The Celebrity Criminal: Jack Sheppard and the Self-Absorption of Sin

From a poster for an Edinburgh production of Little Jack Sheppard.

Editor's Note: Aaron Skirboll has written about America’s first professional songwriter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Ernest Hemingway’s last days for American Way magazine, and the history of the phone booth and cell phone etiquette for The Morning News. He is the author of The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven and, most recently, The Thief-Taker Hangings. He joins Signature to discuss the origins of the celebrity criminal, rooted in the unlikely popularity of 18th-century maverick Jack Sheppard, a London thief and brazen escape artist. 

Al Capone loved attention. "Boardwalk Empire"'s final season recently showcased an at-his-peak Capone reveling in his front-page celebrity gangster status. When he was sent away on tax evasion charges, other like-minded individuals (Bugsy Siegel, Mickey Cohen) took his place in the newspaper. It was a running soap opera. Just like with Billy the Kid reading about his exploits in the Old West Days or Jesse James contributing to Missouri newspaper editors, there’s nothing criminals love more than attention. But too much time spent reading your own write-ups can lead even an A-List crook to slip up. Their self-absorption can start to influence their moves, spurring the desire for something bigger, something that will really wow the public. Such is what occurred, perhaps for the very first time, in London, 1724 during the newspaper era’s first big crime story.

Journalism exploded in the eighteenth century. It was all new: pamphlets, newspapers, novels, a literate public. When a crime spree hit London, journalists like the longtime newspaperman and famed author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, battled one another for the next big scoop. Defoe found his in the form of a baby-faced former carpenter’s apprentice by the name of Jack Sheppard, who, in the span of just three months, had risen from a common housebreaker to the most famous man in the city.

Sheppard hadn't made his mark as a thief, but rather for what occurred after he was caught. Four times he’d gone to prison, and four times he’d managed to breach lockup. He became known as an escape artist of such ingenuity it was believed that no prison in town cold hold the incredible Sheppard. London society was as swept away by his skills as they were his tantalizingly narrow escapes. Citizens cheered his bravado, balladeers crooned, and journalists like Defoe scribbled away to meet the ever-increasing demand for more details of Sheppard’s capers.

Then came Halloween night, 1724. It was just after his final escape, this one from the foreboding Newgate Prison, when Sheppard let the buzz of celebrity go to his head. Instead of making his way out of the city, fleeing to the countryside where he could have certainly went unrecognized and started anew, the escapee decided instead to stay, just doors down from the very prison he had fled. He strutted around in a brand new stolen suit and ruffled shirt, tossing back brandy with the prostitute Moll Frisky. He bantered, he laughed. London was the only place in the world Sheppard wanted to be, provided it was out in the open where he could bask in the glory of fame. After all, what was the point of being famous if you weren't around to hear the applause? Celebrity was worth more to Sheppard than his own freedom, and in 18th century London, freedom meant life.

The November 2, 1724 Daily Journal reported Sheppard’s final capture as the thief called upon the public, his fans, for assistance. "Murder," Sheppard yelled, "Help for God’s sake, rogues, I am murdered, and am in the hands of blood-hounds, help for Christ’s sake."

Despite his popularity, nobody came to the bandit’s aid. He swung from the gallows at Tyburn at the age of twenty-two.

Criminals and celebrity. The public craves details that shock, today same as always, and journalists will gladly be around to feed our grislier appetites; they have been for three centuries. Put a story of a benevolent doctor doing some good and place it on a website next to the tale of a doctor who liked to kill in his spare time, and just see which gets more clicks. The dark side -- it's always been what readers covet in a tale. Since the public could read, it has always been the same.