'Thief-takers' were the men and women who operated in England in the days before there was an established police force and a public prosecutor1. Effectively created by the laws of the time - specifically the 1697 Act of Parliament, which offered rewards for the capture and successful prosecution of highwaymen - they captured those who had committed crimes, and either handed them over to the authorities, or prosecuted them themselves. There have been women thief-takers, but the majority were men, and they worked for the cash rewards offered, as a very good living could be made this way. Highwaymen, coiners and burglars were worth £40 each (plus any equipment the criminal may have been using), with an additional £100 if robbery was committed within five miles of Charing Cross. This kind of sum would normally take three to four years to earn for the ordinary man. The reward also carried a free pardon for any offences the thief-taker may have committed. If the thief-taker died, any reward would be passed on to his descendents.
Although offering a reward was one of the few ways to encourage the catching of criminals and the breaking up of gangs without an organised police force, it paradoxically also encouraged corruption, blackmail and perjury. Rather than being an early form of 'Neighbourhood Watch', it caused criminals to turn on each other, creating suspicion and violence, and encouraged them to work both sides of the law. Thief-takers were very unpopular.
Jonathan Wild was the most famous thief-taker of the time. In the early 18th Century he captured and brought to justice many London criminals. What was slow to come to the attention of the law was that he was at the same time involved in many criminal activities of his own.
Born in about 1682, he started his career in Wolverhampton as a buckle-maker. He moved to London when he was in his mid-twenties (leaving behind a wife and child), and soon found himself in a debtor's prison. Mingling with criminals for the two to four years he was incarcerated, Wild made sure that he not only learnt much from the others, but also courted the acquaintance of those he felt would be useful in the future. In his last few months inside, he met Mary Milliner, a prostitute with plenty of underworld contacts. She became his mistress, and when they left prison they set up home in Covent Garden.
At first Wild returned to buckle-making, but the temptation of easy money soon became too much to resist, and while Mary was busy entertaining 'clients' in dark alleys, Wild would rob them. This led to them having enough money to take over a drinking house which was used by many other criminals - the King's Head. He began buying their stolen goods, and this was the start of his double life.
Wild set up an office in Newtoner's Lane and invited victims of crime to come to him with details of any stolen goods, and promised them that he would recover them. His popularity as a receiver of stolen goods meant that he often either had the goods in his possession already, or knew who had stolen them. One of his scams was to order the theft of specific goods so that he could return them to their grateful owners. He managed to please the thieves by paying for their goods, and please the victims, by reuniting them with their property (at a fee, of course). The thieves were also happy because it was a lot easier to steal small goods of sentimental value for which a good reward would be offered, than have to try to steal more valuable property that could be heavily protected.
London's First Criminal Underworld Boss
Wild began to expand his empire - he divided London into districts, and set up gangs in each district, screening them from justice. He arranged for 'specialist' gangs, that robbed churches, or followed the various country fairs, gangs of conmen, gangs who ruled the prostitutes, gangs who collected protection money to name but a few. He did not lead any gangs - he merely organised and advised them.
Anyone who didn't do his bidding, or crossed him, risked being reported to the authorities. They were framed with the assistance of witnesses who belonged to Wild. Once convicted, they could not testify against Wild himself in any subsequent court case. The same happened to those who operated outside of his empire. The rewards he gained from bringing criminals to justice helped him to rise in power among the criminal underworld. Favours done for him were never forgotten, and his loyalty to those who earned his respect never wavered. Treachery was likewise never forgotten, and he was merciless in doling out revenge. He also turned in some of those depending on him to protect them from the law when he became tired of them, sometimes arresting them himself. He often joined the crowds at Tyburn when one of 'his' criminals was being executed, and he enjoyed passing on the tales of the men and women who were there due to his relentless pursuit of the criminal classes.
He avoided handling stolen goods himself, but had artists and craftsmen to alter and reset jewellery and objects of art. He owned warehouses to store large amounts of goods, and he kept a sloop for carrying stolen items into Flanders and Holland; smuggling brandy, linen and lace to London on its return. He passed on information about wealthy travellers to highwaymen. His empire was so successful, that no highwaymen were allowed to operate without his protection, and none were executed between 1723 and 1725. He moved out of the King's Head, took better premises in Old Bailey in 1719, and took a higher class mistress. His house was staffed by felons who had illegally returned from transportation2. Knowing that they would be turned in if they displeased him made them very hard-working.
