the double cross

A funny little vignette from my reading of A Brief History of Britain 1660-1851: The Making of A Nation.

It seems that in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the people of Britain were very concerned with crime. Many crimes were considered capital crimes, including theft. In 1693 a reward of 40 pounds was introduced to anyone who apprehended and successfully prosecuted highway robbers. Later this was extended to burglary. It was hoped that this reward would cut down on crime. One thing it did was create an entrepreneurial opportunity.

One man, Jonathan Wild (self-marketed as the “thief-taker general”), made a lot of money in a career of catching thieves and sending them to the gallows. He was a noted figure and was even consulted by the Privy Council as they sought ways to deal with crime. A noble citizen?

Well, not exactly. You see, Wild set up the crimes himself, obtained the loot, turned it back in along with evidence against the criminal (who had no idea who was behind the crime), and pocketed the rewards. He claimed to have helped convict over sixty criminals. He had a wide network of informers and kept a ledger of his many contacts. Those who were good informers had a cross by their names. Those who provided false information or misled him in some way got … you guessed it … a double cross.

Alas for poor Jonathan, he was not well-liked it seems. In the end his evil ways caught up with him and in his pursuit of a particular criminal, he himself was tripped up, convicted of theft and involvement in a gaol break. He ended up on the wrong end of a rope himself, having sent many there ahead of him. He was 42.

I am sure there are many morals to this story, not the least of which is the questionable wisdom of government policies that made it possible for such a cheat to make a living by cheating.