Edgworth Bess, a Prostitute (fl. 1723-24)

This is a blog post written for my friend, Dr. Kate Lister, and her ‘Whores of Yore’ project.

All illustrations featured in the article are from original nineteenth-century books in my personal collection.


The two thieves which feature most on this blog are, of course, Robin Hood (supp. fl. c.1190s), and Jack Sheppard (1702-24). Robin was not the only thief to have been enamoured with a woman, however, for Sheppard was also. The name of Sheppard’s woman was Elizabeth Lyons alias Edgworth Bess. What little we know of Bess’ life is gleaned from the contemporary criminal biographies about Sheppard. She was born, apparently, in the county of Middlesex in the early eighteenth century, was the reputed wife of a soldier but also a prostitute, having led ‘a wicked and debauched life’. [1] She was ‘a large masculine woman’, and of her personal character we are told (from second-hand, highly-embellished sources) that she was fond of strong drink, and often beat her lover Sheppard when she quarrelled with him. [2]

Sheppard Fortescue
Jack Sheppard in Newgate. From Lincoln Fortescue’s The Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845) [Scanned Image – Personal Collection]

To contemporary journalists, she was a temptress: ideas about criminality in the eighteenth century were not related to social class; instead of a sociological explanation of crime, the Georgians held to a theological explanation. Anyone in the eighteenth century was capable of becoming a criminal because all men were sinners. [3] People instead were ‘tempted’ into a life of crime through small sins which multiplied and hardened their hearts against God. As Andrea McKenzie explains:

It was a commonplace of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thought (if by no means new or unique to the period) that sin was both addictive and progressive. Contemporary moralists warned that from such little acorns as childhood raids on orchards and the pilfering of ‘Farthings and Marbles’ grew great oaks of iniquity. [4]

Temptation could come from bad associations also, which is an echo of the Bible’s command at 1 Corinthians 15: 33 which says that ‘bad company corrupts good morals’. And it was usually through a prostitute that unsuspecting good youths could be led astray down a bad path. This was the case with Jack Sheppard, who was enticed by Edgworth Bess into a life of crime. Speaking of Sheppard, Charles Johnson says in Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734) that:

The history of this unfortunate man affords another to the many examples of already given in this volume, that the company of profligate women have plunged men into scenes of dissipation and vice. [5]

In a biography attributed to Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731) entitled The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), we are told how Sheppard was essentially a good lad when he first started his apprenticeship as a carpenter:

The lad proved an early proficient, had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business, and gave entire satisfaction to his master’s customers, and had the character of a very sober and orderly boy. [7]

In all of the accounts of Sheppard’s life, it is his fateful meeting with Edgworth Bess which leads him astray, however, and it is narrated by Defoe in a truly dramatic way:

Alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon, otherwise known as Edgworth Bess […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin! [8]

In his own confession, printed by John Appleby in 1721, Sheppard himself (or more likely the Ordinary of Newgate who attended to him before his execution) blames Bess for his misfortune:

I may justly lay the blame of my temporal, and (without God’s great mercies) my eternal ruin on Joseph Hind, a button-mould-maker, who formerly kept the Black Lyon alehouse in Drury Lane; the frequenting of this wicked house brought me acquainted with Elizabeth Lyon, and with a train of vices, that before I was altogether a stranger to. [9]

But how, exactly, was Bess responsible for bringing Jack to a life of crime?

Firstly, she convinced him that ‘they must cohabit together as man and wife’. [10] She also convinced Sheppard to steal items for her on multiple occasions. At first they were small items, but having introduced Sheppard to other thieves in the Georgian underworld such as Joseph Blueskin Blake, his robberies became greater in number (crime, remember, was ‘addictive and progressive).

FullSizeRender(17)
Jack Sheppard in the Georgian Underworld. From: Anon. Jack Sheppard, or, London in the Last Century (1847) [Scanned Image: Personal Collection].

The pair’s first brush with the law came when Sheppard and Bess stole a watch from a gentlemen as they were passing through Leicester Fields (now Leicester Square). The hue and cry was raised and Sheppard was captured, but Bess got away. Sheppard was consequently detained in St. Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. When Bess went to visit him the next morning, she too was arrested, having been implicated in the robbery the day before.

Remarkably, however, Sheppard and Bess managed to escape. With a file, Sheppard sawed off his and Bess’ fetters, cut an iron bar out of the window, and descended 25 feet down the walls of the prison by fastening a blanket to the remaining iron bars and lowering himself and Bess down. [11]

As soon as he was out, Sheppard turned again to robbery:

Sheppard, not warned by this admonition, returns like a dog to his vomit. [12]

Sheppard managed to escape from gaol a further four times, and once with Bess’ help, when she visited him in gaol and secretly gave him the tools with which to carry out his escape.

Sheppard was hanged on 16 November 1724. It is not known if she attended the execution of her lover, and history is silent in all particulars of Bess’ life after that. There was an Elizabeth Lyons who gave evidence in a trial at the Old Bailey on 16 April 1740, [13] and then there is an Elizabeth Lyons listed as a defendant in a trial at the Old Bailey on 28 April 1742. [14] It is unknown, however, if these two Elizabeth Lyons are the same person as the prostitute with whom Jack Sheppard was enamoured.

Whatever the circumstances of her later life, Bess did enjoy a ‘literary afterlife’. This came in the next century with William Harrison Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard (1839). In this novel, she comes across as quite a mean-spirited character: changeable, indifferent to Jack’s fate. Ainsworth’s novel was plagiarised several times: in Lincoln Fortescue’s Life and Adventures of Jack Sheppard (1845); in the anonymously authored penny serial Jack Sheppard; or, London in the Last Century (1847); and in The Real Life and Times of Jack Sheppard (c.1850). In addition to these novels, she also appears in entries on Jack Sheppard in the numerous reprints of The Newgate Calendar (1825) and Camden Pelham’s The Chronicles of Crime; or, The New Newgate Calendar (1887). All of these publications presented Bess in the same way that Defoe and Ainsworth had done: a treacherous, wicked woman.

An altogether more positive portrayal of Bess came in the little-known movie Where’s Jack? (1969). However, while the movie is certainly an entertaining watch, the producers were liberal with the truth. Bess is not a sex worker in the movie, and far from being a temptress, she actually tries to steer Jack away from a life of crime.

As of yet there is no scholarly biography of Bess’ life, and likely there never will be due to the lack of evidence surrounding her life. This post has merely endeavoured to shed light on the life and actions of an historic sex worker.


References

[1] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 6.
[2] Charles Johnson, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals Ed. Arthur Heyward (London: Routledge, 1927), 182.
[3] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 54.
[4] Andrea McKenzie, Tyburns Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (London: Hambledon, 2007), 59.
[5] Charles Johnson, Lives and Exploits of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1734 repr. London: T. Tegg, 1839), 367.
[6] Perhaps not written by Daniel Defoe. See P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: Hambledon, 1994).
[7] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 5.
[8] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[9] Daniel Defoe, ‘A Narrative of all the Robberies and Escapes, etc. of John Sheppard’ in Defoe on Sheppard and Wild Ed. Richard Holmes (London: Harper, 2004), 51.
[10] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 6.
[11] Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’, 10.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 16 April 1740 (t17400416-37) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?div=t17400416-37 Accessed 12 March 2016].
[14] Anon. The Proceedings of the Old Bailey 28 April 1742 (t17420428-14) [Internet http://www.londonlives.org/browse.jsp?id=t17420428-14 Accessed 12 March 2016].

Daniel Defoe’s “The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood”

The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].
The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood, and his Merry Companions. Written by Capt. Charles Johnson (1800) [attr. Daniel Defoe].

I recently came across an obscure little book entitled The History and Real Adventures of Robin Hood and his Merry Companions. Written by Captain Charles Johnson. To Which are added, some of the most favourite ballads from an old book, entitled Robin Hood’s Garland (1800). The archival entry lists the author as Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), which had me puzzled. I knew Captain Charles Johnson was a pseudonym for a writer whose real identity is now lost to us, but I never thought that he and Defoe were one and the same person.

Captain Charles Johnson wrote many of the criminal biographies I have written about on this website numerous times before. His major works are A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724), A History of the Most Highwaymen, Street Robbers, Pirates, &c. (1734), and Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735). Robin Hood features in his history of the highwaymen, and receives a bad reputation. He is of ‘a licentious and wicked inclination’, and, in true eighteenth-century style, only turns to crime because he followed not his trade (just as Hogarth’s Idle ‘Prentice), and associates himself with several robbers and outlaws. Much of the text is directly plagiarised from an earlier compendium of criminal lives by Captain Alexander Smith entitled A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats, published in three volumes between 1714 and 1719.

