousand stood witness to Sheppard’s hanging on 16 November 1724. Two months later, Daniel Defoe released the ghostwritten autobiography of Jack Sheppard’s life. John Gay modeled the character of Macheath in “The Beggar’s Opera” on Sheppard and the one of Peachum on Jonathan Wild. In 1839, Henry Ainsworth released “Jack Sheppard,” for which George Cruikshank drew the pictures. At the time, it outsold “Oliver Twist.” Of Ainsworth’s efforts, William Makepeace Thackeray said, “George Cruikshank really created the tale and Mr Ainsworth, as it were, merely put words to it.” (The Cruikshank drawing may be seen on the Spitalfields Life website .
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