A Daring Housebreaker, who made Ingenious Escapes from Prison and even tried to foil his Executioner at Tyburn on 16th of November, 1724
Although only in the twenty-third year of his age when he was executed at Tyburn, on the 16th of November, 1724, Jack Sheppard had become so notorious as a housebreaker and prison-breaker that his exploits were the talk of all ranks of society. A great warrior could not have received greater attention than this famous criminal. Books and pamphlets were written about him; a pantomime at Drury Lane, called Harlequin Sheppard, was based on the story of his adventures, and so was a three-act farce, called The Prison-Breaker. Dozens of songs and glees referred to his prowess, and clergymen preached sermons about him. Sir James Thornhill, the celebrated painter who decorated the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, painted his portrait, from which engravings in mezzotinto were made. On this subject a poet, whose name is not given, wrote the following lines:-
"Thornhill, tis thine to gild with fame
The obscure, and raise the humble name;
To make the form elude the grave,
And Sheppard from oblivion save.
Though life in vain the wretch implores,
An exile on the farthest shores, Thy pencil brings a kind reprieve,
And bids the dying robber live.
This piece to latest time shall stand,
And show the wonders of thy hand:
Thus former masters graced their name,
And gave egregious robbers fame.
Apelles Alexander drew,
Caesar is to Aurelius due;
Cromwell in Lely's works doth shine,
And Sheppard, Thornhill, lives in thine."
John Sheppard was born in Spitalfields in the year 1702. His father, who was a carpenter, bore the character of an honest man; yet he had another son, named Thomas, who, as well as Jack, turned out a thief. The father dying while the boys were very young, they were left to the care of the mother, who placed Jack at a school in Bishopsgate Street, where he remained two years, and was then put apprentice to a carpenter. He behaved with decency in this place for about four years, when, frequenting the Black Lion alehouse, in Drury Lane, he became acquainted with some abandoned women, among whom the principal was Elizabeth Lyon; otherwise called " Edgworth Bess," from the town of Edgworth, where she was born.
While he continued to work as a carpenter, he often committed robberies in the houses where he was employed, stealing tankards, spoons and other articles, which he carried to Edgworth Bess; but not being suspected of having committed these robberies, he at length resolved to commence housebreaking. Exclusive of Edgworth Bess, he was acquainted with a woman named Maggot, who persuaded him to rob the house of Mr Bains, a piece-broker in White Horse Yard; and Jack, having brought away a piece of fustian from thence (which he deposited in his trunk), went afterwards at midnight, and taking the bars out of the cellar window entered, and stole goods and money to the amount of twenty-two pounds, which he carried to Maggot.
As Sheppard did not go home that night, nor the following day, his master suspected that he had made bad connections, and searching his trunk found the piece of fustian that had been stolen; but Sheppard, hearing of this, broke open his master's house in the night and carried off the fustian, lest it should be brought in evidence against him. Sheppard's master sending intelligence to Mr Bains of what had happened, the latter looked over his goods and, missing such a piece of fustian as had been described to him, suspected that Sheppard must have been the robber, and determined to have him taken into custody; but Jack, hearing of the affair, went to him and threatened a prosecution for scandal, alleging that he had received the piece of fustian from his mother, who bought it for him in Spitalfields. The mother, with a view to screen her son, declared that what he had asserted was true, though she could not point out the place where she had made the purchase. Though this story was not credited, Mr Bains did not take any further steps in the affair.
Sheppard's master seemed willing to think well of him, and he remained some time longer in the family; but after associating himself with the worst of company, and frequently staying out the whole night, his master and he quarrelled, and the headstrong youth totally absconded in the last year of his apprenticeship and became connected with a set of villains of Jonathan Wild's gang.
Jack now worked as a journeyman carpenter, with a view to the easier commission of robbery; and being employed to assist in repairing the house of a gentleman in Mayfair he took an opportunity of carrying off a sum of money, a quantity of plate, some gold rings and four suits of clothes. Not long after this Edgworth Bess was apprehended and lodged in the roundhouse of the parish of St Giles's, where Sheppard went to visit her, and the beadle refusing to admit him he knocked him down, broke open the door, and carried her off in triumph - an exploit which acquired him a high degree of credit with the women of abandoned character.