But was Johnson really Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym? Defoe’s novels do seem to have centred upon criminals; Captain Singleton (1720) is based on the life of the pirate Henry Avery, and Moll Flanders (1722) is the story of a prostitute. Yet it would be difficult to attribute Johnson’s works to Defoe. For one thing, even while Defoe lived, he acknowledged that some of the works which were attributed to him were not actually his:

And this is to have every Libel, every Pamphlet, be it ever so foolish, so malicious, so unmannerly, or so dangerous, be laid at my Door, and be call’d publickly by my Name. It has been in vain for me to struggle with this Injury; It has been in vain for me to protest, to declare solemnly, nay, if I would have sworn that I had no hand in such a Book or Paper, never saw it, never read it, and the like, it was the same thing.
My Name has been hackney’d about the Street by the hawkers, and about the Coffee-Houses by the Politicians, at such a rate, as no Patience could bear. One Man will swear to the Style; another to this or that Expression; another to the Way of Printing; and all so positive, that it is to no purpose to oppose it.

Evidently, the literary attributions suited Defoe, as well as the hawkers, who probably thought they could make more money out of people if the name of a famous author such as Defoe was attached to the piece of low literary hack work which they were selling.

Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).
Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731).

It was in 1934 that an American scholar J. R. Moore announced that Captain Charles Johnson was actually Daniel Defoe writing under a pseudonym. He had no documentary evidence to make such a claim, and instead pointed to the style and subject matter. His main line of reasoning was that the frequent moralism throughout Johnson’s works is similar to the didacticism in Defoe’s novels. Thus Moore was, as Defoe himself put it ‘swearing to the style, or this or that expression’. Moore went further, and compiled a checklist of over 500 works that had been attributed to Daniel Defoe. It is a checklist that is still quite influential to this day, including works such as The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), The Life of Jonathan Wild (1725), and The True and Genuine Account…of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). These are works which I have used repeatedly in my own research, and in the latest edited edition of them by Richard Holmes entitled Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (2002), the credit for these works is clearly given to Defoe.

It seems, however, that I need to go back to some of my old essays, my undergraduate dissertation, and my MA dissertation, and de-attribute these works from Defoe. During peer review for an article on Robin Hood in criminal biography I recently wrote, it was suggested that I take a look at P. N. Furbank and W. R. Owens book Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (1987). On the subject of Johnson’s A General History of the Pyrates, Furbank and Owens say this:

Moore announced his belief that Defoe had a considerable hand in this work, described on its title page as ‘by Captain Charles Johnson’, at an MLA meeting in 1932; and by 1939, when he published Defoe in the Pillory and Other Studies, he was asserting that the General History was substantially Defoe’s work throughout and that it combined much authentic information with passages of historical fiction and ‘unrestrained romance’. His case was based entirely on internal evidence, and in particular ‘parallels’ with Defoe’s known works.

Furbank and Owens dismiss Moore’s belief that Johnson was in fact Defoe, and point out many differences between Johnson’s and Defoe’s works, such as the fact that the account of the life of the pirate Henry Avery is very different in style and tone to Defoe’s known history of him. Moreover, Johnson in his works displays clear Jacobite sympathies, and staunchly loyal to the Stuart monarchy. In his A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen praises Capt. James Hind ‘the loyal highwayman’, for robbing ‘the infamous usurper Oliver Cromwell’:

About this time the unfortunate Charles I suffered death for his political principles. Captain Hind conceived an inveterate enmity to all that party who had stained their hands with the sovereign’s blood, and gladly embraced every opportunity to wreak his vengeance upon them. In a short time they met with the usurper Oliver Cromwell.

In view of the fact that Defoe was a supporter of the Hanoverian regime and Robert Walpole, it seems further unlikely that Johnson, who manifests Jacobite beliefs throughout all of his works, is the same person as Daniel Defoe. For example, he wrote a vigorous defence of William III entitled The True-Born Englishman (1701), and also carried out intelligence work for the Whigs, writing numerous pamphlets attacking the Tories, who were predominantly Jacobite supporters.

Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)
Another work that has been attributed to Defoe: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725)

Who Captain Charles Johnson was nobody knows; perhaps we never will know. One thing is certain, however, he was not Daniel Defoe. Whilst there have only been a couple of famous novelists such as Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) and Thomas Love Peacock (1785-1866) associated with the Robin Hood legend, unfortunately, it seems that we cannot add Defoe to the list.


Further Reading:

P. N. Furbank & W. R. Owens, Defoe De-Attributions: A Critique of J. R. Moore’s Checklist (London: The Hambledon Press, 1987).

Robin Hood the Brute: The Outlaw in Eighteenth-Century Criminal Biography

This is a copy of the paper that I presented at the International Association for Robin Hood Studies ‘Outlaws in Context’ Conference, 30 June – 1 July 2015.


Alexander Smith's A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)
Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714)

Abstract. The eighteenth century was the perfect time for Robin Hood stories to circulate, being the golden age of criminal biography and ‘gentlemanly’ highwaymen such as Dick Turpin. Yet apart from Joseph Ritson’s Robin Hood (1795), the outlaw’s appearance in eighteenth-century print culture is under-researched. Robin Hood frequently appeared in the genre of criminal biography. In these works, Robin Hood holds a dubious reputation, his life held up as an example to readers to avoid a life of sin and vice. This paper argues that to fully understand the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, then these hitherto neglected sources deserve critical examination from Robin Hood Studies researchers.


Introduction

The image which most people have of Robin Hood in the eighteenth century is the Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies. He is the noble Earl of Huntingdon. He steals from the rich to feed the poor. But this is not the eighteenth-century Robin Hood of whom I wish to speak. During my BA and MA studies, under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore, I was introduced to one of the most fascinating genres of eighteenth-century literature: the criminal biography. So when I began my Ph.D. project, I decided to explore whether Robin Hood appeared in any of these criminal biographies, my reasoning being that, as the eighteenth century was the golden age of the highwayman, then Robin Hood, who in many respects is the original highwayman, must surely have made an appearance somewhere. And sure enough he did. Whilst some early eighteenth-century authors such as Sir Richard Steele call Robin Hood a ‘British Worthy,’ equal to classical heroes such as Jason, Achilles, Alexander, and Caesar,[1] these criminal biographies depict Robin Hood as a cold-blooded killer, a sinner who turned to crime because he gave into his wicked inclinations.

You are probably wondering why I have called this paper ‘Robin Hood the Brute’. I will explain why by going into some of the theory which underpins this talk and my Ph.D. project as a whole. As far as I have been able to ascertain, no Robin Hood scholars have taken up the study of representations of Robin Hood in eighteenth-century criminal biography. So I have had to turn to the work of Lincoln B. Faller who in Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (1987) studied over 2,000 criminal biographies from this period. Based on readings of these sources, he came up with a typology of thieves:

We may begin by positing three categories of thief: hero, brute, buffoon…practically all of them may be described within this range. [2]

I have found that Robin Hood is no exception to this rule, so at the moment I am arranging my own study of Robin Hood literature from the eighteenth century along these lines. The Robin Hood of the broadside ballads, in which he comes across as a bit of a jokey, carnivalesque type outlaw, falls under the ‘buffoon’ category. The Robin Hood of antiquarian anthologies falls under the ‘hero’ category. And the Robin Hood I am about to introduce you to, in which he is portrayed as cold blooded killer, falls under the ‘brute’ category, and I will make the case that these hitherto neglected pieces of literature are worthy of our consideration as Robin Hood scholars if we are to understand more fully how the legend has developed over time.

The Significance of Criminal Biography in the 18th Century

Now, I realise many of you here are medieval historians and literary critics, so just as Henry Fielding frequently does in Tom Jones (1749), in true eighteenth-century style I would like to briefly digress, in order to explain why criminal biography emerged when it did, and to highlight just how popular it was with contemporaries. In the eighteenth century crime appears to have been the subject upon everybody’s lips. People believed that they were in the midst of a crime wave. One late seventeenth-century commentator exclaimed that ‘even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed.’ [3] The situation was apparently still bad in the mid-eighteenth century, as Fielding wrote in his An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. (1751) that:

The great increase of robbers within these few years, is an evil which to me appears to deserve some attention; and the rather as it seems (tho’ already become so flagrant) not yet to have arrived to that height of which it is capable, and which it is likely to attain […] In fact, I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. [4]

The English Rogue (1665) by William Head
The English Rogue (1665) by William Head – one of many criminal biographies originating in the 17th century.

The legal response to this perceived crime wave was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code, in which over 200 offences became capital felonies. Its concomitant cultural response was the proliferation of criminal biographies. Along with serialised publications such as The Proceedings of the Old Bailey and The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account, there were also many standalone criminal biographies such as Richard Head’s The English Rogue (1665) and H.D.’s The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death (1725). Major novelists of the period also capitalised on this market for criminal biographies. Daniel Defoe authored three of these types of criminal biographies: The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724), A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724), and The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of Jonathan Wild the Great (1725). In fact, some of Defoe’s novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) are often seen as more ‘sophisticated’ criminal biographies. [5] Fielding himself authored another history of Jonathan Wild entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). The point here is that this is not some fringe genre of literature which was read by only a few, but in some ways was the most popular form of entertainment in the eighteenth century, especially the early part of it.

