Organised crime is generally considered to be a modern phenomenon, yet it appears that it has existed further back in history than is generally assumed (Galeotti, 2009, p.1). London in the early-eighteenth century was a period in which Thief Takers, house-breakers and highwaymen flourished. Jonathan Wild (c.1682-1725) built one of Britain’s first organised crime networks. An examination of the way that he operated indicates that organised crime did indeed exist in early-eighteenth century London, and that it is far from being a modern phenomenon.
Organised crime has proven to be difficult to define. There is no single definition upon which policy-makers and academics agree. This is because ‘this “thing”, this phenomenon known as organised crime, cannot be defined by crimes alone…Any definition, must address and account for the elusive modifying term organised’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.64). Many crimes are organised, in that they require a degree of organisation to be carried out, but not all crimes count as ‘organised crime’ (Finckenaur, 2005, p.76). Galeotti defines the term as, ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy to gain power and profit for their private gain through illegal activities’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6). Thus for a criminal gang to be classed as an organised crime network there has to be a structure or hierarchy within which its members, acting under instructions, engage in illegal acts for the sake of profit.
Just as people today receive their understanding of organised crime through the media and films such as The Godfather (1972) it was no different in the early-eighteenth century. Indeed ‘crime has always been a sure-fire topic for the entertainment of the public’ (Cawelti, 1975, p.326). Plays such as The Beggar’s Opera (1728) featured criminals as their heroes. Publications such as The Newgate Calendar supposedly gave contemporary readers ‘a true, fair and perfect narrative’ of the lives and trials of condemned criminals (Emsley, Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2013). In addition, there was a thriving trade in ‘Last Dying Speeches’ of criminals. These single-sheet pages containing short biographies and ballads were often sold at public executions (HLSL, 2013). Novels and criminal biographies such as Smith’s The History of the Most Noted Highway-Men, House-Breakers, Shoplifts, and Cheats (1714) presented embellished accounts of the lives of criminals. Often their lives are presented as one in which, through a life of sin and vice, they eventually ended up at the gallows (Faller, 1987, p.126). The readership for this literature came primarily from ‘men and women of small property’ (Langford, 1989, p.157). By depicting the story of how criminals eventually ended at Tyburn by becoming involved in crime, the stories served a didactic purpose. By heeding the lessons in the biographies, readers could supposedly avoid the same fate (McKeon, 1987, p.98). Regarding Jonathan Wild himself there are several sources. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) likely penned one pamphlet entitled The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (1725). Probably the most famous account of Wild’s life comes from the mid-eighteenth century novel The Life of Jonathan Wild, the Great (1743) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754). Despite the fact that many such accounts were often embellished, they nevertheless offer fascinating glimpses into the ways in which eighteenth-century criminals, in particular Wild himself, operated.
In what type of a society, then, does organised crime emerge and flourish? English society was very unequal in the eighteenth century. Most of the working population lived below the breadline, and the top 1.2 per cent of the population controlled 14 per cent of the wealth of the nation (Porter, 1982, pp.14-15). For the most part, ‘the poor were regarded as a class apart; to be ignored except when their hardships made them boisterous’ (Williams, 1960, p.129). Additionally, the laws were often seen as weighted in favour of the rich against the poor. The law, made by those at the top of society, ‘allowed the rulers of England to make the courts a selective instrument of class justice, yet simultaneously to proclaim the law’s incorruptible impartiality and absolute determinacy’ (Hay, 1975, p.48). In The Beggar’s Opera there is a scene in which a group of highwaymen are gathered in a tavern. One highwayman asks of the other, ‘Why are the Laws levell’d at us? are we more dishonest than the rest of Mankind?’ (Gay, 1728, p.25). Moreover, London was not a pleasant place in the early-eighteenth century. In the literature of the time, the recurrent motifs of London were often ‘squalor, pestilence, ordure, [and] poverty’ (Rogers, 1972, p.3). Pickard states that, ‘the average poor family lived in one furnished room, paying a weekly rent of perhaps 2s, less for a room in the cellar…the house itself might be old…or it might be new, run up out of nothing in back alleys’ (Pickard, 2000, p.64). In this squalid environment, with its ever growing alleyways and rookeries, there was virtually no organised system of law enforcement. In fact, London did not have a professional, paid police force until 1829 with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act. Organised crime usually emerges ‘out of the vacuum that is created by the absence of state [law] enforcement’ (Skaperdas, 2001, p.173). That is to say, that the state is either unwilling or unable to enforce its own laws. Yet eighteenth-century contemporaries appeared quite contented with this state of affairs. Jealous as they were of their hard won liberties since the Glorious Revolution of 1689, they were resistant to the idea of having a uniformed and professional police service. It seemed tyrannical, and more suited to despotic foreign states whose monarchs were absolutists (Porter, 1982, p.119). One of the most serious crimes during this period was the theft of property, as private property was deemed to be sacrosanct (Hoppit, 2000, p.480). By 1751 robbery and theft were deemed to have reached such hellish proportions that Henry Fielding felt compelled to write a pamphlet entitled An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, &c. in which he said that:
The great Increase of Robbers within these few years…[will make] the Streets of this Town, and the Roads leading to it…impassable without the utmost Hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous Gangs of Rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti (Fielding, 1751, p.1).
Thus to Fielding the increasing numbers of various criminal gangs operating in and around London was an issue which he felt deserved action.
Before Fielding established London’s first law enforcement agency in 1749 called the Bow Street Runners, the prosecution of crime was left to the victim. The victim paid the court to bring a prosecution against an offender. Part-time and unpaid parish constables usually arrested criminals if they caught them ‘red-handed’, or as the result of their capture through the ‘hue-and-cry’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.1). One result of this haphazard system of crime prevention was that many victims bypassed the expensive judicial system by going to see their local Thief Taker. An interview would be held with the victim of the crime, ascertaining what items were stolen. For a fee thief takers would then arrange to miraculously recover the said stolen items (Hoppit, 2000, p.486). Thief Takers were individuals who appear to have occupied a hazy position on the borders of both the ‘upper-world’ and the ‘underworld’. As Moore says, usually they were:
Receivers of stolen goods, or fences, whose knowledge of the criminal world provided them with unique access to criminals…by the 1710s thief taking had become a complex trade involving blackmail, informing, bribery, framing and organisation of theft (Moore, 1997, p.60).
Despite their often obviously corrupt ways of operating, however, it should be noted that these individuals did play an important part in early-modern law enforcement, for without them ‘too much crime would go unpunished’ (Hitchcock & Shoemaker, 2006, p.3). Hence the inadequate system of law enforcement in the early-eighteenth century gave figures such as Thief Takers a degree of legitimacy.
Jonathan Wild occupied a simultaneous position as both Thief Taker and underworld crime lord. He was born in Wolverhampton to honest and hard-working parents. He had a wife and bore a son, but unable to make it in his chosen trade as a buckle maker, he abandoned his wife and child and went to London. In London he fell upon hard times and found himself in the Wood Street Compter for debt (Defoe[?], 1725, pp.77-79). It was here that he first became acquainted with the criminal underworld. After he was released from the Compter, he set up an establishment in the St. Giles area of London, and it quickly became a favourite haunt of thieves, prostitutes, and highwaymen. The St. Giles residence was the first time that Wild tried his fortunes as a receiver of stolen goods. He was originally in the employ of another prominent Thief Taker, Charles Hitchin (c.1675-1727). However, Wild gradually moved to oust Hitchin from the business altogether, and achieved this partly by penning a tract exposing Hitchin’s homosexuality (Moore, 1997, p.85). Hitchin was subsequently disgraced, and Wild proclaimed himself ‘Thief Taker General of Great Britain’. He thus became both thief taker (in his legitimate line of work) and thief maker (as the head of an organised crime network) (Moore, 1997, p.84).
