Greatness vs. Goodness in Henry Fielding’s “Jonathan Wild” (1743)

Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]
Ticket to the Hanging of Jonathan Wild in 1725 [Source Wikipedia]

I have previously written on this blog about London’s first mob boss, Jonathan Wild (1682-1725). He was the Thief Taker General of Britain and Ireland. In the days before the establishment of a police force in England, thief takers were men who were hired by the victims of robberies to effect the return of their stolen goods. In time, he became the master of nearly all the criminals in London.

He was the subject of numerous criminal biographies, including one written by the novelist, Daniel Defoe (1660-1731).

One of the most lengthy treatments of his life, however, was written by the novelist, Henry Fielding, entitled The History of the Life of Mr. Jonathan Wild the Great (1743). It is similar to the many criminal biographies of the period, but it is also different in many ways, for this was a satire (which will be explained more fully below).

At the outset, Fielding explains himself to the reader, telling them why he has decided to call this quite reprehensible man ‘the Great’. All the great men of history, he says, are in effect bad people:

Greatness consists of bringing all manner of mischief on mankind, and Goodness in removing it…In the histories of Alexander and Caesar, we are frequently, and indeed impertinently, reminded of their benevolence and generosity, of their clemency and kindness. When the former had with fire and sword overrun a vast empire, had destroyed the lives of an immense number of innocent wretches, had scattered ruin and desolation like a whirlwind, – we are told, as an example of his clemency, that he did not cut the throat of an old woman, and ravish her daughters, but was content with only undoing them.

This is what “great” men do, whilst “good” men do the opposite.

Henry Fielding (1707-1754)
Henry Fielding (1707-1754)

Fielding beguiles his readers into thinking that Wild is a hero (in the proper sense of the word – a man to be admired, respected), etc. And Fielding proceeds to write about his ‘hero’ as though he were some illustrious person, exercising all the qualities of “great” men. For example, when he works behind the scenes to have one of his own friends imprisoned in Newgate, Wild immediately goes to visit his friend in gaol, ‘for he was none of those half-bread fellows who are ashamed to see their friends when they have plundered and betrayed them.’

Wild, the ‘Great Man,’ as all great men do, has nothing but contempt for good men. This is shown by his treatment of an old school friend called Mr. Heartfree. Fielding writes that this Mr. Heartfree:

Had several great weaknesses of mind; being too good-natured, friendly, and generous to a great excess. He had, indeed, little regard for common justice…his life was extremely temperate, his expenses solely being confined to the cheerful entertainment of his friends at home.

Of course we, the reader, secretly want to sympathise with Heartfree, especially when Wild moves things behind the scenes to have him committed to gaol and hanged (he does this a few times in the novel).

Towards the end of the novel, however, Fielding tells the reader that they were silly, all along, to admire such a creature as Wild, when he is finally arrested for being a receiver of stolen goods, and Fielding lists the qualities of this “great” man in great detail, so that his readers too would know when they came across “greatness” in a fellow and avoid them. Wild lays down his maxims for being a great man in the following way:

  1. Never to do more mischief to another than was necessary to the effecting his purpose; for that mischief was too precious a thing to be thrown away.
  2. To know no distinction of men from affection; but to sacrifice all with equal readiness to his interest.
  3. Never to communicate more of an affair to the person who was to execute it.
  4. Not to trust him who hath deceived you, nor who knows that he hath been deceived by you.
  5. To forgive no enemy; but to be cautious and often dilatory in revenge.
  6. To shun poverty and distress, and to ally himself as close as possible to power and riches.
  7. To maintain a constant gravity in his countenance and behaviour, and to affect wisdom on all occasions.
  8. Never to reward any one equal to his merit, but always to insinuate that the reward was above it.
  9. A good name, like money, must be parted with, or at least greatly risked, in order to bring any advantage.

This was not merely an attack on Wild, however, for it was also a critique of politicians, and in particular the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole (1676-1745). Walpole was the first Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Great Britain, and, in Fielding’s view, entrenched his power in the world of courtiers and MPs in the same way that Wild set himself up as the master of London’s low-life and thieves. Walpole was regularly lampooned in the press, and even was equated with Robin Hood on occasion. The constant references to “greatness” and “great man” are a reference to Walpole, who in his role as Prime Minister was often derogatorily called “The Great Man”.

Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild)
Jonathan Wild and Miss Letitia Snap (from the 1799 edition of Jonathan Wild) [Source: http://www.corbould.com/artists/rc/rc_ex.html%5D

To Fielding, there was no difference between the great men in high life and those in low life.

