The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild: The Real Highwayman
Jonathan Wild rose to power at a time in London where crime was prevalent, and a lot of people wanted something done about it. Wild became very well known to the people of London as well as befriending criminals and becoming a leader of the cities underworld, known as a man who could get something done. The empire in which he constructed was built on the foundation of hiring thieves to steal from people, hand the stolen goods to Wild, then he would sell the item back to the original owner, satisfying them as they had their item retrieved, Wild received some of the money and paid the thieves with the rest. Despite his success, his scheme did not last forever.
Born in Wolverhampton in 1682, “Wild began his early employment as a buckle maker” (Jeffers, 2014) suggesting there was nothing out of the ordinary regarding his childhood, and went on to marry in his teenage years and have a child with his wife. “Becoming bored of life in Wolverhampton, he returned to London, leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves.” (Kiste, 2013) Here he made a living applying his trade however didn’t find much success and found himself in debt after a few years. “It didn’t take him long to end up in debtor’s prison where he mingled with members of the criminal class.” (Taylor, 2017)
Wood Street Compter is the prison Wild served his four years, however not all was bad, as he saw opportunity and made the most of his predicament. Delivering messages and completing tasks are just some of the things Jonathan did to get close to the guards of the prison and build a good relationship between them which came with benefits. The guards trusted Wild. “He became so trusted that the guards allowed him to accompany them out to capture criminals” (Conliffe, 2016) Prison also presented him with a great opportunity to learn more about London’s underworld and how it worked from people who had first hand experience. He formed relationships with people he believed could be useful down the line and met a woman named Mary Milliner, who was a prostitute. Once released from prison, Jonathan and Mary had an effective scheme they used on unsuspecting men at night. Mary would seduce and entice the suspect and lead them down an alley way, and whilst distracted, Wild would come from behind and knock the victim unconscious and proceed to take everything they had on their person. Operating this way gained the two a lot of money quick, and had enough that they decided to buy a pub known as the Kings Head.
Under the management of Wild and Milliner, the pub became a frequent for thieves and other delinquents, a contributing factor being the number of contacts in the underworld Mary had. Because of this, and due to complaints he had heard from some of the thieves about low-profit deals they had been receiving, he became a fence, which was common for a man in his position, buying stolen items from these thieves and selling them on to other people for a higher price, satisfying everyone. “The law had begun to crack down on this trade though, with increasingly strong sentences being passed on those caught selling or buying stolen property.” (Conliffe, 2016) Wild would rather avoid being arrested again so devised a new scheme to make large profits for everyone involved in the process. Jonathan sent word to all the thieves he knew well enough to trust and pitched his idea to them, hoping to gain their approval. “When they made prize of anything, they should deliver it to him, instead of carrying it to the pawnbroker, saying he would restore the goods to the owners, by which means greater sums might be raised, while the thieves would remain perfectly secure from detection.” (Anon., n.d.)
The plan took place effectively immediately, with Wild setting up an office offering to retrieve peoples stolen goods. “Victims of robbery would come to Wild and ask for assistance in retrieving their stolen property. Wild would gladly oblige, for a price.” (Wright, 2009) However, there was a very high chance that Wild already had the customers stolen items in his possession, or knew where he would be able to find due to the thieves and agents he had working for him. So Wild would give the customer back their property once they had payed for his services, and then he would give the thief who stole it a cut of the money as well. This operation proved very profitable and gained Wild a higher reputation both to the people needing his service and to the cities underworld.
Jonathan Wild, also going by the name thief taker general at this point, started to attract the attention of Charles Hitchen. Charles was the public official responsible for keeping order in London’s streets, but was also in the same line of work as Wild. Hitchens got into contact with Wild as he wasn’t as secretive as the thief taker general was and worried it was going to cost him his job and reputation, and partnered with him to make sure his thieves knew what they were doing and did it properly. Charles and Jonathan spent some time partnered with each other with Wild doing what was expected of him, but when Hitchen was reinstated and no longer feared for his job, he saw no further use for Wild, which would prove to be a big mistake. Currently these two were the biggest players in London’s underground and they were battling it out for total control. Inevitably Wild emerged victorious in the end. One factor that contributed greatly to Wilds success was the fact Hitchen previously had Jonathan watch over all his thieves, so he knew all their identities, forcing them to either come and work for him or handing them over to the authorities and getting paid for it, as well as exposing Charles more as time went on. “In 1718, Charles Hitchen the criminal boss Wild had deposed in order to take over the crime of London, attempted to expose Wild with his publication, A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief Takers in and about the City of London.” (Krishna, 2016) Jonathan knew exactly what to respond with. “Wild had a trump card – he knew that Hitchen was a homosexual. Exposing this fact was enough to demolish Hitchen’s credibility. Though he kept his office, he was essentially powerless.” (Conliffe, 2016)
With there no one to properly stand in his way, Wild spread his empire and network of thieves further than before. He had different gangs of thieves in different parts of London stealing goods and selling them back. Anyone that stood in his way he had arrested, that includes gang members too. “Because he had 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.” (Jeffers, 2014) Wild was untouchable and nobody could stop him, or so it seemed. Arguably the biggest mistake Wild made whilst at the top was his decision to imprison a highwayman called Joseph Blake, also known as ‘Blueskin’ and a thief known as Jack Sheppard. “One of Wild’s confederates was the possibly even more famous Jack Sheppard. Wild failed to control Sheppard.” (Buchan, 2013) Sheppard was a known thief in London who wad partnered with Blake, and was well respected by society.