Wild would have his various gangs of thieves and highwaymen bring their stolen goods into one of his several warehouses. Victims of crime, records Defoe, would then go to Wild with a description of what was “lost” and offer a reward for the items to be recovered (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). An article would then be published in the newspaper directing the “finder” (one of Wild’s gang) of the lost article to report to Jonathan Wild and return the items. This practice of using newspaper advertisements would obscure the fact that Wild was directing all events. The advertisements usually ran in a similar manner to this one:
Lost on Friday Night last, a Green Vellum Letter-Case…If the Person who hath found this Case and Tickets &c. will bring them to Mr. Jonathan Wild in the Old Bailey…he shall have Two Guineas Reward and no Questions asked’ (Daily Courant, Nov. 22, 1715, p.2).
Everyone would be content with the outcome. The victim recovered their valuables, and bypassed an expensive prosecution (should the thief even have been caught), the criminal received a fee for returning the items, and Wild received a reward from an all-too-grateful victim. Wild made himself indispensable to his criminal subordinates, for ‘[thieves] could not subsist but by the bounty of the governor [Wild]’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). His influence over criminals was so extensive that he found it necessary to divide ‘the town and country into so many districts, and appoint[ing] gangs for each’ (Warrant of Detainer, 1725, p.261). Yet legally Wild remained guiltless. Defoe records that he ‘received nothing, delivered nothing, nor could anything be fastened to him’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.97). He became popular with the general public. Defoe berated his readers for being blindly taken in by Wild’s schemes:
How infatuate were the people of this nation all this while! Did they consider, that at the very time that they treated this person with such a confidence, as if he had been appointed to the trade, he had, perhaps, the very goods in his keeping, waiting the advertisement for the reward, and that, perhaps, they had been stolen with that very intention? (Defoe[?], 1725, p.96).
Wild’s position as both Thief Taker and thief maker, therefore, required collaboration with many figures in the criminal underworld such as house-breakers and highwaymen. The Beggar’s Opera was based upon the story of Wild’s criminal network (Brewer, 2013, p.345). The character Peachum, a fence, has a register of the gang listing the various talents and contributions of the criminals in his employ. Crook Finger’d Jack, for example, brought into Peachum’s warehouse ‘five Gold Watches, and Seven Silver ones’ (Gay, 1728, p.7). However, Slippery Sam was to be given up to the authorities by Peachum because he wanted to start his own criminal organisation (Ibid). This was how Wild worked. Periodically, to divert any suspicion from himself, and to keep himself popular with the authorities, Wild would abandon some of his criminals ‘[to] the mercy of the government’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.106). This happened to several of Wild’s gang, especially if the reward money for the recovery of the stolen goods was considerable. In 1716 a young gentleman named Knap and his mother were robbed in Gray’s-Inn-Gardens. The mother went to Wild and gave them a description of the robbers. From this information, ‘Wild immediately judged the gang to be composed of William White, Thomas Thurland, John Chapman…Timothy Dun and Isaac Rag’ (Anon. 1774, p.89). For the sake of reward money, these members of Wild’s own gang were ‘soon after executed at Tyburn’ (Anon. 1774, p.92). Jonathan Wild was thus akin to a modern-day godfather, directing and controlling various gangs of thieves in his employ, and giving them up to the authorities once they had served their usefulness.