Robin Hood the Brute

The first appearance of Robin Hood in criminal biography comes in Captain Alexander Smith’s A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1719), where he is listed as ‘Robin Hood: A Highwayman and Murderer.’ [6] Robin also makes an appearance in a similar compendium of felons’ lives, Captain Charles Johnson’s Lives and Actions of the Most Noted Highwaymen and Street Robbers (1734). Robin appears also in two more of these; the anonymously-authored The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (1737), and The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (1787). Smith’s Highwaymen is the model for all subsequent editions, and many passages in the later biographies are lifted directly from Smith’s work. Criminal biographies are formulaic, beginning with the birth and parentage of the offender. They then recount the criminal’s descent into vice and a life of crime, or, as Faller would put it, ‘a graduated sequence of steps downward, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’ [7] Then there is the death of the offender, and all of the Robin Hood criminal biographies follow this pattern.

There is disagreement about Robin Hood’s social status amongst these criminal biographies. We are used to seeing Robin Hood portrayed as being the noble Earl of Huntingdon today, but Smith was not convinced:

This bold robber, Robin Hood, was, some write, descended of the noble family of the earls of Huntingdon; but that is only fiction, for his birth was but very obscure, his pedigree ab origine being no higher than poor shepherds, who for some time lived in Nottinghamshire, in which county, at a little village adjacent to the Forest of Sherwood, he was born in the reign of King Henry the Second. [8]

The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood from 1737, on the other hand, does say that Robin was the Earl of Huntingdon, a tradition which has its origins in Anthony Munday’s and Henry Chettle’s two plays The Downfall of Robert, Earle of Huntington (1599), and The Death of Robert, Earle of Huntingdon (1601):

I shall not trouble my reader with a long genealogy of the descent of our famous Earl of Huntingdon, whose father was head ranger in the North of England, [and] his mother [who was] the daughter of the Right honourable Earl of Warwick, [and] his uncle [who] was the Squire of Gamwell Hall. [9]

To be honest, Robin Hood’s social status is fairly immaterial to the reader of criminal biography in the eighteenth century, and indeed the authors themselves were rarely concerned with establishing facts. [10] There was no concept of a ‘criminal class’ in eighteenth-century England, and offenders were not sociologically different to law-abiding people. Instead all men were capable of committing a crime because all men were sinners. [11] You became a criminal if you allowed yourself to succumb to your own sinful inclinations.

Smith tells how Robin Hood was ‘bred up a butcher, but being of a very licentious, wicked inclination, he followed not his trade, but in the reign of King Henry the Second, associated himself with several robbers and outlaws.’ [12] The theme of young men who ‘follow not their trade’ is a recurring motif in eighteenth-century criminal biography, and is often the first step towards a criminal career. In Defoe’s biography of Jack Sheppard, for instance, it is Sheppard’s gradual dislike of honest employment that ‘laid the foundation of his ruin.’ [13] It is a theme that is most apparent, of course, in William Hogarth’s series of prints Industry and Idleness (1747). Reminiscent of Hogarth’s prints, in which the tales of an industrious young apprentice is juxtaposed with that of an idle apprentice, is the 1737 version of Robin Hood’s life. The content of Robin’s life is heavily plagiarised from Smith’s work, but the interesting thing about this work is that it is bound together with The History of Johnny Armstrong of Westmoreland. Unlike Robin, Johnny Armstrong is industrious, and grows rich, and in time ‘there was such a providence upon his industry.’ [14] And this appears to have been a deliberate intention on the part of the author or publisher, for in contemporary ballads of Johnny Armstrong, he is every bit of a marauding freebooter as is Robin Hood. [15] If it was not the intention on the part of the author to present the tales of these two men as tales of industry and idleness, then why amend Johnny Armstrong’s story in such a way?

All of the criminal biographies then recount in prose the tales of late seventeenth- and early eighteenth-century Robin Hood ballads, such as Robin Hood and the Tanner, Robin Hood and the Bishop of Hereford, and The Jolly Pindar of Wakefield. We are told that Robin Hood steals from the rich and gives to the poor, but in the eighteenth century this does not make a thief anything special. It is almost as though people simply rolled their eyes when they heard of thieves doing this. Smith records other highwaymen, such as James Hind, doing this on occasion. [16] In fact, when one highwayman in 1763, Paul Lewis, told the Ordinary of Newgate that he stole from the rich and gave to the poor, the Ordinary sarcastically replied that it was ‘a common excuse for all thieves and robbers.’ [17] Another way that the criminal biographies portray Robin negatively is when he meets the king. In A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode (c.1450), which is one of the earliest Robin Hood ballads, the king travels to Nottingham in disguise, meets Robin, and after a feast and a game of archery, the king reveals himself to Robin:

Robyn behelde our comly kynge,
Wystly in the face,
So dyde syr Richard at the Le,
And kneled downe in that place. [18]

These types of ‘King and Commoner’ tales, as we heard from Mark earlier, are common in folk ballads from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. [19] Now, the criminal biographies begin the tale of the king and commoner in the usual way; the king sets out on a progress to Nottingham, but ‘Robin Hood, hearing thereof, resolved to rob him.’ [20] And instead of the meeting between the King and Robin ending amiably, as we are used to seeing in adaptations of the legend today, Robin just robs him. Smith writes that ‘the King, seeing it was in vain to resist Robin Hood’s power, he [sic] gave him a purse in which was about 100 pieces of gold; but swore when he was got out of his clutches that he would certainly hang him whenever he was taken.’ [21] So obviously we have here a very revised figure from the Robin Hood whom we would recognise today, and I would like to think that this image of Robin, if he existed at all, is probably closer to how he existed than the Robin Hood of, say, Ivanhoe (1819), or late Victorian children’s books.

The Theatre of God's Judgments (1748)
The Theatre of God’s Judgements (1748)

We all had the wonderful opportunity to visit Robin Hood’s grave in Kirklees yesterday, and I am sure, as Robin Hood scholars, we are all familiar with the accounts of how he dies in the Geste and Robin Hood’s Death and Burial; he is old, he goes to his cousin at Kirklees to be bled, but, conspiring with her lover, Sir Roger of Doncaster, who wants him dead, she bleeds him to death:

Syr Roger of Donkestre,
By the pryoresse he lay,
And there they betrayed good Robyn Hode,
Through theyr false playe. [22]

In his dying moments Little John asks that he might burn the place down but Robin, noble to the end, commands him not too, for he never hurt any company that a woman was in. [23] But in the eighteenth century, the situation is represented rather differently:

Robin Hood had continued in his licentious course of life for 20 years, when being very sick, and then struck with some remorse of conscience, he privately withdrew himself to a monastery in Yorkshire, where being let blood by a nun, he bled to death, aged 43 years, and was buried in Kinslay. [24]

Firstly, the nun receives no censure in this account. It seems as though his death is like divine punishment for having lived a ‘licentious course of life’ for 20 years.’ It has to be remembered that, to the reader of Smith’s work, Robin Hood was not a simple highwayman but also a murderer. Murder was a most heinous crime in the eighteenth century, a direct attack on God, for it was essentially defacing and maiming the image of God which he had placed upon the world. [25] It was believed during the century, even by men as “Enlightenment” as Fielding, that God himself directly intervened in the detection and punishment of murder. The author of the 1748 work The Theatre of God’s Judgement declared that ‘the justice of God riseth up, and with his own arme he discovereth and punisheth the murder; yea, rather than the murderer shall go unpunished, senceless creatures and his own heart and tongue rise to give sentence against him.’ [26] As you can see in Smith’s account, Robin’s own heart had risen up against him, when he was ‘struck with some remorse of conscience,’ and it was then, we he sought refuge in a monastery, that he was finally punished for his wicked ways.

An even more surprising account of the death comes in the 1787 version of Robin Hood’s life:

Being worn out with the many desperate battles he engaged himself in, he retired to his cousin’s who then resided at Kirkley-Hall in the County of York, and upon desiring her to let him blood, she did it so effectually that she meant him never to do any more harm, for, after opening a vein, she locked him in a room, where he bled to death; but, just before his departing, he sounded his bugle horn, when Little John, who heard the summons, directly [illegible] to his lord and master, who begged with his last breath that Kirkley Hall and the nunnery adjoining it, might be burned to the ground as revenge for his death – which request we are informed was complied with. [27]

I have included this account here just to show you all the extent to which the writers of criminal biography were prepared to revise the Robin Hood legend in their writings. He was not the ‘good yeman’ of early medieval texts, [28] nor was he the ‘gentle master’ of seventeenth and eighteenth-century plays. [29] He really was a brute.

