Jonathan Wild: The Thief-Taker General: Background information when reading The Hocus Girl

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The Hocus Girl

A Simon Westow mystery

by Chris Nickson

The Hocus Girl by Chris Nickson X
The Hocus Girl by Chris Nickson
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2020, 224 pages
    Paperback:
    Dec 2020, 224 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Erin Lyndal Martin
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About this Book

Jonathan Wild: The Thief-Taker General

This article relates to The Hocus Girl

Print Review

Ticket to Jonathan Wild's hanging 1725In The Hocus Girl, set in the Northern England city of Leeds in the early 19th century, the three protagonists are thief-takers. They're hired to reclaim stolen property in exchange for a reward from the person who had been robbed. They acted as intermediaries, using their connections and intimidation techniques to get justice for crime victims.

Not all thief-takers were as upstanding as those in The Hocus Girl. Working this job created a lot of opportunities for duplicity, and no one knew that better than Jonathan Wild, nicknamed "The Thief-Taker General." In 1680, London was dealing with an abundance of crime as the city grew. The publishing industry was also expanding, and now there were newspapers reporting atrocities and petty crimes, setting citizens further on edge. Wild became famous for not only returning stolen goods, but for bringing thieves to justice. By his own account, his work sent 60 thieves to be hanged. Again and again he appeared in the papers with tales of his adventures and heroics, maintaining such a strong reputation that the Privy Council (the monarch's body of advisors) consulted him on crime control.

There was a secret to Wild's success, though: it's easy to find stolen property if you run a gang of thieves who took it in the first place. Also, putting away other thieves was a great way to eliminate the competition. Sometimes Wild even turned in his own employees when he no longer had use of them. He was also a crafty blackmailer, using the papers to post veiled notices implying he could expose men who visited brothels or did other unsavory things. Wild's one-time colleague Charles Hitchen, who exploited his own position as Under City Marshall to extort money, attempted to expose Wild, but ultimately backed down out of fear that Wild would out him as a homosexual.

Wild's enterprise continued for ten years, but it was only a matter of time before trouble caught up with him. He was arrested after starting a riot to help a prisoner escape and put on trial for a number of crimes. He was hanged on May 24, 1725. Tickets were sold to the event, and a huge crowd gathered to watch. In a final twist of irony, the great thief's body was stolen from its grave and sold to the Royal College of Surgeons for dissection. Wild's skeleton is now on display at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

But Wild's reputation lives on not just as a symbol of his own misdeeds but as a microcosm of the malfeasance that ran rampant in England at the time. Satirist Henry Fielding wrote about this in The Life and Death of the Late Jonathan Wild, the Great, a 1743 send-up of British corruption. A number of authors have featured Wild or characters based on him. Most famously, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle once referred to Professor Moriarty as a latter-day Jonathan Wild, working on both sides of the law.

Wild's reputation would not be so enduring had he not played the part of the people's hero for so long. He played it well, using his newspaper connections to bolster his reputation, which only gave fuel to his more sinister enterprise.

Ticket to Jonathan Wild's execution, courtesy of HeadStuff

Filed under People, Eras & Events

This "beyond the book article" relates to The Hocus Girl. It originally ran in February 2020 and has been updated for the December 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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