Sam Willis looks at urban crime, fraud and corruption in the 18th century, uncovering a fascinating rogues gallery of charmers, fraudsters and villains.
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Crime was endemic in the 18th century.
On the open roads, robbers robbed with impunity.
On the high seas, pirates roamed.
And closer to home, rogues threatened
the lives and livelihoods of ordinary citizens.
Nowhere was safe, least of all towns and cities,
where, from their own underworld, felons robbed, burgled and cheated.
From the lowest to the highest,
from the likable rogue to the seemingly respectable gentleman,
there was contempt for the rule of law.
Men like Thomas Benson MP, a sheriff turned outlaw,
"Deacon" Brodie, the original Jekyll and Hyde,
and Jack Sheppard, the most artful one of them all.
For a time, they evaded the law,
but the law was closing in.
This was the last age of the outlaw.
The most famous rogue of the age
was an orphaned apprentice - Jack Sheppard -
and a very likable rogue he was, too.
Jack would go on to be the most written-about
and celebrated criminal of the last 300 years.
The legend of Jack Sheppard was forged one September day in 1724,
when he escaped from the condemned cell in Newgate Prison,
the most secure prison in the land.
No prison, no matter how secure, seemed able to contain him.
He was admired by men and adored by women.
Jack Sheppard was famous in his lifetime
and for three centuries after, he inspired books, operas and films.
He was the rock star of his age, a loveable rogue.
He was Jack the Lad.
Jack was brought up in poverty by his mother,
but he was fortunate to get a carpenter's apprenticeship.
It was an opening that would serve him well.
Carpentry was a good, safe trade.
Because London was growing all the time,
there was never a shortage of customers.
London was also the largest city in Europe -
through its port and merchant houses,
a river of valuable commodities and money flowed.
It was a good place to earn an honest living,
but it was the perfect place for a life of crime.
In London's dense network of thoroughfares,
the very rich rubbed shoulders with the desperately poor.
Contemporary accounts tell us
that Jack never finished his apprenticeship.
His father had been an honest man
and Jack may well have followed suit, if he'd not been fond -
rather too fond - of a drop of ale and of the company of women.
One fateful night, he was drinking in the Black Lion in Drury Lane
and we know that he then met Elizabeth Lyon,
known to all as "Edgworth Bess".
Bess was a prostitute and petty thief,
who frequented the taverns of the town.
Later writers would suggest that Jack had been led astray by Bess.
Jack Sheppard's story follows
a very common narrative thread in the 18th century,
where it's the woman that leads the slightly innocent man into sin.
So, he wants to buy her presents, he wants to impress her,
he wants to take her out carousing and so she maybe introduces him
to someone who will fence some goods that she suggests he might steal.
Lovestruck, Jack was eager to please
and as an apprentice carpenter,
he had every opportunity to pilfer from the houses of the well-to-do,
where no-one seemed to notice the quick and nimble Jack.
Small items were brought home to curry favour with the ample Bess.
Jack now embarked on a new career as a pickpocket and burglar,
with Bess as his ideal fence.
Jack's elder brother Thomas
had already been branded on the hand as a thief.
Now, Jack was following after.
Because of his trade, Jack knew how window and door locks worked,
and he also knew how the window bars, that were so common in London, were fitted.
So, it was easy work for him to remove the bars,
rob the house and then replace them.
Jack Sheppard and his brother then set out
on a short but disastrous crime spree.
Cash from a public house,
a large haul of linen from a drapers,
then, fatefully, a house robbery in Drury Lane.
And then, things started to go wrong.
Jack's brother was caught with the swag -
I hesitate to say red-handed -
but now, fearing for his own skin and hoping to receive leniency,
he blamed it all on Edgworth Bess and Jack, his own brother.
Jack was soon arrested
and taken to St Giles' Roundhouse, near Charing Cross.
St Giles' Roundhouse was just a local lock-up
and clearly inadequate for keeping Jack in for long.
He was to be detained just for one night,
and questioned in the morning.
Jack had to act quickly.
That night, he broke through the timber ceiling onto the roof.
The noise of his escape and the falling roof tiles
attracted a small crowd.
And then, displaying the typical coolness
that later endeared him to all of London,
he joined the crowd and distracted them, saying
he could see the shadow of the prisoner escaping over the rooftops.
And then, he slipped away.
Jack was agile in mind and body.
His escape and his daring
made him the perfect model as the 18th century antihero.
It was April 1724.
Jack was just 22 years old,
and the chain of events that would make Jack famous - dead famous -
had just begun.
Within a few weeks, on the 19th of May,
Sheppard was arrested for a second time.
He was caught picking a pocket in Leicester Fields -
modern day Leicester Square.
Jack was put in St Anne's Roundhouse,
where he was visited by Bess,
and then, she too was arrested as his accomplice
and thrown in jail with him.
Jack and Bess appeared before magistrates
and were sent to New Prison in Clerkenwell.
Manacled and held in cells with iron bars,
escaping from there would be a different proposition altogether.
And yet, within days, both of them were free.
Using a smuggled file, they cut through the manacles,
then Jack managed to work a bar loose in the cell window.
With a rope of knotted bedclothes, he first lowered Bess,
and then escaped himself.
This small, slight boy, really, carries his...
Plump, I think is the kind way to describe her -
she was described as a "blowsy".
