Jack The Lad
The Greatest Escaper.
Long before Harry Houdini, a hundred-and-seventy-two years to be exact, a man called Jack Sheppard was picking locks and escaping from seemingly escape proof prisons. Jack, or 'Jack the lad' as he became known within his inner circle of associates was the real deal. His escapes were not meticulously planned side show acts, his escapology exploits were performed solely to elude the hangman's noose.
Jack Sheppard had perplexed, befuddled and thoroughly annoyed the authorities for quite a while with his criminal activities. He had developed the ability to remove leg irons, squeeze through the smallest of gaps, able to pick locks with bent nails, scale roof tops and high walls. This young man had daring in abundance, he was fearless, highly intelligent with a never say die spirit.
Jack Sheppard was born in 1702 in Spitalfields in London. At the time this area was notorious for thieves, robbers, highwaymen and prostitutes. Infant mortality in London was high, Jack's mother, like many mothers at that time, had her child christened the day after he was born, fearing sudden death. Jack survived infancy, but times for the family were hard, and at the age of six he was sold into an apprenticeship for the princely sum of 20 shillings.
Jack's master had died soon after, and Jack was sent to a chair maker's workshop where he was ill treated by a cruel man. Jack, was thankfully thrown a lifeline and was given a job as a shop boy by William Kneebone, a draper with a small shop on the Strand. Jack's mother also worked there. Mr Kneebone was good to Jack and taught the boy how to read and write. He also secured a carpenter apprenticeship for Jack working with the appropriately named Mr Owen Wood.
At 20 Jack stood five feet four and was of a slender build, but he was strong and wiry. He was pale faced, with dark hair and eyes, a cheeky smile and quick witted. Jack had natural charm, and because of it became very popular in the taverns and inns of Covent Garden. His natural joviality and zest for life had secured him the nickname 'Jack the lad.'
Secretly Jack had disliked the mundane servitude of his current job for quite a while, and with only a short time left as an apprentice he began to err from the path of respectability. He became rebellious at work, and most evenings he could be found in the arms of prostitutes, and drinking heavily in the rough taverns of London.
Jack's local was The Black Lion tavern on Drury Lane. The pub was very popular with the apprentices in the area. Unfortunately, it was also one of the place's where the infamous Jonathan Wild ran his criminal empire from. Young Jack would be rubbing shoulders with thieves and murders such as Joseph 'Blue Skin' Blake.
Jack was befriended by Blake and was now also in a steady relationship with a prostitute called Elizabeth Lyon. Jack had decided, no doubt encouraged by his new found friends, to embark on a life of crime. Jack's first recorded arrest was in 1723. Jack, whilst still working as an apprentice, was out on an errand for his master and decided on a little shoplifting on the way home. A pair of silver tea spoons had found their way into Jack's pocket. There was no established police force in England, and private citizens formed themselves into ‘lawgiver gangs’ and certain individuals were called upon to apprehend criminals and policed the streets from 1674-1829. They were encouraged by the large rewards on offer, £40 was the going rate for the apprehension of thieves and murderers, the average wage for the less well off would be around £10 a year.
Jack was sent to the St Anne's Roundhouse in London after a spree of pickpocketing. The roundhouse was a small prison, and more of a holding centre for those suspected of criminal acts. While incarcerated, he decided he was now finished with his boring, safe life, and in August of 1723 he decided to leave his master and concentrate on being a career criminal. On the 5th February 1723 Tom Sheppard, Jack's older brother and convicted thief, and Elizabeth Lyon burgled a property and Tom was caught. Tom had a long rap sheet, and with the hangman's noose looming over him, he reluctantly informed on his brother to save his own skin.
A warrant was hastily issued for Jack's arrest. Jonathan Wild, known as the 'Thief Taker General', led a double life and was a magistrate, and simultaneously ran a vast criminal empire. Wild only recruited former convicted thieves and used them as informers. Once indoctrinated into his gang he could manipulate and blackmail them. As ex convicts they were not permitted to give evidence in a court of law. Wild was London's first gangland boss, and had built up a network of specialised gangs of burglars, pickpockets and informers. If you were a thief in London in the mid eighteenth century you had to fence your stolen goods through Wild, if not you would incur his wrath. Jack Sheppard decided not to work with Wild and fenced his ill gotten gains elsewhere.
It was widely known that Wild had a dislike for the young upstart, he hated Jack's popularity and his blatant disrespect for his authority. Wild decided on a ruse to trap Jack, and in the process claim the reward money on offer. He instructed one of his men, James Sykes, to find Jack and ask him to meet for a game of skittles in a pub in Covent Garden. The simple trap was set and as Jack walked in he was arrested and imprisoned on the top floor of the Roundhouse, oblivious to the nature of the circumstances. Sheppard took three hours to make his escape, he smashed through the ceiling of his cell and then got onto the roof, where he lowered himself to the ground using knotted bed sheets.
