Johnathan Wild 1

Jonathan Wild – The Original OG


David Breakspear

“Venienti occurrite morbo”

Meet the misfortune as it comes. (Persius)

Jonathan Wild(e) provokes debate within historical circles as to the year he was born, be it 1682 or 83, and as to the exact history that Wild left behind. Fortunately, for me as a researcher and writer, purveying the history of true crime and organised crime, there is enough confirmed information available in order for me to write something slightly more substantial than: ‘Jonathan Wild, born a long time ago, bit of a geezer who ended up dying at the end of a hangman’s noose.

Join me, as I try to separate the myth from the legend, about a man some historians credit with being the architect of organised crime.

I would actually like to begin with an extract taken from a book written by Henry Fielding in 1734 and titled: ‘The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild, the Great’ , which is a satirical look by Fielding at Wild’s life. Not only do I love the language and the way it is written, but it also provides the perfect introduction to a young Mr. Wild.


johnathan wild 2



One evening, after the Miss Snaps were retired to rest, the count thus addressed himself to young Wild: "You cannot, I apprehend, Mr. Wild, be such a stranger to your own great capacity, as to be surprised when I tell you I have often viewed, with a mixture of astonishment and concern, your shining qualities confined to a sphere where they can never reach the eyes of those who would introduce them properly into the world, and raise you to an eminence where you may blaze out to the admiration of all men. I assure you I am pleased with my captivity, when I reflect I am likely to owe to it an acquaintance, and I hope friendship, with the greatest genius of my age; and, what is still more, when I indulge my vanity with a prospect of drawing from obscurity (pardon the expression) such talents as were, I believe, never before like to have been buried in it: for I make no question but, at my discharge from confinement, which will now soon happen, I shall be able to introduce you into company, where you may reap the advantage of your superior parts.

"I will bring you acquainted, sir, with those who, as they are capable of setting a true value on such qualifications, so they will have it both in their power and inclination to prefer you for them. Such an introduction is the only advantage you want, without which your merit might be your misfortune; for those abilities which would entitle you to honour and profit in a superior station may render you only obnoxious to danger and disgrace in a lower."

Mr. Wild answered, "Sir, I am not insensible of my obligations to you, as well for the over-value you have set on my small abilities, as for the kindness you express in offering to introduce me among my superiors. I must own my father hath often persuaded me to push myself into the company of my betters; but, to say the truth, I have an aukward pride in my nature, which is better pleased with being at the head of the lowest class than at the bottom of the highest. Permit me to say, though the idea may be somewhat coarse, I had rather stand on the summit of a dunghill than at the bottom of a hill in Paradise. I have always thought it signifies little into what rank of life I am thrown, provided I make a great figure therein, and should be as well satisfied with exerting my talents well at the head of a small party or gang, as in the command of a mighty army; for I am far from agreeing with you, that great parts are often lost in a low situation; on the contrary, I am convinced it is impossible they should be lost. I have often persuaded myself that there were not fewer than a thousand in Alexander's troops capable of performing what Alexander himself did.

"But, because such spirits were not elected or destined to an imperial command, are we therefore to imagine they came off without a booty? or that they contented themselves with the share in common with their comrades? Surely, no. In civil life, doubtless, the same genius, the same endowments, have often composed the statesman and the prig, for so we call what the vulgar name a thief. The same parts, the same actions, often promote men to the head of superior societies, which raise them to the head of lower; and where is the essential difference if the one ends on Tower-hill and the other at Tyburn? Hath the block any preference to the gallows, or the ax to the halter, but was given them by the ill-guided judgment of men? You will pardon me, therefore, if I am not so hastily inflamed with the common outside of things, nor join the general opinion in preferring one state to another. A guinea is as valuable in a leathern as in an embroidered purse; and a cod's head is a cod's head still, whether in a pewter or a silver dish."