Carrying her somehow over the wall, out the window, down the wall,
through the yard, up and over again.
And it's definitely part of his mystique
that he does it with... You know, he does it with her.
Their audacious escape hit the newspapers.
Broadsides and ballads proclaimed Jack's name.
Jack, daring and gallant, was the talk of the town.
Plays about Jack Sheppard would become
one of the most popular entertainments of the next two centuries
and he would be immortalised as the Artful Dodger
in Dickens' Oliver Twist.
No matter how popular Jack now was,
he soon made an unfortunate enemy.
It was known that most of London's criminal underworld
was controlled by one man - Jonathan Wild.
Wild was an apparently respectable man,
who moved in influential circles.
He used his connections to lead a double life,
by running criminal gangs and bringing thieves to justice.
Jonathan Wild called himself a thief-taker general.
It wasn't an official position, but he got a lot of official backing
because he could produce the results.
I mean, Jonathan Wild was a complete rogue and a villain,
he was the Moriarty of crime.
In fact, Arthur Conan Doyle, in his Sherlock Holmes stories,
refers to Moriarty and calls him Jonathan Wild.
He ran gangs, he fenced stolen goods,
he shopped rival gang members
and, of course, I suppose, from the authority's point of view...
OK, he'd destroyed one gang
so, actually, that's got rid of all that lot.
On the other hand, he'd increased his own power
and probably increased his own manpower
and had a larger share in the takings.
The justice system relied on men like Wild.
He even had an office in the Old Bailey...
..as well as a house a few doors down, at number 68.
Jonathan Wild seemed to be the puppet master
for the courts of justice and the criminal underworld
and everything was going his way -
until he picked on a thief and burglar - young Jack Sheppard.
Jack Sheppard held it as a point of pride
that he had never dealt with Jonathan Wild,
and that was part of the reason he was popular on the streets of London,
because he held himself apart
from the kind of criminal fraternity that Wild represented.
Even though Bess and "Blueskin" Blake
and his other accomplices were involved with Wild,
Jack always was proud not to have been.
Jonathan Wild was determined to catch Sheppard
and, seeing Bess as the weak link, he plied her with drink
and she foolishly led Wild to Jack.
Successful as Jack was at escaping,
unfortunately, he was equally as successful at getting caught.
Jack never seemed to wander far
from his usual haunts in this part of town.
If he was not womanising, he was drinking.
And most of the time, it was both at the same time.
One day, he'd been burgling again,
this time with his friend and fellow criminal Joseph "Blueskin" Blake.
Now, where did Wild's men find Jack?
Why, at "Blueskin" Blake's mother's brandy shop!
Jack was sent to Newgate - a much more serious proposition,
being the most secure prison in London,
to be tried at the Old Bailey next door.
The Old Bailey consisted of a single, open-air court room.
I mean, part of it undercover, where the judge would sit and so on,
but the majority of the space was just open, exposed and open-air.
But the reason was twofold.
One, it was thought that you were less likely to catch disease,
and the other thing, of course, was open justice.
Public justice, in terms of people being able to see the procedures,
see people being tried,
found guilty or not guilty, but justice being done.
But convictions - and false convictions - often carried rewards.
It was a corruptible system and no-one knew how to corrupt it better
than the devious Jonathan Wild.
Wild exerted a powerful hold on criminals across London.
If they didn't co-operate, he simply had them arrested
and claimed the reward.
And if he needed any witnesses to secure a conviction -
well, he knew plenty of people who'd tell a convincing tale
for a little bit of cash.
A lot of people that Wild shopped were guilty criminals, anyway.
So, you didn't need to fabricate false evidence against them,
they often came laden with it themselves.
But it was certainly true that there was unease
within the legal profession and the senior judiciary
that, in fact, we might be getting a lot of miscarriages of justice
as a result of our over-reliance on paid - and well-paid - informants.
On the 12th of August 1724,
Jack faced two charges of theft and one of burglary.
A serious prospect, as even quite minor crimes against property
were punishable by death.
On the first two charges of theft,
he was acquitted for lack of evidence,
but the third - for burglary - was recorded as "plainly proved".
Jack was sentenced to hang.
Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild were now inextricably linked.
Each would lead to the downfall of the other.
Jack was a condemned man.
Wild appeared to have had the upper hand.
Jack was still allowed visitors, including his supposed wife Bess,
the woman whose weakness for drink had landed him in this trouble.
On the day that the official warrant arrived,
naming Friday the 4th of September
as the day that Sheppard would be "turned off",
as the slang would have it, our Jack escaped again -
and this time, from Newgate itself.
Over the intervening three weeks,
Jack had managed to loosen a bar.
And using Bess and her friend Poll Maggot to distract the guards,
he changed into women's clothing
and coolly walked out of the most secure prison in the land.
Jack's freedom was short-lived, only nine days.
Again, Wild tracked him down, arrested him
and brought him back to Newgate -
this time high up in the building, to a cell called "the castle".
It was considered escape-proof.
Here, he was bound hand and foot and shackled to the floor.
Jack was now famous throughout London.
His charm and daring escapes made him a hero.
At Newgate, he was a one-man tourist trade,
as many paid to see the living legend that was Jack Sheppard.
To his admiring fans and to the gaolers,
he would then display the tricks he used to escape his chains.
