Thursday, September 14, 2017

A Brawling Back-Alley Bunch by Aaron Skirboll


Today criminal investigations rule the media. Once or twice a year, a trial transfixes the public, a new cause celebre born seemingly each new season. Spectators travel hours to courthouses, tickets to trial are distributed by lottery; and the term media circus, coined in the 1970s, comes into its own.

If it bleeds, it leads – so goes the old journalistic saw. Readers and viewers can’t tear their eyes away from true crime stories, and the grislier the details, the better. But when did it all begin, this mixing of criminal and celebrity? Searching for the origin of the phenomena took me back three centuries to the nascent years of the newspaper and across the Atlantic to London. In the middle stood Daniel Defoe, a wily old newspaperman and the aging author of Robinson Crusoe, who battled for the scoop amid the much and grime of the eighteenth century. His coverage of two men- Jonathan Wild, the chaser, and Jack Sheppard, the mark –enthralled a kingdom and birthed a genre.

An eighteenth century Al Ca[pone, Jonathan Wild was the first man to organize crime for profit and the first criminal whose name everyone in the city knew. A burglar and a prison breaker, Jack Sheppard had much in common with John Dillinger. In late 1724, a manhunt for him grabbed the city’s attention like no other story and drove newspaper sales skyward. Sheppard the housebreaker ran, thief-taker Wild chased him, and reporter Defoe wrote about both.*


With Sheppard on the loose, the story evolved in real time, but nothing about the case was clear-cut, nor was it easy to know for whom to root. The grandeur of the once-popular hunter was fading, and the criminal was incorrigible and eminently quotable. In the middle of it all, we have a man know today primarily as a novelist, his skills as a journalist mostly forgotten. His colorful tales about the pair teemed with details, but as with everything he wrote, his name was nowhere to be found, and in Sheppard’s case, Defoe wrote his account of the man’s deeds as if it were the thief’s autobiography, as he’d done with Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders.

In 1724 and 1725, more than thirty unsigned pamphlets were published on Wild and Sheppard. Five of these tracts have been attributed to Defoe, and the British Library has catalogued them under his name. In the story ahead, I privileged only the two pamphlets that have with neat universal agreement on the attribution to Defoe” The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild and A  Narrative of All the Robberies, Escapes, etc.  of John Sheppard. A third, The History of the Remarkable Life of John Sheppard, was probably a group effort in which Defoe had a hand, among others.

Enter the world of Defoe scholars with virgin eyes, I had no idea what awaited me. This is one brawling back-alley bunch of bibliophiles, many waging pissing matches to see who knows Daniel the best. One camp of scholars charges another with corpus swelling, while the latter assails the former for deflating the number so as to remove works of lesser quality. In Defoe’s day, it was more the  exception than the rule to put your name to pamphlets, so attribution makes for a thorny issue, and with over five hundred works credited to him, there’s no definitive universal agreement here. Nevertheless, the scholarly scrap proved entertaining. Among those who’ve studied the man, it’s a no holds-barred, back-and-forth assault complete with name calling. Academic insults fly to a fro: “simpletons or rascals,” “lack of brains,” “a disaster.” Charges of canon forgery and ‘power moves” have been made, and as one set of authors answered a particular onslaught, they decided it would “look craven if we did not give him one or two back – though a “Forum” may not really be a place for fist-fights.”

Even the ‘Law Firm’ , the collective name I have given to scholars P.N. Furbank and W.R. Owens – who seem to want something like DNA evidence before ascribing anything to Defoe, acknowledges that the pamphlets in questions could be Defoe’s. They just done have the evidence to prove the 300-year-old pamphlets are his. Scholar Pat Rogers, who has studied and written on Defoe and many of his contemporaries, told me that these attribution questions dog Defoe far more than any other writer of the time. No only did he write an incredibly large amount – signing practically none, or publishing under a pseudonym – but he did so on an equally dizzying array of topics.


