In his day, Jonathan Wild was a man of great influence. In a city plagued with crime, Wild brought dozens of petty thieves and rogues to justice; a public service that brought him the gratitude of the general public and the authorities. The government of the day sought his advice on laws aimed at curbing the crime wave. He operated a business that found and returned stolen goods to their grateful owners for a fee. Behind the scenes, Jonathan Wild masterminded a vast criminal empire that involved robbery, extortion, blackmail, receiving stolen goods, prostitution, and any other means of earning a dishonest living he could think of.
A Thief-Catcher and a Thief
Jonathan Wild prowled the streets of London in the 18th century operating on both sides of the law
Jonathan Wild’s Chequered Career
A graduate of the university of crime, otherwise known as prison
Born in 1682, Jonathan Wild abandoned a wife and child in his mid-20s and headed for London. It didn’t take him long to end up in debtor’s prison where he mingled with members of the criminal class.
He put his four years in prison to good use learning the dark arts of the underworld, and cultivating relationships that he thought might be useful later. He became friends with Mary Milliner, a prostitute.
When they got out of prison, Mary and Jonathan set up shop together in Covent Garden. While Mary was entertaining her clients in dark alleys, Jonathan would pounce out of the shadows and rob them. Men with their trousers round their ankles were unlikely to give hot pursuit.
The scheme was so good that the pair soon had enough money to take over a pub, the King’s Head, which became a den for thieves and other ne’er-do-wells.
Vic Reeves Rogues Gallery
Receiver of Stolen Goods
Wild expands his empire
Jonathan Wild probably heard complaints from his regulars about the rotten deals they got when selling their stolen goods, so he dreamed up a scheme to help them.
He opened an office and offered to retrieve stolen goods for clients for a fee. At the same time, he offered to take stolen items from his pub customers and give them a slice of the reward money.
When victims came into his office asking for help in retrieving a valuable painting or a snuff box of sentimental value, Wild probably already had it or knew who did. Rewards were thankfully handed over and everybody was happy.
The business boomed and soon Wild was operating gangs that were stealing to order. He ran prostitution rings and protection rackets. He became the king of London’s criminal underworld, while his public persona was that of an implacable crime fighter.
Many learned it was a bad idea to cross Jonathan Wild
Before an organized police force was established in Britain the authorities relied on the work of thief-takers to bring miscreants to justice.
The people who engaged in this dubious craft were a rough sort with connections in criminal circles who were quite open to committing skulduggery themselves. They operated as a kind of neighbourhood watch with fangs.
They made good money too; the reward for catching a highwayman was £40, with an additional £100 if the blackguard had committed robbery close to central London. It could take an ordinary workman several years to earn that kind of money.
As an added bonus, the thief-taker would get a pardon for any crimes he might have committed; tacit acknowledgement by the justice system that the trade was likely to attract an unsavoury type of character. Few were more unsavoury than Jonathan Wild.
Wild was merciless with those who had done him wrong.
Doing wrong to Wild usually involved being a member of a rival gang or refusing to submit to his authoritarian rule.
When Wild’s wrath was stirred the gangster turned gangster-catcher, an activity that earned him the unofficial title of “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland.” He is said to have sent 120 people to the gallows and to have personally attended many of the hangings.
Jonathan Wild is Undone
Crime spree comes to an end
Jonathan Wild had enjoyed a prosecution-free run of seven years, living in grand style with a higher-class of mistress than Mary Milliner. But, by the winter of 1724/25, the authorities were getting suspicious and public opinion towards him had turned sour.
One of his catches, Jack Sheppard, had become a bit of a folk hero through his daring escapes from custody. Wild’s role in Sheppard’s execution did not sit well with the public.
Whispers from foes led the authorities to a warehouse stuffed with stolen goods. Wild tried to pin the ownership of all the booty on one of his cohorts but that didn't work.
He was found guilty of theft and sentenced to death.
Jonathan Wild’s Final Journey
A failed suicide attempt followed by a successful hanging
With hours to go before the trip to his execution at Tyburn, Jonathan Wild swallowed a large dose of opium mixed with alcohol. It wasn’t enough to kill but sufficient to make him groggy and delirious.
However, nothing could upset the grim timetable for his death and that of three others on May 24, 1725. The open cart rumbled out of Newgate to start its two-mile journey to Tyburn Tree. The trip would take about three hours past crowds, giving citizens the opportunity to express their feelings towards the condemned.
Flamboyant and daring scoundrels often were cheered; there was no such sympathy for Jonathan Wild. He was pelted with feces, dead animals, rotten fruit, and anything else obnoxious that came to hand.
The cart, as was customary, made three stops at pubs on the way so the condemned could fortify themselves to face the ordeal ahead.
At Tyburn, one of the largest crowds ever waited to watch the downfall of a man once revered and now hated. Probably because of the wine, beer, and opium swilling around inside him Wild did not give the usual final speech.
When the cart pulled away and the four convicts were dangling on the end of their ropes, Wild tried to save himself by grabbing onto the man next to him, one Robert Harpham. The executioner, Richard Arnet, separated the two and soon enough Jonathan Wild stopped kicking and was dead at the age of 42.
“Murderers, Robbers & Highwaymen.” Stephen Brennan, Skyhorse Publishing, Inc., December 13, 2013.
“Jonathan Wild – London’s First Organised Crime Lord.” BBC h2g2, November 4, 2004.
“Jonathan Wild – Thief Taker General.” In London Guide, undated.
“1725: Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General and Receiver of Stolen Goods.” Anthony Vaver, Executed Today, May 24, 2010.