To discover more about Jack's techniques,
I've come to London's Guildhall Library to meet Peter Ross,
a leading expert on Jack Sheppard.
We know, from the accounts of when people came into his cell,
he was very willing to demonstrate how he got his cuffs off.
He did it repeatedly. He was caught in his cell with his cuffs off.
He would have got out of them by slipping his hand
through the handcuff itself.
So that's what he was doing and he was willing to demonstrate that
to anybody who would be willing to watch him do it.
It sounds almost implausible that you could just slip off manacles,
so he must have been a real escapologist.
Exactly, he was an escapologist.
'These chains are from the Metropolitan Police's Black Museum.
'By late Victorian times,
'many wanted to believe these were the genuine article.'
What's significant about these particular cuffs is
they have a lock on them -
and we think it's probable that Jack Sheppard's cuffs
did not have a lock on them
and that he would have been fixed into them with a rivet
by a blacksmith, who would have been at Newgate Prison.
So, he did pick locks, because we know he picked the lock
that fixed him to the floor of the cell,
but in this case, he had no problem slipping his hands out.
It's so clear that people just want to have artefacts
relating to this person -
particularly artefacts like handcuffs and manacles,
because they represent the law.
-They want a hero who can escape authority.
It's something about the 1720s,
the fact that the Government was very oppressive,
the fact that people in London were fixed in their jobs.
Apprentices were controlled, the whole of society was controlled.
So, if you see somebody who's sort of not only anti-society,
but is against the Government in some way by escaping from the Government,
escaping from authority, then he gradually becomes a popular hero.
The next chapter in Jack's legend was down to a stroke of luck.
While he was in prison,
"Blueskin" Blake had been double-crossed by Wild
and convicted of robbery on his evidence.
"In a fit of rage, Blake rushed at Wild with a blade
"and slashed his throat."
A riot ensued.
High up in the castle, Jack took advantage of this mayhem.
He slipped his handcuffs and, still in leg irons,
attempted to wriggle up the chimney.
He managed to burrow into the chimney with an iron bar he found there
and climb up through the chimney
and out through five or six bolted rooms...
..onto a roof, eventually at the edge of the prison,
where he saw he could climb down.
He realised he had nothing, like a rope, to climb down with.
So, he retraced his steps back to his cell, gathered up his blankets
and then went back to the roof,
where he lowered himself onto the house of one William Bird,
who was fast asleep.
Jack was away and free.
He bribed a shoemaker to break his chains,
stole some fine clothes and dressed as a gentleman.
For two weeks, he lived life to the full.
You have to wonder, why doesn't he just leave?
Why doesn't he do what one of his accomplices did
and make a new life in the United States?
Why doesn't he go and live in the country?
Why doesn't he just escape London?
He doesn't seem to have the idea of possibility of a different life.
He's so grounded in that underworld of Covent Garden,
of pickpockets, of sharps and flash women,
that he can't ever imagine living outside it.
After a night's drinking,
it's said that he even took two floozies in a cab past Newgate,
to show them where he'd escaped from.
Now, he had a fine old night that night,
but in the morning, he had far more than a hangover to contend with.
Jack was found in a local tavern a few hours later,
blind drunk and dressed in a handsome suit of black
with a fine ring on his finger.
Unfortunately for him,
the people that found him were the officers of the law.
Back in Newgate,
the great and the good bribed their way in to meet him
and even the King sent Sir James Thornhill -
his personal portrait painter - to capture Jack's image.
Jack's last journey was along what is now Oxford Street,
but then Oxford Road.
200,000 people - that's a third of London -
turned out to see him.
He was their hero. People waved, women called his name.
On the day of Jack's execution,
he's taken in a cart from Newgate to Tyburn,
which is modern Marble Arch, along the Oxford Road.
People drank his health as he passed them outside pubs,
he drank some brandy.
The roads would have been crowded with people
coming out to see their hero die.
At Marble Arch was the Tyburn Gallows,
a triangle of wood known as the "Tyburn tree"
and it was here where our Jack was hanged.
It was a ghastly experience for the crowd,
because his slim, boyish frame -
which had been such an asset for breaking and entering and escaping -
now condemned him to a slow death by strangulation.
For 15 minutes, his body writhed and kicked, before he died.
Although Jack's crimes look quite modest to modern eyes,
the legal system of the time
came down hard on all forms of robbery or burglary.
In fact, any theft of over five shillings
could be punishable by death.
In order to deter people from property theft,
when detection was unlikely,
when prevention was equally unlikely...
..deterrence was considered to be the be-all and end-all.
And deterrence was not...
It wasn't that you hanged people for the most serious offences,
you hanged people for the offences that were easiest to commit.
And what about Jonathan Wild, Jack's nemesis?
Legend and broadsheet had it that Wild turned up to watch Jack die.
But in truth, he'd been too weakened by "Blueskin" Blake's attack
to venture outdoors.
As his health failed, Wild's grip on his criminal empire began to weaken.
Previously terrified witnesses came forward to accuse him
and it was only a matter of time before he, too, was in the dock.
Of all his vile and devious crimes,
it was finally the simple theft of some lace
that had him convicted and sent to the gallows.
As a loyal public servant, he pleaded for a reprieve,
but reprieve there was none.
On his journey to the gallows, he was pelted with rotten fruit.
