Wednesday, 4 May 2016

Tyburn Tree, Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild

Trivia or the Art of Walking the Streets of London: John Gay

Where the Mob gathers, swiftly shoot along,
Nor idly mingle in the noisy Throng.
Lured by the Silver Hilt, amongst the Swarm,
The subtil Artist will thy Side disarm.
Nor is thy Flaxen Wigg with Safety worn;
High on the Shoulder, in the Basket born,
Lurks the sly Boy; whose Hand to Rapine bred,
Plucks off the curling Honours of the Head.
Here dives the skulking Thief, with practis'd Slight,
And unfelt Fingers make thy Pocket light.
Where's now thy Watch, with all its Trinkets, flown?
And thy late Snuff-Box is no more thy own.
Bit lo! his bolder Thefts some Tradesman spies,
Swift from his Prey the scudding Lurcher flies;
Dext'rous he scrapes the Coach, with nimble Bounds,
While ev'ry honest Tongue Stop Thief resounds.

Tyburn Tree England

In dear old 18th century Tyburn Tree England,
So severe was the penal code, that you
‘Might as well be hanged for stealing a sheep as stealing a lamb’:
Why bother to be hanged for petty pilfering?
You might as well do a big job.

It was different for the aristos, however:
They could change the law to make their big jobs legal -
‘The Black Acts’ and enclosure criminalized walking
And privatized public spaces, slavery funded Augustan culture,
Whilst the government dined so well off the fat of the land
That John Gay was forced to satirize them all
In ‘The Beggar’s Opera’, where the prime minister,
Sir Robert Walpole and his gang were no better
Than the most hardened of Newgate’s criminals.
It ran and ran and ran.

Now the classically English take on our island story
Is ‘The Whig View of History’, where everything gets slowly better,
In a gradualist, incremental, organic, non-revolutionary manner:
There is nothing cyclical about the narrative at all,
It is a linear line of beneficence and improvement.
But today, I read Aditya Chakrabortty’s piece:
‘Today’s Britain: where the poor are forced to steal or beg from food banks
MPs who fiddled thousands got off lightly yet they have created a system where the hungry go to jail’ and ‘people who’ve had their benefits sanctioned, stealing televisions or other items sufficiently expensive to guarantee they’re sent down.’
Is this the new Tyburn penal code for the poor?
‘You might as well be warm in prison for stealing a telly rather than cold at home after being fined for stealing food from a shop?’

Tyburn Tree, Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild
Firstly: Jonathan Wild

Henry Fielding formed the Bow Street Runners in 1750,
But a generation before that, Jonathan Wild, self-appointed
Thief-Taker General of Great Britain, ruled the roost:
With no police force, arrests depended on rewards for information
Rather than detection, and such information came from the criminal underworld -
Wild saw and seized his opportunity within this metropolitan shadowland:
He set up thieves, receivers and informers for their jobs,
Restored stolen goods to their owners for a fee,
Handed thieves over to the law and the gallows and Jack Ketch -
In short, double-dealt with magistrates and malefactors alike,
Whilst short changing both for a good - or bad - ten years,
Until he cocked a snook once too often,
And danced his last dance at Tyburn Tree in 1725.

John Gay's character Peachum in The Beggar's Opera
Not only reflected Jonathan Wild,
But the Prime Minister, Robert Walpole, too:
'I cannot indeed wonder that the Talents requisite for a great Statesman are so scarce in the world since so many of those who possess them are every month cut off in the prime of their Age at the Old-Baily ...A Highway-man never picks up an honest man for a companion, but if such a one accidentally falls in his way; if he cannot turn his heart
He like a wise Statesman discards him.'
Peachum's final recitation from his account ledger listed Walpole's nicknames:
'Robin of Bagshot, alias Gorgon, alias Bluff Bob, alias Carbuncle, alias Bob Booty',
And the Beggar states his message from the play: that the lower Sort of People have their Vices in a degree as well as the Rich: And that they are punish'd for them.'
And when the Beggar says 'And', he means 'But'.

Henry Fielding in his reflexive fictional factional Jonathan Wild,
Uses the motif of the 'Great Man' throughout the book,
To draw analogies between the infamous criminal, Wild,
And the notoriously corrupt Prime Minister, Walpole,
Prime Minister for twenty years from 1721 to 1742,
'Screenmaster-General' for the 'Robinocracy' as he was known.