The count replied as follows: "What you have now said doth not lessen my idea of your capacity, but confirms my opinion of the ill effect of bad and low company. Can any man doubt whether it is better to be a great statesman or a common thief? I have often heard that the devil used to say, where or to whom I know not, that it was better to reign in Hell than to be a valet-de-chambre in Heaven, and perhaps he was in the right; but sure, if he had had the choice of reigning in either, he would have chosen better. The truth therefore is, that by low conversation we contract a greater awe for high things than they deserve. We decline great pursuits not from contempt but despair. The man who prefers the high road to a more reputable way of making his fortune doth it because he imagines the one easier than the other; but you yourself have asserted, and with undoubted truth, that the same abilities qualify you for undertaking, and the same means will bring you to your end in both journeys--as in music it is the same tune, whether you play it in a higher or a lower key.

To instance in some particulars: is it not the same qualification which enables this man to hire himself as a servant, and to get into the confidence and secrets of his master in order to rob him, and that to undertake trusts of the highest nature with a design to break and betray them? Is it less difficult by false tokens to deceive a shopkeeper into the delivery of his goods, which you afterwards run away with, than to impose upon him by outward splendour and the appearance of fortune into a credit by which you gain and he loses twenty times as much? Doth it not require more dexterity in the fingers to draw out a man's purse from his pocket, or to take a lady's watch from her side, without being perceived of any (an excellence in which, without flattery, I am persuaded you have no superior), than to cog a die or to shuffle a pack of cards? Is not as much art, as many excellent qualities, required to make a pimping porter at a common bawdy-house as would enable a man to prostitute his own or his friend's wife or child? Doth it not ask as good a memory, as nimble an invention, as steady a countenance, to forswear yourself in Westminster-hall as would furnish out a complete tool of state, or perhaps a statesman himself? It is needless to particularize every instance; in all we shall find that there is a nearer connexion between high and low life than is generally imagined, and that a highwayman is entitled to more favour with the great than he usually meets with.

If, therefore, as I think I have proved, the same parts which qualify a man for eminence in a low sphere, qualify him likewise for eminence in a higher, sure it can be no doubt in which he would chuse to exert them. Ambition, without which no one can be a great man, will immediately instruct him, in your own phrase, to prefer a hill in Paradise to a dunghill; nay, even fear, a passion the most repugnant to greatness, will shew him how much more safely he may indulge himself in the free and full exertion of his mighty abilities in the higher than in the lower rank; since experience teaches him that there is a crowd oftener in one year at Tyburn than on Tower-hill in a century." Mr. Wild with much solemnity rejoined, "That the same capacity which qualifies a mill-ken, (A housebreaker) a bridle-cull, (A highwayman) or a buttock-and-file, (A shoplifter) to arrive at any degree of eminence in his profession, would likewise raise a man in what the world esteem a more honourable calling, I do not deny; nay, in many of your instances it is evident that more ingenuity, more art, are necessary to the lower than the higher proficients.

If, therefore, you had only contended that every prig might be a statesman if he pleased, I had readily agreed to it; but when you conclude that it is his interest to be so, that ambition would bid him take that alternative, in a word, that a statesman is greater or happier than a prig, I must deny my assent. But, in comparing these two together, we must carefully avoid being misled by the vulgar erroneous estimation of things, for mankind err in disquisitions of this nature as physicians do who in considering the operations of a disease have not a due regard to the age and complexion of the patient. The same degree of heat which is common in this constitution may be a fever in that; in the same manner that which may be riches or honour to me may be poverty or disgrace to another: for all these things are to be estimated by relation to the person who possesses them. A booty of L10 looks as great in the eye of a bridle-cull, and gives as much real happiness to his fancy, as that of as many thousands to the statesman; and doth not the former lay out his acquisitions in whores and fiddles with much greater joy and mirth than the latter in palaces and pictures? What are the flattery, the false compliments of his gang to the statesman, when he himself must condemn his own blunders, and is obliged against his will to give fortune the whole honour of success? What is the pride resulting from such sham applause, compared to the secret satisfaction which a prig enjoys in his mind in reflecting on a well-contrived and well-executed scheme?