Such was the desire to see Wild executed
that tickets were actually sold for the best seats at his execution.
This is a satirical copy, sending up this macabre trade.
Here at the top is an image of a very worried-looking Jonathan Wild
and underneath it is the invitation.
"To all the thieves, whores, pick-pockets,
"family felons in Great Britain and Ireland,
"you are herby desired to accompany your worthy friend,
"the pious Mr Jonathan Wild,
"to the triple tree, where he is to make his last exit."
When it finally came to it,
Wild was strung up alongside three of his associates.
Wild was the last to die.
Jonathan Wild's body was cut down by his family
and buried quietly in a nearby churchyard.
But he would not rest in peace.
This is the Hunterian, the Museum of the College of Surgeons,
or "surgeons and barbers", as it would have been in the 18th century.
It's full of strange and disturbing relics of the human condition.
And, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce you
to Mr Jonathan Wild, thief-taker general.
And yes, it is he.
In an opportunistic theft, of which he may or may not have approved,
his body was exhumed and sold to the Royal College of Surgeons.
And he has been their guest ever since,
not that far from the Old Bailey, where he plied his deadly trade.
While all that remains of Wild is his skeleton,
the legend of Jack Sheppard continued to live and grow
in plays, operas and ballads for the next 300 years.
Hogarth was said to have based
his Idle Apprentice engravings on Jack Sheppard.
And a century after his death,
a novel about Jack by Harriet Ainsworth
was the publishing sensation of Victorian England,
outselling books by a chap called Dickens.
Yes, Ainsworth did romanticise it a bit,
but Jack had been orphaned at four
and life had been very difficult, both for him and for his mother.
And yet, he lived life to the full, he enjoyed a good party
and he died as he lived -
with wit, charm and panache -
a real working-class hero.
Jack Sheppard was a legend in his own lifetime and long after.
A popular ballad told his story
in the slang of the criminal underworld.
# In a box of a stone jug I was born
# Of a hempen widow the kid forlorn
-# Fake away
# And my noble father As I've heard say
# Was a famous merchant of capers gay
# Nix my dolly, pals, fake away Nix my dolly, pals, fake away
# But I slipped my darbies one fine day
# And gave the dubsman a holy day
-# Fake away
# And here I am, pals Merry and free
# A regular rollicking Romany
# Nix my dolly, pals, fake away, Nix my dolly, pals, fake away
# Nix my dolly, pals, fake away Nix my dolly, pals, fake away. #
So, that was fantastic.
But the interesting thing, for me, is the language.
-What's...what's going on there?
-I mean, take the first line.
It says, "In the box of a stone jug I was born," and that means...
He's basically saying, "I was born in a prison cell."
OK. And was that true?
-Not at all. But it sounds great.
So, we've got these incredible stories which are basically made-up,
but sung in this funny language, as well.
But it's the boisterousness of it which so appeals to me,
because you want to sing it to someone else.
-And I suppose that's how it spread?
That's what made the difference between which songs survived
and which didn't, and if it had a great tune,
then that would definitely help it to spread across the country.
You could really imagine people standing on street corners
-singing that one, can't you?
-They certainly did.
What you get a sense of, I think, with these songs
is that a really exciting story
is much more important than a true story.
And of course, the most fantastical story
-is that brilliant one about Mary Toft.
The woman who gave birth to rabbits.
The woman who gave birth to rabbits, and we believe it all.
It's got this brilliant line, this song...
"The weakest woman sometimes made the wisest man deceived."
So, I think it's one we should play out on.
-Let's go for it.
# Most true it is, I dare to say That since the days of Eve
# The weakest woman sometimes may The wisest man deceive
# At Godalming, hard by the bull A woman long thought barren,
# Bears rabbits, be gad! So plentiful
# You'd take her for a warren. #
Believe it or not, Alexander Pope,
the greatest poet of the age and translator of Homer,
was the author of this bawdy ballad to the rabbit breeder of Godalming.
In the annals of all roguery,
there's nothing to compare with this -
one of the greatest frauds of all time.
If Jack Sheppard was the most widely-loved villain of the age,
then Mary Toft - the rabbit woman -
was the most curious criminal case of the century.
She was famous for being sent to prison for giving birth to rabbits.
Yes, rabbits - and rather a lot of them.
It was a hoax that captivated the crowd
as much as it mocked the King and his court.
In the language of the time, it was known as the great "Whim-Wham" -
a swiftly-made trifle, a bit of fun.
Mary Toft was an illiterate pregnant 25-year-old from Surrey.
She seemed, in every way, unremarkable.
But her story would be the most remarked on of the age,
and it would, unfortunately, land her behind bars.
So, how did this bunnies-in-the-oven story begin?
Well, in the nature of all good rabbit stories,
let's begin at the beginning.
What's the matter, Doctor?
it would appear that your wife has been delivered of a rabbit.
Mary Toft's story is that, when she was pregnant,
she saw a rabbit in the field and it captivated her.
Suddenly, all she could think about was rabbits,
and this somehow meant
that the baby she was carrying turned into a rabbit.
Or maybe it was always a rabbit and... Who knows?
But there she is, giving birth to rabbits.
'The doctor - drunk or not -
'who delivered the rabbit was John Howard.'
If you don't believe me, go and look for yourself.
