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Seventeen Twenty-Four by Nigel Roth

If you met Gentleman Jack, on a dark November evening in London, in a dead-end lane, with no one around to come to your aid, you might be worried about being able to escape with your valise, let alone your watch and cane.

But if you heard behind Jack the quickening steps of the Thief-Taker General, you might be instantly buoyed by his imminent arrival, and hopeful that your purse would remain not only intact, but with you.

However, eighteenth century London is full of surprises.

We begin with William III, who has four more days to lie dying in his royal bed, not recovering from falling from his horse, before his sister-in-law Anne Stuart, Princess of Denmark, takes the reins to become Queen Anne of England, and we only have seven days to wait for the first ever British daily newspaper, the Daily Courant, created and edited by Elizabeth Mallet, to report this news to Londoners.

Gentleman Jack, the man about to rob you of your precious groats, was born John ‘Jack’ Sheppard, and who was, you’d be glad to know, more notorious for escaping captivity than for committing crimes, so much so that Daniel Foe (he added a De for a bit of class) ghost-wrote his autobiography, and George Cruickshank drew his wicked countenance.

Shepherd’s brief life of crime and even briefer demise began with buttons, the garment fasteners not my mother’s long-dead cat.

After leaving the workhouse, where he’d been placed to alleviate the constant state of penury his mother found herself in after her husband had died of teeth, Sheppard was apprenticed to a cane-chair maker, then put to work as the wool draper William Kneebone’s shop-boy, and finally began a career as a carpenter, which was the trade his father had excelled at and which, on reflection, might have been the first thought of the workhouse’s careers advice officer, had they had one.

The first five years of his apprenticeship was a dream, with Sheppard becoming quite adept at carpenting, until one evening, after a long day of dovetails, aprons, block-glueing, and loper-inserting, he joined a local man named Joseph Blake, known as Blueskin for his port-wine birthmark, for a pint of stout porter, a bowl of jellied eels, the sudden and intense affections of a prostitute called Edgeworth Bess, and a life of crime.

Or, about six months of crime, to be more accurate.

Blueskin had already made a name for himself by being a highwayman, alongside his comrade James Carrick, and in the London street gang commanded by Robert Wilkinson, and had escaped the gallows on several occasions, mostly by turning King’s evidence against his fellow criminals, like John Levee, Richard Oakey, and Matthew Flood, all of whom were hanged to the inevitable cheers of the morbid crowds.

On being released from another stint in prison in 1724, Blueskin bumped into Sheppard at the infamous Black Lion, and a partnership was born.

Meanwhile, your rescuer in that dark alley, the Thief-Taker general, is actually Jonathan Wild, born twenty years before Gentleman Jack, in Wolverhampton, and a man who fought crime before the police were even thought of, or created, one-hundred-and-twenty-seven years later.

Wild was one of those people who didn’t just walk the line between crime and punishment, he swaggered happily on both sides of it, using his knowledge of the London underworld to create and control, curtail and capture thieves and criminals, to his own end.

An end that would come just as terminally as Sheppard’s, at Tyburn.

Wild became quite a master of the more intellectual side of crime, earning rewards he’d help to set for valuables he had had stolen, bribing, blackmailing, and manipulating high-ranking officials, and generating a good income for consulting with the government about how to eradicate the crime his company of thieves were committing.

But the London crime scene was a small world, and the Black Lion was also the favorite haunt of the Thief-Taker General, and it was because Sheppard had refused Wild’s offer to join his band of malefactors, and allow Wild to fence all of the goods he stole, that Wild took a particular interest in and a dislike to Sheppard.

So, when, in mid-July of that year, Blueskin and Sheppard decided to burgle Sheppard’s former master William Kneebone’s workshop, and tried to offload the goods onto William Field, one of Wild’s many receivers, Wild was the first to know.

In response, Wild arranged for a fellow thief called James ‘Hell-and-fury’ Sykes to challenge Sheppard to a game of skittles at Redgate public house, which Sheppard had an apparently irresistible passion for, and to tip off a constable who arrested Gentleman Jack, and imprisoned him on the top floor of St Giles Roundhouse.

And here’s where Gentleman Jack's reputation really began to be formed, because within three hours he had escaped, breaking through the roof and lowering himself by way of the obligatory connected bedclothes, to the ground, before being absorbed into London’s motley populace and disappearing.