Perhaps, indeed, the greater danger is on the prig's side; but then you must remember that the greater honour is so too. When I mention honour, I mean that which is paid them by their gang; for that weak part of the world which is vulgarly called THE WISE see both in a disadvantageous and disgraceful light; and as the prig enjoys (and merits too) the greater degree of honour from his gang, so doth he suffer the less disgrace from the world, who think his misdeeds, as they call them, sufficiently at last punished with a halter, which at once puts an end to his pain and infamy; whereas the other is not only hated in power, but detested and contemned at the scaffold; and future ages vent their malice on his fame, while the other sleeps quiet and forgotten. Besides, let us a little consider the secret quiet of their consciences: how easy is the reflection of having taken a few shillings or pounds from a stranger, without any breach of confidence, or perhaps any great harm to the person who loses it, compared to that of having betrayed a public trust, and ruined the fortunes of thousands, perhaps of a great nation! How much braver is an attack on the highway than at a gaming-table; and how much more innocent the character of a b--dy-house than a c--t pimp!" He was eagerly proceeding, when, casting his eyes on the count, he perceived him to be fast asleep; wherefore, having first picked his pocket of three shillings, then gently jogged him in order to take his leave, and promised to return to him the next morning to breakfast, they separated: the count retired to rest, and master Wild to a night-cellar.

Still in 1708. It wasn’t long before Wild found himself in a lot of debt which he was struggling to keep on top of. He failed! Wild was then thrown into a debtor’s prison located within the walls of the City of London, Wood Street Compter.
wood st compter
Wood Street Compter, 1793

Another choice for those in debt during this period, was to move to an area of London known as ‘The Mint’ . During Wild’s time ‘The Mint’ was an area just west of Borough High Street in Southwark. (To read more on what Southwark was like around this time click here. 'Southwark was the most disreputable quarter of London' ) The area was named ‘The Mint’ because it was where, in approx. 1543, Henry VIII, commissioned a Royal Mint at the, now demolished, mansion house of Suffolk Place, the former home to the Duke’s of Suffolk. 180 Borough High Street now occupies the site of Suffolk Place.

civil parishes of southwark

By Doc77can - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

In 1712, an Act of Parliament that effectively saw some insolvent debtors released, of which Wild was one. Whilst in Wood Street Wild received a privilege known as ‘liberty of the gate’. Prisoner’s with this privilege would be allowed out at nights to assist in the apprehension of thieves. It was through these that Wild met his next wife, a local prostitute/madam, Mary Milliner. After Wild was released, he moved in with Mary to a home in Cock Alley, Cripplegate. A home frequented by yet another famous criminal to have been hung at Tyburn, Thomas Estrick.

Here’s a link to a free E-book containing information on Thomas Estrick and other historical villains:

The New and Complete Newgate Calendar

Wild and his new wife Mary, soon had three very successful shops up and running selling the stolen goods of the many thieves that Mary (and now Wild) had become acquainted with. Wild started to compile a ‘list’ of the thieves that he and his wife worked with. A list that would be to Wild’s financial benefit as and when he saw fit. However, it was also a list that would ultimately add to his own demise, a dozen years later. The shops would not last too long, as another Act of Parliament would have, this time, a negative effect on Wild. The new Act made it a serious crime to be involved in receiving and/or selling stolen goods. It wasn’t long before the resourceful Wild had used this new Act to his advantage. The gang of thieves that worked for, or sold to, Wild, would carry on plying their trade, instead of selling the goods on, he would hide the goods until the crime was announced publicly, Wild would then approach the properties owner, call at their home and say: "I happened to hear that you have lately been robbed, and a friend of mine, an honest broker, having stopped a parcel of goods upon suspicion, I thought I could do no less than give you notice of it, as not knowing but some of them might be yours; if it proves so (as I wish it may), you may have them again, provided that nobody is brought into trouble, and the broker has something in consideration of his care."

Thrilled at having their goods returned, the owner would usually pay without question, but were someone to probe further Wild would follow up with: " Sir," says Jonathan , " I only came to serve you, and if you think otherwise, I must let you know that you are mistaken. I have told you that, some goods being offered to pawn by a suspected person, the broker had the honesty to stop them; and therefore, Sir, if you question me about thieves, I have nothing to say to you but that I can give a good account of myself: my name is Wild, and I live in Cock Alley, by Cripplegate, where you may find me any day in the week; and so, Sir, your humble servant"

Wild would also take advantage of this new Act in other ways. One such way was to pass on the details of thieves from rival gangs to the authorities once the goods had been returned, insisting he had information on the perpetrator responsible. Taking the reward for the capture and lessening his competition at the same time, however, were any of his own gang caught up in the arrests, Wild would then bribe the local Compter Guards at Wood Street or Poultry Compter and get his men released. Wild would soon come to the attention of the authorities.