John Howard seemed to believe what he wanted to believe
and he wanted to be in on
the greatest medical sensation of the age.
So, when he should have paused,
he jumped right in and he immediately penned a letter
to the eminent medical men,
including the Swiss-German Nathaniel St Andre,
the surgeon to the royal household, who believed him.
Now joining the ranks of the credulous was the King himself
and his son, the Prince of Wales.
Mary Toft was now famous for being famous.
Like all the best confidence tricks,
the rabbit births played into a narrative
that people were strangely willing to believe.
And this was a pseudo-scientific theory
called "maternal impressions".
It had long been a sort of idea of folklore and common belief
that, if you saw something that deeply impressed you
when you were pregnant,
your child would somehow reflect that experience.
The Elephant Man was the most famous example of this.
It was said that the mother had seen an elephant while she was pregnant
and that was what had caused the baby to be born in that way.
It was said, during the Civil War,
that a woman had given birth to a baby with two heads,
because that reflected the division in society at the time.
So, it's quite a common view.
I mean, I suppose it's an extension of the idea
that, if you have a terrible shock when you're pregnant,
it might affect your baby.
Mary was a national sensation.
These were the early days of newspapers
and if crime sold, well, rabbits sold even better.
Physicians and the landed gentry competed to meet her,
feel her stomach and await the next rabbit.
No-one may enter the bed chamber, except on payment of a guinea!
Well, Dr St Andre will let me in, I'm his most intimate friend.
A guinea, madam.
-Oh! Very well.
-There we are.
'Before long, lords and ladies thronged to Godalming
'to meet the wonder of the age.
'No amount of thieving could have brought Mary greater success.'
Oh, the sweet, harmless little creatures.
May I have one and take it back to London?
I'm sure Mr Toft would be delighted to sell you one.
There's no question of it, madam. These animals belong to science.
Toft, have you a strong basket?
Of course, anyone looking at it rationally would say
a woman can't give birth to rabbits,
but we're just moving from a period in which...
You know, from an age of wonders to an age of science -
and there are all sorts of grey areas in between,
where the perpetuation of popular culture -
popular ideas, superstitions -
still seems to have a sort of a draw to it, you know?
Well, we know that can't be right,
but hang on, how is she doing it, then?
How is it that doctors have been to see her and apparently come out
shrugging their shoulders and saying, "She seems to be doing it"?
Of course, some people thought that this was all complete tosh.
But then again, if the King, his heir the Prince of Wales
and the most eminent surgeon in the land believed it...
Well, this was all going to end unhappily for someone.
The King's surgeon, Nathaniel St Andre, examined a rabbit.
And then, with all medical propriety,
the intimate regions of Mary Toft.
He was satisfied with what he saw.
He rushed to publish the learned thesis
that he hoped would cement his place in history.
It would - but not in the way he imagined.
The final act was exquisite in its timing.
While Nathaniel St Andre's book was at the printers,
rumours spread that Mary Toft's husband had been caught
smuggling rabbits into the household.
He claimed they were for a meal -
a rather unsettling observation for a man
whose wife was giving birth to rabbits on a fairly regular basis.
Then, another obstetrician, Thomas Manningham,
decided to confront Mary and say
that he felt obliged to conduct an investigatory operation
to see if she was formed differently from other women.
Mary was terrified.
She quickly broke down and confessed.
The immediate public aftermath was glee.
The most eminent satirical engraver of his day, William Hogarth,
etched his famous Cunicularii, Or The Wise Men Of Godliman,
in which he lampooned the main players.
It delighted the public to hold their betters up to ridicule,
especially the King and his German cronies.
A "Whim-Wham", it most certainly was.
Of course, once the gaffe is blown,
then everybody slaps themselves on the back and says, "Yes, of course!"
But then, the whole thing gets used by critics of the English.
I mean, Voltaire even writes about Mary Toft,
mainly so that he can just point out how superstitious the English are.
You know, the French, of course, are far more sophisticated
and wouldn't dream of doing anything so silly(!)
Of course, there were casualties.
St Andre was the first.
He was publicly humiliated at court
and it was said that he never ate rabbit again.
Mary was sent to Bridewell Prison
for being a vile imposter and a cheat.
She was satirised as the "Surrey rabbit breeder",
and she never escaped the sexual innuendo of her condition.
After all, the 18th century word for a "rabbit track" was a "prick".
Mary was held in Tothill Fields Prison,
but she could not be held indefinitely without a trial.
And who would lose most by her conviction?
After all, she hadn't done much, except hoodwink the establishment.
So, she was quietly released.
In her time, Mary Toft had achieved something remarkable.
She had outwitted a society that seldom expected,
or allowed, any social progress,
especially for women.
When Mary Toft died, her name was in the newspaper.
It was listed alongside the great and the good.
There's no way, in her ordinary existence,
her name would have been listed in the newspapers when she died.
So, in some ways, I suppose you could say
that it had been a successful fraud.
Fraud was a growing problem in the 18th century.
It was the white-collar - well, the white-ruffle - crime of the day.
And no-one was more roguish, villainous or devious
than one particular member of the Georgian elite.
The rich, it appeared, were often above the law.
One well-connected Devon merchant, Thomas Benson,
cheated the taxman out of close to £1,000,000 in today's money,
was a human trafficker
and committed one of the largest insurance frauds of the century.
