Digitizing the Hanging Court

Cutpurses! Blackguards! Fallen women! The Proceedings of the Old Bailey is an epic chronicle of crime and vice in early London. Now anyone with a computer can search all 52 million words

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Wild, presenting himself as an honest officer of the law, accepted only ten guineas from Stetham—ostensibly to pay off an intermediary—and, in due course, produced the missing lace. "Not a farthing for me," he told her, according to her testimony. "I don't do these things for worldly interest, but only for the good of poor people."

But Kelly and Murphy told a different story, one the jurors found persuasive, at least in part. They acquitted Wild of theft, but convicted him of an offense that would come to be known as "Jonathan Wild's Act"—perverting justice by accepting a reward without attempting to prosecute the thief.

Wild was hanged at Tyburn on May 24, 1725. The route from Newgate to the gallows was lined with cheering crowds "who called furiously upon the hangman to dispatch him," Daniel Defoe wrote. The Proceedings summed up the case with typical economy: "The jury acquitted the prisoner of the first indictment [theft] and found him guilty of the other. Death."

Guy Gugliotta, a former reporter for The Washington Post, makes his Smithsonian debut with this article.


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