This trick was repeated a month or so later, when Sheppard was imprisoned again, and once more, within hours had escaped New Prison in Clerkenwell, climbing a seven-metre gate in the process, and cementing his indelible infamy, as the escape began to be talked about in parlors and barrooms across the metropolis.

One would have thought that, having been arrested and made it away from prison and a potential date with the Tyburn Tree, Sheppard would've headed for the hills. But he didn’t, he headed for the heath instead, with Blueskin, to try their luck at highway robbery, which they succeeded in achieving, at least enough times to head to Blueskin’s mothers brand shop, east of the Tower of London, to imbibe a thimble or two.

Which, in retrospect, was a mistake, because it was here that the pair were again arrested, this time by Quilt Arnold, a Wild heavy, having been tipped off by a very inebriated Edgeworth Bess, Sheppard's common-law wife.

And off to Newgate Gentleman Jack went again, this time charged with three charges of theft, with the third of those ‘being plainly prov'd’, and was sentenced to death by hanging, for which a death warrant was served on the last day of August that same year, 1724, not that Sheppard paid any attention to it at all.

Because just a few days later, while the guards were being distracted by Edgeworth Bess’s considerable charms, Sheppard managed to remove a bar from the cell, clothe himself in the additional set of clothes his wife had brought with her, and escape yet again, this time in a rather fetching dress and matching hat, just as the executioner was checking his knot and testing his rope, or whatever executioners do in preparation for a good hanging.

By this time, having escaped death, and being both a slight and well-kempt working class lad, being vocally against violence of any kind, and very much in love with Bess, Gentleman Jack Shepherd was the toast - or the stale, slice of doctored bread - of London’s ordinary folk. but it also made him even more of a target for Wild and his personal crusade to see Sheppard brought to justice.

It was only a month before he was caught for a fourth time, this time while hiding out on Finchley Common, just north of London. He was returned to Newgate Prison, placed in the most secure cell they had, chained to the floor, and shackled to boot. And there he remained. For about a month.

Meanwhile, Joseph Blueskin Blake rushed off as fast as he could in the opposite direction, hoping to avoid Wild’s wild posse of determined henchmen, but ran directly into the path of the law, and was brought to Newgate for trial and sentencing. He pleaded to his fellow thief to commute his death sentence to transportation, but Wild refused, enraging Blueskin enough to lunge at Wild and slash his throat, causing a tremendous furore in the prison that lasted all day and night.

It was during that disruption that Sheppard, to the astonishment of everyone, broke his chains, the padlocks on his shackles, and, for good measure, the six iron-barred doors, and escaped again.

It was another month before he was caught again. This time, having maybe learnt their lessons, Sheppard's guards located him right in the centre of the Newgate prison where he could be observed continually, and they weighed him down with three-hundred pounds of iron, where he was gawked at by high-bribing visitors and painted by Sir James Thornhill, who determined Gentleman Jack was as much a subject for his talent as the work he’d done on the inside of the dome of St Paul's Cathedral.

A few weeks later, Joseph Blueskin Blake was hanged at Tyburn, and five days after Blueskin, Gentleman Jack also swung, and Jonathan Wild, his neck injury proving not fatal, lay recuperating from the wound, in his bed.

It may seem that Wild had won this battle, but his own devilish duality was quickly revealed after Sheppard’s demise, and he was himself brought to trial for all sorts of crimes, including theft, and bribery of public officers, and aiding a jailbreak. And, when it seemed that Wild might be found guilty, more of his criminal comrades came forward, to condemn their oft violent and well-heeled leader.

In the face of mounting evidence, Wild was found guilty, and similarly sentenced to death.

Terrified and lost, Wild could neither eat or drink, and quickly became insane, failing at suicide on the morning of his execution, and falling into a heavily-medicated stupor from which he never really recovered. He was taken to Tyburn in a state of oblivion, and hanged long on the rope until he was pronounced dead, to the delight of the thousands who had bought tickets to see the Thief-Taker General depart this life.

Sheppard’s crime spree had lasted just six intense months, in which he’d gone from unknown, to a London hero, to working-class martyr. And, if you met Gentleman Jack, on a dark November evening in London, in a dead-end lane, with no one around to come to your aid, except for the Thief-Taker General, you might do well to remember that not all is as it seems in eighteenth century London.

photo by Null Xtract

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