Benson's crimes were perpetrated far away from crowded London.
They centred on the picturesque and peaceful
North Devon town of Appledore.
In 1747, at the age of 39,
the world seemed to lie at Benson's feet.
He was married with children and had inherited wealth
and merchant ships from his successful father.
What's more, the King had just made him Sherriff of Devon,
so Benson was law and order in the county -
the man to bring justice to its people.
What could possibly go wrong?
Benson lived at a time and in a place
where there were immense rewards to be had.
The North Devon coast in the mid-18th century
was benefiting enormously from the trade
in and out of Bristol and to the Americas.
So, how did Benson begin his climb up the greasy pole?
And how did he acquire the veneer of respectability?
Well, one particular object in the Guildhall in Barnstaple,
I think, gives the game away.
And this is it.
It's a seriously impressive, solid silver, very large punch bowl.
Just here, we can see Benson's coat of arms.
Now, next to it, there's an inscription.
"The gift of Thomas Benson Esquire to the Corporation of Barnstaple."
And the key thing in understanding that
is that we know he gave it to them
just before he decided to run as Member of Parliament for Barnstaple
and that, that year, he was elected unopposed.
Now, I shouldn't really say it here,
but I think it might have been a bribe.
The Thomas Benson case illustrates, I think, just how...
above a certain level, corruption was rife.
Everybody knew that corruption
lay at the heart of the English electoral system.
You know, I mean the idea that there were perks and preferences
and crony-ish kind of activities going on
at all levels of society was common.
People understood that the higher up the social scale you went,
the less likely you were to get caught,
the less likely you were to be put through the courts.
It was the poor that always gets the blame.
Benson now started to play the system for all it was worth
by escalating his occasional dodgy dealing into full-scale fraud.
Benson lived on that hill up there
and from there, he could watch as his ships set sail
for France, Portugal and the Americas.
Now, behind me is the sheltered estuary.
But beyond it is the open sea,
and that's where we'll discover that this man, who was the law,
sought to live outside of the law.
To get to the bottom of Benson's roguery,
I'm taking a boat trip to the island of Lundy in the Bristol Channel.
-Hello. How are you doing?
-Sam, isn't it?
-It is. Nice to meet you.
-Thank you very much.
Over a period of six years, from 1747 to 1753,
an extraordinary tale unfolded -
one that would shock Benson's constituents,
dishonour his office, and leave a catalogue of smuggling
and deception on a quite breathtaking scale.
Lundy would play an important part in Benson's tale.
Shortly after he became MP and Sheriff for Devon,
Thomas Benson took the lease of the island.
An island that was apparently uninhabited, neglected and derelict.
On a good day, Benson could see this island from his house.
But he wasn't interested in romantic ruins
and he decided to make Lundy the key to his nefarious deeds.
He would make this island his own private kingdom.
Lundy lies at the gateway to the Bristol Channel.
Just three miles long,
it is now the peaceful haunt of holidaymakers and birdwatchers.
In the 18th century, it was a dangerous place -
a place of smugglers and mysterious comings and goings.
It was not a place that welcomed prying eyes or probing questions.
Thomas Benson MP used his position
to secure lucrative tobacco contracts,
but strangely, the amount of tobacco loaded on his ships in America
was always more than that which was unloaded in England.
I think you can guess where the rest went.
To evade customs tax, Benson secretly unloaded tobacco on Lundy.
Then, when he felt it was safe,
he would smuggle the rest ashore under the noses of the revenue men.
A very profitable scam.
But Benson had another secret to conceal.
As well as smuggle tobacco,
he also had an illicit trade in convicts.
Benson was able to get a contract to transport convicts to the Americas.
Not very many of them at a time, but a few of them.
And what he did was take them to Lundy Island,
which was not, in his view, part of England.
In the making of this programme,
we uncovered 14 separate contracts in the Devon Heritage Centre.
These documents revealed the true scale of Benson's corrupt empire.
Evidence that the real rogues of the age
were not the poor pickpocket or thief,
but men like Thomas Benson.
This is one of the original contracts that Benson signed
to take convicts to America,
and it's a remarkable document
that puts everything that he did into context.
First of all, we have the date, just under his signature
and his seal at the bottom.
Then, there is a list of these poor people
who are going to be transported.
We see Elizabeth Penny, William Frost, John Lake and others.
There are 12 people here.
It says very clearly that they have been adjudged to be transported
to some of His Majesty's colonies and plantations in America.
Now, I think most interesting of all
is that right down at the bottom here, it says
the only reason that he is not to fulfil this duty
is if these convicts "suffer from death,
"casualties of the seas,
"or having been taken by enemy."
Only those were the exceptions
by which he doesn't have to fulfil this contract.
Despite what seemed watertight contracts,
some of these men and women never reached America.
They ended up in Lundy, barely 12 miles off the coast.
It was said that the convicts were housed in the ruins of the castle -
and sometimes, in a cave below.
The graffiti on the cave walls some believe belongs to
the poor, unfortunate convicts -
men and women who were exploited without mercy.
Trapped, because the penalty for escaping transportation was death.
He's so brazen about this
that he invites various other local grandees to go and visit Lundy.
They stay the night there, they see the people working there.
Benson makes jokes about how it's not...
You know, as long as he's taken them out of England,
they've been transported.
It doesn't matter if they don't actually get to America.
