by Rob Bendell
|Ticket for the hanging of Jonathan Wild|
Jonathan Wild (1683-1725) was the undisputed king of London’s underworld, at a time when London was the most powerful city in the world. Moriarty, Sherlock Holmes’ greatest rival, may well have been based on him-and he is certainly directly compared to him by Holmes. However, unlike the reclusive Moriarty, Wild courted publicity and was, besides, one of the most beloved celebrities of early eighteenth century London.
The reason for this was simple: Wild was, to all intents and purposes, a police officer. He became the man known as ‘Thief-Taker General’-similar to a chief of police. He used this position to arrest all those criminals who didn’t pay their taxes to him, and was rewarded for it. Due to his extraordinary knowledge of the underworld, Wild became so successful in his career that he was consulted multiple times by the government on how to reduce crime in the capital. Needless to say, he advised that the rewards in exchange for the capture of criminals were increased. That year, the reward offered tripled.
|Henry Fielding's novel about Jonathan Wild was|
a thinly disguised attack on the government of
Sir Robert Walpole--suggesting eighteenth century politics
as just another form of criminal activity.
He ran a small gang of thieves who stole from the wealthiest people in London. When these thefts were announced, he would offer his services in recovering the goods. He would return the goods and receive a reward for his trouble, also giving up rival thieves in the process. This avoided the danger of fencing stolen goods (due to the increase in theft at this time, the act of fencing goods was the most dangerous a thief would undertake) and allowed him to remove rivals.
One man played an instrumental part in bringing Wild down: Jack Sheppard. He was a thief who had previously worked with Wild, but then struck out on his own; as a result, Wild was determined to capture him. Unfortunately, the people loved Sheppard almost as much as they did Wild; he was a working-class hero, handsome and non-violent. Wild’s determination to hunt him down and have him put to death led to a decline in his own popularity.
Wild caught Sheppard, who then escaped from prison. He was caught again. He escaped. He was caught again. Sheppard escaped a total of four times, the last time from a cell in which he was forced to break chains, padlocks and six iron-barred doors. Finally, a cell was designed in which he could be watched twenty four hours a day. He did not escape, and was, at last, executed for his crimes. However, his role in Sheppard's arrest and death destroyed Wild's popularity for good.
Not only that, but Wild's own gang members had grown increasingly suspicious of him. When he arranged a gaol break for one of his employees, he realized that he needed to go into hiding for a few weeks. However, Wild made the mistake of assuming that it would need to be no longer than that. When he came out, he was arrested almost immediately. As the evidence stacked up against him, his gang members began to come forward and give evidence against him --- more than enough to result in the death penalty. Even his hangman, Richard Arnet, had once been a guest at Wild's wedding.
Wild tried to cheat the hangman by overdosing on laudanum; he failed to kill himself, but it was said that it drove him insane, so that he cut an increasingly pitiful figure --- certainly, his senseless gibbering in prison doesn’t suggest a secure mind. During his hanging, ever resourceful, Wild attempted to survive by grabbing the man next to him and allowing him to take the weight. However, Wild's luck had run out. His body was buried secretly in the middle of the night, as the authorities were still concerned that his grave might attract well-wishers.
Wild was an extraordinary man: a criminal genius and (for a time) a much-loved celebrity. In his time, he was (to borrow the words of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle describing Moriarty) “The instigator of half that is evil and almost all that is undetected in this great city.” If truth be told, I feel my words are insufficient in adequately describing the man, so I will once more borrow from Doyle’s description of Moriarty: “But in calling Moriarty a criminal you are uttering libel in the eyes of the law — and there lie the glory and the wonder of it! The greatest schemer of all time, the organizer of every deviltry, the controlling brain of the underworld, a brain which might have made or marred the destiny of nations — that’s the man!”