In the month of August, 1723, Thomas Sheppard, the brother of Jack, was indicted at the Old Bailey for two petty offences, and being convicted was burned in the hand. Soon after his discharge he prevailed on Jack to lend him forty shillings and take him as a partner in his robberies. The first act they committed in concert was the robbing of a public-house in Southwark, whence they carried off some money and wearing apparel; but Jack permitted his brother to reap the whole advantage of this booty.
Not long after this the brothers, in conjunction with Edgworth Bess, broke open the shop of Mrs Cook, a linen draper in Clare Market, and carried off goods to the value of fifty-five pounds; and in less than a fortnight afterwards stole some articles from the house of Mr Phillips, in Drury Lane. Tom Sheppard, going to sell some of the goods stolen at Mrs Cook's, was apprehended and committed to Newgate, when, in the hope of being admitted an evidence, he impeached his brother and Edgworth Bess; but they were sought for in vain.
At length James Sykes otherwise called "Hell and Fury " one of Sheppard's companions, meeting with him in St Giles's, enticed him into a public-house, in the hope of receiving a reward for apprehending him; and, while they were drinking, Sykes sent for a constable, who took Jack into custody, and carried him before a magistrate, who, after a short examination, sent him to St Giles's Roundhouse; but he broke through the roof of that place and made his escape in the night.
Within a short time after this, as Sheppard and an associate named Benson were crossing Leicester Fields, the latter endeavoured to pick a gentleman's pocket of his watch, but, failing in the attempt, the gentleman called out: "A pickpocket! " on which Sheppard was taken and lodged in St Ann's Roundhouse, where he was visited by Edgworth Bess, who was detained on suspicion of being one of his accomplices. On the following day they were carried before a magistrate, and, some persons appearing who charged them with felonies, they were committed to New Prison; and as they passed for husband and wife they were permitted to lodge together in a room known by the name of Newgate Ward.
Sheppard being visited by several of his acquaintances, some of them furnished him with implements to make his escape, and early in the morning, a few days after his commitment, he filed off his fetters and, having made a hole in the wall, he took an iron bar and a wooden one out of the window; but as the height from which he was to descend was twenty-five feet he tied a blanket and sheet together, and, making one of them fast to a bar in the window, Edgworth Bess first descended, and Jack followed her. Having reached the yard, they had still a wall of twenty two feet high to scale; but climbing up by the locks and bolts of the great gate, they got quite out of the prison, and effected a perfect escape.
Sheppard's fame was greatly celebrated among the lower order of people by this exploit; and the thieves of St Giles's courted his company. Among the rest, one Charles Grace, a cooper, begged that he would take him as an associate in his robberies, alleging as a reason for this request that the girl he kept was so extravagant that he could not support her on the profits of his own thefts. Sheppard did not hesitate to make this new connection; but at the same time said that he did not admit of the partnership with a view to any advantage to himself, but that Grace might reap the profits of their depredations.
Sheppard and Grace making acquaintance with Anthony Lamb, an apprentice to a mathematical instrument-maker, near St Clement's Church, it was agreed to rob a gentleman who lodged with Lamb's master, and at two o'clock in the morning Lamb let in the other villains, who stole money and effects to a large amount. They put the door open, and Lamb went to bed to prevent suspicion; but notwithstanding this his master did suspect him, and had him taken into custody, when he confessed the whole affair before a magistrate, and being committed to Newgate he was tried, convicted, and received sentence to be transported. On the same day Tom Sheppard was indicted for breaking open the dwelling-house of Mary Cook and stealing her goods; and, being convicted, was also sentenced to transportation. Jack Sheppard not being in custody, he and " Blueskin," another notorious thief, who was executed a few days before Sheppard met his fate, committed a number of daring robberies, and sometimes disposed of the stolen goods to William Field. Jack used to say that Field wanted courage to commit a robbery, though he was as great a villain as ever existed.
Sheppard and "Blueskin" hired a stable near the Horse Ferry, Westminster, in which they deposited their stolen goods till they could dispose of them to the best advantage, and in this place they put the woollen cloth which was stolen from Mr Kneebone; for Sheppard was concerned in this robbery, and at the sessions held at the Old Bailey, in August, 1724, he was indicted for several offences, and among the rest for breaking and entering the house of William Kneebone and stealing one hundred and eight yards of woollen cloth and other articles; and, being capitally convicted, received sentence of death.