Frontispiece to The Newgate Calendar (1774) [Source: Wikipedia]
Frontispiece to The Newgate Calendar (1774)
[Source: Wikipedia]

The authors of criminal biographies intended their works to serve as pieces of moral instruction. Readers were supposed to heed the warnings of the life of the criminal to avoid making the same sinful mistakes that had led the felons to the gallows. And these are texts predominantly aimed at the middle classes. Volume three of Smith’s Highwaymen cost half a crown, whilst Johnson’s Highwaymen was published in folio format complete with fine engravings. [30] Perhaps the best indication of the audience for this type of literature can be gained by examining the frontispiece to another famous (multi-volume, and no doubt expensive) criminal biography entitled The Newgate Calendar (1785). In that picture, a well-to-do lady in a finely furnished apartment hands her son a copy of The Newgate Calendar whilst pointing to the gibbet outside the window, in order to ensure that her son heeds the moral lessons in the text. Whether people actually paid attention to the moral lessons of these texts is debatable. In fact, writers such as Hal Gladfelder have argued that the authors themselves were only paying mere ‘lip service’ to conventional morality in their writings, and that really the desire of Smith and others was to capitalise on people’s desire for sensational and violent entertainment. But I think Robin Hood’s case complicates that position somewhat. Why would the authors take Robin Hood, a man whom contemporary writers such as Steele thought was a ‘British Worthy’ and deliberately reconfigure him into a brute? Why do it if their moralism was only an ‘obligatory gesture’? It seems to me that it is more than mere ‘lip service’ if they were willing to do this.

In terms of our understanding of the development of the Robin Hood legend as a whole, I also believe that this complicates the rather clear-cut thesis that currently seems to be the consensus among Robin Hood scholars. Currently we think of the development of the legend in the following way: in the medieval period Robin was a bold robber, an often violent yeoman, then in the seventeenth century he becomes gentrified and that largely is a process that has continued to this day. [31] Robin is now usually portrayed as the noble Earl of Huntingdon, steals from the rich, etc. etc. These sources from the eighteenth century, however, almost make it seem as though the brakes were applied temporarily to the ongoing gentrification of the legend, especially between c.1720 and c.1740, for there is other sources such as the political ballad Robin Hood and the Duke of Lancaster (1727) which portray Robin negatively also.

Conclusion

I am sure we are all aware of what happens to the Robin Hood legend in the second half of the eighteenth century. Robin’s gentrification continues in plays such as Moses Mendez’ Robin Hood: A New Musical Entertainment (1751), and Leonard MacNally’s Robin Hood, or Sherwood Forest (1784). It is in the works of late eighteenth-century antiquaries, however, that Robin receives a new breath of life. In Joseph Ritson’s 1795 work Robin Hood: A Collection of all the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Robin becomes, as the subtitle implies, the ‘celebrated English outlaw.’ Ritson’s text, including his ‘Life of Robin Hood’ and the anthology of ballads which was included in his work, have been studied at length by scholars, and Ritson’s work is said to be one of the most important works in the history of the Robin Hood legend. His work presents ‘a hero who was undeniably gentrified but also memorable, bold, and adventurous.’ [32] But the criminal biographies I have discussed here, I think, were more subtly influential upon the legend than we Robin Hood scholars have hitherto realised. When Ritson was writing the biography of Robin Hood, in his first paragraph, he references Robin’s previous ‘professed biographers.’ In his very first footnote, he cites some of the criminal biographies I have examined here:

“Former biographers”…the first of these respectable personages is the author, or rather compiler, of “The noble birth and gallant atchievements of that remarkable outlaw Robin Hood”…Another piece of biography, from which not much will be expected, is, “The lives and heroick atchievements of the renowned Robin Hood, and James Hind”…This, however, is probably nothing more than an extract from Johnson’s Lives of the Highwaymen. [34]

It almost appears as though Joseph Ritson, arguably the most famous man in the history of the Robin Hood legend, wrote his biography of Robin Hood in response to these criminal biographies. He is admiring of his forebears, referring to them as ‘respectable personages’ but Ritson aims to produce a more detailed and scholarly account than the stories of Robin Hood’s birth that were current during the eighteenth century. So I just want to conclude by saying that Robin Hood, for a significant part of the eighteenth century, and in one of the most popular genres of literature, Robin Hood was not a man to be admired, but was nothing more than a brute; knowing this will add to a more nuanced understanding of the development of the legend as a whole in the post medieval period.


References

[1] Richard Steele, ‘The Tatler, Tuesday 18 October 1709’ The Tatler and the Guardian Complete in One Volume (London: Jones & Co. 1801), pp.178-181 (p.181).
[2] Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.127.
[3] Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.X.
[4] Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals for Remedying this Growing Evil. In Which the Present Reigning Vices are Impartially Exposed; and the Laws that Relate to the Provision for the Poor, and to the Punishment of Felons are Largely and Freely Examined (Dublin: Printed for G. Faulkner, in Essex Street, P. Wilson, R. James, and M. Williamson in Dame-Street, Booksellers, 1751), p.1.
[5] See Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001).
[6] Alexander Smith, A History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Noted Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts, and Cheats [1719] ed. by Arthur Heyward (London: George Routledge & Sons, 1933), p.408.
[7] Faller, Turned to Account, p.127.
[8] Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
[9] Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood (London: Henry Woodgate, 1737), p.1.
[10] Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative, p.84.
[11] Faller, Turned to Account, p.54.
[12] Smith, Highwaymen, p.408.
[13] Daniel Defoe, ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’ [1724] ed. by Richard Holmes Defoe on Sheppard and Wild (London: Harper Perennial, 2004), pp.1-44 (p.6).
[14] Anon. The Whole Life and Merry Exploits of Bold Robin Hood, p.60.
[15] George Barnett Smith, ‘Introduction: Johnnie Armstrong’ ed. by George Banrett Smith Illustrated British Ballads: Old and New (London: Cassell & Company Ltd. 1894), p.330.
[16] Smith, Highwaymen, p.137.
[17] Stephen Roe, The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account of the Behaviour, Confession, and Dying Words of Three Malefactors…Who Were Executed at Tyburn on Wednesday May 4th 1763 (London, 1763), p.35
[18] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.73.
[19] Mark Truesdale, ‘The “King and Commoner” and “Robin Hood” Genres: þe best archer of ilkon, / I durst mete hym with a stone’ International Association for Robin Hood Studies, 30 June – 3 July 2015.
[20] Smith, Highwaymen, p.411.
[21] Smith, Highwaymen, pp.411-412.
[22] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.80.
[23] Anon. ‘Robin Hood’s Death and Burial,’ ed. by Joseph Ritson, Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. II (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.186.
[24] Smith, Highwaymen, p.412.
[25] Faller, Turned to Account, p.73.
[26] Cited in Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
[27] Anon. The Remarkable History of Robin Hood and Little John (Knaresborough: Broadbell, 1787), p.16.
[28] Anon. ‘A Lytell Geste of Robyn Hode,’ p.2.
[29] Francis Waldron, The Sad Shepherd; or, a Tale of Robin Hood, a Fragment, Written by Ben Jonson, with a Continuation, Notes, and an Appendix (London: J. Nichols, 1783), p.12.
[30] Faller, Turned to Account, p.74.
[31] See Stephen Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1994).
[32] Knight, Robin Hood: A Mythic Biography, p.96.
[33] Joseph Ritson, ‘The Life of Robin Hood’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.iii.
[34] Joseph Ritson, ‘Notes and Illustrations’ ed. by Joseph Ritson Robin Hood: A Collection of All the Ancient Poems, Songs, and Ballads, Now Extant, Relative to that Celebrated English Outlaw, Vol. I (London: T. Egerton, 1795), p.xiv.

The Novel and 18th-Century Criminal Biography

Title Page and Frontispiece to the First Edition of Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719)
Title Page and Frontispiece to the First Edition of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719)

The expiration of the Licensing Act in 1695, which had required the pre-publication censorship of all printed matter, led to an explosion of published works during the 18th century; books, periodicals, and pamphlets poured forth from the press in great abundance. One of the most enduring genres which emerged during this perod, however, was the novel.

The first English novel is generally assumed to be Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719). It had its roots in the romance genre which began on the continent with titles such as Don Quixote (1605, 1615), which usually took as their heroes members of the nobility acting within fantastical settings. Yet novels, in contrast, took for their subject real life, and usually purported to be the ‘life’ or ‘history’ of a real person, hence the full title of Defoe’s work, The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe (1719). Their purpose was to provide entertainment and moral instruction to aspirant members of polite society, as Henry Fielding wrote in the preface to his novel, Joseph Andrews (1742):

Delight is mixed with Instruction…the Reader is almost as much improved as entertained.

Additionally, the novel also had roots in late 17th- and18th-century criminal biography. Criminal biographies such as Alexander Smith’s A History of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1719), Charles Johnson’s Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals (1735), and many other individual titles detailing the life of a condemned felon, sought to mix entertainment with moral instruction by presenting readers with highly fictionalised lives of criminals, detailing their birth, life, and death, and making a moral example of them.

