Jonathan Wild was a notorious London Thief-Taker in the early part of the eighteenth century. He styled himself "Thief-taker-General of Great Britain and Ireland" and ran a vast corporation of criminals. He began operations in 1712 when he as about thirty years of age. Here we describe his early operations and the establishment of his empire.
Jonathan Wild was born at Wolverhampton, in Staffordshire, about the year 1682. At about fifteen years of age Jonathan, having made some progress at school in writing and arithmetic, was bound apprentice to a buckle-maker at Birmingham. When his time was expired he married an honest woman at Wolverhampton, by whom he had one son. But they had not been married two years before Jonathan took it into his head to leave his wife and child and go up to London. He had been but a few months in town before he ran himself so far into debt that he was arrested and thrown into Wood Street Compter. He said himself (in a pamphlet which he published in vindication of his character) that by misfortunes in the world he was subject to the discipline of the compter for above the space of four years, during which time he was, in some measure, let into the secrets of the criminals there under confinement; of which knowledge he afterwards availed himself.
Here it was he contracted a close familiarity with one Mary Milliner, a common street-walker. She had run round the whole circle of vice, knew all the ways of the town, and most of its felonious inhabitants. He took a little house in ***** Alley, opposite to Cripple-gate church, where Jonathan, by his own industry and his helpmate's assistance, was in a short time made acquainted with all the thieves of any note, from the desperate highway-man down to the more subtle impostor. He soon knew all their usual haunts, and how they proceeded, and in consequence of this knowledge he had their lives in his power, and from a confidant became a director.
The Wood Street CompterFormerly, when a thief had got a prize, he could easily find people enough to take it off his hands at something less than the real value, for the law had provided no punishment for the receiver. But after the legislature had passed an Act which made it felony to receive stolen goods, knowing them to be stolen, a considerable stop was put to this practice. The few who continued it were obliged to act very cautiously, and, as they ran great hazards, they insisted on such extravagant profits that the thieving trade was in danger of coming to nothing.
But Jonathan contrived a scheme that gave new life to the business, and convening some of his chief prigs he laid the matter before them. "You know, my bloods," quoth he, "that as trade goes at present you stand but a queer chance; for when you have made anything, if you carry it to the pawnbrokers, those unconscionable dealers in contraband goods will hardly tip ye a quarter of what it is worth, and if ye offer it to a stranger, it's ten to one but ye are babbled. So that there is no such thing as a man's living by his labour; for if he don't like to be half starved he must run the hazard of being scragged, which, let me tell you, is a d--d hard case. Now, if you will take my advice, I'll engage to pay back the goods to the cull that owns them, and raise you more money upon that account than you can expect from the rascally brokers; and at the same time take care that you shall be all insured."
This was received with general approbation, and immediately put in practice. No sooner was a robbery committed than Jonathan was informed what the goods were, when, how and from whom they were taken. The goods were deposited in some convenient place, but not in his own house; for at his first setting up in business he acted very cautiously, though afterwards he grew daring. When things were thus prepared, away went Jonathan, or the bone of his bone, to the persons who had been plundered, and addressed them to this purpose:
"I happened to hear that you have lately been robbed, and a friend of mine, an honest broker, having stopped a parcel of goods upon suspicion, I thought I could do no less than give you notice of it, as not knowing but some of them might be yours; if it proves so (as I wish it may), you may have them again, provided that nobody is brought into trouble, and the broker has something in consideration of his care." People who have been robbed are willing to recover their goods with as little trouble as possible, and therefore it was no wonder that they easily fell into Jonathan's measures. But if, as it sometimes happened, the person was too inquisitive -
"Sir," says Jonathan, " I only came to serve you, and if you think otherwise, I must let you know that you are mistaken. I have told you that, some goods being offered to pawn by a suspected person, the broker had the honesty to stop them; and and therefore, Sir, if you question me about thieves, I have nothing to say to you but that I can give a good account of myself: my name is Wild, and I live in ***** Alley, by Cripplegate, where you may find me any day in the week; and so, Sir, your humble servant." By this affected resentment he seldom failed of bringing the injured person to treat with him upon his own terms, which on such occasions he commonly advanced. All this while, as Jonathan had his profits out of what was paid to the broker, he took no money from those to whom he restored the goods, by which means he kept up a tolerable reputation, and at the same time there was no law in being that could affect him.