We must now go back to observe that Sheppard and "Blueskin" had applied to Field to look at these goods and procure a customer for them, and he promised to do so; nor was he worse than his word, for in the night he broke open their warehouses and stole the ill-gotten property, and then gave information against them to Jonathan Wild, in consequence of which they were apprehended.
On Monday, the 30th of August, 1724, a warrant was sent to Newgate for the execution of Sheppard, with other convicts under sentence of death. It is proper to observe that in the old jail of Newgate there was within the lodge a hatch, with large iron spikes, which hatch opened into a dark passage, whence there were a few steps into the condemned hold. The prisoners being permitted to come down to the hatch to speak with their friends, Sheppard, having been supplied with instruments, took an opportunity of cutting one of the spikes in such a manner that it might be easily broken off.
On the evening of the above-mentioned 30th of August, two women of Sheppard's acquaintance going to visit him, he broke off the spike and, thrusting his head and shoulders through the space, the women pulled him down, and he effected his escape, notwithstanding some of the keepers were at that time drinking at the other end of the lodge.
On the day after his escape he went to a public-house in Spitalfields, whence he sent for an old acquaintance, one Page, a butcher in Clare Market, and advised with him how to render his escape effectual for his future preservation. After deliberating on the matter they agreed to go to Warnden, in Northamptonshire, where Page had some relations; and they had no sooner resolved than they made the journey: but Page's relations treating him with indifference, they returned to London, after being absent only about a week.
On the night after their return, as they were walking up Fleet Street together, they saw a watchmaker's shop open, and only a boy attending. Having passed the shop, they turned back, and Sheppard, driving his hand through the window, stole three watches, with which they made their escape.
Some of Sheppard's old acquaintances informing him that strict search was being made for him, he and Page retired to Finchley, in the hope of lying there concealed till the diligence of the jail-keepers should relax; but the keepers of Newgate, having intelligence of their retreat, took Sheppard into custody and conveyed him to his old lodgings.
Such steps were now taken as were thought would be effectual to prevent his future escape. He was put into a strong-room called the "Castle" handcuffed, loaded with a heavy pair of irons, and chained to a staple fixed in the floor. The curiosity of the public being greatly excited by his former escape, he was visited by great numbers of people of all ranks, and scarce anyone left him without making him a present in money, though he would have more gladly received a file, a hammer, or a chisel; but the utmost care was taken that none of his visitors should furnish him with such implements.
Notwithstanding this disadvantageous situation, Sheppard was continually employing his thoughts on the means of another escape. On the 14th of October the sessions began at the Old Bailey, and, the keepers being much engaged in attending the court, he thought they would have little time to visit him, and therefore the present juncture would be the most favourable to carry his plan into execution.
About two o'clock on the afternoon of the following day one of the keepers carried him his dinner, and having carefully examined his irons, and found them fast, he left him for the day. Some days before this Jack had found a small nail in the room, with which he could, at pleasure, unlock the padlock that went from the chain to the staple in the floor; and in his own account of this transaction he says that he was frequently about the room, and had several times slept on the barracks when the keepers imagined he had not been out of his chair.
The keeper had not left him more than an hour when he began -his operations. He first took off his handcuffs and then opened the padlock that fastened the chain to the staple. He next, by mere strength, twisted asunder a small link of the chain between his legs, and then drawing up his fetters as high as he could he made them fast with his garters.
He then attempted to get up the chimney, but had not advanced far before he was stopped by an iron bar that went across it; on which he descended, and with a piece of his broken chain picked out the mortar, and moving a small stone or two, about six feet from the floor, he got out the iron bar, which was three feet long and an inch square, and proved very serviceable to him in his future proceedings.
He in a short time made such a breach as to enable him to get into the red room over the "Castle"; and here he found a large nail, which he made use of in his further operations. It was seven years since the door of this red room had been opened, but Sheppard wrenched off the lock in less than seven minutes, and got into the passage leading to the chapel. In this place he found a door which was bolted on the opposite side, but making a hole through the wall he pushed the bolt back, and opened the door.
