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The Need for a New Punishment: Jonathan Wild and the Criminal Underworld

Note: This post is part of a series on Convict Transportation to the American colonies.

Thief-Taker General

Any discussion of the state of England’s criminal underworld in the early 18th century must include Jonathan Wild, the self-described “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland.” Wild had his hand in almost every facet of England’s criminal world and criminal justice system, including convict transportation, as we will later see. He operated an Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property, where owners of lost or stolen items could apply to him for help in recovering their possessions for a fee that fell below their current market value. Using his connections in the criminal underground, Wild aided the public by systematically hunting down thieves, extracting the stolen goods from them, and occasionally prosecuting them.

Wild provided a valuable service for the many victims who lacked the means and time to recover items that were stolen from them. In an age that lacked a professional police force, people who witnessed a crime on the street were legally required to assist the victim in capturing the criminal. As an added incentive for people to police the streets themselves, the government also offered anyone who could capture a thief and provide evidence for convicting him or her a reward of ₤40, far more than what most people in England could earn in a year. Wild benefited from this policy by collecting a reward every time he was able to prosecute a criminal. Amazingly, not only was Wild able to catch and bring to trial both petty and leading criminals of the day, but he was also able to break some of the most notorious gangs in the country. His office essentially served as the de facto “Scotland Yard” of the day.

In 1720, Wild’s reputation with the authorities was so high, the Privy Council turned to him for help in finding solutions to a sharp increase in highway robberies. Wild suggested raising the reward, arguing that ₤100 would serve as a greater incentive for capturing them. The Council agreed and raised the reward from £40 to £140, giving Wild a substantial pay increase for every highway robber he captured and prosecuted.

Wild’s service appeared to be so valuable that questions about how he developed such a close connection with criminal elements and an in-depth knowledge of how they operated simply weren’t asked. As long as Wild was able to recover stolen property and clear the streets of at least one more thief, the people and the government authorities were happy. He enjoyed a solid reputation in the newspapers, which published advertisements that helped him reconnect owners and their property, but the public remained blissfully unaware of the other, more sinister, side of Jonathan Wild.

Wild’s Criminal Underworld

In actuality, the man supposedly responsible for clearing the streets of criminals was the head of a vast criminal empire and a well-oiled criminal machine. Wild’s Lost Property Office turned out to be a clearinghouse for stolen goods that members of his organized gang had themselves acquired. The thieves he apprehended, supposedly for the good of the community, were fall guys; they either belonged to rival gangs, or were members of his own gang who tried to double-cross him, quit his business, or had ceased to be more valuable than the £40 reward given by the government for capturing and convicting a criminal. Wild sent many of these criminals to the gallows by appearing in court to give evidence–real or false–against them. The unofficial head of crime prevention was actually the foremost perpetrator of crime and organizer of criminals in London and throughout Great Britain.

A gallows ticket to view the hanging of Jonathan Wild

Wild had his hand in many forms of crime, including coining, forging, smuggling, and protection rackets for brothels and gambling houses. He purchased a boat in order to trade his stolen goods in Holland and Flanders. Wild understood the profit that could be exacted by organizing and inter-relating various criminal activities under one umbrella operation. His system allowed him to expand the notion of what constituted profitable stolen merchandise: diaries, letters, pocket-books, and even scraps of paper could become valuable objects if their recovery were advertised with the proper hint of blackmail. If a personal item were found or taken near a brothel, Wild would advertise it so as to imply that he knew who owned it and that if the owner did not meet Wild’s price, he would reveal the place where it was found to the owner’s wife or mother.

Wild was a master at manipulating the law in order to keep those working in his criminal empire under his tight control. Public officials had long suspected that Wild’s activities were not above board, but they were reluctant to draw up charges against Wild, not only because he was the most effective crime-stopper in the city, but also because he had bought them off, giving him the means to indict them for accepting bribes if they ever did try to bring him to trial.

Jonathan Wild turned out to be the most notorious criminal of early eighteenth-century England and head of the largest and most complex criminal organization England had seen to date, perhaps even to this very day. Wild transformed the nature of crime by organizing it into an efficient and multi-layered business that brought a large number of London’s criminals and gangs under his direct control. Yet by hiding behind a veil of respectability he maintained the public’s favor and support almost up until his execution on 25 May 1725 in front of a large and enthusiastic crowd. His ability to manipulate both the laws and public opinion for his own criminal purposes exposed the contradictory nature of law and crime in eighteenth-century England. Indeed, after he was executed the number of criminals apprehended and convicted fell sharply.

Resources for this article:

Learn More About Convict Transportation

Learn more about convict transportation to colonial America by reading my book, Bound with an Iron Chain: The Untold Story of How the British Transported 50,000 Convicts to Colonial America.

Amazon.com: Paperback ($16.99) and Kindle ($4.99).

Smashwords: All e-book formats ($4.99).

Most people know that England shipped thousands of convicts to Australia, but few are aware that colonial America was the original destination for Britain’s unwanted criminals. In the 18th century, thousands of British convicts were separated from their families, chained together in the hold of a ship, and carried off to America, sometimes for the theft of a mere handkerchief.

What happened to these convicts once they arrived in America? Did they prosper in an environment of unlimited opportunity, or were they ostracized by the other colonists? Anthony Vaver tells the stories of the petty thieves and professional criminals who were punished by being sent across the ocean to work on plantations. In bringing to life this forgotten chapter in American history, he challenges the way we think about immigration to early America.

The book also includes an appendix with helpful tips for researching individual convicts who were transported to America.

Visit Pickpocket Publishing for more details.

One Comment

  1. J.A. wrote:

    This is fascinating background information for study in areas such as genealogy, wherein some ancestors’ historical details reach a dead end. After reading some of the history of the Natchez Trace in North American settlement, including “outlaw” happenings and their perpetrators, one might conclude a member of the family tree met similar, unfortunate ends.

    Wednesday, January 20, 2010 at 7:05 am | Permalink

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