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.
The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums (1722) by Daniel Defoe.

It was the readers of this type of fiction that the first novelist, Defoe, marketed his early works towards, by providing them with more sophisticated criminal narratives, as in his novel, Moll Flanders (1722). The full title of the novel is quite revealing:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu’d Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv’d Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

Defoe himself also authored three ‘proper’ criminal biographies:

  1. The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard (1724)
  2. A Narrative of all the Robberies, Escapes, &c. of John Sheppard (1724)
  3. The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725).

Defoe would continue to use the conventions of criminal biography in later novels, such as (and I quote the title in full to emphasise its “criminal” connections):

The History and Remarkable Life of the truly Honourable Col. Jacque, commonly call’d Col. Jack, who was Born a Gentleman, put ‘Prentice to a Pick−Pocket, was Six and Twenty Years a Thief, and then Kidnapp’d to Virginia, Came back a Merchant; was Five times married to Four Whores; went into the Wars, behav’d bravely, got Preferment, was made Colonel of a Regiment, came over, and fled with the Chevalier, is still abroad compleating a Life of Wonders, and resolves to dye a General (1722).

Later authors such as Henry Fielding would also utilise the conventions of criminal biography in their works, as in Fielding’s novel, The Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743).

These types of novels were popular with the reading public because, as we have seen, they told stories of ‘real life’ in contrast to the aristocratic romances of an earlier generation.

Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)
Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740)

But why did novels manage to build on, and eventually dominate, the market for criminal and rogue lives? John Bender says that:

The explanation lies in the parallel between the novel’s understanding of character as something susceptible to education and change and the analogous assumption that the individual can be reformed, an assumption that underlay the 18th-century penal system. It is certainly true that prisons and penitentiaries are recurrent motifs in early novels.

In addition, Lennard J. Davis suggests that the novel further satisfied the public’s desire for novelty and entertainment, desires which had been met before by other narrative traditions. This sentiment is echoed by Lincoln B. Faller in Turned to Account (1987), who says that:

The most valuable way to relate criminal biography to the novel…is not in terms of its inherent forms or concerns, but rather in terms of the “occasion” it made for reading and writing of extended narratives about…”problematic” lives. Defoe is of course its most obvious beneficiary. Criminal biography not only provided him with an audience trained up to have certain tastes and expectations, it may possibly have endowed him, too, with that other grand requisite of writers, a sense of mission.

The ‘sense of mission’ was the moral purpose of the novel, as Defoe exclaims at the end of Colonel Jack:

I recommend it to all that read this story, when they find their lives come up in any degree to any similitude of cases, they will enquire by me, and ask themselves, is it not time to repent?

The “problematic lives,” the protagonists of early English novels, were characters such as socially-climbing servants (Pamela), illegitimate children (Tom Jones), and fortune-hunting adventurers (Robinson Crusoe), prostitutes (Moll Flanders), and pirates (as in Colonel Jack). It was these types of “problematic” characters which readers first read in criminal biography, and in the early-to-mid eighteenth century could view also within the more sophisticated genre of the novel.

There was one difference between the criminal and/or socially deviant protagonists of novels, however, which is that they were rarely punished. Moll Flanders makes a new life for herself in America. Robinson Crusoe makes money by gaining riches in South America. Pamela, the “socially disruptive” servant girl of Richardson’s novel, ends up marrying her master, Mr. B.

These themes would have struck a chord with the middle classes, who constituted the primary audience for both criminal biography and novels, for these new novels depicted people getting on and advancing in life, as John Richetti says that:

Novels represent[ed] individuals from the middling ranks or classes of society… [and] attempts to acquire status (or wealth and power) through isolated and individual virtue and action rather than by inheritance.

Self-improvement was seen as a trait peculiar to the middle classes, hence in Robinson Crusoe’s diary of his life on the island, even though he has never picked up any carpenters’ tools in his life, he writes that ‘I began to apply myself to make such necessary things as I found I most wanted, particularly a chair and a table.’

Thus, as Hal Gladfelder says, novels, ‘produced an ideologically resonant and commercially proven model of open-ended narrative construction, staging the conflict between the transgressive individual and a normative community.’ In other words, novels drew upon an existing literary market in which the lives of the, often socially marginal people, negotiate their lives in settings that readers would have recognised. There was, therefore, two genres that contributed to the development of the English novel: romance and criminal biography.

The Rise and Fall of Highwaymen in Print

Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819].  HOLLIS ID:  005949713   [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375
‘The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson: who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery’ [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819].
HOLLIS ID:
005949713
[Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

In 1751 the novelist and Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (1707-1754) published An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers. ‘The great Increase of Robberies within these few years,’ he wrote, was ‘an Evil which…appears to deserve some attention.’ Crime did receive much attention from eighteenth-century contemporaries such as Fielding. This is because England, especially London, was seen as being in the midst of a crime wave throughout the period by both the public and politicians. Despite the antagonism between the two political parties, the Whigs and the Tories, Paul Langford says that ‘the one common view to which all parties could subscribe was that crime was increasing.’ One response by the authorities to this perceived rising tide of criminality was the gradual introduction of a bloody law code. Over the course of the eighteenth century, the number of capital felonies on the statute books increased from fifty to two hundred and twenty. Despite the perceived increase of crime, however, to many Englishmen in the early-eighteenth century the idea of having a uniformed police service was anathema. To contemporaries the idea of the state patrolling its citizens was tyrannical. This post briefly explores the extent to which contemporary representations of criminals over the course of the ‘long eighteenth century’ (c.1689 – c.1837), particularly of highwaymen, reflected changing attitudes towards crime and criminality.

The eighteenth century witnessed an explosion of print culture due to the lapse of the Licensing Act in 1695, which ended government censorship of printed matter. Alongside polite periodicals such as The Spectator, there was a thriving literature trade in chapbooks, ballads, and biographies featuring contemporary criminals. Regularly published works concerning the lives of the criminals such as The Ordinary of Newgate’s Account would contain the last dying speeches of criminals condemned to the gallows. Also available was The Proceedings of the Old Bailey which supposedly contained ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the trials at the Old Bailey Courthouse in London. Stage plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1729) by John Gay (1685-1732) featured criminals as their heroes. Criminal biographies and novels such as Moll Flanders (1722) by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), told the stories of criminals through ‘a graduated series of steps downwards, away from the social norm toward ever greater sin.’ There was, therefore, no shortage of genres within eighteenth-century print culture in which eighteenth-century people could see criminals represented.

the cherished notion of liberty accounts for the popularity that portrayals of highwaymen enjoyed. This was the case in The Beggar’s Opera. In it, the principal character, highwayman Captain MacHeath, is a gallant gentleman on horseback. His spirit of manly independence is encapsulated when he sings, ‘My Heart was free, It rov’d like the Bee.’ Contemporary notions of ‘the “independent man,” Matthew McCormack says, emphasised ‘the basic libertarianism of the freeborn Englishman who refused to be pushed around.’ The highwayman was popular with the mass of people because his life represented a life unrestrained by the hard yet unrewarding work which many people of the plebeian class experienced during this period, and as Lucy Moore adds, ‘a downtrodden scullery maid watching [a highwayman]…pass by in his wagon on the way to Tyburn might feel that someone, at least, had escaped the hardship of the lifestyle they once shared.’ Indeed, for many of the lower orders, the only alternative to a life of hardship was a life of crime Many highwaymen even represented themselves in the press and at their trials as eighteenth-century Robin Hoods, claiming moral justifications for their crimes such as robbing the rich and giving to the poor. The concept of ‘social crime’ goes some way to explaining popular support for the highwayman among the lower classes. Perhaps they were perceived by the common people as a challenge to the status quo, at a time when there was a perception that the law itself was unjust; the vices of rich went unpunished whilst the poorer classes felt the full weight of the law, a point illustrated in The Beggar’s Opera when Captain MacHeath sings this air:

Since Laws were made for ev’ry degree,
To curb vice in others, as well as me,
I wonder we han’t better company
Upon Tyburn tree!
But gold from law can take out the sting;
And if rich men like us were to swing,
‘Twou’d thin the land, such numbers to string
Upon Tyburn Tree

In this song here is an implicit acknowledgement that the law, especially laws concerned with protecting property, were unequal, and this is  a theme which runs throughout Gay’s opera. In another scene, for instance, one highwayman asks another of his accomplices, ‘Why are the laws levell’d at us? Are we more dishonest than the rest of mankind?’ In fact, it has been argued by both historians and literary critics alike that The Beggar’s Opera was a satirical stab at the then-serving Prime Minister, Robert Walpole (1676-1745). He was seen by many contemporaries as a robber himself, governing the country as a ‘robinocracy’ and hence historians such as Douglas Hay argue that the law in the eighteenth century developed into an instrument of power for the propertied classes.

