Jack Sheppard, Thief, Highwayman & Escapologist
On the morning of 4th September 1724, an inconsequential thief named Jack Sheppard was to be hung at Tyburn for stealing three rolls of cloth, two silver spoons and a silk handkerchief. But instead of the routine execution of another worthless felon, London awoke to the astonishing news that he had escaped from the death cell at Newgate.
With the revelation that this was the third prison break in months by the handsome boyish twenty-two year old Jack Sheppard, he flamed like a comet into the stratosphere of criminality – embodying the role of the charismatic desperado to such superlative effect that his colourful reputation for youthful defiance gleams in the popular imagination two centuries later.
In the Spring, he broke out through the roof of St Giles Roundhouse, tossing tiles at his guards. In the Summer, with his attractive companion Elizabeth Lyon, he climbed through a barred window twenty-five feet above the ground to escape from New Bridewell Prison, Clerkenwell. And now he had absconded from Newgate too, using a metal file smuggled in by Elizabeth and fleeing in one of her dresses as disguise. Sheppard was a popular sensation, and everyone was fascinated by the inexplicable mystery of his unique talent for escapology.
Spitalfields’ most notorious son, Jack Sheppard, was born in Whites Row on 4th March 1702 and christened the very next day at St Dunstan’s in Stepney, just in case his infant soul fled this earth as quickly as it arrived. Unexceptionally for his circumstances and his time, death surrounded him – named for an elder brother that died before his birth, he lost his father and his sister in infancy. When his mother could not feed him, she gave him to the workhouse in Bishopsgate at the age of six, from where he was indentured to a cane chair maker, until he died too. Eventually at fifteen years old, he was apprenticed to a carpenter in Covent Garden, following his father’s trade, but at age twenty he met Elizabeth Lyon, his partner in crime, at the Black Lion in Drury Lane, a public house frequented by criminals and the infamous Jonathan Wild, known as the “Thief-taker General.”
On 10th September 1724, Sheppard was rearrested after his break-out from Newgate and returned there to a high security cell in the Stone Castle, where he was handcuffed and fettered, then padlocked in shackles and chained down in a chamber that was barred and locked. Yet with apparent superhuman ability – inspiring the notion that the devil himself came to Sheppard’s assistance – he escaped again a month later and enjoyed a very public fortnight of liberty In London, eluding the authorities in disguise as a dandy and carousing flamboyantly with Elizabeth Lyon, until arrested by Jonathan Wild, buying everyone drinks at midnight at a tavern in Clare Market, Lincoln’s Inn Fields. Back in Newgate – now the most celebrated criminal in history – hundreds daily paid four shillings to visit Sheppard in his cell, where he enjoyed a drinking match with Figg the prizefighter and Sir Henry Thornhill painted his execution portrait.
Two hundred thousand people turned out for Jack Sheppard’s hanging on 16th November, just two months since he came to prominence, and copies of his autobiography ghostwritten by Daniel Defoe were sold. Four years later, John Gay’s “The Beggar’s Opera,” with the character of Macheath modelled upon Sheppard and Peachum based upon his nemesis Jonathan Wild, premiered with spectacular success. Biographical pamphlets and dramas proliferated, with Henry Ainsworth’s bestseller of 1839 “Jack Sheppard” – for which George Cruikshank drew these pictures – outselling “Oliver Twist.” Taking my cue from William Makepeace Thackeray, who wrote that, “George Cruikshank really created the tale and Mr Ainsworth, as it were, merely put words to it,” I have published these masterly illustrations here as the quintessential visual account of the life of Spitalfields’ greatest rogue.
And what was the secret of his multiple prison breaks?
There was no supernatural intervention. Sheppard had outstanding talent as a carpenter and builder, inherited from his father and grandfather who were both carpenters before him and developed during the six years of his apprenticeship. With great physical strength and a natural mastery of building materials, he possessed an intimate understanding of the means of construction of every type of lock, bar, window, floor, ceiling and wall – and, in addition to this, twenty-two year old Jack Sheppard had a burning appetite to wrestle whatever joy he could from his time of splendour in the Summer of 1724.
Mrs Sheppard refuses the adoption of her little son Jack
Jack Sheppard exhibits a vindinctive character.
Jack Sheppard committing the robbery in Willesden church.
Jack Sheppard gets drunk and orders his mother off.
Jack Sheppard’s escape from the cage at Willesden.
Mrs Sheppard expostulates with her son.
Jack Sheppard and Blueskin in Mr Wood’s bedroom.
Jack Sheppard in company with Elizabeth Lyon escapes from Clerkenwell Prison.
The audacity of Jack Sheppard.
Jack Sheppard visits his mother in Bedlam.
Jack Sheppard escaping from the condemned cell in Newgate.
The first escape.
Jack Sheppard tricking Shortbolt, the gaoler.
The second escape.
Jonathan Wild seizing Jack Sheppard at his mother’s grave in Willesden.
Jack Sheppard sits for his execution portrait in oils by Sir James Thornhill - accompanied by Figg the prizefighter (to Jack’s right), John Gay, the playwright (to Jacks’s left), while William Hogarth sketches him on the right.
Jack Sheppard’s irons knocked off in the stone hall in Newgate.
Jack Sheppard of Spitalfields (Mezzotint after the Newgate portrait by Sir James Thornhill, 1724) - “Yes sir, I am The Sheppard, and all the gaolers in the town are my flocks, and I cannot stir into the country but they are at my heels baaing after me…”
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