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Double crossed

In the early 18th century the city of London with a circumference of roughly 36 miles, was home to some 600,000 people despite the lack of modern plumbing, crime enforcement or medicine.

The extent to which corruption, vice and crime were institutionalized inspired the works of contemporary authors like Charles Dickens, Jonathon Swift, Daniel Defoe and Henry Fielding. All these famous English literary figures were profoundly influenced by the exploits of English criminal Jonathon Wild. Wild's life and escapades served as the source material upon which the character of Peachum was based in the play The Beggar's Opera by John Gay later transformed by Bertoldt Brecht and Kurt Weil into the equally well known The 3 Penny Opera.Fielding wrote a semi fictional novel about Wild, and Dickens modeled aspects of the character Fagen after him.

The life of this now obscure character is reflected to this very day in anglo colloquialism. The origin of the phrase "Double Cross", it is claimed, can be traced back to Wild, who was once known to commoner and King as the most powerful "Thief taker" of London. A thief taker was a sort of bounty hunter and fence, serving to administer justice by capturing wanted criminals and returning stolen merchandise, and delivering criminals into the privatized penal system which existed in England and other European countries.

A convict or debtor who entered the prison system stayed there until able to in essence buy his or her way out of it, escape, or until that person was shipped off to America or the Gallows. Prisons served as a community and breeding ground for criminals which had less to do with punishment than it had to do with financial resource and connections in the criminal underground. Prisoners paid for their stay, from their accommodations, to the food they ate, to the type of shackles they were forced to endure. In practice, they often made associations that they would use to plan and execute robberies or fence stolen goods, and learned the "cant" or thief vernacular.

Wild was a graduate of that system, having been introduced to it as an inmate, and eventually having graduated from it as an administrator. Wild's ruthlessness and amorality served a desperate desire for social acceptance and advancement into the aristocracy. Following a successful career as a pimp, he engineered his career as a Thief taker or "Black Dog", as the practitioners of this occupation were known in cant.

Thief taking as practiced by Wild was in essence an officially sanctioned confidence scheme. Wild would advertise in the newspaper his ability to retrieve stolen items. In fact, he usually employed the criminals who had taken the merchandise in the first place, via his intimate knowledge of the criminal underworld and a network of snitches he had developed in his years in the prison system.

When wealthy clients employed him to retrieve items, he was nearly always able to do so, either because he already possessed the merchandise and had purchased it from the criminal, or because he could quickly identify the culprit and bring the pressure of potential incarceration to bear upon them. If criminals refused to work with Wild, he would hunt them down and deliver them into the judicial system, furthering both his stranglehold on the criminal underground, his notoriety with the average citizen.

One of Wild's innovation's was to recognize that the value of certain items to their rightful owners was often much greater than that which they would fetch on the open market. The wealthy would pay substantial amounts for a family heirloom or an item that might reveal something about them which they'd rather did not become public knowledge. Frequently Wild would advertise items recovered from places of ill repute knowing full well that the owners would seek him out and pay a healthy price to avoid the prospect that their vices might later be revealed in court proceedings or the local papers. For example, Wild directed his thieves to steal items like business ledgers, knowing the great value these books had to the owners, where previously they would never have been stolen.

This system existed and thrived within London because there was no legal policing system, but rather a "Watch System". Watchmen reported to elected Constables and as such were only responsible for watching over property. These Watchmen were more often than not, paid a minimal fee, and were generally unskilled laborers or retirees without any means or training in the pursuit of criminals. London of the 1700's was a wild and lawless city, where highwaymen robbed the wealthy as they traveled by coach to their country estates, and bands of rogues and sadists terrorized the helpless London inhabitants at night. The delivery of criminals over for trial in the court system was performed primarily by thief takers like Wild.

Wild kept a detailed ledger with the names of thieves working for him and the crimes they had committed. When Wild had sufficient evidence to convict a criminal of a crime, he would place a slash next to their name. If and when it suited him to turn them over to the court, he made a second mark, making an X. This marked the person as compromised for betrayal by Wild or "double-crossed", although etymologists have concluded that the phrase existed prior to Wild.

The modern Policing system with which we're all familiar came about thanks to the observations and outrage of Henry Fielding author of the novel Tom Jones, who spent the last part of his life as an appointed judge in Middlesex. Having observed the machinations of the legal system and the outrageous lives and popularity of people like Jonathon Wild, he eventually published a pamphlet In 1751 entitled An Inquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers, etc which called for an overhaul of the system. Fielding organized the first modern salaried police force using his home on Bow Street as an unofficial police station, and eventually this group of trusted constables came to be known at the "Bow Street Runners". They were the first to patrol the streets, pursue criminals without the motivation or prospect of a reward, and the first to combat crime using modern investigative techniques, the posting and advertisement of wanted criminals, and enough organization and manpower to break up the street gangs which previously had enjoyed a free hand in terrorizing the populous of London.

Many of these innovations and modern policing methods were overseen by Fielding's blind younger half brother John who despite his handicap became famous for his skill with interrogation and crime scene investigation. Years later, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented the character of Sherlock Holmes who like Fielding used his intellect to examine evidence and solve criminal mystery.

Like his older brother Henry, John focused on the role that poverty played in the cycle of crime, and organized some of the first charities for abandoned children which not only fed and clothed them, but more importantly, provided education and training in a trades.

My introduction to the origins of modern English crime and punishment came by way of the history The Thieves Opera by Lucy Moore which contains numerous engravings by William Hogarth. Hogarth was England's most popular artist of his day, and the first to deal realistically with contemporary social issues. The engraving above is Hogarth's The Four Stages of Cruelty Plate II, Second Stage of Cruelty which depicts the type of violence and cruelty Hogarth observed all too often in the lawless London streets of his time.


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