This plush illustrated volume, published in 1734, is a compilation of stories of notorious lawbreakers, both real and imaginary. It reflects the public desire, even in elite social circles, for racy tales about ‘highwaymen, murderers’ and ‘pyrates’.
These ‘remarkable villains’ gained celebrity status in 17th- and 18th-century England, inspiring admiration as well as shock and outrage. This book seems to relish the details of the criminals’ scandalous exploits and their brazen disregard for the law or social hierarchy. But the writer also appears to reclaim the moral high-ground by expressing satisfaction when the sinners are brought to justice.
In the sections reproduced here, you can read the dramatic tales of two famous criminal rivals: the thief, highwayman and gaol-breaker, Jack Sheppard (1702‒1724), and the fence, thief-catcher and bigamist, Jonathan Wild (c. 1683‒1725). Both men became the subject of many plays, novels and ballads, and they probably inspired the characters of Macheath and Peachum in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728).
John Sheppard (known as Jack)
The ‘ingenious’ Jack Sheppard first worked as a London carpenter, but fell in with ‘wicked’ women who spurred his life of crime. After four daring breaks from prison, he was condemned to death based on evidence given by Wild, who resented Sheppard’s refusal to give up his stolen goods.
The full-page illustration appears to portray Sheppard just before his last, most audacious escape from Newgate Prison. He was bound in leg-fetters that were fixed down with a huge padlock, but he picked the lock, scaled the chimney and made his way to the roof after surmounting six bolted doors. At the top, Sheppard realised that he had to go back for a blanket so that he could lower himself down to the house below. He was soon re-arrested, after robbing a pawnbrokers’ shop, and was hanged at Tyburn before vast crowds on 16 November 1724.
After training in Birmingham as a buckle maker, Wild became the most infamous criminal in 18th-century London. A shameless double dealer, he controlled a large gang of robbers but pretended to be fulfilling a vital public service by returning victims’ stolen goods for a fee. At the same time, Wild made his name as the ‘Thief-Taker General’, betraying hundreds of thieves who had outlived their use to him. In May 1725, he was finally convicted and carried to his execution through jeering, stone-throwing crowds.
The mystery of who wrote this book
The title page suggests that the author is one Charles Johnson, but there is no trace of this man and it is probably a pseudonym. Some critics have argued that it could be Daniel Defoe, but others suggest that the language is unlike Defoe’s other work.
The contents are adapted from two earlier collections: Alexander Smith’s History of the Lives of the most Noted Highwaymen (1714), and Charles Johnson’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pirates (1724).
- Full title:
- A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. To which is added, a genuine account of the voyages and plunders of the most notorious pyrates.
- Book / Folio / Engraving / Illustration / Image
- Charles Johnson [probable pseudonym for Daniel Defoe]
- Usage terms
- Public Domain
- Held by
- British Library
- Article by:
- Moira Goff
- Satire and humour, Theatre and entertainment
The Beggar's Opera was an instant hit and became the most performed play of the 18th century. Moira Goff explores the elements that made up John Gay's work, from its popular tunes and dances to its satirical targets and depiction of a criminal underworld.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Theatre and entertainment, Satire and humour
Andrew Dickson introduces The Beggar's Opera and its many satirical targets, including the court of George I, the politician Robert Walpole, the British legal system and Italian opera.
- Article by:
- John Mullan
- Politeness, sensibility and sentimentalism, Rise of the novel
John Mullan explains how the novel took shape in the 18th century with the works of Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, and the ways in which the book industry both shaped and responded to the new genre.