I have sided with the majority regarding the tracts on Wild and Sheppard, as well as Defoe’s tenure at Applebee’s Original Weekly Journal. Dozens of men and women who have made a careful study of the man’s life and work have counted them his, which is good enough for me. Besides, instead of trying to prove that Defoe wrote these tracts on criminals, maybe it’s more fitting to leave it with a glint of doubt, as with all his writings. After all, he never signed Robinson Crusoe or Moll Flanders either, and Roxanna’s authorship didn’t fall to him until half a century after its publication. Three centuries have passed since the author’s death, and he remains shrouded in mystery, each year his life growing more so,. His major works of fiction were all written in the first person, as true stories, while his nonfiction works read like novels.

But then, that’s part of the attraction: The definitive biographies of two infamous criminals were written by a novelist. Picture an aging Defoe, near his life’s end, running around London between the gallows and Newgate Prison, where he met the inspiration for Moll Flanders, a writer mixing it up with thieves, murderers, and rogues of all inclination amid dirt, despair, and deprivation. That image stirred the London of the past back to life for me. Left with the choice of leaving Defoe out of the story – hemming and hawing over attribution bitchery – or moving forward with the majority, I chose the latter. Defoe and Mr. Applebee made the cut. When telling the stories of Wild and Sheppard, you have to include the best and most accurate tracts written by their contemporaries, and the British Library lists those under Defoe’s name.

It’s also worth underscoring that this book isn’t a biography of Defoe. My intentions are far less noble. My aim is merely to entertain. Defoe had a vast collection of interests –economics, politics, religion, and trade among them- and I’ve touched on little to none of it.**  Only his criminal writings and the aspects of life that related to crime in general – and specifically, the careers of Wild and Sheppard – concerned me. For a full treatment of the man, pick up the biographies by Paula Backscheider or Maximillian Novak.

I’m no scholar. Yet neither was Defoe. An unpolished outsider, he gained little respect from his peers. No one conferred on him the same prestige of Addison, Pope or Steel. He warned of grammatical errors, and likewise, I can guarantee that, absent and editor’s hand, you’d find the pages ahead marked with similar mistakes. I’m also thankful to Lyon’s Press for a point of upmost importance to this work: a firm deadline. After years of research, there’s always more. As Arthur Griffiths, a nineteenth century prison inspector an author who wrote on Sheppard, remarked in the preface to The Chronicles of Newgate: “Now at the termination of my labors .  .  . I found at length that I must be satisfied with what I had instead of seeking more.”

Defoe said it best in his final days, in Augusta Triumphans, his tract on civic improvements: “As I am quick to conceive, I am eager to have done, unwilling to overwork a subject; I had rather leave part to a conception of the readers, than to tire them or myself with protracting a theme, as if, like a chancery man or a hackney author, I wrote by the sheet for hire. So let us have done with this topic and proceed to another.”





*Since fencing stolen goods was a capital crime, Wild devised a system whereby he arranged to return stolen goods to their owners- for a fee, no questions asked-thus offering a measure of protection for the thieves though they received less for the stolen items than the would have through fences. He gradually extended his system to include every robber in London and a few other cities as well. He became the ‘supervising agent’ of most criminal activities in the city of London. But if a thief crossed Wild- sold his ill-gotten gains elsewhere for example- Wild would catch them and turn them over to authorities, often testifying against them court and collecting lucrative rewards, and was viewed as providing a useful public service in that regard. The reward for the thief was transportation or the gallows. Eventually the public and the thieves grew tired of this charade and Wild himself was hung.

** Defoe’s first book was The Storm, and account of the devastating winds and flooding that struck England in November 1703, called “the first substantial work of modern journalism’; his innovation being to collect the observations of others. “Journalism was then in its infancy, and there was nothing like systematic and objective reporting on contemporary event”’, according to John J. Miller writing in the Wall Street Journal

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