In late 1713, Wild met a man by the name of Charles Hitchen and had agreed to work with him. Hitchen was employed by the Lord Mayor of London as the ‘City Marshall’, effectively, a local ‘Bobby’. (my choice of word, because ‘Bobby’ wasn’t a term coined until after 1829, named after Sir Robert Peel who established the Metropolitan Police)

Wild, who had given himself the title of ‘Thief-Taker’ became a very rich and powerful man, especially amongst the underworld in London. He would soon be on the move again.

After a heated argument with Mary, he drew his sword and sliced of a part of her ear, marking her out as a prostitute for the rest of her life. In the divorce, Wild agreed to pay Mary a handsome stipend, although now divorced, he put a lot of his fortune down to meeting Mary and would not forget that part she played in his life. Jonathan Wild had now opened a ‘lost property’ business opposite Newgate prison in the ‘Old Bailey’ .

The prison was named Newgate after it was constructed in 1188 on the site of a gate in the original Roman London wall. After hangings stopped at the Tyburn Tree, condemned prisoners would be executed in the lane outside the prison. Between 1783 and 1902 (when Newgate closed) there had been 1,169 executions, of which 1,120 were men and 49 women. Out of the women that were executed, three were burned at the stake for a crime of melting down coins to make fake money, regarded then as treason.

George Shepherd (1784-1862) Title: A West View of Newgate (public domain)

The ‘list’ that Wild had begun compiling when he was with Mary started to prove extremely profitable. When Wild had enough of one of his gang, or they had served their purpose, he would sell them to the gallows for a reward of £40. It wasn’t long before Wild successfully campaigned against the value of the rewards available. Soon he was being paid over £100 - along with his ‘partner-in-crime’, Quilt Arnold - for each thief they passed over to the authorities. Arnold was also a prosecution witness against Jack Shepherd and Joseph Blake.

Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake - who subsequently tried to kill Wild by cutting his throat, after Wild had reneged on a deal that would see Blake sent to the tree rather than be transported to the colonies – and Jack Shepherd . were both apprehended in August 1724 and sent for trial. Although Shepherd was acquitted on two charges, he was, however, found guilty along with Blake and both were sentenced to death. (If you click on the names, the link will take you to the official ‘Old Bailey’ recorded proceedings, click here for other results of the day )

Sketch of Jack Sheppard shortly before his execution in 1724. By James Thornhill - National Portrait Gallery, Public Domain.

In the evening, on the day his warrant of execution arrived, Shepherd escaped his captors, but he wasn’t on the run for long and was captured a few weeks later, whereupon, he was thrown back into Newgate where he was chained and padlocked to the floor, secured in a room known as ‘the castle’. Despite all the added security Shepherd again made good his escape on the 15th October. His young fiery attitude counting against him, as on the 31st October Shepherd was with two female acquaintances in the Cook and Keys public house on Newgate Street, as the day turned to evening Shepherd staggered out into the street and was virtually apprehended straight away. This would be the last time that Shepherd would be thrown back into Newgate. Aged just 23, on the 16 th November 1724, the much-loved Jack Shepherd was hung at the Tyburn Tree.

The criminal fraternity that Wild had so much control over turned on him. On Monday February 15th, 1725 Jonathan Wild, ‘Thief-Taker’ and underworld boss was apprehended for his part in the escape of famous thief and highwayman, Roger Johnson . Whilst being held at Newgate prison, information about Wild’s double life started to be made public.

On the 13th May 1725 (click for Old Bailey Official court proceedings of Wild), at the Old Bailey session house, following a trial, Wild was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to death by hanging. On Monday 24th May 1725, Wild was hung at the Tyburn Tree located on the site where Marble Arch now stands. There is a plaque on the floor at Marble Arch that marks the location of the Tyburn Tree.

Wild was originally buried here at: St Pancras Old Churchyard Pancras, London Borough of Camden, however, his body was sold for dissection and given to the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in 1749.

Image of Wild’s skeleton at the Royal College's Hunterian Museum in Lincoln's Inn Fields. . Accessed 10/04/19.