Benson's arrogance was nearly his undoing.
He was prosecuted for failing to honour his contracts
to take the convicts to the Americas.
Amazingly, he got off,
but in the process, had drawn attention to his smuggling.
He already owed over £8,000 in unpaid taxes -
a considerable sum in the 1750s -
and the revenue men were closing in.
He then came up with another good wheeze,
one that would solve the problem of Lundy and make him a tidy sum.
The plan involved a rather broken-down, ageing ship -
the Nightingale -
a previously upright captain,
a full cargo of pewter, linen and salt.
All insured to the hilt, of course.
Oh, and some convicts bound for Maryland -
12 chained men and three manacled women.
These convicts were - nearly - a masterstroke.
And then, just before the ship finally sailed from Lundy,
she was unloaded of all her goods,
because Benson wanted a maximum return.
And so the Nightingale left Lundy,
and when she was close to another ship -
The Charming Nancy of Philadelphia -
the Nightingale was scuttled and a fire was lit.
The ensuing blaze, of course, was blamed upon the convicts.
The captain, the crew and the chained convicts
then took to the boats, and the Nightingale slowly sank.
It seemed the perfect crime - and it almost was.
But a drunken member of the crew with too loose a tongue
let the whole tale unravel.
Even Benson couldn't stop the arrest, trial
and sentence to death of his captain, Lancey.
And with the noose tightening around him,
Benson fled to Portugal.
His brief rule over the Kingdom of Lundy was at an end.
Benson's crime spree had ended in utter disgrace.
Once a sheriff, he was now an outlaw.
This wonderful room is the main chamber of the Barnstaple Guildhall
and it used to be the town's courtroom.
It's a wonderful place.
There are galleries for witnesses and tiered seating.
You get a real sense that this was once
the beating heart of law and order in the town.
Now, also, all around the walls, are portraits of mayors,
local dignitaries, people who donated money to the town.
And there's one very important one missing - Thomas Benson.
Benson was never seen again.
Rumours circulated that he had secretly returned
using his influential contacts.
But in truth, he lived out his days in Oporto
and is buried in an unmarked grave by the river there.
Thomas Benson, a man outwardly respectable,
but appearances can be deceptive.
Benson had been able to hide in plain sight,
because public life was so corrupted in Georgian Britain.
Take the sinister case of Edinburgh town councillor
William "Deacon" Brodie, Scotland's most wanted outlaw.
A man who was an upright member of Edinburgh society during the day
and an unscrupulous, ruthless and immoral felon at night.
It seemed as if every door in the town was open to him,
especially after dark.
The title "Deacon" didn't come from the church,
but because he was a master craftsman - a cabinet-maker -
and he was head of the Woodworkers' and Carpenters' Guild.
He appeared to be a sober and industrious man.
On the Royal Mile in Edinburgh is a pub commemorating William Brodie
as one of the city's least-favourite sons.
On the front of the sign is Brodie, elegant and respectable.
On the reverse is the dark side of the man -
a thief and a burglar, and a very cunning one at that.
This is William Brodie
and here, through this wonderful old Edinburgh arch,
used to be his workshop, where, under Brodie's supervision,
the finest furniture for the finest houses in Edinburgh would be made.
Brodie's house just across the street from the pub
no longer exists, but his workshop does.
Brodie's workshop is now a rather nice cafe,
but it's here that he would have made his furniture,
work which included the fitting and repair of locks.
So, like Jack Sheppard, his trade gave him the necessary skills
to get into and out of any property he chose.
But unlike Jack, Brodie was supposed to be a respectable man.
William Brodie came from an upstanding local family.
It's strange that a man with apparently so much to lose
should risk it all on a life of robbery.
But away from refined society,
Brodie kept two mistresses with children.
Both were unknown to his friends and his parents,
and both were unknown to each other.
He liked to gamble, he was particularly fond of cockfighting
and he also liked to drink.
This was a man who was addicted to living beyond his means.
By 1786, Brodie was facing a deepening cash crisis.
His appetite for women, drink and the gaming tables
was driving him to bankruptcy.
He needed another trade and his access to clients' keys
gave him the means to embark on a nightlife of thieving.
As Brodie himself said,
"Why break in, when you can walk in?"
A one-man crimewave gripped the Old Town.
Brodie was twice blessed - he had the stolen property,
and gained extra work providing new locks
and stronger windows for the victims of his crimes.
The two sides of Brodie's personality
are captured in the story of an exquisite cabinet
that survives in the Writers' Museum in Edinburgh.
A piece of craftsmanship that would link him
to one of the most famous literary works of the next century.
This fine cabinet was in the childhood bedroom of writer
Robert Louis Stevenson
and it was made by our very own William "Deacon" Brodie.
Stevenson, as a child, became fascinated with Brodie's story,
particularly with his dual personality -
and it's said that it inspired him
to write the story of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde -
a man who embodied both good and evil.
It's a macabre object for a small boy's bedroom.
Brodie was a risk-taker.
Having tasted the life of crime, he overreached himself.
Everybody knew that, when somebody got caught,
the best way to avoid prosecution was to shop your comrades,
your erstwhile associates.
Like many criminals of his time,
Brodie's mistake, I suppose,
is becoming somewhat overconfident
and not being too careful about who he chooses to work with.