'The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death' by H.D.,
Spoke of how 'by taking some of his own Gang now and then,
Because they had disoblig'd him, and apprehending others because they were not of his Gang, and hanging them ... he was reckoned a very useful Man, and was call'd upon by the Court ... And sometimes, by ingenious Quirks, or by managing the Juries or Evidences, he has brought off some of his Favourites...' And how 'he used to affect an extraordinary Intimacy with certain Justices of Peace; and it is said he sometimes drank with those Gentlemen at Taverns', So 'to be able so many Years to evade the Punishments appointed by the Laws... 'And to live not only in a Toleration, but even in a kind of Credit,
amongst the People he was robbing every Day'.
Fielding concluded his analogy by describing ' Newgate as no other than Human Nature with its mask off' and 'I think we may be excused for suspecting, that the splendid Palaces of the Great are often no other than Newgate with the Mask on. Nor do I know any thing which can raise an honest Man's Indignation higher than that the same Morals should be in one Place attended with all imaginable Misery and Infamy, and in the other, with the highest Luxury and Honour. Let any impartial Man in his Senses be asked, for which of these two Places a Composition of Cruelty, Lust, Avarice, Rapine, Insolence, Hypocrisy, Fraud and Treachery, was best fitted, surely his Answer must be certain and immediate; and yet I am afraid all these Ingredients glossed over with Wealth and a Title, have been treated with the highest Respect and Veneration in the one, while one or two of them have been condemned to the Gallows in the other.'

Now for Jack Sheppard, and a bit of Jonathan Wild

Let’s assume that an 18th century shilling means £15 today:
Well, such a robbery meant the gallows and a ‘hanging fair’ back then,
When Wolverhampton’s Jack Wild spent four years learning his trade
In jail, in London’s Wood Street Compter, from 1708-12,
Dreaming of his ledger books, names marked with a duplicitous double X,
While Jack Sheppard came into the world in Spitalfields in 1702,
Sharing the Spitalfields streets with rioting weavers,
Fast outgrowing his apprenticeship as a carpenter in Covent Garden,
Drinking with Edgeworth Bess, Jack Wild and ‘Blueskin’ Blake in the Black Lion,
Starting to use his lithe, nimble 5’ 4” frame, his artists’ fingers and hands,
His profound intelligence and quick, sharp wits, to steal silver, gold, cash and cloth;
It was 1722, and Jack was twenty years old.

By 1724, Wild was out to get the independent upstart Sheppard,
And Jack was incarcerated in St. Giles’s Roundhouse:
A razor saw him through the ceiling, and bed clothing down the wall;
He sauntered through the crowd, despite his irons –
But a month later, after Bess tried to help him escape from St. Ann’s Roundhouse, Soho,
He and Bess were thrown into the New Prison, Clerkenwell:
Smuggled tools saw off their fetters and cell bars; whilst bed clothes
Led them down the wall – but only into Bridewell House of Correction;
Jack shouldered the buxom Bess up the twenty foot gate and down to freedom.
He was the talk of the town.

Jack returned merrily to his life of crime and started thieving with ‘Blueskin’ Blake
(Who had an equivocal relationship with Wild both in and out of the nick),
Taking to the highways as well as London’s thronged streets,
Until Wild found out Jack’s whereabouts from a drunken Bess,
And Jack ended up in Newgate – he was sentenced to death at his trial;
Jack had been set up by Wild; Blueskin was furious and attacked Wild with a knife,
Later declaring: ‘That he had fully determined to murder him …
to have cut off his head and throw among the rabble’.
In the succeeding commotion, Jack set to work with an old nail,
Picking the lock on his on his handcuffs, climbing up through the chimney,
Picking a succession of locks on the strong doors, descending via his bedclothes,
Waddling in his irons to an old barn by the Tottenham Court Road,
Then disguising himself to discuss, part third person, the now famous Sheppard,
In a tavern in Piccadilly (according to Daniel Defoe):
‘I assured her it was impossible for him to escape out of the kingdom, and that keepers would have him again in a few days. The woman wished a curse on those who would betray him … I stept towards the Hay Market, and mixt with a crowd about two ballad singers; the subject being Sheppard. And I remember the company was very merry about the matter.’
A week later, ‘I … was transformed into a perfect gentleman’,
Carousing with ‘my sweetheart’, travelling ‘in a hackney coach, the windows drawn up’,
Then drinking with his mother, until ‘my senses were quite overcome …
I was altogether incapable of resisting …’ - he was taken back to Newgate,
On All Souls’ Day 1724, cheered by the constant stream of visitors,
Including the great and the good, who paid good money to see him;
But he was resentenced to death, shackled in the condemned cell –
Although he foresightedly managed to weaken a bar at his window.