Another factor which perhaps explains the high regard that highwaymen enjoyed in the early part of the century was the fact that they robbed the rich mainly (though they did not always redistribute money to the poor), and they reportedly treated their victims with courtesy and respect, which earned them a reputation for politeness and civility. However, it is doubtful whether highwaymen always lived up to their gallant reputation. For example, in Captain Alexander Smith’s 1714 work, The History of the Lives of the most noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, Housebreakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, he recounts the story of the robber known as the Golden Farmer. Upon encountering a Lady in a coach who refused to hand over any possessions, the highwayman called her a ‘whinging Whore…[and a] hollow B—ch’ – certainly not polite behaviour. Nevertheless, highwaymen were treated a special breed of criminal in the early-eighteenth century. They were represented as courageous, courteous, and in some instances having a moral justification for their crime.

Jack Sheppard (Source: Wikipedia)
Jack Sheppard (Source: Wikipedia)

By the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries, however, the tide of public opinion seems to have turned against the figure of the highwayman. This is because the state grew increasingly stronger in this later period. Indeed, it is arguably only at a time such as the early part of the century, when the hold of government, law, and order was weak that the figure of the highwayman or outlaw could flourish. Middle-class reformers by the late-eighteenth century had begun to convince many people of the need for a standardised system of law enforcement and prison reform. Such reforms included a move away from the mere prosecution of crime to the prevention of crime through increased policing activity; from mere punishment through physical pain and death sentences towards long-term institutional management. Besides, it was argued by contemporaries at the time that the system of state terror through a bloody law code was ineffectual at stopping crime, with many pardons given throughout the course of the century for crimes which warranted capital punishment. Moreover, increasingly crime began to be reported in newspapers, and the victim became the central figure in these newspapers’ often brief accounts and representations of crime. In contrast to criminal biographies, newspapers omitted lengthy explanations and justifications of why criminals had turned to a life of crime. This left many readers with the feeling that crime was often savage and opportunistic. For example, in 1798 The Times newspaper carried this very brief entry regarding one attack by a highwayman:

The Post-Boy, carrying the Mail from Bromley to Sevenoaks last night, was stopped about 2 miles from Farnborough, between the hours of 10 and 11 o’clock, by a single highwayman, who presented a horse-pistol and demanded the Mail, which the boy gave him. He offered the robber half a guinea, but he declined taking it (The Times, October 3rd, 1798, p.1).

Furthermore, Elizabeth Foyster says that newspapers were often broadly supportive of new policing and legal reforms to the extent that by the 1790s highwaymen appeared to, according to Robert Shoemaker, have ‘lost their former magnanimity.’ Lincoln B. Faller argues further that during this period the highwayman went through three gradations; from hero, to brute, to buffoon. A depiction of highwaymen as brutes is found in an 1813 work entitled The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. The kind-hearted Doctor Syntax sets off on a tour of England during the summer season. Along the way he has an encounter with highwaymen:

Three ruffians issued from a bush…While they all threat the Doctor’s brains,
Poor Syntax, trembling with a fright, Resists not such superior might,
But yields him to their savage pleasure, And gives his purse with all its treasure.
Fearing, however, the Doctor’s view, Might be to follow and pursue;
The cunning robbers wisely counted, That he, of course, should be dismounted.

The highwaymen robbed the old Doctor of both his money and his horse. The criminals are here represented as ‘cunning robbers’ and ‘ruffians’ indulging ‘savage pleasures’. They are certainly not the gallant polite gentlemen of an earlier era; they are self-serving and a contrast to earlier stereotypes. As the accompanying print pictured below by Thomas Rowlandson (1756-1827) illustrates, the robbers are not even on horseback. As such they are scarcely distinguishable from the hated footpads. Robert Shoemaker says that footpads, or common street robbers, were reviled throughout the century as being of the lowest order of criminals. As support for policing and legal reforms grew, therefore, so the popularity of criminals such as highwaymen began to wane.

Thomas Rowlandson (1813) Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.  Scanned image from: Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg
Thomas Rowlandson (1813) Doctor Syntax Stopt by Highwaymen.
Scanned image from: Combe, W. (1813). The Tour of Doctor Syntax in Search of the Picturesque. London: W. Tegg

Alongside the growing support of policing and legal reforms in the latter half of the eighteenth century was a rise in the notion of respectability among the middle classes. In the early part of the century literature such as the Proceedings and the Ordinary’s Account were described as something which ‘gentlemen’ read. This was because much of the crime-focused literature in that early period served a moral and instructive purpose for its readers. Readers were supposed to learn lessons from the life of the criminal, and supposedly they would avoid making the same mistakes that had led the condemned to the gallows. As readers were supposedly identifying with the condemned, there was in this literature often a sympathetic portrayal of criminals. This was the case with the infamous thief Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). In a biography reputedly written by Daniel Defoe (c.1660-1731), Sheppard is written, as so many criminals were, not as innately evil but, as John Brewer says, ‘at worst a person with a tragic fatal flaw.’ It was his weakness for women and a fatal encounter with a prostitute which sealed Jack’s fate and led him into a life of vice and crime. As his biography records:

The lad proved an early proficient…had a ready and ingenious hand, and soon became master of his business…But, alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of his apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one [Edgworth Bess]…who lived a wicked and debauched life…Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

Similarly, Defoe used the conventions of criminal biography in his novel Moll Flanders. In that novel the character, Moll, recounts ‘the vicious part of her life’ so that readers could ‘make good uses of it.’ Indeed, it was not solely in literature that the middle classes felt that they could identify and sympathise with the lives of criminals. As Lucy Moore states, people of all classes attended public executions, and Jack Sheppard found his procession to the gallows strewn with well-wishers offering their support.

Yet even by mid-century the lives of criminals were ceasing to be of interest to the middle classes. Fielding’s novel Jonathan Wild (1743) was an embellished account of Wild’s life, self-styled ‘Thief-Taker General of Great Britain’. Thief-takers were individuals hired by the local parish to recover stolen goods, forming, in effect, a quasi-entrepreneurial police force. As such, the people who held the posts were often corrupt. The real-life Jonathan Wild (1682-1725), arguably Britain’s first master-criminal, developed a complex system of training thieves to steal, receiving the stolen goods, then offering the items back to their owners for a reward. So it was that Fielding portrayed Wild as ‘the most pernicious…the most contemptible of all the Works of Creation.’ Some middle-class readers by this point, it seems, no longer wished to identify with the actions of criminals. Besides, as the novel emerged as the dominant genre of literature around the middle of the century with the publication of Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded (1740), there were more respectable representations from middle-class life from which readers could glean moral instruction. Most novels depicted the middle classes practising their virtues and manners in settings recognisable to them. Reflective of this retreat from criminality by the middle classes is the way that public executions were moved. For most of the eighteenth century the public executions held at Tyburn in the West End of London attracted large crowds. Yet by 1783 the executions had moved away from the West End to the front of Newgate gaol in order to spare the sensibilities of West End inhabitants. Thus as the middle classes began to think of themselves as increasingly respectable in manners and morals, so criminals began to be portrayed in a less positive light.

Thus it is evident that literary representations of eighteenth-century highwaymen reflected changing attitudes to crime and criminality. At the beginning of the century, a distrust of any form of policing contributed to the glamorisation of figures such as the highwayman. At the end of the century, as the state grew stronger and reform was in the air, support and admiration of highwaymen in literature declined. Complementary to this was a rise in the notion of respectability among the middle classes. Why would a respectable and virtuous middle-class reader want to draw moral lessons from the life of a criminal? They could, after all, find examples of virtue in literary representations of their own class in novels. So it was that, by the time of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), criminals were painted as sinister and devious creatures. As he said in his preface to Oliver Twist (1838), unlike The Beggar’s Opera where ‘the thieves are represented as leading a life that is rather to be envied than otherwise’ he aimed to show crime and criminality ‘in all their deformity.’ Consequently, in successive pieces of crime fiction, Lucy Moore says that gradually the dominant figure became, not the criminal, but the man pursuing him.’


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  • Hay, D. (1975). ‘Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law’. In Hay, Linebaugh & Winslow eds. (2011). Albion’s Fatal Tree. London: Verso Books.
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Jonathan Wild – London’s First Mob Boss

This blog post is adapted from an essay I submitted whilst I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Beckett University. The module tutor and course leader was Dr. Kelly Hignett and I was also completing a thesis at this time on Victorian crime under the supervision of Dr. Heather Shore.

This essay uses the the theoretical concepts in criminology relating to organised crime to analyse the reign of one of London’s first mob bosses. (n.b. being adapted from an essay, this post is a bit more formal and very “essay-like” in tone).


A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
A ticket of admittance to the hanging of Mr. Jonathan Wild at Tyburn in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

Organised crime is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that it has existed further back in history than is generally assumed (Galeotti, 2009, p.1). London in the early-eighteenth century was a period in which Thief Takers, house-breakers and highwaymen flourished. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) built one of Britain’s first organised crime networks. An examination of the way that he operated indicates that organised crime did indeed exist in early-eighteenth century London, and that it is far from being a modern phenomenon.