The previous escape was in April, and in May Jack was in trouble once again and arrested for pick pocketing. And found himself in a cell in St Anne's Roundhouse in Soho. His lover Elizabeth Lyon, AKA Edgeworth Bess, visited him the next day and was immediately recognised as one of his accomplices and promptly arrested. A few hours later they were both transported to the New Prison in Clerkenwell. That night, from the same cell they hatched a plan of escape. A few days later the plan was executed and Jack slipped out of his irons, removed some bars from the window and the pair escaped using blankets tied together. They scaled a twenty foot perimeter wall and disappeared into the night.
Wild demanded that Jack and his gang only fence their goods through him, where he would then take the lion's share. Jack refused, and began to intensify his activities with Blueskin Blake. The pair hatched a plan to burgle the premises of Jack's former employer Mr Kneebone. Blueskin and Sheppard fenced their items through a man called William Field, however, Field was secretly one of Wild's closest cronies.
Wild had now made Sheppard his number one priority, he simply couldn't allow this kind of disrespect to continue, as it may give others the same idea. Wild set off to find Elizabeth as he knew she would know where he was holed up. He plied Elizabeth with copious amounts of Brandy and while blind drunk she let slip Sheppard's whereabouts.
One of Wild's henchmen, Quilt Arnold, was waiting for him and the trap was set. Sheppard was sent to Newgate Prison on a charge of the burglary of Kneebones house, and was sentenced to death in August. The execution date for Jack Sheppard was set for the 31st September.
Jack decided that he was not going to keep the appointment. He spent all day secretly loosening an iron bar in the window of the door used for talking to visitors. Elizabeth and a friend, the unfortunately named Poll Maggott, distracted the guards long enough for him to slip the bar out of its housing, creating a gap. The second part of the plan was now put into action. Elizabeth had smuggled in a disguise, and, dressed as a woman Jack walked out of the prison gates.
At this point Jack decided that it might be wise to disappear for a while and visited some family members in Northampton. After a couple of weeks he became restless and bored, so he headed back to the streets of London. Disguised as a beggar, he broke into a pawnbrokers shop in Drury Lane. He stole a black silk suit, some gold pocket watches, rings and a sword. Dressed in the height of London fashion, he brazenly strolled around his old haunts buying drinks and the favours of prostitutes. It was, however a short lived hedonistic trip, the word soon reached the ears of Wild. Jack was found drunk and promptly arrested.
Jack Sheppard was sent to prison five times between 1723 and 1724 and escaped on four occasions. This time they were determined that he face justice. Jack was becoming a big problem for the authorities, making them a laughing stock. The famous author and journalist Daniel Defoe found him a fascinating character and took an interest in his case and wrote a detailed account about him. He was fast becoming a folk hero, the people simply loved his 'up yours darling' attitude toward the authorities. However, this time they were determined to make sure that Jack Sheppard was going to meet his maker on the due date. He was incarcerated in The Middle Stone Room of Newgate prison.
He was monitored night and day and loaded down with three hundred pounds of iron weights. He had become so popular that the jailers began to charge a fee of four shillings to visitors wanting to see him. His portrait was painted by the Royal portrait artist James Thornhill, there was a petition sent to the King, which contained many prominent names, asking the King to have his sentence commuted.
Apparently Jack always seemed cheerful during these visits from the public. Jack could have saved himself, and was repeatedly asked to inform on his associates in return for a stay of execution, he refused. There was now no way he could avoid his date at the Tyburn tree. However, was there going to be one more sting in the tail and another embarrassment for the authorities?
In the condemned cell on the morning of his execution, Jack drew a penknife that he’d kept hidden in his clothing and tried to pick the locks of his leg irons, but he was discovered in the act.
On the morning of 16th November 1724 the route along Holborn and Oxford street was jam-packed with mourners, it is said that there were around 200,000 people. The prison cart stopped at the City of Oxford tavern along the way, and Jack was given a stiff drink or two.
At this stage it looked as if this really was the end of Jack The Lad. However, unbelievably there was one last eleventh hour attempt to save him. Sheppard's friends were waiting to implement their last ditched desperate rescue plan. This was going to be a long shot by any stretch of the imagination.
In those day's deaths by hanging were induced by strangulation and not a broken neck. If you were a lightweight like Jack it would be a prolonged and painful death. But the theory was that due to the strangulation of the victim a doctor might be able to revive the person. If they could get Jack to a doctor quick enough, they may have a chance of the greatest escape of all. Speed was of the essence and they had to spirit the body away as soon as it was cut down. Jack was hung for the prescribed 15 minutes, as he was cut down the huge crowd surged forward and smothered his body. Jack’s friends simply couldn't get to him.
Jack Sheppard was buried in the churchyard of St Martin's-in-the-Fields that evening. I wonder if anyone has ever checked the contents of that coffin?