Moreover, Jonathan Wild and his criminal underlings were motivated solely by profit. Profit as the sole motivational factor behind organised crime is what distinguishes it from terrorism. Organised crime is non-ideological (Wright, 2006, p.11). Avarice and the pursuit of profit alone drove Wild throughout his career (Defoe[?], 1725, p.100). He amassed a fortune which amounted to approximately £10,000 pounds (H.D., 1725, p.217). Some thieves and highwaymen during this period did try to present themselves as having noble intentions. Linebaugh points to the case of one highwayman, Thomas Easter, who when he was robbing a gentleman in 1722 exclaimed, ‘I rob the Rich to give to the Poor’ (Linebaugh, 1991, p.187). It is true that many criminals during this period were popular with the public, especially the poor. Hobsbawm in the 1960s advanced the theory of social banditry. Social bandits, he said, ‘are peasant outlaws whom the lord and state regard as criminals, but who remain within peasant society, and are considered by their people as heroes, as champions, avengers, fighters for justice’ (Hobsbawm, 1969, p.17). As a left-wing, Marxist historian, Hobsbawm was probably all-too eager to sympathise with any figure even slightly anti-establishment. The truth is, however, that for every gentlemanly Claude DuVall or Dick Turpin, there were enough highwaymen who were also nasty brutes. Fielding had a slightly more realistic idea of how highwaymen targeted rich and poor people. His novel Joseph Andrews (1742) depicts a scene where the penniless Joseph is set upon and robbed by a gang of highwaymen, whom he terms ‘ruffians’ (Fielding, 1742, p.46). Fielding probably had a more realistic concept of the ways in which criminal gangs operated from the time that he spent serving as Magistrate of Westminster. Indeed, it is in all likelihood the case that early-modern criminals such as highwaymen and bandits, ‘quite often terrorised those from whose very ranks they managed to rise’ (Blok, 2000, p.16). Nevertheless, highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, and house-breakers such as Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) continued to be popular figures throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.
Perhaps these criminals were popular in the press in the same way that mobsters are in films today. Movies such as Goodfellas glorify and glamorise organised crime. For example, in Goodfellas, the narrating character Henry Hill starts off his story with the line; ‘as far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster’ (Scorsese, 1990). As a child the character in that film admired the rich and flashy lifestyle of the mafia gangs that controlled his neighbourhood in Brooklyn, New York. Similarly in the eighteenth century, ‘crime had about it an air (however illusory) of glamour, and brought with it the hope (however short-term) of liberty’ (Moore, 2001, xi). Thus despite the fact that these members of organised criminal gangs tried to present themselves as having noble intentions, their sole motivation was their own private gain.
Along with their apparently noble motives for robbing people, criminals in the eighteenth century allegedly behaved politely towards their victims. Their code of honour appears to have been polite gentlemanliness. Politeness in this period was a public code of conduct which emphasised good manners (Langford, 1989, p.1). Wild aspired to ‘live like a gentleman’ (H.D., 1725, p.203). Langford states that ‘the English criminal was credited with a certain sense of generosity and chivalry…Defoe described it as an “English way of Robbing generously, as they called it, without Murthering or Wounding”’ (Langford, 2000, p.p.145). This code of conduct was not restricted solely to Wild’s gang. Spraggs points to the case of other highwaymen later in the century. James Maclaine, the archetypal gentlemanly highwayman, once wrote a letter of apology to Horace Walpole after his pistol accidentally misfired when he robbed Walpole’s coach (Spraggs, 2001, p.185). As Captain MacHeath the highwaymen tells his fellow robbers in The Beggar’s Opera, ‘Act with Conduct and Discretion, A Pistol is your last resort’ (Gay, 1728, p.27). Similarly, the mafia today also are supposed to be men of honour and respect (Cottino, 2000, p.116). Nevertheless, lurking behind this gentlemanly façade was the threat of violence. The use of or the willingness to use violence is a characteristic of many organised criminal groups (Wright, 2006, p.12). Despite Wild’s pretensions to gentility, for example, he was still at heart a brutish man. This was evident when he fell into dispute with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner. Wild said that he, ‘would “mark her for a bitch”, and instantly drawing his sword struck at her, and cut off one of her ears’ (Anon., 1774, p.80). Additionally, despite the prevailing stereotype of highwaymen as polite gentlemen, Smith in 1714 recorded the case of a gang of highwaymen who mercilessly killed every male traveller in a stage coach (Smith, 1714, pp.3-4). Thus members of London’s eighteenth-century criminal underworld appear to have been more than willing to use violence against their victims.