Defining Organised Crime

Organised crime has proven to be difficult to define. There is no single definition upon which policy-makers and academics agree. This is because ‘this “thing”, this phenomenon known as organised crime, cannot be defined by crimes alone…Any definition, must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.64). Many crimes are organised, in that they require a degree of organisation to be carried out, but not all crimes count as ‘organised crime’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.76). Galeotti defines the term as, ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy to gain power and profit for their private gain through illegal activities’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6). Thus for a criminal gang to be classed as an organised crime network there has to be a structure or hierarchy within which its members, acting under instructions, engage in illegal acts for the sake of profit.

Alexander Smith’s The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highwaymen (1714). [Source: pierre-marteau.com]

Criminal Narratives in the Eighteenth Century

Just as people today receive their understanding of organised crime through the media and films such as The Godfather (1972) it was no different in the early-eighteenth century. Indeed ‘crime has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public’ (Cawelti, 1975, p.326). Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the lives and trials of condemned criminals (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). In addition, there was a thriving trade in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions (HLSL, 2013). Novels and criminal biographies such as Smith’s The History of the Most Noted Highway-Men, House-Breakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) presented embellished accounts of the lives of criminals. Often their lives are presented as one in which, through a life of sin and vice, they eventually ended up at the gallows (Faller, 1987, p.126). The readership for this literature came primarily from ‘men and women of small property’ (Langford, 1989, p.157). By depicting the story of how criminals eventually ended at Tyburn by becoming involved in crime, the stories served a didactic purpose. By heeding the lessons in the biographies, readers could supposedly avoid the same fate (McKeon, 1987, p.98). Regarding Jonathan Wild himself there are several sources. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) likely penned one pamphlet entitled The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Probably the most famous account of Wild’s life comes from the mid-eighteenth century novel The Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Despite the fact that many such accounts were often embellished, they nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into the ways in which eighteenth-century criminals, in particular Wild himself, operated.

Why Organised Crime Flourished.

In what type of a society, then, does organised crime emerge and flourish? English society was very unequal in the eighteenth century. Most of the working population lived below the breadline, and the top 1.2 per cent of the population controlled 14 per cent of the wealth of the nation (Porter, 1982, pp.14-15). For the most part, ‘the poor were regarded as a class apart; to be ignored except when their hardships made them boisterous’ (Williams, 1960, p.129). Additionally, the laws were often seen as weighted in favour of the rich against the poor. The law, made by those at the top of society, ‘allowed the rulers of England to make the courts a selective instrument of class justice, yet simultaneously to proclaim the law’s incorruptible impartiality and absolute determinacy’ (Hay, 1975, p.48). In The Beggar’s Opera there is a scene in which a group of highwaymen are gathered in a tavern. One highwayman asks of the other, ‘Why are the Laws levell’d at us? are we more dishonest than the rest of Mankind?’ (Gay, 1728, p.25). Moreover, London was not a pleasant place in the early-eighteenth century. In the literature of the time, the recurrent motifs of London were often ‘squalor, pestilence, ordure, [and] poverty’ (Rogers, 1972, p.3). Pickard states that, ‘the average poor family lived in one furnished room, paying a weekly rent of perhaps 2s, less for a room in the cellar…the house itself might be old…or it might be new, run up out of nothing in back alleys’ (Pickard, 2000, p.64). In this squalid environment, with its ever growing alleyways and rookeries, there was virtually no organised system of law enforcement. In fact, London did not have a professional, paid police force until 1829 with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act. Organised crime usually emerges ‘out of the vacuum that is created by the absence of state [law] enforcement’ (Skaperdas, 2001, p.173). That is to say, that the state is either unwilling or unable to enforce its own laws. Yet eighteenth-century contemporaries appeared quite contented with this state of affairs. Jealous as they were of their hard won liberties since the Glorious Revolution 1689, they were resistant to the idea of having a uniformed and professional police service. It seemed tyrannical, and more suited to despotic foreign states whose monarchs were absolutists (Porter, 1982, p.119). One of the most serious crimes during this period was the theft of property, as private property was deemed to be sacrosanct (Hoppit, 2000, p.480). By 1751 robbery and theft were deemed to have reached such hellish proportions that Henry Fielding felt compelled to write a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. in which he said that:

The great Increase of Robbers within these few years…[will make] the Streets of this Town, and the Roads leading to it…impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti (Fielding, 1751, p.1).

Thus to Fielding the increasing numbers of various criminal gangs operating in and around London was an issue which he felt deserved action.

Henry Fielding (Stifts- och landsbiblioteket i Skara) Tags: portrtt frfattare henryfielding storbritannien
Henry Fielding, Esq. (1707-1754)

Before Fielding established London’s first law enforcement agency in 1749 called the Bow Street Runners, the prosecution of crime was left to the victim. The victim paid the court to bring a prosecution against an offender. Part-time and unpaid parish constables usually arrested criminals if they caught them ‘red-handed’, or as the result of their capture through the ‘hue-and-cry’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.1). One result of this haphazard system of crime prevention was that many victims bypassed the expensive judicial system by going to see their local Thief Taker. An interview would be held with the victim of the crime, ascertaining what items were stolen. For a fee thief takers would then arrange to miraculously recover the said stolen items (Hoppit, 2000, p.486). Thief Takers were individuals who appear to have occupied a hazy position on the borders of both the ‘upper-world’ and the ‘underworld’. As Moore says, usually they were:

Receivers of stolen goods, or fences, whose knowledge of the criminal world provided them with unique access to criminals…by the 1710s thief taking had become a complex trade involving blackmail, informing, bribery, framing and organisation of theft (Moore, 1997, p.60).

Despite their often obviously corrupt ways of operating, however, it should be noted that these individuals did play an important part in early-modern law enforcement, for without them ‘too much crime would go unpunished’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.3). Hence the inadequate system of law enforcement in the early-eighteenth century gave figures such as Thief Takers a degree of legitimacy.

Jonathan Wild: Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland

Jonathan Wild occupied a simultaneous position as both Thief Taker and underworld crime lord. He was born in Wolverhampton to honest and hard-working parents. He had a wife and bore a son, but unable to make it in his chosen trade as a buckle maker, he abandoned his wife and child and went to London. In London he fell upon hard times and found himself in the Wood Street Compter for debt (Defoe[?], 1725, pp.77-79). It was here that he first became acquainted with the criminal underworld. After he was released from the Compter, he set up an establishment in the St. Giles area of London, and it quickly became a favourite haunt of thieves, prostitutes, and highwaymen. The St. Giles residence was the first time that Wild tried his fortunes as a receiver of stolen goods. He was originally in the employ of another prominent Thief Taker, Charles Hitchin (c.1675-1727). However, Wild gradually moved to oust Hitchin from the business altogether, and achieved this partly by penning a tract exposing Hitchin’s homosexuality (Moore, 1997, p.85). Hitchin was subsequently disgraced, and Wild proclaimed himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain’. He thus became both thief taker (in his legitimate line of work) and thief maker (as the head of an organised crime network) (Moore, 1997, p.84).

Wild would have his various gangs of thieves and highwaymen bring their stolen goods into one of his several warehouses. Victims of crime, records Defoe, would then go to Wild with a description of what was “lost” and offer a reward for the items to be recovered (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). An article would then be published in the newspaper directing the “finder” (one of Wild’s gang) of the lost article to report to Jonathan Wild and return the items. This practice of using newspaper advertisements would obscure the fact that Wild was directing all events. The advertisements usually ran in a similar manner to this one:

Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked’ (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2).

Everyone would be content with the outcome. The victim recovered their valuables, and bypassed an expensive prosecution (should the thief even have been caught), the criminal received a fee for returning the items, and Wild received a reward from an all-too-grateful victim. Wild made himself indispensable to his criminal subordinates, for ‘[thieves] could not subsist but by the bounty of the governor [Wild]’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). His influence over criminals was so extensive that he found it necessary to divide ‘the town and country into so many districts, and appoint[ing] gangs for each’ (Warrant of Detainder, 1725, p.261). Yet legally Wild remained guiltless. Defoe records that he ‘received nothing, delivered nothing, nor could anything be fastened to him’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). He became popular with the general public. Defoe berated his readers for being blindly taken in by Wild’s schemes:

How infatuate were the people of this nation all this while! Did they consider, that at the very time that they treated this person with such a confidence, as if he had been appointed to the trade, he had, perhaps, the very goods in his keeping, waiting the advertisement for the reward, and that, perhaps, they had been stolen with that very intention? (Defoe[?], 1725, p.96).

