24 May 1725 – Jonathan Wild
Our next offender was the muse for many a playwright and author after he pillaged his way through the first part of the 18th century. For Jonathan Wild was the first known organised criminal in Britain. But no-one had any clue as to his unacknowleged life, because, by day he was a very respected upholder of the law.
Little did anyone know that he set up gangs of robbers to cover districts all over London and at the same time, in a masterstroke of double bluffing, Wild established himself up as someone who could track down lost property. So, the stolen goods he secretly handled got returned to their rightful owners. But not all items were returned – some were shipped over to Belgium and Holland, and as a sideline, he also set up a lucrative protection racket.
Needless to say, you can’t run a black-market organisation without a few hiccoughs.
Inevitably a few members of his gang got caught and were found guilty in a court. So he’d often troop over to Tyburn to watch them do the jig as a mark of respect to his gang. But maybe this was guilt – after all, in his capacity as a lawman, he’d help bag members of his own team of robbers, even pocketing any rewards or fees along theb way. He was pretty unscrupulous – if a member of the gang lost his edge, then Wild would promptly ditch the person – shop them and then pocket the £40 reward.
Then, they managed to apprehend the most prolific house breaker in Britain. Jack Sheppard, who was a key performer. Nonetheless, even he got caught and lost his life.
Not long after, in 1724 Wild helped round up 100 members of the Southwark contingent, but soon the tables were turned and Wild was hauled in for questioning. He was eventually found guilty and sentenced to be hanged.
Wild tried to commit suicide just hours before his sentence was carried out. But he needn’t have bothered for his execution was successful. Wild was hanged at Tyburn amid an outcry from the people and, to this day, his skeleton is on display at the Royal College of Surgeons.
So, who did Wild inspire? Well he was the subject of Henry Fielding’s book ‘The History of the life of the late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great’, alongside John Gay’s ‘The Beggar’s Opera’ among other things. He even crops up in Conan-Doyle’s ‘The Valley of Fear’ where Professor Moriarty is actually likened to Wild.