London’s 18th Century financial crime kingpin.
Jonathan Wild is not a fictional character, although Holmes’ report of him contains inaccuracies.
Wild was, in fact, a criminal who played both sides and was possibly London’s first financial crime kingpin. Amongst other writers, Daniel Defoe was a biographer, of sorts.
Wild was a renowned ″thief taker″ who received commission for delivering suspects to the frankly not very effective police of the time.
Also, such people were hired by victims of crime to recover their stolen assets in return for a percentage.
He established a lost property office which acted, in effect, as a brokerage between thieves and owners and even went so far as to advertise it in newspapers.
But Wild had another side to his activities: he would take a payment from criminals to let them go.
Then he graduated, it has been said, to organising the burglaries and robberies and then taking a fee for the ″recovery″ of the stolen goods.
Wild was active at the time of the events discussed in the first part of the Business Structures course, before the worst excesses of the financial crisis of 1720.
He was did not hide his activities well.
In 1717, Sir William Thompson, the Solicitor-General, was well aware of Wild’s activities but struggled to find a way of prosecuting him. Thompson, therefore put up a Bill under which it became a capital offence to take a reward while pretending to help the owner to recover stolen goods unless the thief was prosecuted.
Wild’s notoriety was such that the resulting Act became known as Jonathan Wild’s Act, after the primary reason it had been passed. It appears from the Old Bailey reports of his trial that it was this Act that Wild tried to excuse himself from by using technical arguments. He failed.
By 1725, Wild’s star had fallen far. In May 1725 he was tried, at the Old Bailey, on charges of shoplifting and perverting the course of justice. He was acquitted of shoplifting but convicted of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to death.
The court heard that Wild had collected ten guineas, a substantial sum, from Katherine Stetham after persons unknown had stolen 50 yards of lace worth 40 pounds from her shop; the charge was that he did ″feloniously receive of the said Katharine Stetham Ten Guineas, on Account and under Colour of helping the said Katharine Stetham to the said Lace again; and did not then, nor any time since, discover or apprehend, or cause to be apprehended and brought to Justice, the Persons that committed the said Felony.″
″The prisoner said nothing in his defence but that he had convicted a great number of criminals,″ the Court records show. He was not wrong: he appears in some 50 cases at the Old Bailey. Indeed, the Court was far from amused to discover Wild using the kind of technique we see in American courts of making his case from the steps of the Court, peeing in the jury pool.
″The Prisoner, in the Morning before his Tryal came on, dispersed about the Court a considerable Numbers of printed Lists of the Felons that he had apprehended, which concluded in these Words; In regard therefore of the Numbers above Convicted, some that have yet escaped Justice are endeavouring to take away the Life of the said Jonathan Wild, This extraordinary Proceeding gave Occasion to the King’s Counsel to observe, That such Practices were unwarrantable, and not to be suffer’d in any Court of Justice: That this was apparently intended to take off the Credit of the King’s Witnesses, and to prepossess and influence the Jury. But as he believed them to be Men of Integrity, he was under no Apprehensions that it would have such an Effect: Nor, on the contrary, could he suppose that they would give any other than a conscientious Verdict, according to Evidence.″
Within days, in fact on the 24 May 1725, Wild was hanged at Tyburn Tree Gallows. Wild’s body was quickly buried to prevent it being used for experiments. But the plan didn’t work and four days later, it was dug up. His skeleton is on display at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which would have been very familiar to Conan Doyle – and only a short walk from the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes in Baker Street.
In the next edition, we’ll have a look at how Sherlock Holmes described corruption and the associated evidence that was plain for all to see but no one dared do anything about it.
But for now, thank you for listening. Stay safe, stay well and keep learning.