He had caught Wilds attention. The thief taker general first attempted to employ Sheppard into his own ranks but after being declined decided having him arrested would be the best course of action. Jack was caught and arrested but managed to escape, this being the 3rd time he has escaped from prison. Wild wasn’t happy in the slightest and sent more men after him, resulting in his eventual recapture. During this time period Joseph Blake had also been arrested and was being put on trial. It was Jonathan Wild who gave false evidence against Blake that would result in him receiving the death sentence. Blake with nothing to lose at this point drew a knife and went for Wild’s throat. Whilst he did succeed in cutting it, Wild survived. However, this was the catalyst of a riot that broke out. During the riot Sheppard took the opportunity to escape again. “His repeated failure to put Sheppard away caused others to doubt his infallibility.” (Wright, 2009) At was at this point everything came tumbling down for Wild. “Between that and the attack on him, Wild’s grip on the criminal population was shattered.” (Conliffe, 2016) Criminals, whether they worked for Wild or not, realised he was touchable and respect for him dropped.
“Naturally he was hated by so may of his underlings that it is a wonder he was able to maintain his authority over them as many years as he did.” (Fielding, 2004) Once exposed it’s no surprise he lost his grip on a large portion of the underworld. Not only this but because of his constant attempts to capture Sheppard and Wild ultimately being the reason Sheppard got hung, public opinion for him turned massively.
Wild was eventually exposed after some materials went missing on one of his ships he used to sell items to customers outside of England. The captain of the ship noticed the lack of materials and decided to take out the value of the missing items from the first mates wages. Understandably this didn’t go down too well with the first mate, so he reported what was happening to local authorities resulting in the captain’s arrest. Wild feared his captain, Roger Johnson, may inform the authorities of what he was up to and so planned to help him escape prison by causing a riot. “Witnesses came forward that he had started the riot and he was arrested and charged with helping Johnson escape.” (Conliffe, 2016) He was put on trial and charged with a long list of crimes. Wild was found guilty and was sentenced to death. He was to be hung at Tyburn. “With Wild arrested and taken to Newgate, the outraged public demanded justice against the man they had once thought a hero.” (Anon., 2014) Wild would ultimately prefer not to be hung so attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum, but was unsuccessful. “Perhaps the largest crowd ever seen at Tyburn turned up, but there was no final speech from the heavily drugged up Wild.” (Jeffers, 2014)
Jonathan Wild was hung on the 24th of May 1725.
Wild lived a rather eventful life from a young age. It all started with his decision to leave his family of a wife and child to live in London, however was shortly arrested for falling into debt without being able to pay it back. He witnessed first hand the benefits of maintaining a good relationship with the law whilst in prison as well as gaining an insight into London’s underworld. He met a prostitute named Mary in which he robbed people with, using her as a distraction and coming in from behind to knock them unconscious. After gaining enough money from that they bought a pub known as the Kings head and dealt with a lot of thieves. Wild served as a fence for a while before creating a scheme which allowed him to sell a stolen item straight back to the original owner.
Successful exploits such as this got him partnered with Charles Hitchen who eventually became his biggest rival. Wild succeeded by turning his own thieves against him and exposing the fact Hitchen was a homosexual. After that victory Wild remained at the top of the London underworld for years before losing popular public opinion and being attacked showcasing his vulnerability. Shortly after an operation involving one of his boats went wrong Wild was arrested after attempting to free his arrested captain from prison. This resulted in Wild receiving the death penalty and being killed. Wild was arguably the first of his kind, taking control of London’s underworld, controlling an empire, selling abroad, hiring whoever he wanted or having them arrested if they refused. All of this whilst maintaining a very popular public opinion and being viewed as a hero up until his demise.
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