Simanaitis Says

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WE LEFT ANTIHERO Jack Sheppard on an adjacent rooftop after his escape from Newgate Prison. Today in Part 3, his adventure continues with differing accounts of what happened next. Either way, the conclusion involves the gallows, but not without an immense crowd, a pint of sack, and commentary by no less than Daniel Defoe.

Jack Sheppard, escape artist extraordinaire, sure knew how to live and to die, even if the book Notable British Trials, 1736, and the vintage radio program Crime Classics, February 3, 1954, offer differing tales.

Visiting the Birds. From Notable British Trials,: “Fortunately, as he crept along the roofs overlooking Newgate Street he came to a garret window, the sash of which was open, so creeping through noiselessly he waited for awhile in the room within. Hearing no noise, he descended to pairs of stairs until the sound of people talking in a room of the first storey made him pause on the second-floor landing. At the same moment, his fetters gave a clank.”

According to Notable British Trials, Jack was in the family home of William Bird, a turner (a maker of objects by turning them on a lathe).

“ ‘Lord!’ cried a woman’s voice, ‘what was that?’ ‘Or perhaps the dog or cat,’ replied a man, and no further notice was taken.”

Jack crept back upstairs into the garret for a rest. Two hours later, he “rushed down the stairs as fast as he could and made his escape into the street.”

Then Jack strolled, not wanting to arouse attention. Still in ankle fetters, he even bade good-morrow to the watchman at St. Sepulchre’s Watch-house. Finally, exhausted, Jack found a cowshed and rested for a day.

At one point, the cowshed’s owner arrived. Jack concocted a tale of being “an unfortunate young man, sent to Bridewell about a Bastard-Child, not being able to give security to the Parish….”

“The man retorted that it was a small fault, and he had done the same thing himself….” Jack was left alone.

We can imagine this innocent young man offering such a tale, right? Sketch by Sir James Thornhill, shortly before Sheppard’s execution.

“Later in the afternoon, a working-man happened to pass by…. Jack repeated his tale of the bastard child, ending up by offering the man twenty shillings for a smith’s hammer and a punch.”

That evening, free of his fetters, “Jack ate a good supper of roast veal in a cellar at Charing Cross.” In fact, within a few days, “A volatile young woman, named Moll Frisky, had now attached herself to him….”

Edgworth Bess (remember her?) was in stir again.

The Crime Classic Tale. Perhaps from a more florid contemporary account, perhaps merely poetic license, the Crime Classic radio program has Jack encountering the same garret window, but with a more dramatic outcome: Within, there’s an innocent young thing, Angela Pinchley, who says “My father…, my father…, my father is … in the country….”

Before long, Jack has the run of the house and use of its library where he “reads to Angela.” They read a lot.

Lou Merrill, whose Crime Classics episodes open with “A series of true crime stories from the records and newspapers of every land, from every time.” Image from Free Classic Radio

One day, returning from the greengrocer, Jack encounters an old friend, Edgworth Bess, right out in front the Pinchley residence. As one might expect, Angela and Edgworth Bess don’t hit it off. In short order, they both yell “Police!”

An Antihero’s End. On November 1, Jack was back in Newgate, this time, according to Notable British Trials, “doubly ironed on both legs, handcuffed and chained down.… the weight on his manacles is said to have been 300 pounds. In order to prevent any possibility of escape, a watch was kept on him day and night.”

“At the end of the week, the keepers at Newgate had collected more than 200 guineas in entrance fees.”

By November 16, 1724, Sheppard was taken to the gallows at Tyburn. He had planned a final escape, but a prison warder relieved Jack of a secreted pen-knife before he could free his bonds.

The Last Scene, an engraving by George Cruikshank, 1839.

Jack’s notoriety/popularity brought out 200,000 people for the hanging, perhaps one-third the population of London at the time. At St. Sepulchre’s, Notable British Trials observed “numbers of young girls nearly always contrived to find a place at the steps with nosegays in their hands to throw at the convict, and kind messages and kisses to cheer him on his way.”

“One occurrence on the way gave Jack infinite delight, for he was allowed to call upon Figg the prizefighter… who had been a visitor at the Middle Stone-room at Newgate. When the procession stopped at his gate, Figg was waiting with a glass in his hand, a pint of warm sack with a toast in it, which Jack tossed off greedily.”

The Daniel Defoe link? Notable British Trials credited Daniel Defoe as “the probable ghostwriter of The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard, sold by John Applebee in Black Fryers, (Price One Shilling), 1724,” and of “A Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, &c., of John Sheppard… Written by himself during his Conefinement in the Middle Stone-Room, after his being retaken in Drury Lane, The whole Publish’d at the Particular Request of the Prisoner, printed and sold by John Applebee a little below Bridewell Bridge, in Black Fryers. (Price Six Pence), 1724.”

Think of Defoe, author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and himself having served time for bankruptcy and sedition, as a tabloid journalist. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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