WEEKEND WEB: From hero to zero, 18th Century style
GEMS FROM THE ARCHIVE: A new, monthly column by Dr Martin Blake, of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, looking at interesting archives
Among the historical documents held by the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society lurks a curious handbill dating from 1725. Its text is surrounded by macabre images: skeletons abound, in one scene a devil carries off the soul of a sinner, and along the bottom a procession leads a condemned prisoner to the gallows.
The text, in its original spelling, reads:
“To all the Thieves, Whores, PickPockets, Family Fellows, &c, in Great Britain and Ireland.
“Gentlemen and Ladies You are hereby desir’d to accompany your worthy friend the pious Mr Jonathan Wild, from his seat at Whittington’s Colledge to the Tripple Tree where he’s to make his last exit, on Monday May 24 and his corps to be carried from thence to be decently interr’d at Surgeons Hall. Brieng this ticket with you.”
Public executions in the early 18th century were so popular that tickets were issued for the best vantage points. The handbill’s author mimics the format of these to invite fellow criminals to share the fate of the said Jonathan Wild, namely to be hanged and dissected. So who was Wild, and why did his untimely end attract such attention?
He was born in Wolverhampton in 1683, but as a young man abandoned his wife and child and moved to London. Within a few years he was thrown into a debtors’ prison, but used the time to cultivate underworld acquaintances.
His education was further enhanced when he moved in with a prostitute named Mary Milliner, probably living partly off the proceeds of her activities. But London, with at this time no organised police force, was in the grip of a crime wave, and substantial rewards were issued for the return of stolen goods and the arrest of criminals. Before long Wild saw a business opportunity.
He set himself up as the ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’, scouring the streets with his accomplices for known thieves and burglars, handing them over for punishment, and claiming the reward. He became a popular figure, by general consent performing a much-needed public service.
In reality, however, Wild was a gang-leader claiming rewards for items which his own men had stolen, and maintaining control by handing them over to the authorities for execution if they stepped out of line. Wild became increasingly brazen about his activities, but he had friends in high places and still enjoyed public support.
By the early 1720s, however, a series of scandals, most notably the infamous South Sea Bubble, had eroded trust in figures of authority. Public opinion finally turned against Wild following his involvement in the arrest of Jack Sheppard, a thief and burglar whose daring exploits had turned him into a popular hero.
By 1725 some of Wild’s gang members felt confident enough to testify against him, and he was finally convicted at the Old Bailey of receiving stolen goods, an offence which Parliament had recently made punishable by hanging, apparently with the express intention of eliminating Wild.
On the morning of his execution he tried to commit suicide by taking laudanum, but in such a huge dose that he vomited it back up. He was taken to the gallows at Tyburn, and was still only semi-conscious when executed.
Despite his ignominious end, Wild’s legend attracted the attention of some of the most prominent writers of his day. Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding both wrote accounts of his life (the latter may indeed have attended his execution), and he inspired the character of Peachum in John Gay’s satire The Beggar’s Opera.
How the handbill which prompted this article came into the possession of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society is unknown, although a number of its early members travelled regularly to London on business and donated items acquired there which they considered of wider interest.
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