Jonathan Wild was a particularly nasty piece of work, working on both sides of the law in early 18th-century London. He was responsible for sending many fellow criminals to the gallows until eventually he overreached himself and suffered the same fate.
He was born in Wolverhampton in 1683 and worked there as a bottle maker. In 1707 he deserted his wife and went to London where he was soon imprisoned for debt for four years. This proved to be a useful introduction to the capital’s underworld. When released, he opened a brothel with his mistress, whom he had met in prison. One of his activities was to act as a prostitute’s associate who picked the client’s pockets while the latter’s attention was otherwise engaged.
For ten years, from 1714 to 1724, he controlled London’s criminals by playing them off one against the one, and against the authorities, in a complicated web of intrigue and influence. He acted as a thief-taker and also as a receiver. He pursued thieves with great tenacity, earning large sums of money under the Parliamentary reward system. However, there was more money to be made by acting as their receiver while continuing to inform on them to the officers at Newgate.
Wild organised the thieves into gangs which he controlled, planning their crimes and then disposing of the proceeds in a highly original way. Instead of fencing the stolen goods, he set up a lost-property office and sold the recovered items back to their original owners who, it seemed, were prepared to pay more for the return of the goods than he would have been able to get from professional receivers.
He instructed his gangs to discover the identities of those they were about to rob so that he could, after a suitable interval, notify the victims that their possessions had been ‘recovered’. He paid his thieves poorly, but kept their loyalty by arranging rigged trials when they were caught and by exacting swift revenge if they double-crossed him.
In 1720 the government was naïve enough to consult him about the rising crime rate. Wild told them that they should increase the rewards for capturing criminals – one of his own sources of profit.
It could not last – Wild’s activities had made him too many enemies. A new Act of Parliament was passed that closed the legal loophole on which Wild had theretofore depended. He was finally charged with receiving ten guineas as a reward for helping a lady to recover some stolen lace, a theft that he himself had organised. The law that brought him low was informally known thereafter as Jonathan Wild’s Act. In his defence he pleaded that he had brought 67 criminals to the gallows.
On the night before his execution, in 1725, he attempted suicide by drinking laudanum but did not succeed. He was therefore in very poor health when he reached the gallows at Tyburn. The executioner was prepared to allow him time to recover his senses but the enraged crowd demanded that the sentence be carried out with no further delay, and this was duly done.