Furthermore, another characteristic of any organised crime groups is that, despite the death of their leader, the group still continues to exist. Organised crime is said to be ‘a continuing enterprise’ (Galeotti, 2009, p.6 emphasis added). Wild was finally caught out by the authorities in February 1725 for attempting to help one of his gang members to escape from gaol (Moore, 1997, p.239). One by one, as the charges against him mounted, many criminals formerly in his employ turned evidence against him. He was finally executed on 24th May 1725. There is no conclusive evidence that Wild ever had a successor. However, Wild himself, in a pamphlet he allegedly authored entitled Jonathan Wild’s Advice to his Successor (1725) thought that someone would succeed him. This pamphlet laid out instructions for whoever would take over. An eighteenth-century organised crime lord should form ‘a proper connection with all the villains of the town…but if any overzealous officer of justice should happen to detect them, give them up to the law’ (Wild[?], 1725, p.264). Thief taking certainly existed after Wild met his end. Indeed, there is evidence that some thief takers were still recovering “lost” goods for victims of crime in the 1730s through ‘means not always clear and occasionally suspect’ (Beattie, 1986, p.56). If anyone did directly succeed Wild, perhaps he was simply more discreet. In any case, there is no doubt that during this period crime was perceived by the public and the government as having increased (Langford, 1989, p.155). Thus it is reasonable to suppose that, even if no one directly took over Wild’s business – though this is what he expected – different thief takers were still operating in the same ways as Wild.
In addition, the eighteenth-century world of organised crime was by no means exclusively male-gendered. Firstly, it was the fallen woman who was seen as first leading men astray into the criminal underworld. Wild’s first acquaintance with his second wife in London, Mary Milliner, led him into ‘wicked ways of living’ (Defoe[?], 1725, p.6). Similarly, the infamous house-breaker Jack Sheppard was led into a life of organised crime because of meeting Edgeworth Bess. This meeting, records Defoe, ‘laid the foundation of his ruin’ (Defoe[?], 1724, p.6). Filch’s song in The Beggar’s Opera encapsulates this view of the role of women in eighteenth-century organised crime: ‘Tis Woman that seduces all Mankind, by her we first were taught the Wheedling Arts’ (Gay, 1728, p.6). Most male criminals were portrayed as sympathetic creatures on this account in their biographies. They were ‘at worst a person with a tragic fatal flaw – like MacHeath’s weakness for women…led [them] into making a tragic error of judgment’ (Brewer, 2013, p.351). Women often collaborated with footpads and robbers in the buttock-and-file method of robbing people. In this method, the woman, who was usually a prostitute, enticed a victim down a dark alley with the offer of sex. The male companion then attacked the unsuspecting customer and robbed him. The City Marshall’s Account of Jonathan Wild (1725) states that Wild and Milliner first started in this way (Anon., 1774, p.83). Thus the eighteenth-century world of organised crime was one in which both genders could play a part.
Ticket to the execution of Wild at Tyburn in 1725
In conclusion, it is clear that organised crime existed in early-eighteenth century London. Jonathan Wild constructed a network around him of thieves, footpads, and highwaymen. He controlled and directed their activities. There were no lofty motives behind his actions. He was not, despite Hobsbawm’s theory of social banditry and social crime, striking back against the state. Indeed, when Wild was carted off, the crowd ‘treated [Wild] with remarkable severity…execrating him as the most consummate villain that had ever disgraced human nature’ (Anon., 1774, p.110). Profit was his driving force. Wild grew rich from the proceeds of crime. Moreover, his network, or one very similar to it, likely existed after his death. After all, robbers would have had to dispose of their stolen good somewhere. Nevertheless, Wild was able to flourish because of the society in which he lived. Many people lived on the breadline. The laws were perceived as unfairly weighted against the poor. Additionally, there was a lack of adequate law enforcement, and the judicial system made the victim of crime pay out of their own pocket to prosecute an offender who had wronged them, assuming the thief was ever caught. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that many people turned to thief takers to recover their stolen property, with no questions asked. Ultimately, therefore, organised crime is far from being a modern phenomenon.
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Goodfellas (2005) Directed by Martin Scorsese. USA, Warner Bros. [DVD]