18th Century Thief-takers – Part 3

Part 3- The demise of Charles Hitchin and Jonathan Wild

A decade later Hitchin was in the limelight once again when he was caught up in a campaign against ‘sodomitical practices’ instigated by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, because of his alleged homosexuality. The Societies for the Reformation of Manners were established in the late seventeenth century in order to suppress profanity, immorality, prostitution and brothels.

A prominent supporter of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, Sir John Gonson, is pictured below in William Hogarth’s satire The Harlot’s Progress 1732 from COLLAGE- The London Picture Archive, a database of images from the City of London’s collections available freely online: http://collage.cityoflondon.gov.uk/home


‘The Compleat trull at her lodging in Drury Lane’, plate III of “The Harlot’s Progress”; The harlot’s handsome young lover has cost her an easy life with her Jewish protector and she is now in a Drury Lane lodging house. In the background bailiffs enter, led by Sir John Gonson, to take her away’.

Hitchin was tried at the Old Bailey in April 1727 for the capital offence of sodomy.  Although acquitted of that charge he was convicted on a second indictment of attempted sodomy. His indictment (below) from Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6 is available online at the Old Bailey Online:  https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/

Charles Hitchin (under City Marshal , formerly a Cabinet-maker in St. Paul’s Churchyard , was indicted, for that he did on the 29th of March last, wickedly make an Assault, and commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy on the Body of Richard Williamson.
He was second Time indicted for a Misdemeanour, in assaulting and endeavouring to commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy on the Person of Richard Williamson.
The Prosecutor depos’d. That the Evening mention’d in the Indictment, coming from the Savoy Gate, he met the Prisoner, who asked him to drink, and carried him to the Royal Oak in the Strand, where after they had drank 2 Pints of Beer, the Prisoner began to shew some little Sodomitical Civilities, which not pleasing the Taste of the Prosecutor, he desired Leave to go saying, he had some Business in the Savoy, which must not be neglected, but the Prisoner not willing to part with a smooth Face and a fresh Countenance without shewing some greater Marks of his Brutallity, bound him under an Obligation to come again and made him leave his Hat for a pledge, giving him a little Money, and a great many fair promises: After the Prosecutor’s Return, the prisoner took him to the Rummer Tavern, and treated him with two pints of Wine, giving him some unnatural Kisses, and shewing several beastly Gestures. After this he perswaded him to go to the Talbot Inn , where he called for a Pint of Wine, and order’d the Chamberlain to get a Bed ready, and bring a couple of Nightcaps: Here they went to Bed, (where the Writer of this paper would draw a Curtain, not being able to express the rest with Decency, but to satisfy the Curiosity of the Reader let this susfice, he did all that a beastly Appetite could prompt him to, without making an actual penetration. ) Next Morning the Prosecutor under frightful Apprehensions of what had been offered, went to a Relation of his and told him the whole Story, who came back with him to the Talbot, and desired, if the prisoner should come thither he might be sent for; accordingly the prisoner came again on Saturday the 9th Instant, when the people of the Inn sent for the Prosecutor’s Relation, Mr.Joseph Cockrost , who depos’d. That coming to the Talbot Inn, and hearing that the Prisoner was there with another Person, he look’d through the Key-hole of the Door, and saw such filthy Actions that are not proper to be mention’d. After this, knocking at the Door, the Prisoner came out, and upon this Deponent’s taking him by the Collar, and saving, he had some Business with him, the Prisoner laid his Hand upon his Sword, upon which this Deponent said, Sir, if you offer to draw, I’ll whip you through the Gills.
Christopher Finch , Servant, depos’d. That he saw the Prisoner the Time aforesaid, come to his Master’s House with the Prosecutor, and by his frequent coming there with Soldiers, and calling for a private Room, he suspected him to be guilty of Sodomitical Practices, and thereupon looking through the Key-hole, he saw him offer some beastly Actions to the Prosecutor.
John Carter Constable, depos’d. That he being call’d, was charg’d with the Prisoner, by the Cook of the Talbot and the Prosecutor, but he heard nothing of any Proposals made by the Prosecutor and his Friends, to make it up, as was intimated by the Evidence of John Cole and George Birch two Watchmen. The Prisoner call’d several to his Character, but the most Material was Micah Wilkins , who depos’d. He had known the Prisoner to be a very honest Man, and that he had took a deal of Pains, and spent a great deal of Money to curb the Vice of the Nation. Upon the Whole, his first Indictment being laid for actual Sodomy, he was acquitted of that, but found guilty of the Second.
12 April 1727
Charles Hitchins for Sodomitical Practices, was fined 20 l. and 6 Months Imprisonment, and to stand in the Pillory near the End of Catherine Street, in the Strand.
From Old Bailey sessions papers, April 1727, 5–6

In this Daily Journal article the Societies for Reformation of Manners distance themselves from Charles Hitchin:

We are well informed, that Mr Charles Hitchin, the Under City-Marshal, who was lately convicted of an Attempt to commit that detestable Sin of Sodomy, never did belong to the Societies for Reformation of Manners, nor had any Concern with them, and that what has been reported and printed to the contrary, is false and groundless. But there is Reason to believe he may have pretended to belong to those Societies, because some years ago he offer’d them his Assistance which they refused to accept of, as having no very good Opinion of him, and apprehending that such Offer proceeded from corrupt motives. We are also assured that the said Societies have, for a considerable Time past, had good reason to believe that he was a Frequenter of the Sodomitical Clubs and a Practioner of that abominable Lewdness, tho’ they had not sufficient Evidence for a legal conviction, and therefore they did not promote a Prosecution against him till they were acquainted with the Evidence of the Fact, for which he is now convicted.