But as he soon became eminent in his profession he altered some of his measures. He no longer applied to those who had lost anything, but they were obliged to apply to him if they expected his assistance, and he received them in his office with much formality. At their entrance it was hinted to them that they must deposit a crown as a fee for his advice. This being done, he demanded their names, where they lived, where and how they were robbed, if they suspected any persons and what kind of persons they were, the particular goods that were lost, and what reward would be given if the goods were returned. These articles being known were entered in a book he kept for that purpose, and then the persons were assured that a careful inquiry should be made, and if they called again in two or three days he might possibly give them some intelligence.
When they came according to appointment and desired to know what success he had met with -
"Why, indeed," says Jonathan, "I have heard something of your goods, but the person I sent to inquire tells me that the rogues pretend they can pawn them for more than you offer, and therefore if ever they make restitution it must be upon better terms. However, if I can but once come to the speech of the rascals, I don't question but I shall bring them to reason." Jonathan had always some advantage or other in examining so minutely into the circumstances of a robbery. If, as was often the case, he knew as much of the matter before-hand as those who came for his assistance could tell him, his inquiries then served to amuse them, and prevent their suspecting his knowledge. But if he had not already been let into the whole or any part of the secret, the exact information he received by this means was such a check upon the thieves that they seldom dared to conceal anything from him; and if they did, or refused to accept of his terms, it was at their peril.
Jonathan now appeared with a sword by his side, and the first use we find he made of it was in an engagement with the wife of his bosom. She had some time so provoked him to wrath that he swore by the Lord he would mark her, and thereupon drawing his sword he smote off one of her ears. This occasioned a divorce; but, however, Jonathan, in grateful consideration of the services she had done him, by bringing him into so large an acquaintance, and assisting him in his business, allowed her a weekly pension as long as she lived.
Wild and associates accosting a parson outside the Fleet Prison
In the year 1715 Wild removed from his house in ***** Alley to a Mrs Seagoe's, in the Old Bailey, where he pursued his business with the usual success; but while resident there a controversy of a most singular character arose between him and a fellow named Charles Hitchin, who was a City Marshal, but was later suspended for malpractices, to whom Jonathan, before his adoption of the lucrative profession which he now carried on, had acted as assistant. These celebrated co-partners in villainy, under the pretext of controlling the enormities of the dissolute, paraded the streets from Temple Bar to the Minories, searching houses of ill-fame, and apprehending disorderly and suspected persons; but those who complimented the reformers with douceurs were allowed to practise every species of wickedness with impunity.
Hitchin and Wild however, grew jealous of each other and, an open rupture taking place, they parted, each pursuing the business of thief-taking on his own account. These rivals in villainy appealed to the public, and attacked each other with all possible scurrility in pamphlets and advertisements. Never was the Press so debased as in publishing the productions of their pens. Hitchin published what he called The Regulator; or a Discovery of Thieves and Thief-Takers. It is an ignorant and impudent insult to the reader, and replete with abuse of Wild, whom he brands, in his capacity of thief-taker, with being worse than the thief. Wild retorts with great bitterness; but Hitchin having greatly debased the respectable post of City Marshal the Lord Mayor suspended him from that office.
In order to repair his loss he determined, as the most prudent step, to strive to bury his aversion, and confederate with Wild. To effect this he wrote as follows:-
"I am sensible that you are let into the knowledge of the secrets of the compter, particularly with relation to the securing of pocket-books; but your experience is inferior to mine. I can put you on a far better method than you are acquainted with, and which may be done with safety; for though I am suspended, I still retain the power of acting as constable, and notwithstanding I cannot be heard before my Lord Mayor, as formerly, I have interest among the aldermen upon any complaint. Wild readily accepted the ex-Marshal's proposals, and they accordingly proceeded to take their walks together, imposing upon the unwary and confederating with thieves, whom at the same time they did not hesitate to make their slaves.
"But I must first tell you that you spoil the trade of thief-taking in advancing greater rewards than are necessary. I give but half-a-crown a book, and when thieves and pick-pockets see you and me confederate, they will submit to our terms, and likewise continue their thefts, for fear of coming to the gallows by our means. You shall take a turn with me, as my servant or assistant, and we'll commence our rambles this night."
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