Newgate was astonishing to the modern conception of a prison,
With our assumptions of uniformity rather than motley – but back then,
Wealth could buy you comfort; penury meant misery;
And visitors – such as Edgeworth Bess – might bring you a disguise,
(If you were Jack) and pull you out from the window, dressed as a woman,
So that you could wander out of Newgate, irons beneath your petticoats,
While London was distracted by St. Bartholomew’s Fair,
To reach the ferry at Blackfriar’s Stairs, to rest up for the night,
Before donning the smock and apron of a butcher, with your mate, William Page,
To spend a few days in the country, then thieving in Fleet Street, and Finchley;
Wild was after him, via Bess, but the keeper of Newgate got to Jack first,
And he was taken back to Newgate, to the redoubt known as ‘The Castle’,
To be chained to the floor in double sets of fetters.

The press was in a frenzy:
Journals, newspapers and broadsheets were all full of the past adventures
And infamous exploits of Jack Sheppard,
As well as the subsequent discovery of a file secreted in a Bible,
Then more files, a chisel and hammer;
This set Jack back, but although now more melancholic and pessimistic,
Jack still managed to liberate himself from his fetters:
‘Twas troublesome to be always in one position’;
Parker’s London News reported that the turnkeys
 ‘searched him from head to foot, but found not so much as a pin, and when they chained him down again … he reached forth his hand, and took up a nail, and with that, and with no other instrument, unlocked himself again  … Nothing so astonishing was ever known! He is now handcuffed, and more effectually chained.’
Jack had only one more trick up his sleeve – or waistcoat – for his journey by cart to Tyburn Tree:
A penknife was secreted in the hope that he might be able to continually chafe, rub and cut the rope
Bound around his wrists and bound for his neck, so that he might leap from that cart
And find refuge in the crowd there to pay their respects;
Alas! The knife was discovered by the Under-Sheriff …
Jack’s two hour procession, with rope and coffin, through crowds
Proffering handshakes and flowers, halted at a tavern for Jack to quaff his last drink,
Until the cart reached its woeful and final destination at Tyburn,
Where Jack brandished a pamphlet of his life detailing his misdemeanours
(Probably authored by Defoe; and publicity probably in exchange for protecting his body,
Either in the hope of resuscitation, or to save his corpse from the surgeons and dissection).
His legs thrashed in the air, his weight was insufficient for a quick death,
Well-wishers pulled at his legs to hasten the breaking of his neck and death,
Until at last Jack Sheppard was still;
A quarter of an hour later, the cart arrived to transport the body:
It was attacked – the crowd feared it was to be taken for hated unchristian anatomisation,
But Jack was eventually laid to rest in St Martin-in-the-Fields,
As the clock chimed mid-night.

And what of the wounded Jack Wild?

He was arrested on February 15th 1725,
Spending his days in luxury, in Newgate,
Insouciantly unbothered by Defoe:
‘I think it unpardonable, that a man should knowingly act against the law … contribute to the increase, as well as safety and maintenance, of pilferers and robbers, from no other principle, than a criminal selfishness … yet … As soon as anything is missing, suspected to be stolen, the first course we steer is to the office of Mr Jonathan Wild … so far from hating our enemy … we proffer him a recompense for his trouble, if he will condescend to let us have our own again … show that we are willing to forgive and forget, we consult … a person that deserves hanging …’,
Similarly unbothered by the parallels the press drew between himself
And the fraudulent Lord Chancellor, Lord Macclesfield, on trial in May,
Unbothered and probably puffed up as the spring and summer of 1725
Saw a constant parallel drawn between Thief-Taker Wild and Robber Walpole;
This continued right until the end of Walpole and his government,
But, for now, Wild was self-assured:
He felt sure his public listing of all the felons he had arrested would save him from the noose -
But, irony of ironies, the 1717 Jonathan Wild Act saw him convicted of a capital offence:
Receiving stolen goods.

