Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Sheppard, John (1702-1724)
SHEPPARD, JOHN (1702–1724), criminal, known as Jack Sheppard, son of Thomas Sheppard, an honest carpenter of Spitalfields (whose father and grandfather had likewise been carpenters), was born at Stepney in December 1702. His father died early in 1703, leaving several children. An elder brother, Thomas, went to sea, but took to thieving in 1723, and was transported in July 1724. John, brought up in the workhouse of Bishopsgate, seems to have begun life as a cane-chair mender, but, being ill-used, deserted his master. He was befriended by Mr. Kneebone, a woollendraper, who had employed his father. Kneebone, whose attentions he acknowledged by robbing at a later date, taught him to write and cipher, and apprenticed him to Owen Wood, a carpenter of Wych Street. At the Black Lion in Drury Lane, hard by, Sheppard fell into bad company, making the acquaintance of a loose woman, Bess Lyon or ‘Edgeworth Bess,’ who, with another girl, known as Poll Maggott, incited him to most of his crimes. The first larceny recorded against him was the theft of two silver spoons from the ‘Rummer Tavern,’ Charing Cross, celebrated in Hogarth's picture of ‘Night.’ A further robbery of a bale of fustian came to the ears of his master, whom he left in September 1723 for a lodging in May Fair, at the western extremity of Piccadilly. Thence he subsequently removed with ‘Edgeworth Bess’ to Parson's Green. At the close of 1723 he was brought up as a runaway apprentice on a warrant to St. Clement's Roundhouse, but his old master Owen Wood procured his release. Thenceforth, Sheppard avows, ‘I fell to robbing almost every one that stood in my way.’ His chief ally was ‘Blueskin’ (Joseph Blake). In April 1724, owing to the treachery of his brother Thomas and another associate, he was committed to St. Giles's Roundhouse, but he skilfully made his escape. Like adventures, distinguished by unparalleled coolness and impudence, followed in quick succession. On Whit Monday, 25 May 1724, he broke out of New Prison, where he was awaiting trial on a charge of stealing a gentleman's watch. His escape involved getting rid of his irons, cutting through a double grille of oaken and iron bars, descending twenty-five feet by means of a sheet and blanket, and then scaling a wall of twenty-two feet, which he surmounted with a companion on his back. In June and July scarce a day passed without a theft, a highway robbery, or a burglary. Unluckily for himself, Sheppard had either offended or alarmed Jonathan Wild [q. v.], who was not only the largest broker of stolen goods in London, but was also informer-in-chief against thieves. Wild effected his capture in Rosemary Lane on 23 July.
Sheppard was tried at the Old Bailey on 14 Aug. and condemned to death, but, owing to the absence of the court at Windsor, his warrant was not signed until the end of the month. On 31 Aug., with the help of a file, supplied by the ingenuity of Poll Maggot and ‘Edgeworth Bess,’ he managed to escape from the condemned hold (cf. Weekly Journal, 5 Sept. 1724), and, after a short excursion into Northamptonshire, returned to his accustomed haunts and practices. Though well known in the neighbourhood of Wych Street, no one dared lay hands on him ‘for fear of pistols.’ Eventually, on 10 Sept., Sheppard and a friend Page were seized near Finchley Common by a posse of armed men, led by Austin, one of the turnkeys through whose hands he had lately slipped. In spite of the heavy shackles with which he was now laden, he managed to secrete a small file (found in his Bible on 12 Sept.) and a complete set of tools (found in the rushes of his chair on 16 Sept.). He was consequently removed to a stronger part of the prison, known as the ‘Castle,’ and chained with two ponderous iron staples to the floor. On Sunday, 13 Sept., ‘a vast concourse’ flocked to see him in Newgate, the chapel being crowded. On 16 Sept. his keepers, having carefully inspected his irons at 2 p. m., left him for the remainder of the day. Sheppard thereupon effected his last and most remarkable escape. After freeing himself of his manacles and snapping the chains that held him to the floor, he removed a stout iron bar from the chimney, up which he climbed. After forcing the heavily bolted doors of many strong rooms by an almost incredible exertion of strength and ingenuity, he found himself upon the upper leads, but it was necessary for him to retrace his steps to his cell and secure his blanket before he could let himself down the twenty feet which intervened between him and the adjoining roof of a turner's house. This he entered by a garret window, and thence slipped unobserved into the purlieus of Smithfield (cf. Griffiths, Chronicles of Newgate, p. 186). Passing down Gray's Inn Lane into the fields, he spent two or three days in an old house by Tottenham Court. On the Monday, five days after the escape, he went to a cellar by Charing Cross, where all were ‘discoursing about Sheppard.’ He was well supplied with money, which had been advanced to him on account of his dying speech. He next broke into a pawnbroker's in Drury Lane and decked himself out in smart clothes, and drove in a coach, with the windows down, past Newgate. On Friday he treated his mother to three quarterns of brandy at the Sheers Tavern, Maypole Alley, near Clare Market, and then drank himself silly, in which state he was captured and taken back to Newgate. The turnkeys found compensation for the obloquy to which his escapes had exposed them by charging 3s. 6d. a head to all visitors. He was watched night and day until 16 Nov., when his execution at Tyburn was witnessed by over two hundred thousand people. A riot which broke out in regard to the disposal of the corpse had to be quelled by the military with fixed bayonets. He was buried in the old churchyard of St. Martin's-in-the-Fields (where the National Gallery now stands). His coffin was discovered by some workmen in 1866 next to that of the philanthropist, George Heriot (Times, 18 Oct. 1866).
