On this day in history : 4th March 1702 – The birth of Jack Shepherd – also known as ‘Honest Jack’ – a notorious criminal who escaped from prison several times, making him a hero to the public….

Attributed to Sir James Thornhill, chalk and pencil, circa 1724 – Public domain

Jack was born in Spitalfields, London – the son of a carpenter…. When his father died Jack’s mother could no longer provide for him and his brother, Thomas – and so she put them in the workhouse…. From here Jack was apprenticed out but badly treated…. Eventually he went to work as a shop boy for a draper, Mr William Kneebone – his mother’s employer…. It was Kneebone who taught Jack to read and write and then got him an apprenticeship with a carpenter….

For four years or so Jack was a decent hardworking young man….but there were those who wished to lead him astray…. Near to Jack’s workplace was a button maker’s shop belonging to Joseph Hayne, who also owned the Black Lion ale house in Drury Lane…. It was here that Hayne would entice young apprentices – as it was the hang-out of a hardened bunch of criminals always on the lookout for new blood….

Jack began to frequent the Black Lion and found himself spending time in the company of fallen women – especially one in particular – ‘Edgworth Bess’’ so-called because she hailed from Edgworth….although her real name was Elizabeth Lyon…. Soon Jack was stealing small items from the houses he worked in, trinkets, silverware and the like, to keep his new lady friend happy….

George Cruikshank – Public domain

It wasn’t long before Jack’s carpentry work began to suffer…. With only two years of his apprenticeship left to complete he quit his position…. Encouraged by Edgworth Bess he took up a life of crime, progressing on to breaking into houses to supplement his income…. He continued to work as a tradesman carpenter so he could carry on stealing from his clients….

Jack and Edgworth Bess started to live together as common-law man and wife…. When she was arrested and imprisoned in St Giles Roundhouse he was refused permission to visit her…. Undaunted, he broke into the prison and ‘rescued’ her….

He was now leading the life of a seasoned criminal – and he wasn’t the only one…. His brother, Tom – also a carpenter – already had a conviction for stealing his master’s tools and had received a branding on his hand for his trouble…. Jack, Tom and Edgworth Bess committed a burglary on a linen draper’s in Clare Market – scared he would hang this time Tom put all the blame on to his brother…. A warrant was put out for Jack’s arrest – only he couldn’t be found….

There was no honour amongst this group of thieves…. Jack was invited to an ale house for a game of skittles by fellow felon James Sykes – also known as ‘Hell and Fury’…. Sykes had laid a trap, by tipping off a constable, so that he could get his hands on the reward money…. Jack was arrested, taken before the magistrate and imprisoned in St Giles Roundhouse – only to make his escape by breaking out through the roof….

It was a short while after that Jack was crossing Leicester Fields with Benson, an associate…. Seeing a chance to steal a gentleman’s pocket watch Benson thought he would try his luck….only it wasn’t his lucky day…. The gentleman cried out “pick pocket!” – and Jack found himself back in prison, the St Ann’s Roundhouse this time…. When Edgworth Bess turned up to visit him she too was detained on suspicion of being an accomplice….

The following day, after an appearance before the magistrate, the pair were sent to New Prison…. As ‘husband and wife’ they were allowed to stay together and were housed in ‘Newgate Ward’…. They were visited by well wishing acquaintances, who smuggled in tools for Jack to attempt an escape…. A few days later he sawed through his shackles, made a hole in the wall and then using bedsheets tied together he and Edgworth Bess lowered themselves to the ground below…. They then managed to scale the prison gates and made their escape….

George Cruikshank – Public domain

By this time Jack was gaining fame for his exploits…. He was a good looking chap, with a likeable character and a cheeky line in banter…. Other thieves begged to be allowed to go a-thieving with him…. He was to go into partnership with Joseph ‘Blueskin’ Blake – but they were to be betrayed by some rival crooks and Jack was to be arrested yet again – and held at Newgate Prison…. He faced prosecution on three accounts at the Old Bailey – but was to be acquitted of the first two through lack of evidence…. However, he was found guilty of the third and sentenced to death – the date being set for Friday the 4th of September 1724….

