Defoe on Sheppard and Wild: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild by Daniel Defoe

Defoe on Sheppard and Wild: The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild by Daniel Defoe
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Part of the outstanding biographical series – edited by Richard Holmes – that recovers the great classical tradition of English biography. Every book is a biographical masterpiece, still thrilling to read and vividly alive.In this pioneering series, Richard Holmes, the world’s leading Romantic biographer, sets out to recover the great forgotten tradition of English biographical writing. ‘I have had no time for dusty tomes,’ writes Holmes, ‘I have looked for brevity, intelligence and style. Above all, I have sought out great biographical writers: biographers with passion, biographers who have found a way to the heart and soul of a memorable subject.’Jack Sheppard was an 18th-century Houdini – a handsome young escape artist who broke out of his cell on Newgate’s grim Death Row three times. Jonathan Wild was the infamous Thief-Taker General who helped to recapture him and many other criminals, only to be tried and executed himself for racketeering, among scenes of mayhem at Tyburn.Daniel Defoe, the master of adventure fiction, was fascinated by ‘True Confessions’ and the workings of the criminal personality (including its daring, its stoicism and its humour). He was the first to retell these stories, based on personal interviews in Newgate, which also include a thrilling (sometimes hour by hour) reconstruction of events.

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The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard

A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes &c of John Sheppard

The True And Genuine Account Of The Life And Actions Of The Late Jonathan Wild

Daniel Defoe




On 4 September, 1724, an insignificant small-time thief named John Sheppard was due to be hanged, with several others, at Tyburn gallows (now Marble Arch) in London. His crime was stealing three rolls of fustian cloth, two silver spoons and a silk handkerchief, total worth £50. But on that crisp autumn morning a surprising official announcement appeared in the leading London broadsheets.

Whereas John Sheppard broke out of the Condemned Hold of Newgate (with his Irons on) by cutting off one of the large Iron Spikes over the main Door on Monday 31 August last, about six o’clock of the Evening … And Whereas he is about 23 years of Age and about five Foot four Inches high, very slender, and of a pale Complexion, has lately been very sick, did wear a light Bob Wig, a light coloured Cloth Coat, and white Waistcoat, has an impediment in his Speech and is a Carpenter by Trade … Whoever will discover or apprehend him so that he be brought to Justice shall receive 20 guineas Reward to be paid by the Keeper of Newgate.

From this moment Jack Sheppard became a celebrity. It was not for his crimes, which were commonplace, but for his astonishing escapes from prison. In fact young Sheppard (he was actually twenty-two) had been escaping from prisons all over London that spring and summer of 1724. First from St Giles Roundhouse in April (where he went out through the prison roof, throwing down tiles at his pursuers); next from the New Bridewell Prison, Clerkenwell, in May (where he got out through a barred window with a 25 foot drop beneath, and took his shapely mistress Elizabeth Lyon with him); and then in August from the condemned cell of Newgate Prison itself, where the file for the ‘large Iron Spike’ was provided by the same Elizabeth Lyon, together with the classic disguise of a woman’s dress.


With his recapture by an armed posse on Finchley Common on 10 September, Sheppard’s news value doubled. A new trial had to be arranged, ironically in order to fulfill identification formalities. Was it the same Sheppard? He was transferred to the top security cell in the third floor of the notorious Stone Castle of Newgate, where he was handcuffed and fettered, then padlocked to irons, and finally chained to the floor - a triple measure of security in a room that was also barred and locked.

Unbelievably, Jack escaped from the death cell for a second time (his fourth evasion) on 15 October, 1724, with an fantastic ingenuity and courage that quickly became legendary. Jailors, clairvoyants and journalists vied to explain his escape methods. He remained at liberty for a further fortnight, wearing several disguises, carousing with his mistress, Elizabeth Lyon, but was finally recaptured (while buying everyone drinks) at midnight in a tavern in Clare Market.

Jack was now the most celebrated criminal in England. One journalist wrote: ‘the three great Curiosities in Town at present are the young Lions stuffed in the Tower, the Ostrich on Ludgate Hill, and the famous John Sheppard in Newgate.’ He was visited in his cell by hundreds of sightseers and well-wishers (they paid four shillings a time). The champion bare-knuckle boxer Figg came and proposed a match - a drinking one. The official Court painter Sir James Thornhill made sketches of Jack in chains, which were turned into prints and paintings. King George ordered one for himself. However there was no reprieve, no royal pardon and no further escape. Amidst unparalleled scenes of popular grief and mayhem, Sheppard was executed at Tyburn on 16 November, 1724.

This brief but sensational London news story of autumn 1724, with its strong romantic overtones, also had a much darker background. Each time Sheppard had escaped, he (or his mistress Elizabeth Lyon) had been recaptured by the famous Newgate thief-catcher, Jonathan Wild. Wild was an older, hard-bitten figure who dominated the London underworld from his offices opposite Newgate Prison. He already had a fearful reputation as a law-enforcer, built up over a decade. He was personally responsible for the capture and execution of over 120 criminals since he began his operations in 1714, and had amassed a fortune in reward money. It was said that Wild’s networks of spies, narks, grasses, and bounty-hunters stretched all over London and much of the home counties. He also ran a quite extraordinarily effective organisation for tracking and recovering stolen property. It was said that Wild could recover anything, from a single diamond ring to an entire consignment of Flanders lace, within a week. But it was best not to enquire how he achieved this.

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