Jonathan Wild (abt 1682 – 24 May 1725) was an eighteenth century English gang leader who worked both sides of the legal system as the “Thief-Taker General” and underworld kingpin. Before England had a police force, thief-takers captured criminals and either handed them over to the authorities or prosecuted them for reward money.
As a thief-taker, Jonathan Wild earned at least £40 in reward money for each criminal captured and prosecuted, much was more than many people earned in a year. The irony is that the rewards Wild earned by bringing crooks to justice helped fund his to rise in power in among London gangs. The crooks he apprehended either belonged to rival gangs or were members of his own gang who betrayed him. In many cases they were people who were not guilty of the crimes for which they were accused.
The front for Wild’s criminal empire was his Office for the Recovery of Lost and Stolen Property where victims of theft would hire him to recoup their stolen possessions for a fee, which happened to be just below the cost of replacing the stole item. But this “legitimate” business was a scam. He would order his gang to take specific items so that the victims would hire him to locate and return the stolen goods. Wild managed to please the thieves by paying for their services, and to please the victims by reuniting them with their property.
Wild’s criminal empire began to crumble in 1724 when he helped to capture, prosecute, and execute a thief and folk hero, Jack Sheppard. Sheppard happened to also be an old employee of Wild’s who decided to go independent. The press coverage of Wild during Sheppard’s capture and trial was so negative that he became widely loathed.
In February of 1725 Wild was arrested for helping one of his gang members escape from jail. But he ended up being tried for stealing merchandise from a local lace vendor (of all things). During the investigation, members of Wild’s gang began cooperate and revealed his criminal activities. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging. Wild’s execution ended up being a public spectacle for which tickets were sold in advance for the best vantage points
After his execution, Jonathan Wild’s body was secretly buried in a church graveyard. But he wasn’t able to rest in peace for very long. In the 18th century, his body was exhumed by body snatchers and sold to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection and his skeleton was turned into an anatomical specimen. Wild’s skeleton remains on public display in the Royal College’s Hunterian Museum. Wild was such notorious criminal figure that he was mentioned in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, as the underworld predecessor of Professor Moriarty.
Linda (2004, November 4). Jonathan Wild – London’s First Organised Crime Lord. BBC. Retrieved on January 9, 2014 from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/dna/place-lancashire/plain/A3176291
Vaver, Anthony. (2010, May 24). Jonathan Wild, Thief-Taker General and Receiver of Stolen Goods. Executed Today. Retrieved on January 9, 2014 from: http://www.executedtoday.com/2010/05/24/1725-jonathan-wild-thief-taker-general-and-receiver-of-stolen-goods/