Arriving at the door of the chapel, he broke off one of the iron spikes, and keeping this for his further use got into an entry between the chapel and the lower leads, [Note 1]. The door of this entry was remarkably strong, and fastened with a large lock, and, night coming on, Sheppard was obliged to work in the dark, Notwithstanding this disadvantage he in half-an-hour forced open the box of the lock and opened the door; but this led him to another room still more difficult, for it was barred and bolted as well as locked; however he wrenched the fillet from the main post of the door, and the box and staples came off with it.
It was now eight o'clock, and Sheppard found no further obstruction to his proceedings, for he had only one other door to open, which, being bolted on the inside, was opened without difficulty, and he got over a wall to the upper leads.
His next consideration was how he should descend with the greatest safety. Accordingly he found that the most convenient place for him to alight on would be the turner's house adjoining to Newgate, but as it would have been very dangerous to have jumped to such a depth he went back for the blanket with which he used to cover himself when he slept in the "Castle," and endeavoured to fasten his stocking to the blanket to ease his descent; but not being able to do so, he was compelled to use the blanket alone; wherefore he made it fast to the wall of Newgate with the spike that he took out of the chapel and, sliding down, dropped on the turner's leads just as the clock was striking nine. It happened that the door of the garret next the turner's leads was open, on which he stole softly down two pair of stairs, and heard some company talking in a room. His irons clinking, a woman cried, " What noise is that? and a man answered, " Perhaps the dog or cat. "
Sheppard, who was exceedingly fatigued, returned to the garret and lay down for more than two hours; after which he crept down once more as far as the room where the company were, when he heard a gentleman taking leave of the family, and saw the maid light him downstairs. As soon as the maid returned he resolved to venture all hazards, but in stealing down the stairs he stumbled against a chamber door; but instantly recovering himself, he got into the street.
By this time it was after twelve o'clock, and passing by the watch-house of St Sepulchre he bid the watchman good-morrow; then going up Holborn he turned down Gray's Inn Lane, and about two in the morning got into the fields near Tottenham Court, where he took shelter in a place that had been a cowhouse, and slept soundly about three hours. His fetters being still on, his legs were greatly bruised and swelled, and he dreaded the approach of daylight, lest he should be discovered. He had now above forty shillings in his possession, but was afraid to send to any person for assistance.
At seven in the morning it began to rain hard, and continued to do so all day, so that no person appeared in the fields; and during this melancholy day he would, to use his own expression, have given his right hand for "a hammer, a chisel and a punch. " Night coming on, and being pressed by hunger, he ventured to a chandler's little shop in Tottenham Court Road, where he got a supply of bread and cheese, small-beer and some other necessaries, hiding his irons with a long greatcoat. He asked the woman of the house for a hammer, but she had no such utensil; on which he retired to the cowhouse, where he slept that night, and remained all the next day.
At night he went again to the chandler's shop, supplied himself with provisions, and returned to his hiding-place. At six the next morning, which was Sunday, he began to beat the basils of his fetters with a stone, in order to bring them to an oval form, to slip his heels through. In the afternoon the master of the cowhouse, coming thither, and seeing his irons, said: "For God's sake, who are you?" Sheppard said he was an unfortunate young fellow who, having bad a bastard child sworn to him and not being able to give security to the parish for its support, had been sent to Bridewell, from whence he had made his escape. The man said that if that was all it did not much signify; but he did not care how soon he was gone, for he did not like his looks.
Soon after he was gone Sheppard saw a journeyman shoemaker, to whom he told the same story of the bastard child, and offered him twenty shillings if he would procure a smith's hammer and a punch. The poor man, tempted by the reward, procured them accordingly, and assisted him in getting rid of his irons, which work was completed by five o'clock in the evening.
When night came on, our adventurer tied a handkerchief about his head, tore his woollen cap in several places, and likewise tore his coat and stockings, so as to have the appearance of a beggar; and in this condition he went to a cellar near Charing Cross, where he supped on roast veal and listened to the conversation of the company, all of whom were talking of the escape of Sheppard.
