Saturday 24 May 2014

The Execution of Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General

Jonathan Wild (Wolverhampton, England, 1682/3 – London, England, 24th May 1725)

Our notorious guest today is a man whom we have met before, a supporting player in the tale I told last year of Joseph "Blueskin" Blake. Today though, on the anniversary of his execution, the stage belongs squarely to Jonathan Wild, the man known throughout England as the unflinching Thief-Taker General.

An arch manipulator and expert schemer, Wild enjoyed a reputation for his unerring commitment to fighting crime in London, known for a talent for retrieving stolen goods and bringing the guilty to justice. In fact this supposed champion of justice was a gang master himself, controlling an enormous network of thieves, fences and informers, moving vast amounts of stolen property across England and into Europe. He raked in a fortune in rewards for supposedly retrieving items that his own gangs had stolen, setting aside a good portion for the purposes of blackmail and bribery should it be needed. 

A ticket to the execution of Jonathan Wild
A ticket to the execution of Jonathan Wild

Even when the authorities became aware that something might be amiss, Wild proved too slippery for them for a good long time but eventually the net began to tighten. As 1724 became 1725, bad things were afoot in the world of the Thief-Taker General. The captain of the sloop used by Wild to ferry stolen goods to Europe was informed on by a crewman over a length of stolen lace after the two argued over money. When Wild bailed out the captain, the affronted crewman informed on the Thief-Taker and his empire began to crumble. The authorities moved in to search his warehouses and found items that appeared to be stolen; though Wild protested his innocence, it would do him no good.

With Wild arrested and taken to Newgate, the outraged public demanded justice against the man they had once thought a hero. He mounted an impassioned defence but with evidence and witnesses mounting up, Jonathan Wild's fate was sealed. He was sentenced to death for his involvement in the matter of the stolen lace.

As the morning of his execution dawned, Wild took a quantity of laudanum with the intention of cheating the hangman. His scheme failed and he was taken in a state of delirium to Tyburn. All along the route the crowd jeered and heckled and pelted the once powerful Thief-Taker with missiles including dead animals and faeces. The cart stopped a number of times to allow Wild alcoholic refreshments at inns along the route but inevitably they eventually came upon Tyburn and the immense crowd gathered to witness the final moments of the once-admired crime fighter.

The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Royal College of Surgeons
The skeleton of Jonathan Wild at the Royal College of Surgeons

Joining Wild on the gallows that day were three other convicts and the executioner was Richard Arnet, who had once been a guest at the wedding of the Thief-Taker. With a great noise from the crowd drowning out the last prayers of the condemned men, the nooses were put in place and the cart pulled away. Wild did not die without a struggle, desperately clutching onto the men who were hanging beside him in an effort to give himself leverage but it was a wasted effort and before an audience of thousands, Jonathan Wild died.

According to Wild's wishes his wife, Mary, arranged for his body to be secretly buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, whilst circulating rumours that it had been taken to the Surgeon's Hall. In fact, the efforts proved wasted and within the week the anatomists descended on St Pancras and dug up the Thief-Taker General, spiriting him away to the Royal College of Surgeons, where his remains are still on display.


Gem Twitcher said...

Yikes!! What a story!!! I do hope you weren't at Tyburn watching from your coach,Madame?

Catherine Curzon said...

I can assure you sir, I was not!

Retro Brit said...

Ooooh! What goes around comes around... :)

Catherine Curzon said...

It did for Jonathan Wild!

Mary Seymour said...

It is reported that the Barber-Surgeons were disappointed with JW's cadaver. They believed that so extraordinary and wicked a man should have a malformed skull and the fact that his skeleton was appropriate in every respect for a man of his years gave rise to the rumour that it was not JW but the man in the next grave who had been dug up and conveyed to Barber-Surgeons' Hall. The skeleton was wired up and on display in the magnificent Inigo Jones Anatomy Theatre in Monkwell Street for many years.

Catherine Curzon said...

A fascinating addition to the tale; thank you!