Wild wasn't entirely unnoticed by the authorities, although they hadn't been able to catch him getting up to anything. In 1717, the Solicitor-General Sir William Thompson was instrumental in securing an Act of Parliament which made it a capital offence to take a reward under the pretence of helping the owner to recover stolen goods, without prosecuting the thief. This Act became known as 'Jonathan Wild's Act' because it had been designed specifically with him in mind.
Initially he was able to find ways around the new legislation. He had to close his office, although work carried on in the coffeehouses and on the streets, and sometimes adverts appeared in newspapers offering rewards with no questions asked. He brazenly put himself under their noses when he petitioned the Lord Mayor for the Freedom of the City. He claimed that his efforts had resulted in more than 60 criminals being led to the gallows. He also claimed that he had spent five years apprehending and convicting felons who had returned from transportation before their time - all for no reward. He had certainly made the streets safer, as he cleared away many notorious gangs. Many of the wealthy London classes were impressed with him. He had consistently returned their stolen goods and accounts of criminals he had rounded up appeared in the papers every week. They saw him as their only defence against the crimewave of the time. His petition does not appear to have been rejected, but adjourned. We have no record of whether it was awarded, but he was paid a handsome sum by way of gratuity.
In the spring of 1724 Wild had succeeded in apprehending a gang of around 100 street robbers in Southwark - most of them ended up in prison. It was clear evidence that not joining his empire meant certain prison for criminals.
After ruling London for seven years, Wild's empire began to crumble in the winter of 1724/5. The captain of his sloop, Roger Johnson, stopped the value of some missing lace from the mate's pay. The mate informed against the captain, and the sloop was exchequered3. The captain returned to his old life as a thief, and soon had a run-in with a man who kept a house of resort for thieves, Thomas Edwards. They turned each other in. Wild bailed his captain out, but as soon as the other man was released, he informed on Wild. Wild's warehouses were searched, and the goods confiscated. Pretending that the goods belonged to his captain, Wild arrested Edwards who was taken to the Marshalsea4.
Wild was eventually convicted under the terms of the new act for procuring the return of some stolen lace. For the sake of £40, he lost everything. He had sent a couple who had been drinking in his pub into a lace shop in Seven Dials, and paid them for what they stole when they returned. While this was going on, Edwards had left the Marshalsea. He found Johnson, who he immediately informed on. Johnson sent for Wild, who arrived and prompted a riot so that Johnson could escape. Wild then absconded as his part in the riot became known. On returning to his house three weeks later, he was arrested and taken to Newgate prison. In court he was accused of stealing the lace, and then returning it to the shop owner for the reward.
As his past deeds were unravelled, the public turned against him and called for his blood. Nobody likes to be thought of as a fool. Despite defending himself vigorously, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
In the early hours before his execution, he tried to commit suicide with an overdose of laudanum. It didn't work, and on the morning of 24 May, 1725 he was taken to Tyburn, stupefied and delirious. On the journey, he was booed, pelted with a variety of missiles (including faeces and decomposing cat and dog corpses) and verbally abused. His execution attracted one of the largest ever crowds to Tyburn, and they rejoiced in his downfall and humiliation. Perhaps because of the confusion caused by the drugs, Wild did not give the customary last speech before he was hanged. His body was cut down quickly before the surgeons' men could seize it and was buried in St Pancras Churchyard. A few days later the coffin was dug up, and found later in Kentish Town. His body had disappeared. An unidentified body washed up on the bank of the Thames near Whitehall within days,and the extremely hairy chest led some to believe that it was Wild.
Wild's skeleton is on display at the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London(Catalogue number RCSHM/Osteo. 336)5. Whether this hairy-chested body was proven to be Wild, or whether the body was delivered to the surgeons the first time it disappeared, is unknown. The people of the time were notoriously afraid of allowing surgeons access to their bodies, or those of their loved ones, that they operated under a veil of secrecy.
The Old Bailey Proceedings Online Project is now complete, and can be searched. Jonathan Wild appears in over 50 cases.
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 Gutenberg6, 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.