Daily Journal (London, England), Monday, April 17, 1727; Issue 1952. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Hitchin might have escaped from death but together with a fine of £20 and six months’ imprisonment he was sentenced to an hour in the pillory. The pillory was a frightening prospect for men convicted of homosexual offences and particularly for Hitchin as newspapers revealed he had targeted young men. The under-sheriff took him down long before his appointed hour had passed:

This day Charles Hitchin, Under City Marshal stood in the Pillory over against Katherine Street End in the Strand, Pursant to his Sentence, for an Attempt to commit Sodomy. The Mob us’d him so roughly that his Life was in Danger, part of his Cloaths were pull’d off his Back, his Breeches down and several Persons struck him on the bare skin with the end of their Canes.

Evening Post (1709) (London, England), April 29, 1727 – May 2, 1727; Issue 2773. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

Charles Hitchin was taken back to Newgate prison to serve out his sentence. He was stripped of his title of Under-Marshal by the Court of Aldermen for his ‘notorious and wicked practices’ He died shortly afterwards in poverty.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Wild continued to thrive in his trade of receiver—thief-taker  despite the clause in the 1718 Transportation Act which would make it a felony to accept a reward for recovering stolen goods without attempting to prosecute the thief. Many saw this legislation as directly aimed at Wild. William Thomson, the City Recorder, one of the men who devised this act, was reported to disapprove of Wild’s activities. However, Gerald Howson, a biographer of Wild’s, has suggested that even such high-ranking City officials as Thomson turned a blind eye to the thief-taker’s double-dealing, possibly to avoid exposure of their own implication in these activities.

After 1718, Wild concentrated on gang breaking and thief-taking. It was a lucrative business: a 1720 royal proclamation offered rewards of £100, above those already granted by Parliament, for the successful conviction of robbers in London and its environs. Wild was regularly to be found at the Old Bailey and other criminal courts where he appeared to give evidence for the prosecution.

Wild fell from grace in the eyes of the public after his involvement in the arrest and prosecution of two of the most famous criminals of the age- Jack Sheppard and his accomplice Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake in 1724. The press promoted Sheppard as a popular hero who had avoided any dealings with Wild and they used him to denounce thief takers like Wild. The press portrayed Blueskin as one of the children Wild had introduced to the life of a thief and subsequently sent to the gallows. While Blueskin was awaiting trial, Wild reportedly said he could do nothing for him short of paying for his coffin. Blueskin slit Wild’s throat in a fit of rage. Wild survived, but his reputation was in tatters.

On 15 February 1725, Wild was arrested for helping one of his associates escape from a constable. Wild was held on a warrant of detainer. He was accused of being both a receiver and a confederate of thieves; of having formed a ‘Corporation of Thieves’. He was also accused of selling human blood by presenting false evidence. There was as yet no precise charge against Wild, and it appeared that the authorities still sought witnesses in order to bring him to prosecution.  However, on 10 March Wild was discovered having accepted 10 guineas for returning some stolen lace to one Mrs Statham without attempting to prosecute the thieves, who had, in any case, committed the robbery on his instructions. On 15 May 1725, Wild was tried at the Old Bailey for ‘privately stealing’ the lace, and for ‘helping’ Statham ‘to the said Lace’ for a reward.  Wild attempted to influence the jurors by producing a list of the names of 75 felons he had brought to justice. However, while Wild was acquitted of the theft, he was convicted of the second indictment, accepting reward for the recovery of stolen goods without having attempted to prosecute the thieves; a charge that had been made a capital offence under the 1718 Act. He was sentenced to hang. The night before his execution Wild attempted to commit suicide:

About two o’clock in the morning he endeavour’d to prevent his Execution by taking Laudanum, but the Largeness of the Draught, together with having fasted before, instead of destroying him immediately, was the occasion of his not dying of it.

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, May 29, 1725; Issue 5. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

On 24 May 1725 Wild, still drowsy from the laudanum, was transported to Tyburn to be hanged. An angry mob pelted him with stones so violently on his head that ‘the Blood ran down plentifully, which occasion’d a report that he had cut his throat.’

Weekly Journal or British Gazetteer (London, England), Saturday, May 29, 1725; Issue 5. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.

For those who wish to learn more about Jonathan Wild we can recommend consulting Gerald Howson’s biography, Thief-Taker General: the Rise and Fall of Jonathan Wild (1970) available at Guildhall Library shelf mark B:W 668.

Jonathan Wild’s trial was dramatized by the BBC please find the link below:

Isabelle Chevallot
Assistant Librarian Guildhall Library


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