On the Monday he sheltered himself at a public-house of little trade in Rupert Street, and conversing with the landlady about Sheppard told her it was impossible for him to get out of the kingdom, and that the keepers would certainly have him again in a few days; on which the woman wished that a curse might fall on those who should betray him. Remaining in this place till evening, he went into the Haymarket, where a crowd of people were surrounding two ballad-singers and listening to a song made on his adventures and escape.
On the next day he hired a garret in Newport Market, and soon afterwards, dressing himself like a porter, he went to Blackfriars, to the house of Mr Applebee, printer of the dying speeches, and delivered a letter, in which he ridiculed the printer and the ordinary of Newgate, and enclosed a letter for one of the keepers of Newgate.
Some nights after this he broke open the shop of Mr Rawlins, a pawnbroker in Drury Lane, where he stole a sword, a suit of wearing apparel, some snuff-boxes, rings, watches and other effects to a considerable amount. Determining to have the appearance of a gentleman among his old acquaintances in Drury Lane and Clare Market, he dressed himself in a suit of black and a tie-wig, wore a ruffled shirt, a silver-hilted sword, a diamond ring and a gold watch; though he knew that diligent search was being made for him at that very time.
On the 31st of October he dined with two women at a public-house in Newgate Street, and about four in the afternoon they all passed under Newgate in a hackney-coach, having first drawn up the blinds. Going in the evening to a public-house in Maypole Alley, Clare Market, Sheppard sent for his mother and treated her with brandy, when the poor woman dropped upon her knees and begged he would immediately quit the kingdom, which he promised to do, but had no intention of keeping his word.
Being now grown valiant through an excess of liquor he wandered from ale-houses to gin-shops in the neighbourhood till near twelve o'clock at night, when he was apprehended, in consequence of the information of an ale-house boy who knew him. When taken into custody he was quite senseless, from the quantity and variety of liquors he had drunk, and was conveyed to Newgate in a coach, without being capable of making the least resistance, though he had two pistols then in his possession.
His fame was now so much increased by his exploits that he was visited by great numbers of people, and some of them of the highest quality. He endeavoured to divert them by a recital of the particulars of many robberies in which he had been concerned; and when any nobleman came to see him he never failed to beg that they would intercede with the King for a pardon, to which he thought that his singular dexterity gave him some pretensions.
Having been already convicted, he was carried to the bar of the Court of King's Bench on the 10th of November, and the record of the conviction being read, and an affidavit being made that he was the same John Sheppard mentioned in the record, sentence of death was passed upon him by Mr Justice Powis, and a rule of court was made for his execution on the Monday following.
He regularly attended the prayers in the chapel; but, though he behaved with decency there, he affected mirth before he went thither, and endeavoured to prevent any degree of seriousness among the other prisoners on their return.
Even when the day of execution arrived Sheppard did not appear to have given over all expectations of eluding justice; for having been furnished with a penknife he put it in his pocket, with the view, when the melancholy procession came opposite Little Turnstile, of cutting the cord that bound his arms, and throwing himself out of the cart among the crowd, to run through the narrow passage where the sheriff's officers could not follow on horseback; and he had no doubt but that he should make his escape, with the assistance of the mob.
It is not impossible that this scheme might have succecded; but before Sheppard left the press-yard one Watson, an officer, searching his pockets, found the knife, and was cut with it so as to occasion a great effusion of blood.
Sheppard had yet a further view to his preservation, even after execution; for he desired his acquaintances to put him into a warm bed as soon as he should be cut down, and try to open a vein, which he had been told would restore him to life.
He behaved with great decency at the place of execution, and confessed having committed two robberies for which he had been tried and acquitted. He suffered in the twenty third year of his age. He died with difficulty, and was much pitied by the surrounding multitude. When he was cut down his body was delivered to his friends, who carried him to a public-house in Long Acre, whence he was removed in the evening and buried in the churchyard of St Martin's-in-the-Fields.
The following looped links will allow you to scroll through the series.
1 [leads (pronounced "leds": This was a common term applied to the sheets of lead which were used to cover a roof and which eventually came to mean the roof itself. The lower leads were a narrow flat surface which ran around the outside of the roof, usually behind a low parapet and which could be accessed from a garret or dormer window. The upper leads referred to the pitched roof above this.] Back
The complete text of the Newgate Calendar is available online here.
Find Tyburn on the Map