Jonathan Wild: Conman and Cutpurse by John Van der Kiste
|Jonathan Wild: Conman and Cutpurse by John Van der Kiste
|Category: True Crime
|Reviewer: Sue Magee
|Summary: A light shone into a very dark and murky corner of early eighteenth century history tells us the story of the first modern racketeer.
|Date: May 2009
|Publisher: Amberley Publishing
Born towards the end of the seventeenth century Jonathan Wild was to become the eighteenth century's most famous criminal, plying his trade in a rather curious fashion. He was born in Wolverhampton of parents described as mean but honest. It seems likely that he first travelled to London as the servant of a lawyer where he was eventually to settle, leaving his wife and child to fend for themselves. It was whilst serving a term of imprisonment in Wood Street Compter that he mixed with the cream of London's criminal underclass and learned the rudiments of his trade.
His first mentor was Charles Hitchen who had purchased the office of Under-Marshal of the City. The city Marshals were obliged to keep the streets clear of prostitutes, vagrants and unlicensed traders and at the time London depended on this type of local policing. Such thief-takers were generally corrupt themselves and eventually Wild would establish a band of thieves who would report back to him and deliver the articles which they had stolen so that Wild could negotiate a fee for the return of the goods from the victim.
On the face of it he was a law-abiding man doing his best to keep the streets free from crime. The reality was that his actions increased the crime rate and Wild was not above sending criminals who had offended him to the gallows – in the course of his career he was responsible for some hundred and twenty deaths in this manner. Of course it couldn't continue indefinitely and in 1718 Parliament passed a Transportation Act which made it a capital offence to accept a reward for returning stolen goods to their owner and a felony to receive stolen goods without attempting to prosecute the thief. But Wild even managed to find a way around this. The day of reckoning was not far away though.
As many of the men whom he had trained or mentored were sent to the gallows public opinion turned against Wild not least for his part in the deaths of some of the men. Eventually he himself was arrested and charged, moving in s relatively short time from being revered to becoming a symbol for corruption and hypocrisy. Looking back he can be seen as the first of the modern racketeers.
It's a dark and murky corner of history and Van der Kiste shines a welcome light, packing an amazing amount of information about Wild and his contemporaries into this slim volume. You'll find quotes from the literati of the day such as Henry Fielding and Daniel Defoe and a series of illustrations which bring the period to life.
For more eighteenth century English history we can recommend A Royal Affair: George III and His Troublesome Siblings by Stella Tillyard
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You can read more book reviews or buy Jonathan Wild: Conman and Cutpurse by John Van der Kiste at Amazon.com.
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