His plea for mercy from the dock cut no mustard:
‘My Lord, I hope even in the sad condition in which I stand, I may pretend to some little merit for the service I have done my country … I have brought many … malefactors to just punishment, even at the hazard of my own life … I hope, my Lord, some compassion may be shown …’;
So, that meant King George next:
‘Tis nothing but your Majesty’s wonted goodness and clemency that could encourage me to sue for your royal favour and pardon … most dread and august sovereign, humbly prostrating myself at your royal feet … ‘

He only had laudanum left to try and render himself insensible,
But the derision of the crowd as the cart processed to Tyburn,
The abuse and execrations and constant missiles,
Must have made even Wild realise how hated he was -
He died quickly, in a shroud, after the cart left him dangling,
But there was to be no peace for Wild’s corpse:
Grave robbers saw to that.

Meanwhile, the English law went about its tasks with its usual failure:
Unpaid Justices of the Peace not attending to their duties,
Ditto constables and parish watches – and, in consequence,
Capital crimes increased by nearly 400% in the 18th century
(Deterrence rather than certainty of detection being the norm),
Although the pantomimic symbolism of appeal and the royal pardon
Meant that the number of executions actually declined –
A system of monarchical patronage and aristocratic control,
That enabled a projection of a Hogarthian Merrie England,
Where pauper and prince were equal before the law …
This projection of an illusory equality was also evident with the public pillory,
And even though some eventually lamented the death of Wild,
Asserting that crime was now on the increase,
The Fieldings were turning their minds to a police force for London,
The Bow Street Runners;
The brief reign of the likes of Jack Wild and Jack Sheppard would soon be over,
And Robert Peel’s ‘Peelers’ and ‘Bobbies’ were to be only a century away.

Some of the children have never heard the name of Her Majesty … Wellington, Nelson … St Paul, Moses, Solomon etc.’ but ‘there was a general knowledge … of … Dick Turpin … and more particularly of Jack Shepherd, the robber and prison-breaker.’
The Children’s Employment Commission

They groan’d aloud on London Stone
They groan’d aloud on Tyburn’s Brook
Albion gave his deadly groan,
And all the Atlantic mountains Shook.
(William Blake)

To understand 18th century law,
Its ideology is as important as its actuality:
How it was perceived as well as what it did
(The Free Borne Englishman trope:
‘Equality before the Law for both Rich and Poor’),
And at the top of the propertied triangle,
Sat the judge with his black cap majesty,
And then the good King Georges with the possible largesse of a royal pardon –
For just as the century saw an increase in capital offences
(An increase in trade and ‘portable property’ as well as poverty),
It also saw a decline in hanging ratios:
Hanging was quite palpably not working as a deterrent,
With royal pardons, transportation, and some juries reluctant to convict,
Even though, of course, all juries were made up of men of property,
And often, local acquaintances of the private prosecutor
(There was no police force to prosecute then, of course),
And there the undefended poor would face the arcane rituals of the court,
With its three guiding but often contradictory principles:
Majesty! Justice! Mercy!
Buttressed by Patronage, Paternalism, Deference,
Circumspection and Delicacy, when administering sentence.
(The dance of death between these three meant that about half of those condemned to the gallows were in fact transported or imprisoned.)
‘O yes! O yes! O yes! My Lords, the King’s Justices, strictly charge and command all manner of persons to keep silence while sentence of death is passing on the prisoners at the bar, on pain of imprisonment.’
‘The law is, that thou shalt return from hence, to the Place whence thou camest, and from thence to the Place of Execution, where thou shalt hang by the Neck, till the body be dead! dead! dead! and the Lord have Mercy upon thy Soul.’

And yet, even that august ritual was ridiculed:
‘Welcome to the Hanging Match next Collar Day when the Paddington Fair shall take place. Watch them Dance the Paddington Frisk when our friends shall Go West to Morris and Ride up Holborn Hill to Dangle in the Sheriff’s Picture Frame to finally Cry Cockles.’

Sources used: Douglas Hay Chapter One of Albion’s Fatal Tree: Property, Authority and the Criminal Law and Chapter Two by Peter Linebaugh: The Tyburn Riot against the Surgeons

Sources used:
Jonathan Wild by Henry Fielding (Edited with an introduction by Claude Lawson)
The Beggars Opera and Polly by John Gay (Ed, intro and notes by Hel Gladfelder)
The Thieves Opera by Lucy Moore
Whigs and Hunters by EP Thompson
The London Hanged by P Linebaugh
Albions Fatal Tree by Hay, Linebaugh, Rude, Thompson and Winslow
Songs of Innocence and Experience William Blake
The Life of Jonathan Wild from his Birth to his Death D Defoe
The Road to Tyburn Christopher Hibbert
Trivia or the Art of Walking the Streets of London: John Gay

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