But I think Fielding’s lessons on goodness and greatness have resonance beyond the 18th century. When people think of history, they often do so in terms of a “great man” approach, and they often (I do on occasion) confuse goodness in a man with greatness. They are not the same thing. Napoleon was a great man, but he was not a good man. Fielding says of Caesar similarly that:

When the mighty Caesar, with wonderful greatness of mind, had destroyed the liberties of his country, and with all the means of fraud and force had placed himself at the head of his equals, had corrupted and enslaved the greatest people whom the sun ever saw; we are reminded, as an evidence of his generosity, of his largesses [gifts] to his followers and tools, by whose means he had accomplished his purpose and by whose assistance he was to establish it.

Fielding chose Caesar and Alexander because the Georgians practically idolised the Classical period, but the same could be true of our own day and our veneration of, say, Winston Churchill. The English nation praises him for being a Great Man, but he was not necessarily a Good Man.

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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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
  • Blok, A. (2000). Honour and Violence. London: Polity
  • Brewer, J. (2013). Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture in the Eighteenth Century. London: Routledge
  • Cawelti, J. G.(1975). ‘The New Mythology of Crime’. Boundary 2 3(2) pp.324-357
  • Cottino, A. (2000). ‘Sicilian Cultures of Violence: The interconnections between organized crime and local society’. Crime, Law, and Social Change No.32 pp.103-113
  • Emsley, C., Hitchcock, T. & Shoemaker, R. (2013). ‘The Proceedings – Associated Records’ [Internet] Old Bailey Proceedings Online http://www.oldbaileyonline.org [20/09/2013]
  • Faller, L.B. (1987). Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late-Seventeenth and Early-Eighteenth Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
  • Finckenaur, J.O. (2005). ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime 8(3) pp.63-83
  • Galeotti, M. (2009). ‘Criminal Histories: An introduction’. In Galeotti, M. ed. (2009). Organised Crime in History. London: Routledge
  • Hay, D. (1975). ‘Property, Authority, and the Criminal Law’. Albion’s Fatal Tree. London: Verso
  • Harvard Library School of Law [HLSL] (2013). ‘Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders: Crime Broadsides Collected by the Harvard Law School Library’. [Internet] http://www.broadsides.law.harvard.edu [28/09/2013]
  • Hitchcock, T. & Shoemaker, R. (2006). Tales from the Hanging Court. London: Hodder
  • Hobsbawm, E. (1969). Bandits. London: Penguin
  • Hoppit, J. (2000). A Land of Liberty? England 1689-1727. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Langford, P. (1989). A Polite and Commercial People: England 1727-1783. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Langford, P. (2000). Englishness Identified: Manners and Character 1650-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Linebaugh, P. (1991). The London Hanged: Crime and Civil Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin
  • Moore, L. (1997). The Thieves’ Opera. London: Penguin
  • Moore, L. (2001). ‘Introduction’. In Moore, L. ed. (2001). Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld. London: Penguin
  • McKeon, M. (1987). The Origins of the English Novel 1600-1747. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
  • Pickard, L. (2000). Dr. Johnson’s London: Life in London 1740-1770. London: Phoenix
  • Porter, R. (1982). English Society in the Eighteenth Century. London: Penguin
  • Rogers, P. (1972). Hacks and Dunces: Pope, Swift, and Grub Street. London: Methuen
  • Skaperdas, S. (2001). ‘The political economy of organised crime: providing protection when the state does not’. Economics of Governance (2) pp.173-202
  • Spraggs, G. (2001). Outlaws and Highwaymen: The Cult of the Robber in England from the Middle Ages to the Nineteenth Century. London: Pimlico
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Visual Media Sources

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

“Launched into Eternity”: Public Hangings and Last Dying Speeches in 18th-Century England

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

During the 18th century crime was the talk of the town in England. In 1751, the crime rate had reached such hellish proportions that the Magistrate of Westminster, Henry Fielding (the author of the novel Tom Jones), wrote a tract entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, &c. with Some Proposals to remedy this Growing Evil (the Georgians were fond of long titles). He reported that:

I make no Doubt […] that the Streets of this Town [London], and the Roads leading to it, will shortly be 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.

The eighteenth century was the age of highwayman, when famous criminals such as Claude DuVall, James Hind, Jack Sheppard and Dick Turpin roamed the roads leading to the capital in search of victims to rob.

Typically, a bandit’s career, says Eric Hobsbawm, on the roads lasts about two years before they are finally captured. In the 18th century there was no police force as the public feared that if such a force was introduced, it would become an instrument of state tyranny and oppression. So a proliferation of criminals, whilst unfortunate, was the price that the public were willing to pay to safeguard their civil liberties. In the absence of a police force, the state turned over 200 previously minor misdemeanours into capital felonies.

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]

When highwaymen were captured in London, they were taken to be hanged at Tyburn, the triple tree upon which a number of felons could be executed at once. These hangings were big public spectacles, whereby tickets could be procured to get the best view of the hanging.

Hangings functioned as both divine justice in action and public entertainment. We shouldn’t judge the Georgians for enjoying a good hanging, distasteful as it is to us today. We may think it’s violent, but as argued by the historian John Carter Wood, the concept of “violence” did not emerge until the early nineteenth century. The hanging was thus a piece of theatre.