Brodie assembled a small gang to effect his robberies -
Andrew Ainslie, George Smith and John Brown,
a convicted thief already on the run from transportation.
Their ambition was soon to outgrow their ability.
The Edinburgh Excise office - the tax office - was in this court,
and on the night of 5th of March 1788,
it was to be the location of Brodie's most daring raid -
and his undoing.
The Excise office was known to store large sums of money,
and that night, £600 in cash was to be kept on site.
Brodie planned it well.
He had cased the joint and made a copy of the main door key.
Brodie and his three accomplices,
cloaked and masked and with dimmed lanterns,
made their way down the alley.
Brodie had been drinking heavily, which was his first mistake.
He only had a key to the outer door, so they had to force the inner door.
They were then disturbed
by the unexpected arrival of Mr James Bonar,
a bank official who had forgotten some papers.
In a panic, they knocked Bonar aside and they fled.
To save his own skin, Brodie then split from the others,
so he could establish an alibi, but that was his main mistake.
In showing no loyalty to his accomplices,
they would then show no loyalty to him,
particularly when there was a large reward on offer.
The weak link was Brown.
John Brown was already on the run, having escaped from transportation.
Turning king's evidence against Brodie might lead to a pardon -
a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Brown chanced it and Brodie fled.
First to York, then London and on to Amsterdam.
All with George Williamson,
one of Scotland's chief law officers, hot on his trail.
The remarkable thing was that he ran, but didn't get away.
Although he escaped Edinburgh,
the Scottish constables had new allies in the South.
Once he's absconded to Amsterdam,
the Bow Street office in London tries to engineer getting him back.
Now, this is in a period
before we have formal extradition orders with anyone,
but the Bow Street office takes initiatives.
So they intercept his correspondence,
in which he gives away that he's in Ostend, on his way to Amsterdam.
They think, "Well, we'll correspond with the magistrates of Amsterdam
"and see if we can get him picked up and held,
"while we come over and collect him."
It sounds like formal extradition - it wasn't formal at all -
it was a one-off, actually.
Brought back to Edinburgh on an overcast August morning in 1788,
Brodie and his co-accused, Smith, faced a packed court.
Brodie was described as "a sometime wright and a cabinet-maker".
The first witness for the King was John Brown.
His evidence would prove fatal for both men.
They had robbed together and would hang together.
"Deacon" Brodie was destined to die on a scaffold
that he had helped build himself.
After all, it was his civic duty, as an upstanding member of the city,
to make sure that habitual criminals got their just desserts.
40,000 people came to watch here,
just yards from his workshop and home.
As he climbed the scaffold, Deacon seemed relaxed.
He had an easy manner about him.
Even at this late hour, had he one last trick up his sleeve?
Well, his collar?
Rumours circulated that Brodie had one final devious plan
to cheat the inevitable.
There were stories of a secret steel collar,
stories of a special deal with the hangman,
stories he had cheated death.
His body was cut down by his friends
and rushed back through this alley to his workshop,
where there were desperate attempts to revive him.
But the hangman had done his job well
and William "Deacon" Brodie was no more.
One of the saddest mementos of Brodie's life is this,
the Brodie family Bible.
It's rather fragile, but beautifully preserved
and one of the prize artefacts here in the Museum of Edinburgh.
Now, towards the back are the details of the Brodie family tree.
Francis Brodie, William's father,
has faithfully recorded the details of his marriage to Cicel Grant,
but also the birth of his sons.
Well, one son, actually -
because the details of his first son William,
presumably the apple of their eye,
have been erased from their memory.
But not from history.
By the end of the 18th century,
it was no longer possible to live outside the law.
The age of the dashing highwayman...
..and that of the swashbuckling pirate had passed.
Urban crime and fraud would, of course, continue,
but policing and police detection meant that,
although the rogue could still break the law,
he could no longer live outside the law.
The modern world brought to an end
the criminal as some sort of good guy or pantomime villain.
But our more traditional rogues gave us ripping yarns,
dark morality tales
and the unlikeliest of escapades.
And you know, that's good enough for me.
MUSIC: I Fought The Law by The Clash
Few figures in British history have captured the popular imagination as much as the outlaw. From gentleman highwaymen, via swashbuckling pirates to elusive urban thieves and rogues, the brazen escapades and the flamboyance of the outlaw made them the anti-hero of their time - feared by the rich, admired by the poor and celebrated by writers and artists.
In this three-part series, historian Dr Sam Willis travels the open roads, the high seas and urban alleyways to explore Britain's 17th and 18th-century underworld of highwaymen, pirates and rogues, bringing the great age of the British outlaw vividly to life.
Sam shows that, far from being 'outsiders', outlaws were very much a product of their time, shaped by powerful national events. In each episode, he focuses not just on a particular type of outlaw, but a particular era; the series as a whole offers a chronological portrait of the changing face of crime in the 17th and 18th centuries.
In the final episode, Sam looks at urban crime, fraud and corruption in the 18th century, uncovering a fascinating rogues gallery of charmers, fraudsters and villains. Charmers like thief and serial escaper Jack Sheppard, so notorious that almost a quarter of a million people turned up to witness his hanging. Almost as controversial in her lifetime was Mary Toft, a fraudster who managed to convince no less than King George I and his surgeon that she had given birth to rabbits, making her, perhaps, the original 'con' artist.