Wild’s position as both Thief Taker and thief maker, therefore, required collaboration with many figures in the criminal underworld such as house-breakers and highwaymen. The Beggar’s Opera was based upon the story of Wild’s criminal network (Brewer, 2013, p.345). The character Peachum, a fence, has a register of the gang listing the various talents and contributions of the criminals in his employ. Crook Finger’d Jack, for example, brought into Peachum’s warehouse ‘five Gold Watches, and Seven Silver ones’ (Gay, 1728, p.7). However, Slippery Sam was to be given up to the authorities by Peachum because he wanted to start his own criminal organisation (Ibid). This was how Wild worked. Periodically, to divert any suspicion from himself, and to keep himself popular with the authorities, Wild would abandon some of his criminals ‘[to] the mercy of the government’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.106). This happened to several of Wild’s gang, especially if the reward money for the recovery of the stolen goods was considerable. In 1716 a young gentleman named Knap and his mother were robbed in Gray’s-Inn-Gardens. The mother went to Wild and gave them a description of the robbers. From this information, ‘Wild immediately judged the gang to be composed of William White, Thomas Thurland, John Chapman…Timothy Dun and Isaac Rag’ (Anon. 1774, p.89). For the sake of reward money, these members of Wild’s own gang were ‘soon after executed at Tyburn’ (Anon. 1774, p.92). Jonathan Wild was thus akin to a modern-day godfather, directing and controlling various gangs of thieves in his employ, and giving them up to the authorities once they had served their usefulness.

Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar
Late Victorian Edition of The Newgate Calendar [Scanned Image]

Moreover, Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217). Some thieves and highwaymen during this period did try to present themselves as having noble intentions. Linebaugh points to the case of one highwayman, Thomas Easter, who when he was robbing a gentleman in 1722 exclaimed, ‘I rob the Rich to give to the Poor’ (Linebaugh, 1991, p.187). It is true that many criminals during this period were popular with the public, especially the poor. Hobsbawm in the 1960s advanced the theory of social banditry. Social bandits, he said, ‘are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.17). As a left-wing, Marxist historian, Hobsbawm was probably all-too eager to sympathise with any figure even slightly anti-establishment. The truth is, however, that for every gentlemanly Claude DuVall or Dick Turpin, there were enough highwaymen who were also nasty brutes. Fielding had a slightly more realistic idea of how highwaymen targeted rich and poor people. His novel Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts a scene where the penniless Joseph is set upon and robbed by a gang of highwaymen, whom he terms ‘ruffians’ (Fielding, 1742, p.46). Fielding probably had a more realistic concept of the ways in which criminal gangs operated from the time that he spent serving as Magistrate of Westminster. Indeed, it is in all likelihood the case that early-modern criminals such as highwaymen and bandits, ‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’ (Blok, 2000, p.16). Nevertheless, highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and house-breakers such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) continued to be popular figures throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

Perhaps these criminals were popular in the press the same way that mobsters are in films today. Movies such as Goodfellas glorify and glamorise organised crime. For example, in Goodfellas, the narrating character Henry Hill starts off his story with the line; ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ (Scorsese, 1990). As a child the character in that film admired the rich and flashy lifestyle of the mafia gangs that controlled his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly in the eighteenth century, ‘crime had about it an air (however illusory) of glamour, and brought with it the hope (however short-term) of liberty’ (Moore, 2001, xi). Thus despite the fact that these members of organised criminal gangs tried to present themselves as having noble intentions, their sole motivation was their own private gain.

Ray Liotta in "Goodfellas"
Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas”

Along with their apparently noble motives for robbing people, criminals in the eighteenth century allegedly behaved politely towards their victims. Their code of honour appears to have been polite gentlemanliness. Politeness in this period was a public code of conduct which emphasised good manners (Langford, 1989, p.1). Wild aspired to ‘live like a gentleman’ (H.D., 1725, p.203). Langford states that ‘the English criminal was credited with a certain sense of generosity and chivalry…Defoe described it as an “English way of Robbing generously, as they called it, without Murthering or Wounding”’ (Langford, 2000, p.p.145). This code of conduct was not restricted solely to Wild’s gang. Spraggs points to the case of other highwaymen later in the century. James Maclaine, the archetypal gentlemanly highwayman, once wrote a letter of apology to Horace Walpole after his pistol accidentally misfired when he robbed Walpole’s coach (Spraggs, 2001, p.185). As Captain MacHeath the highwaymen tells his fellow robbers in The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Act with Conduct and Discretion, A Pistol is your last resort’ (Gay, 1728, p.27). Similarly, the mafia today also are supposed to be men of honour and respect (Cottino, 2000, p.116). Nevertheless, lurking behind this gentlemanly façade was the threat of violence. The use of or the willingness to use violence is a characteristic of many organised criminal groups (Wright, 2006, p.12). Despite Wild’s pretensions to gentility, for example, he was still at heart a brutish man. This was evident when he fell into dispute with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner. Wild said that he, ‘would “mark her for a bitch”, and instantly drawing his sword struck at her, and cut off one of her ears’ (Anon., 1774, p.80). Additionally, despite the prevailing stereotype of highwaymen as polite gentlemen, Smith in 1714 recorded the case of a gang of highwaymen who mercilessly killed every male traveller in a stage coach (Smith, 1714, pp.3-4). Thus members of London’s eighteenth-century criminal underworld appear to have been more than willing to use violence against their victims.

Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon's "Last Dying Speech"
Woodcut from a Broadside recounting a felon’s “Last Dying Speech”

Furthermore, another characteristic of any organised crime groups is that, despite the death of their leader, the group still continues to exist. Organised crime is said to be ‘a continuing enterprise’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6 emphasis added). Wild was finally caught out by the authorities in February 1725 for attempting to help one of his gang members to escape from gaol (Moore, 1997, p.239). One by one, as the charges against him mounted, many criminals formerly in his employ turned evidence against him. He was finally executed on 24th May 1725. There is no conclusive evidence that Wild ever had a successor. However, Wild himself, in a pamphlet he allegedly authored entitled Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor (1725) thought that someone would succeed him. This pamphlet laid out instructions for whoever would take over. An eighteenth-century organised crime lord should form ‘a proper connection with all the villains of the town…but if any overzealous officer of justice should happen to detect them, give them up to the law’ (Wild[?], 1725, p.264). Thief taking certainly existed after Wild met his end. Indeed, there is evidence that some thief takers were still recovering “lost” goods for victims of crime in the 1730s through ‘means not always clear and occasionally suspect’ (Beattie, 1986, p.56). If anyone did directly succeed Wild, perhaps he was simply more discreet. In any case, there is no doubt that during this period crime was perceived by the public and the government as having increased (Langford, 1989, p.155). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, even if no one directly took over Wild’s business – though this is what he expected – different thief takers were still operating in the same ways as Wild.

Conclusion

In conclusion, it is clear that organised crime existed in early-eighteenth century London. Jonathan Wild constructed a network around him of thieves, footpads, and highwaymen. He controlled and directed their activities. There were no lofty motives behind his actions. He was not, despite Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry and social crime, striking back against the state. Indeed, when Wild was carted off, the crowd ‘treated [Wild] with remarkable severity…execrating him as the most consummate villain that had ever disgraced human nature’ (Anon., 1774, p.110). Profit was his driving force. Wild grew rich from the proceeds of crime. Moreover, his network, or one very similar to it, likely existed after his death. After all, robbers would have had to dispose of their stolen good somewhere. Nevertheless, Wild was able to flourish because of the society in which he lived. Many people lived on the breadline. The laws were perceived as unfairly weighted against the poor. Additionally, there was a lack of adequate law enforcement, and the judicial system made the victim of crime pay out of their own pocket to prosecute an offender who had wronged them, assuming the thief was ever caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many people turned to thief takers to recover their stolen property, with no questions asked. Ultimately, therefore, organised crime is far from being a modern phenomenon.


Primary Sources

  • Anon. (1774). ‘Jonathan Wild’. In Birkett, N. ed. (1951). The Newgate Calendar. London: Folio Society
  • Daily Courant (1715) ‘Notices’. November 22nd pp.1-2
  • Defoe, D.[?] (1724). ‘The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper
  • Defoe, D.[?] (1725). ‘The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild’. In Holmes, R. ed. (2004). Defoe on Sheppard and Wild. London: Harper
  • Fielding, H. (1751). An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. Dublin: G. Faulkner
  • Fielding, H. (1742). ‘Joseph Andrews’. Joseph Andrews & Shamela (1998). London: Everyman
  • Gay, J. (1728). ‘The Beggar’s Opera’. The Beggar’s Opera & Polly (2013). Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • H.D. (1725). ‘The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death’. In Rawson, C. ed. (2003). Jonathan Wild. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Smith, A. (1714). The History of the Lives of the Most Noted Highway-men, Foot-Pads, House-Breakers, Shop-Lifts, and Cheats, of both Sexes, for above Fifty Years Past. London: J. Morphew
  • Warrant of Detainder (1725). In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin
  • Wild, J.[?] (1725). ‘Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor’. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin

Secondary Sources

  • Beattie, J. M. (1986). Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800. Oxford: Oxford University Press
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Visual Media Sources

  • Goodfellas (2005) Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA, Warner Bros. [DVD]