Jack Sheppard was renowned in 18th Century London for escaping the justice system not once or twice, but four times! He was born to a poor London family but showed great promise as a carpenter. However, the lure of London’s nightlife led him astray and he fell into some salubrious company. Falling in love with a prostitute called Elizabeth Lyon, he began to steal in order to supplement his income as a carpenter and to accommodate his new habits. He left his apprenticeship with only a little under two years left until its completion, and turned to a life of full time crime. In 1723 alone, he was arrested and managed to escape prison four times before being incarcerated for the fifth and final time. His very public defiance of the 18th Century justice system made him an overnight celebrity and wildly popular with the poorer classes. He became their mascot against the power and authority of the state.
Soon the miraculous nature of his escapes were made plain by many illustrations and pamphlets, poems and published stories. Jack Sheppard became a household name.
Sheppard’s first escape involved him breaking through the timber roof in his cell and after fashioning himself a rope out of his bedding, lowering himself to the ground. Still manacled, he joined the crowd under the window, and shouting that he could see the shadow of the escaping convict on the roof, he made his escape. Once he was re-arrested after being caught pickpocketing, he was visited in prison by his lover Elizabeth Lyon, who was recognised and subsequently also arrested and placed in a cell with Sheppard. They both escaped their manacles and lowered themselves to the ground. They then both had to scale a 22 foot wall in order to escape the compound. For his third imprisonment Sheppard was incarcerated in Newgate Prison. On the very date that his execution was to be fixed, Sheppard managed to remove an iron bar in a small window in his cell where you could talk to visitors. Being of a slight build, Sheppard was able to squeeze through and he escaped in women’s clothing which had been bought to him by Elizabeth.
But no escape was as sensational as Sheppard’s fourth and last adventure. After unlocking his chains he clambered up the chimney with his leg irons still in place. He then managed to break through no less than six barred doors until his reached the prison chapel. Once he got onto the roof he realised he would need something to help he gain access to the adjoining building, and so he went all the way back again (still in his leg irons), fetched his blanket, and then made the return journey! Once he had escaped he managed to convince somebody to remove the leg irons. Sheppard celebrated by stealing all the necessary accoutrements of a society dandy and cavorting around London with his two mistresses getting blind drunk. It’s a surprise he escaped the law for a further two weeks really.
His gaolers took Sheppard’s final incarceration very seriously. He was held in the most secure central section of Newgate Prison where he was constantly under observation as well as being weighed down with 300 pounds of iron weights. High society visitors were charged a shilling to come and see the infamous escape artist for themselves. On the 16th November 1724 he was taken to Tyburn to be hanged. Although he was given the opportunity to inform on his accomplices for a lesser sentence, that was not Sheppard’s style. About 200,000 people thronged the streets in celebration of Sheppard’s career in escapology (about a third of the city’s population at the time). Sheppard was hanged, and for once his slight frame did him no favours, as he was slowly strangled to death. His friends had hoped to take the body and see if it could be revived, but the crowds stormed in after the body was cut down, and by the time they had cleared it had been badly mauled.
At his execution an autobiographical ‘Narrative’ was sold, possibly ghost-written by Daniel Defoe; with illustrations by George Cruikshank. Straight away Sheppard entered the public imagination in a series of plays, one of the most popular being the 1728 play ‘The Beggars Opera’; on the stage for the next 100 years. Again in 1840 a novel by William Harrison Ainsworth was written entitled ‘Jack Sheppard’, which became so popular that any book with the same title was banned for the next forty years. Even to this day Jack Sheppard is still the most famous escapologist in our history, and quite deservedly earns his own entry on this blog.