How the beginnings of true crime reporting and the birth of tabloid journalism can be tagged to Daniel Defoe’s years in prison for libelous sedition.
Generally eschewing troublesome political writing after his imprisonment, Defoe instead investigated and wrote about the lower orders, providing Skirboll (The Pittsburgh Cocaine Seven: How a Ragtag Group of Fans Took the Fall for Major League Baseball, 2010) with wonderful resources for this story of criminal Jonathan Wild (1682-1725) and escape artist Jack Sheppard (1702-1724). Wild learned the fine art of thievery while serving in debtors prison, and he learned it so well that he became the man thieves turned to for advice. It wasn’t long before Wild incorporated and set up his “Lost Property Office” advertising and selling stolen items back to their owners. Thieves who didn’t bring their goods to him, like Sheppard, were “apprehended” and often hanged, with Wild taking the reward; thus his title of “Thief-Taker.” Eventually, he broke up London’s largest gangs and had hundreds of thieves on his own list. Skirboll shows the lives and trials of Londoners from all classes. In the 18th century, the city had no official police department, and it was up to the victim to initiate the prosecution of wrongdoers. Defendants often received no counsel, and they also had to worry about the straw men, professional perjurers and unpunished crime. Though this is not a Defoe biography, his background and career producing pamphlets and newspapers are vital. “His writing propelled journalism into the future and gave us,” writes the author, “the celebrity criminal, the gossip column, investigative reporting, tabloid journalism, and the true crime drama.” His exclusive interviews of felons in Newgate and other London prisons truly changed the face of journalism.
The daring cleverness of both Wild and Sheppard makes for fun historical reading.