Today (May 24) in London History – “the greatest criminal mastermind”

The greatest criminal mastermind of the 18th century was hanged on May 24, 1725. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Storytime. History time.

The lawlessness of it. That’s the first thing that jumps out at you. The lawlessness of it at the very moment of the law’s climacteric. Those final ticks against time of the red bomb of the living heart – that there should be a storm of violence going on right then – all around that ticking time bomb – you can’t help but – excuse the expression – clock that.

That’s the first thing.

The second thing is, this was a criminal who wanted to be in the spotlight, a criminal who wanted as much attention and publicity as he could get. 

That’s the polar opposite of run of the mill criminals, the polar opposite of the normal criminal modus operandi. They don’t want to be observed. They don’t want to be noticed. They’re furtive. They come out at night. They work secretly. They work in the shadows, do their deeds in the dark. 

Not our man, though. But he was no ordinary criminal. 

He was the greatest criminal mastermind of the 18th century. And his was no ordinary execution. 

And, yes, it took place today. In London. At Tyburn tree, London’s principal killing ground. We call it Marble Arch today.

Ok, time to introduce our mystery guest – introduce the greatest criminal mastermind of the 18th century – introduce the star attraction that day at Tyburn. Step forward Jonathan Wild. Jonathan Wild, thief-taker. Jonathan Wild, just turned 38. Jonathan Wild, Wolverhampton bred and born. Jonathan Wild, son of a carpenter and a fruit seller. Jonathan Wild who abandoned his wife and infant son and came to London. Jonathan Wild, buckle-maker who bucked the system. Jonathan Wild who fought the law and the law lost. 

Until today, May 24th, 1725.

Jonathan Wild’s fighting the law and the law losing – that project began to take shape from his earliest days in London. He was arrested for debt and locked up in the Wood Street Compter. Steve walks by there on his Shakespeare and Dickens walk on Sunday afternoon. The Wood Street Compter was Jonathan’s university of crime. Four years he was there but he didn’t do hard time. He quickly gained the confidence of the keepers. They granted him the Liberty of the Gate. That was some privilege. It meant he could go out night and help arrest thieves. He was paid for running errands. It wasn’t a bad gig at all. And of course he was schooled – and schooled well – by the petty criminals and prostitutes who were the stock in trade of the Wood Street Compter.

Basically, Jonathan Wild became a bounty hunter. And a pimp. Receiving stolen goods, extortion, operating a protection racket – those criminal practices followed as a matter of course. For good measure Jonathan Wild was a bigamist. Counting Jonathan Wild’s wives is an inexact science – the best guess is six. That’s wives, that’s not counting his mistresses. 

He was all over the newspapers. Both coverage of his activities and daily ads that he took out calling loudly for all Sorts of strayed Valuables to be brought in to Mr. Wild’s in the Old Baily, upon Promise of great Rewards and no “Questions” asked. Receiving stolen property was a felony. He cleverly sidestepped that law by never keeping the goods in his possession. The victim who’d been burgled or robbed was only too happy to pay something to get his property back. The thief got rewarded for his services and then kicked some of it back to Jonathan Wild. It quickly reached the point where Wild was controlling gangs of thieves. Sending them out to rob and plunder to bring in more business. He’d sometimes play both ends against the middle. Get paid for reuniting the crime victim with his property and then get paid for turning the thief into the law. Be interesting to know how many thieves met their end at Tyburn, swinging from a noose, compliments of Jonathan Wild’s cashing them in. Supremely confident of course – and misplaced confidence it was – that their end wasn’t prefiguring his own end. 

There’s no question but Jonathan Wild became a celebrity. He called himself the Thief-Taker General of England and Ireland. He styled himself Esquire. He wore a sword, kept a carriage and footmen. He was a big deal. 

A whiff of Jonathan Wild and his activities might have been just about passable from a distance. Up close that passable whiff turned into a bad stink. By way of example, this advertisement Wild placed in the Daily Post in 1724:

“Lost, the 1st of October, a black shagreen Pocket-Book, edged with Silver, with some Notes of Hand. The said Book was lost in the Strand, near Fountain Tavern, about 7 or 8 o’clock at Night. If any Person will bring aforementioned Book to Mr Jonathan Wild, in the Old Bailey, he shall have a Guinea reward.”

Wild’s biographer has decoded the ad.  David Nokes says: 

The advertisement is extortion. “Notes of hand” means signatures, so Wild already knows the name of the notebook’s owner. What’s more, Wild is using the advertisement to tell the notebook’s owner that he knows what he was doing at the time. He knows because the Fountain Tavern was a brothel. The real purpose of the ad is to threaten the owner. We’ll go public with the fact that you were at a whore house.  Finally, that mention of the Guinea reward – that’s what it’s going to cost you to buy our silence. It’s flat out extortion.

As for Wild’s downfall – well, it’s classic hubris and nemesis. Jonathan Wild had become so notorious that the authorities found themselves obliged to take notice of him. Scholars think that there was considerable heel dragging on that count because some of the authorities were on the take themselves. Corruption. There’s never just one rotten apple. By its very nature it spreads.

As for the public turning against him, Jonathan Wild’s involvement in the arrest and prosecution of one of the most famous criminals of the day—Jack Sheppard – tipped the balance. The press championed Sheppard’s cause – portrayed him as an underdog hero who’d resisted having any dealings with Wild. Jack Sheppard became the poster boy for the press’s denunciation of ‘the Scandalous Practice of Theif-catching.’

It was all up for Thief-Taker General of Great Britain. He was tried and convicted. Sentenced to death by hanging. Everything had broke his way for so many years – come the end he couldn’t catch a break. Tried to commit suicide the night before his execution. Took laudanum. Took too much laudanum. He threw it up and so – as the Evening Post put it – he liv’d to be hanged.

And liv’d to have to go through that terrible preamble to his execution – the feral lawlessness that I mentioned right at the beginning of this podcast. In the words of one eye-witness account, hostile spectators pressed in upon the death cart, jeering at him and pelting him so violently with stones that blood flew from him plentifully. Yes, Jonathan Wild was stoned before he was hanged. Stop and consider for a moment. You’ve got a condemned man pleading, “Hurry please, please get me there, please get me to the hangman.” You want historical absinthe undiluted you’ve got it right there, at that moment, on this day in London history. 

Can’t leave you there, though. Let’s move on. Get back here to Today in London. Well, not quite today. But it’ll be worth waiting for. For nearly 700 years public executions shaped the city we know today. Come next October the Museum of London Docklands is mounting a major new exhibition on that strand of the London weave. It’ll showcase items rarely seen before, ranging from the last letters of the condemned to the vest worn by King Charles I when he was executed to, yes, a recreation of the Tyburn gallows. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company, indeed London’s only award-winning walking tour company. The London Walks banner bears the device: It all comes down to the guiding. With London Walks, uniquely, you’ll be guided by accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, historians, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, museum curators, the creme de la creme of Blue Badge guides and, yes, a former Museum of London archaeologist.  

Guides who make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. Good luck and good Londoning. See ya tomorrow.


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