Friday, May 23, 2008 5/23/08-Jonathan Wild

In today's excerpt--in the era of accelerating city size, but before professional police forces, stood men like London's Jonathan Wild. Wild served a police function, but like many before and since, used this position to operate on both sides of the law:

"By the time the hangman finished him off, Jonathan Wild had few friends. In his own way he had been a public servant--a combination bounty hunter and prosecutor who tracked down thieves and recovered stolen property; a useful figure in 18th-century London, which had no formal police force of its own. Such men were called 'thief-takers,' and Wild was good at his work. But along the way, he became more problem than solution.

"He called himself the 'Thief-Taker General of England and Ireland,' but he became London's leading crime boss, specializing in robbery and extortion. He frequently encouraged or even set up thefts and burglaries, fenced the booty for a relative pittance, then returned it to its owner for the reward. If his cronies tried to double-cross him, he had them arrested, to be tried and hanged--then collected the bounty. It was said that he inspired the term 'double-cross,' for the two X's he put in his ledger beside the names of those who cheated him.

"Daniel Defoe, a journalist as well as the author of Robinson Crusoe, wrote a quickie biography of Wild a month after he was hanged, in 1725. Henry Fielding, the author of Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, satirized him in The History of the Life of the Late Mr. Jonathan Wild. The great John Gay took him as his inspiration for the villainous Peachum in The Beggar's Opera.

"But by the time that work had morphed into the Bertolt Brecht-Kurt Weill hit The Threepenny Opera two centuries later, Wild had all but faded from memory. And when Bobby Darin made a hit out of "Mack the Knife" 30 years after the play opened, Wild was largely a forgotten man."

Guy Gugliotta, "Digitizing The Hanging Court," Smithsonian 38, No. 1 (April 2007), pp.66-75.

With special thanks to Jane Malcolm


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