The journals celebrated him in prose and verse, and the ‘British Journal’ (4 Dec.) had a dialogue between ‘John Sheppard and Julius Cæsar.’ Chapmen rang his exploits down every street, and divines exhorted their flocks to emulate him, in a spiritual sense, by mounting the chimney of hope to the leads of divine meditation. The ‘Harlequin Sheppard,’ by John Thurmond (London, 1725, 8vo), was produced at Drury Lane in December 1724; and the ‘Prison Breaker,’ written for Lincoln's Inn Fields in 1725 (London, 8vo), was altered for Bartholomew Fair as the ‘Quakers' Opera’ in 1728 (Genest, x. 157). In more recent times, as a hero of burlesque, ‘Jack’ has found exponents in such actresses as Mrs. Keeley and Miss Nellie Farren. A more lasting fame was conferred by Harrison Ainsworth's ably written romance of ‘Jack Sheppard’ (it first appeared in ‘Bentley's Magazine’ in 1840), which was illustrated by some of Cruikshank's best cuts.
The proclamation for Sheppard's apprehension after his second escape describes him ‘as about twenty-two, five feet 4 inches in height, very slender, of a pale complexion, with an impediment in his speech.’ While in his cell, Sheppard sat to the first portrait-painter of the day, Sir James Thornhill. The portrait, a three-quarter length, dated 5 Nov. 1724, depicts him, a mere boy, sitting in his cell with handcuffs; in the print-room of the British Museum is a facsimile of Thornhill's sketch, which was mezzotinted by G. White, and has been frequently reproduced (cf. Smith, Mezzotinto Portraits, 1585). An engraving, by Hawkins and Simpson, represents him in the New Prison, and an anonymous ‘True Effigies’ shows ‘the exact manner of his confinement in the Castle Room, Newgate.’
The freebooter is to be distinguished from a contemporary ‘beardless villain,’ or rather crazy youth, named James Shepherd or Shepperd (1697–1718), who in January 1717–18, having been ‘a great frequenter of Jacobite conventicles,’ committed to paper and sent to a nonjuring minister, John Leake, a ‘design for smiting the usurper [i.e. George I] in his palace.’ Leake in alarm communicated the letter's contents to Alderman Sir John Fryer, and Shepherd was committed to Newgate, tried for high treason before the recorder, and (with misplaced severity in the case of one who was clearly half insane) hanged on 17 March 1718, on the same day with the Marchese Paleotti. A nonjuring priest named Orme gave him absolution at Tyburn (Oldmixon, iii. 654, 660; Doran, Jacobite London, vol. i.; Hist. Reg. 1718, passim).[‘A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c., of John Sheppard … written by himself during his Confinement in the Middle Stone Room, 1724, with a Plate representing the Manner of his Escape from the Condemned Hold in Newgate, carefully compiled from Sheppard's dying statements,’ is attributed to Daniel Defoe. Eight editions appeared within the year, the ‘Vie et Vols du fameux Jean Sheppard,’ Amsterdam, 1725, being taken from the sixth. A rival compilation was The Authentic Memoirs of John Sheppard, 1724, which formed the basis of a German account, Leipzig, 1765, and of many subsequent lives, one of which dates from Sydney, New South Wales, 1845. A third ‘History of the remarkable Life of John Sheppard,’ October 1724, may, like the ‘Narrative,’ have been by Defoe; but it is perhaps safer to attribute it to ‘one of Applebee's faithful garretteers,’ such as Wagstaff, the acting ordinary of Newgate. By prearrangement with the publisher, Sheppard, shortly before his death, summoned Apple- bee to the cart and delivered him a packet. These narratives must be carefully checked by the contemporary newspapers, especially the British Journal, 15 Aug. and 17 Oct. 1724, and the Weekly Journal, 29 Aug., 12 Sept., and 21 Nov. 1724. See also Celebrated Trials, 1825, iii. 375–89; Tyburn Chronicle, vol. ii.; Newgate Calendar, ed. Knapp and Baldwin; Hist. Reg. 1724 (Chron. Diary), pp. 45, 47, 48; Malcolm's London Anecdotes; Villette's Annals of Newgate, i. 253; Griffiths's Chronicles of Newgate; Granger's Biogr. Hist. and Wonderful Museum; Caulfield's Portraits of Remarkable Persons, ii. 158, 167; Retrospective Review, vii. 273; Defoe's Romances and Narratives, ed. Aitken, p. xvi, Introduction; Thornbury's Old and New London, ii. 459; Wheatley and Cunningham's London; Thorne's Environs, p. 218; Extracts relating to St. Sepulchre's (Brit. Mus.); Biogr. Dram. 1812, ii. 283; Lowndes's Bibl. Man. ed. Bohn; Brit. Mus. Cat.]