Jack wasn’t beaten yet though…. He managed to loosen an iron bar on a window of his cell….when visited by Edgworth Bess and another female friend, Moll Maggot, the two women distracted the guards and he removed the bar…. Being of slight build and only 5ft 4” tall Jack managed to squeeze through the gap – he was then smuggled out of the prison dressed in women’s attire – once again he had escaped….

George Cruikshank – Public domain

After two weeks of freedom Jack was rearrested on the 9th of September by a posse from Newgate Prison – and he was returned to the condemned cell…. His fame had spread – he was visited by many, some out of curiosity and others wanting to help…. However his plans to escape were thwarted when a stash of files and tools were found in his cell…. He was taken to a strong room within the prison, known as ‘the Castle’…. Here he was clapped in leg irons and chained….and when he managed to pick the lock to those found himself handcuffed as well….

Public domain

Jack’s brother and Blueskin were arrested on the 9th of October and the following day Tom was transported…. Blueskin faced trial on the 14th – when evidence was given against him, by a rival, Blueskin attacked him in the courtroom with a pocket knife – slashing his throat…. The disturbance quickly spread throughout Newgate Prison, which was situated next door…. Jack took advantage of the commotion – he managed to unlock his handcuffs and broke through the ceiling…. Still wearing leg irons he continued to break through another six rooms until he reached the prison chapel, from there he managed to reach the prison roof…. He returned to his cell, fetched a blanket, which he then used to reach the roof of an adjacent house…. Jack then broke in, crept down the stairs, out of the door and onto the street…. He made his way to Tottenham, where he hid in a barn…. When discovered by the owner he convinced him that he had escaped from Bridewell Prison where he was being held for not supporting a bastard son! Telling the same story to a passing tradesman he paid him 20 shillings to remove his leg irons….

People were astonished by Jack’s escapades…. Daniel Defoe, who was then a journalist, covered his story and wrote pamphlets about him…. However, two weeks later Jack was arrested one last time…. He had broken into the establishment of a pawn broker and helped himself to a black silk suit, a silver sword, wig and all the finery of a gentleman…. He then went on a bender with two of his lady friends…. He was apprehended during the early hours of the 1st of November 1724 absolutely rip-roaring drunk…. He was taken back to Newgate and placed in a stone room where he could be watched at all times…. As an extra precaution he was chained down with 300lbs of iron weights…. Such was the interest in him that his gaolers charged 4 shillings a time to see him…. The King’s painter, James Thornhill, painted his portrait…. A pubic outcry called for his sentence to be commuted to transportation and when he was taken before Mr Justice Powis, at Westminster Hall on the 10th of November, he was offered the chance to reduce his sentence – if he informed on his associates…. But he refused and the death sentence was upheld…. The following day Blueskin was hanged and Jack took his place in the condemned cell….

Engraving by George White – Public domain

On Monday the 16th of November Jack was taken to Tyburn, to the gallows…. A last attempt at escape failed, as the penknife he had been intending to use to cut the ropes, that bound him on the way to the gallows, was discovered…. The procession of his cart through the streets had something of a carnival atmosphere – some 200,000 people lined the streets to see him go by…. Rather than the usual rotten fruit, stones and worse hurled at a cart making its way to Tyburn, the good natured crowds celebrated Jack….

Once the hangman had the noose in place sadly, for Jack, it was not to be a quick death…. Due to his slight stature he had to endure a long, traumatic strangulation…. After the obligatory 15 minutes waiting time following death, his body was cut down…. The crowd surged forward, preventing Jack’s friends from snatching his body, as was their plan – in the vain hope that by whisking him away to a doctor he may be revived….

Engraving by George Cruikshank – Public domain

Jack’s remains were buried in the churchyard of St Martin-in-the -Fields later that evening….

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