And like visiting the theatre today, you could also buy a souvenir program from the event, or as contemporaries called it, a “Last Dying Speech”. These were single-sheet publications, often with an image of a hanging that was re-used on several occasions, that told of the birth, parentage, life and crimes of the person who stood upon the scaffold. Usually the account of the life would also include “A Copy of Verses” found by the supposedly contrite criminal in his cell, or a copy of a letter written by the felon to a loved one.

William Harley's 'Last Dying Speech' (Early 1800s)
William Harley’s ‘Last Dying Speech’ (Early 1800s)

These publications were once dismissed by historians as ‘ephemera catering to the vulgar instincts of the vulgar many […] falling below the dignified historian’s line’. However, a study of them can illuminate the different ways that people in the eighteenth century thought about crime and the causes of criminality.

These days, it suits the media and the public at large to believe that crime is committed ‘by other people’ who are not representative of the great part of society. Sometimes crime is spoken of in class and/or ethnic terms; as though it exists only in the sink estates of Britain, peopled by, if you were to believe the Daily Mail, immigrants and those on benefits, whilst the suburbs of the middle classes are relatively free from crime and criminals.

In the eighteenth century, however, anyone could become a criminal. The reason for this was that, as all men were sinners, anyone could potentially become a criminal. This is why broadsides recounting people’s dying speeches set much store, and the narratives contained in all of them followed a similar formula. The sinner usually had a good start in life, as the cases of Jack Sheppard (d. 1724) and Thomas Thomas Hopkinson (d. 1819), testify. Jack Sheppard:

Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)
Jack Sheppard (Thief and House-breaker. Source: executedtoday.com)

A youth both in age and person, though an old man in sin […] received an education sufficient to qualify him for the trade his master designed him, viz., a carpenter […] But alas, unhappy youth! Before he had completed six years of apprenticeship he commenced a fatal acquaintance with one Elizabeth Lyon [a prostitute] […] Now was laid the foundation of his ruin!

In Sheppard’s case, in an echo of the Bible passage at 1 Cor. 15: 33, it was bad associations which spoiled good character. Hopkinson’s case almost 100 years later was similar:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end  […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he first engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder and offences: his mind became so familiarized with guilt, that he scarcely seemed sensible of  its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on ’til he was driven away with his wickedness’

The role of sin and its relation to criminality in the 18th century cannot be overstated. The two were linked together. Hence the reason that some broadsides began the account of the crime with phrases such as ‘[Mr – ], having not the fear of God before his eyes…’. Crime and sin in the eighteenth century, the historian Andrea McKenzie says, was both ‘addictive and progressive’. From petty pilferings at the workplace the sinner would then lead on to bolder offences. There are echoes of this type of thinking, she says, in the UK’s current attitude towards drug use and the law. These people in the Georgian period were not “inherently criminal” (an attitude which we today still retain from the Victorian period regarding certain types of crimes), instead they were, as John Brewer says, people with a tragic fatal flaw.

Thos. Hopkinson - Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery
Thos. Hopkinson – Executed in 1819 for Highway Robbery

Lastly came the account of the criminal’s death, the moment that the condemned person was “launched into eternity”. Even though the State had ordered the execution, it was not the job of the state to publicly carry out the sentence. Various parts of the procession to the gallows were ‘outsourced’ or ‘privatised’ to the Church, gaol keepers (prisons were run as private enterprises in the 18th century). This was the reason that statements such as ‘launched into eternity’ or ‘ceased to live’, which effectively sanitised the death sentence, were used. Instead the punishment was divine retribution for a sin against, not simply the offender’s society, but also God. The hanging, as Vic Gatrell says, mended the tear in the fabric of society which the sinner’s crime had created, and through his/her death, restored the offender to the fraternity of the righteous.

These ‘Last Dying Speeches’ were, admittedly, simple publications written by hack authors seeking to make a fortune out of another man’s misery. They were formulaic, but they do illuminate small aspects of the way that people in the viewed and conceived of the world around them. Crime was not down to a person’s class, or race, as certain right-wing newspapers would have people believe. Instead anyone might become a criminal.


Scanned copies of all the broadsides used in this blog can be accessed from Harvard Library School of Law’s Dying Speeches and Bloody Murders project.

Further reading:

Brewer, J. The Pleasures of the Imagination: English Culture  in the Eighteenth Century (London: Routledge, 1994).

Faller, L. B. Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).

Gatrell, V. A. C. The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People, 1775-1868 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013)

Hobsbawm, E. Bandits (London: Pelican Books, 1969).

McKenzie, A. Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675-1775 (Continuum Books, 2007).

Moore, L. ed. Conmen and Cutpurses: Scenes from the Hogarthian Underworld (London: Penguin, 2001).