Jonathan Wild  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

Jonathan Wild (baptised 6 May 1683May 24 1725) was perhaps the most famous criminal of London — and possibly Great Britain — during the 18th century, both because of his own actions and the uses novelists, playwrights, and political satirists made of them. He invented a scheme which allowed him to run one of the most successful gangs of thieves of the era, all the while appearing to be the nation's leading policeman. He manipulated the press and the nation's fears to become the most loved public figure of the 1720s; this love turned to hatred when his villainy was exposed. After his death, he became a symbol of corruption and hypocrisy.

Literary treatments

Jonathan Wild is famous today not so much for setting the example for organized crime as for the uses satirists made of his story.

When Wild was hanged, the papers were filled with accounts of his life, collections of his sayings, farewell speeches, and the like. Daniel Defoe wrote one narrative for Applebee's Journal in May and then had published True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild in June 1725. This work competed with another that claimed to have excerpts from Wild's diaries. The illustration above is from the frontispiece to the "True Effigy of Mr. Jonathan Wild," a companion piece to one of the pamphlets purporting to offer the thief-taker's biography.

Criminal biography was already an existing genre. These works were popular then, as now, because they could offer a touching account of need, a fall from innocence, sex, violence, and then repentance or a tearful end. Public fascination with the dark side of human nature, and with the causes of evil, has never waned, and the market for mass produced accounts was large.

By 1701 there had been a Lives of the Gamesters (often appended to Charles Cotton's The Compleat Gamester), about notorious gamblers. In 1714 Captain Alexander Smith had written the best-selling Complete Lives of the Most Notorious Highwaymen. Defoe himself was no stranger to this market: his Moll Flanders was published in 1722. Further, he had, by 1725, written both a History and a Narrative of the life of Jack Sheppard (see above). Moll Flanders may be based on the life of one Moll King, who lived with Mary Mollineaux/Milliner, Wild's first mistress.

What differs about the case of Jonathan Wild is that it was not simply a crime story. Parallels between Wild and Robert Walpole were instantly drawn, especially by the Tory authors of the day. Mist's Weekly Journal (one of the more rough-speaking Tory journals) drew a parallel between the figures in May 1725, when the hanging was still in the news.

The parallel is most important for John Gay's The Beggar's Opera in 1728. The main story of the Beggar's Opera focuses on the episodes between Wild and Sheppard. In the opera, the character of Peachum stands in for Wild (who stands in for Walpole), while the figure of Macheath stands in for Sheppard (who stands in for Wild and/or the chief officers of the South Sea Company). Robert Walpole himself saw and enjoyed Beggar's Opera without realizing that he was its intended target. Once he did realize it, he banned the sequel opera, Polly, without staging. This prompted Gay to write to a friend, "For writing in the cause of virtue and against the fashionable vices, I have become the most hated man in England almost."

In 1742, Robert Walpole lost his position of power in the House of Commons. He was created a peer and moved to the House of Lords, from where he still directed the Whig majority in Commons for years. In 1743, Henry Fielding's The History of the Life of the Late Mr Jonathan Wild the Great appeared in the third volume of Miscellanies.

Fielding is merciless in his attack on Walpole. In his work, Wild stands in for Walpole directly, and, in particular, he invokes the Walpolean language of the "Great Man". Walpole had come to be described by both the Whig and then, satirically, by the Tory political writers as the "Great Man", and Fielding has his Wild constantly striving, with stupid violence, to be "Great". "Greatness," according to Fielding, is only attained by mounting to the top stair (of the gallows). Fielding's satire also consistently attacks the Whig party by having Wild choose, among all the thieves cant terms (several lexicons of which were printed with the Lives of Wild in 1725), "prig" to refer to the profession of burglary. Fielding suggests that Wild becoming a Great Prig was the same as Walpole becoming a Great Whig: theft and the Whig party were never so directly linked.

The figures of Peachum and Macheath were picked up by Bertolt Brecht for his updating of Gay's opera as The Threepenny Opera. The Sheppard character, Macheath, is the "hero" of the song Mack the Knife.

More recently, Jonathan Wild appeared as a character in the David Liss novel A Conspiracy of Paper, ISBN 0-8041-1912-0. Jonathan Wild is also the title character in the 2005–2006 Phantom stories "Jonathan Wild: King of Thieves" and "Jonathan Wild: Double Cross".

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Jonathan Wild" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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