Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wild, Jonathan

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

WILD, JONATHAN (1682?–1725), receiver of stolen goods and informer, was born at Wolverhampton about 1682, his father being a wig-maker. Jonathan became a buckle-maker and married. After the birth of a son he deserted his wife and went to London to ply his trade, but getting into debt he was detained in the Wood Street prison, where he remained some considerable time. He was there brought into contact with many thieves and other criminals, including one Mary Milliner, with whom, on his release, he opened a brothel in Lewkenor's Lane, which they subsequently exchanged for a public-house in Cock Alley, Cripplegate. He soon sought a livelihood by blackmailing thieves and trafficking in stolen property. He built up a connection among the thieves, offering to sell any goods brought to him, and to hand over the proceeds less a commission. The scheme prospered, and it being found that owners of stolen property outbid ordinary dealers, Wild encouraged his thieves to steal from persons whom they were able to identify in order that he might open up communications with them for the return of their goods. The growth of Wild's business led to the passing of a statute (5 & 6 Anne c. 31, sect. 5) by which receivers of stolen property were made accessories. This act was no deterrent to Wild, who now opened his house as an office for the recovery of ‘lost’ property, the theft of which he first planned; after taking fees for inquiry he would, after delay, announce that the missing article had been traced and was to be had for a price. His business increased so much that he removed it to larger premises in the Old Bailey, and later he opened two branch offices. In vain did Hitchin publish a 3d. pamphlet openly denouncing Wild, ‘The Regulator; or a Discovery of Thieves, Thieve-takers, and Locks’ (receivers of stolen goods). Wild's house continued to be the first resort of the victims of his system. For while a part of his time was thus occupied in restoring property, the remainder went in arranging the preliminary operation of thieving it. He became the leading spirit and head of a large corporation of thieves, whom he organised into gangs, to each of which was allotted a special sphere of work. There was one for each of the main roads to London; one attended churches, another entertainments and public functions, while a special brigade was trained for domestic service. Warehouses were taken for the storing of goods, a staff of mechanics was kept for the alteration of watches and jewellery, and a sloop was purchased, which conveyed to the continent property unclaimed or difficult to dispose of at home.

Ostensibly Wild was not merely an honest citizen but an instrument of justice. He always appeared in public wearing a laced coat and with a silver staff as a token of authority; and while superintending the performances of his men he would often effect the capture of some unincorporated thief. There is no doubt that his proceedings were for a time tolerated by those in authority on account of the services he was in a position to render, for while fair in his dealings with his own creatures so long as they remained loyal to him, he made merciless use of other criminals to serve his own ends. When one of his own gang was arrested he had witnesses at command to prove the culprit's innocence, and equally, when it was desirable to obtain a conviction, the same witnesses were ready to swear to the prisoner's guilt. More than once he ‘sold human blood’ by obtaining the conviction of the innocent, but, on the other hand, he brought murderers to justice with no worse motive than the hope of gain. Instances of rebellion against Wild's authority by his satellites were not rare and were never forgiven. His practice with such offenders was to wait until one of his gang was on trial, whom he would then instruct to give king's evidence and to obtain pardon by denouncing the rebels as accomplices. On one occasion Wild shot dead on the highway a mutinous disciple, and claimed honour for having rid the world of a scoundrel. He himself effected the arrest of Joseph Blake (hanged on 11 Nov. 1724), known as ‘Blueskin,’ the companion of Jack Sheppard [see Sheppard, John], both of whom had renounced his leadership, and was seriously wounded by Blake as he stood in the bail-dock. The incident was made the subject of a ballad entitled ‘Newgate's Garland,’ printed in Swift's ‘Miscellanies.’ Wild flattered himself that his zeal in tracking down criminals when it served his purpose obscured his own crimes, and in January 1724 he petitioned the corporation of London for a grant of its freedom in recognition of his services in thief-catching. He paid considerable sums for mention of his name as ‘thief-taker general’ in the newspapers and in broadsheets published at the execution of notorious criminals. Yet in March 1724 he was craving the protection of the Earl of Dartmouth against the persecution of magistrates, who had encouraged several thieves to swear against him; and in another letter he begged to be allowed to procure the restoration of property of which the earl had been robbed on the highway. In January 1725 his assistance was invoked by one Johnson, the captain of his sloop, who had been arrested. Wild came at the call, and provoked a riot, enabling Johnson to escape. An information was laid against him for rescuing Johnson, and, after he had hidden for three weeks, he was on 15 Feb. arrested at his house and committed to Newgate. While he remained there an information of eleven articles was laid against him, but he continued to carry on his business, and, among others, received the visit of Catherine Statham, who paid him ten guineas for procuring the restoration of some lace of which she had been robbed. When, on 15 May, he was put on trial, he was indicted for stealing this same lace, but was acquitted. He was then indicted again for having received a reward for restoring the lace, and, being found guilty, was sentenced to death. After a vain attempt at suicide by laudanum, Wild was hanged at Tyburn on 24 May 1725. His body was disinterred from St. Pancras churchyard, and the skull and skeleton of the trunk, which were separately preserved, were exhibited as late as 1860. Four anonymous engraved portraits are mentioned by Bromley (Cat. pp. 250, 468).

The career of Jonathan Wild has received much attention in literature of a kind, but seldom or never with any pretence to accuracy. Fielding's satire, ‘The History of the Life of the late Jonathan Wild the Great,’ has scarcely any connection with the eponymous hero; and in Ainsworth's novel, ‘Jack Sheppard,’ Wild is a subsidiary character. Captain Alexander Smith's ‘Memoirs of the Life and Times of the famous Jonathan Wild’ are largely apocryphal, and the same must be said of the numerous biographies which appeared shortly after Wild's execution.

[The most trustworthy account of Wild is in Jackson's Newgate Calendar, 1818, vol. ii. See also The Life and Death of Jonathan Wild, by H. D., late Clerk to Justice R. (?Lord Raymond, who presided at Wild's trial), 1725; Thornbury's London, ii. 472; Chronicles of Newgate, i. 415; Cat. of Satirical Prints and Drawings in Brit. Mus. vol. ii.]

A. V.