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Thursday, March 4, 2010 03:03PM

Daily TWiP – Jack Sheppard, wildly popular escaped criminal, born today in 1702

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Welcome to Daily TWiP, your daily dose of all the holidays, historical observances, etc., we couldn’t cram into The Week in Preview.

Right in between Robin Hood and Bonnie and Clyde, there was Jack Sheppard. A petty thief and burglar whose series of effortless escapes from prison captured the imaginations of rich and poor alike, Sheppard was born today (March 4th) in 1702 in London.

In spite of being born into dire poverty and losing his father (the family’s main breadwinner) at an early age, Sheppard managed to secure a carpentry apprenticeship. The first five years of Sheppard’s seven-year apprenticeship passed without incident – he was by all accounts a skillful carpenter. And then, he began to frequent a tavern known as the Black Lion.

At the Black Lion, Sheppard developed a fondness for alcohol and for a prostitute named Elizabeth Lyon. The tavern was also frequented by numerous criminals, including Jonathan Wild, a successful policeman who referred to himself as “Thief-Taker General” but was secretly controlling an extensive underground criminal network.

Why Sheppard turned to a life of crime isn’t entirely clear. Some say he was lured into criminal activities by Lyon, others claim it was a conscious rebellion against the life of poverty and drudgery he had previously known. Whatever his reasons may have been, he committed his first recorded theft in the spring of 1723, when he shoplifted two silver spoons.

His first arrest came in April of 1724, when he was turned in by his own brother, who had previously been arrested and was now in danger of being hanged. Sheppard was subsequently imprisoned on the top floor of St. Giles’s Roundhouse for three hours.

He was supposed to have been there longer, as he was being held overnight for questioning, but he escaped by breaking through the timber ceiling and shinnying to the ground using a rope made from tied-together bedsheets.

Sheppard then joined the crowd that had been drawn to the prison by the sounds of his escape and shouted that he could see the escaped prisoner hiding in the shadows on the roof. He made a break for it while they were focused on the roof – no mean feat, seeing as he was still wearing irons.

Sheppard was arrested again on May 19th, this time for pickpocketing, and was sent to St. Ann’s Roundhouse in Soho. When Lyon came to visit him, she was locked in a cell with him for the crime of being his wife.

From there, they were sent to the New Prison in Clerkenwell. The enterprising young couple filed through their chains, pulled one of the bars out of their cell window, and lowered themselves to the ground with a rope made of tied-together bedsheets. After that, it was simply a matter of climbing over the 22-foot-high prison gate and stepping out into the sunshine of freedom.

Impressed with Sheppard and his exploits and desiring to bend the situation to his advantage, Wild requested that Sheppard fence his stolen goods through Wild’s criminal network. Sheppard declined. Mightily displeased that there was a talented thief on the loose that was operating outside of his control, Wild began to actively pursue Sheppard’s incarceration.

Sheppard’s third arrest came on July 23, 1724, after Wild coaxed information out of Lyon by buying her drink after drink. He was put on trial for burgling the house of the man to whom he had been apprenticed and, being found guilty, sentenced to death.

The day his death warrant arrived at Newgate Prison, however, Sheppard escaped, removing a bar from his cell window and squeezing through the tiny opening. He was then smuggled out of the jail in women’s clothing by Lyon and one of her friends.

The law soon caught up with him and Sheppard was arrested for the fourth time on Sept. 9, 1724. After two thwarted escape attempts from Newgate Prison’s condemned cell, he was placed in a strongroom, where he was put in leg irons and chained to the floor. Handcuffs were soon added for good measure.

Sheppard managed his final escape in October, unlocking his handcuffs, shedding his chains, and climbing up a chimney while still in leg irons. The chimney had been blocked by a metal bar, which he pulled out and used to break through the ceiling and into a disused cell, through another half dozen barred doors, into the prison chapel, and then up to the prison roof.

From the prison roof, he crossed to the roof of a nearby house and made his way through the house and out into the street (still in leg irons) without waking any of the slumbering residents.

It was, unfortunately for Sheppard, a short-lived victory. Two weeks later, he was arrested for the final time. This time, he was loaded down with three hundred pounds of weights and kept under constant observation.

The public, who had been following Sheppard’s exploits with glee, was heartbroken. A petition was made to King George I, pleading for a lighter sentence, and many wealthy citizens came to visit him in his cell, a privilege for which they paid four shillings to the jailers. During this time, he even sat for a portrait by James Thornhill, the royal painter.

Since Sheppard refused to turn in the other criminals with whom he had worked, he was scheduled to be hanged Nov. 16, 1724. His plans to escape en route to the gallows were foiled when a guard discovered the penknife he had hidden and confiscated it.

Sheppard’s hanging is estimated to have been attended by 200,000 people, which would have been a third of London’s population at the time. It was more of a celebration of his life than a judgment of the path he had chosen, with copies of his so-called autobiography being sold to the attendees.

After Sheppard had been hanged, the crowd rushed the gallows and carried off his body before the authorities could react. The crowd’s concern was to prevent Sheppard’s body from being dissected, as was sometimes done with the bodies of executed criminals.

In reality, however, the crowd only foiled Sheppard’s final escape plan. His associates had been poised to collect his body from the gallows and rush it to a doctor in hopes of reviving him. Sheppard’s rather roughed-up cadaver was recovered later that day and buried in the now lost churchyard of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where it reposes to this day.

Daily TWiP appears Monday through Friday courtesy of The Week in Preview. Check out The Week in Preview online in our Columnists section or read it in print on Mondays in our Nashua and Region section.

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– Teresa Santoski