The Life of the Famous JOHN SHEPHERD
Footpad, Housebreaker and Prison-breaker
Amongst the prodigies of ingenious wickedness and artful mischief which have surprised the world in our time, perhaps none has made so great a noise as John Shepherd, the malefactor of whom we are now to speak. His father's name was Thomas Shepherd, who was by trade a carpenter, and lived in Spitalfields, a man of an extraordinary good character, and who took all the care his narrow circumstances would allow, that his family might be brought up in the fear of God, and in just notions of their duty towards their neighbour. Yet he was so unhappy in his children that both his son John and another took to evil courses, and both in their turns have been convicted at the bar at the Old Bailey.
After the father's death, his widow did all she could to get this unfortunate son of hers admitted into Christ's Hospital, but failing of that, she got him bred up at a school in Bishopsgate Street, where he learned to read. He might in all probability have got a good education if he had not been too soon removed, being put out to a trade, viz., that of a cane-chair-maker, who used him very well, and with whom probably he might have lived honestly. But his mother dying a short time afterwards, he was put to another, a much younger man, who used him so harshly that in a little time he ran away from him, and was put to another master, one Mr. Wood in Wych Street. From his kindness and that of Mr. Kneebone (whom he robbed) he was taught to write and had many other favours done by that gentleman whom he so ungratefully treated. But good usage or bad, it was grown all alike to him now; he had given himself up to all the sensual pleasures of low life. Drinking all day, and getting to some impudent and notorious strumpet at night, was the whole course of his life for a considerable space, without the least reflection on what a miserable fate it might bring upon him here, much less the judgment that might be passed upon him hereafter.
Amongst the chief of his mistresses there was one Elizabeth Lion, commonly called Edgeworth Bess, the impudence of whose behaviour was shocking even to the greatest part of Shepherd's companions, but it charmed him so much that he suffered her for a while to direct him in every thing, and she was the first who engaged him in taking base methods to obtain money wherewith to purchase baser pleasures. This Lion was a large masculine woman, and Shepherd a very little slight-limbed lad, so that whenever he had been drinking and came to her quarrelsome, Bess often beat him into better temper, though Shepherd upon other occasions manifested his wanting neither courage nor strength. Repeated quarrels, however, between Shepherd and his mistress, as it does often with people of better rank, created such coldness that they spoke not together sometimes for a month. But our robber could not be so long without some fair one to take up his time, and drive his thoughts from the consideration of his crimes and the punishment which might one day befall them.
The creature he picked out to supply the place of Betty Lion was one Mrs. Maggott, a woman somewhat less boisterous in her temper, but full as wicked. She had a very great contempt for Shepherd, and only made use of him to go and steal money, or what might yield money, for her to spend in company that she liked better. One night when Shepherd came to her and told her he had pawned the last thing he had for half a crown, "Prithee", says she, "don't tell me such melancholy stories but think how you may get more money. I have been in Whitehorse Yard this afternoon. There's a piece-broker there worth a great deal of money; he keeps his cash in a drawer under the counter, and there's abundance of good things in his shop that would be fit for me to wear. A word, you know, to the wise is enough, let me see now how soon you'll put me in possession of them." This had the effect she desired; Shepherd left her about one o'clock in the morning, went to the house she talked of, took up the cellar window bars, and from thence entered the shop, which he plundered of money and goods, to the amount of L22. He brought it to his doxy the same day before she was stirring, who thereupon appeared very satisfied with his diligence, and helped him in a short time to squander what he had so dearly earned.
However, he still retained some affection for his old favourite, Bess Lion, who being taken up for some of her tricks, was committed to St. Giles's Round-house. Shepherd going to see her there, broke the doors open, beat the keeper, and like a true knight-errant, set his distressed paramour at liberty. This heroic act got him so much reputation amongst the fair ladies in Drury Lane that there was nobody of his profession so much esteemed by them as John Shepherd, with his brother Thomas, who had taken to the same trade. Observing and being in himself in tolerable estimation with that debauched part of the sex, he importuned some of them to speak to his brother John to lend him a little money, and for the future to allow him to go out robbing with him. To both these propositions Jack (being a kind brother as he himself said) consented at the first word, and from thence forward the two brothers were always of one party: Jack having, as he impudently phrased it, lent him forty shillings to put himself in a proper plight, and soon after their being together having broke open an alehouse, where they got a tolerable booty, in a high fit of generosity, John presented it all to his brother, as, soon after, he did clothes to a very considerable extent, so that the young man might not appear among the damsels of Drury unbecoming Mr. Shepherd's brother.
About three weeks after their coming together, they broke open a linen-draper's shop, near Clare Market, where the brothers made good use of their time; for they were not in the house above a quarter of an hour before they made a shift to strip it of L50. But the younger brother acting imprudently in disposing of some of the goods, he was detected and apprehended, upon which the first thing he did was to make a full discovery to impeach his brother and as many of his confederates as he could. Jack was very quickly apprehended upon his brother's information, and was committed by Justice Parry to the Round-house, for further examination. But instead of waiting for that, Jack began to examine as well as he could the strength of the place of his confinement, which being much too weak for a fellow of his capacity, he marched off before night, and committed a robbery into the bargain, but vowed to be revenged on Tom who had so basely behaved himself (as Jack phrased it) towards so good a brother. However, that information going off, Jack went on in his old way as usual.
One day in May he and F. Benson being in Leicester Fields, Benson attempted to get a gentleman's watch, but missing his pull, the gentleman perceived it and raised a mob. Shepherd passing briskly to save his companion, was apprehended in his stead, and being carried before Justice Walters, was committed to New Prison, where the first sight he saw was his old companion, Bess Lion, who had found her way thither upon a like errand. Jack, who now saw himself beset with danger, began to exert all his little cunning, which was indeed his masterpiece. For this purpose he applied first to Benson's friends, who were in good circumstances, hoping by their mediation to make the matter up, but in this he miscarried. Then he attempted a slight information, but the Justice to whom he sent it, perceiving how trivial a thing it was, and guessing well at the drift thereof, refused it. Whereupon Shepherd, when driven to his last shift, communicated his resolution to Bess Lion. They laid their heads together the fore part of the night, and then went to work to break out, which they effected by force, and got safe off to one of Bess Lion's old lodgings, where she kept him secret for some time, frightening him with stories of great searches being made after him, in order to detain him from conversing with any other woman.
But Jack being not naturally timorous, and having a strong inclination to be out again in his old way with his companions, it was not long before he gave her the slip, and lodged himself with another of his female acquaintances, in a little by-court near the Strand. Here one Charles Grace desired to become an associate with him. Jack was very ready to take any young fellow in as a partner of his villainies, and Grace told him that his reason for doing such things was to keep a beautiful woman without the knowledge of his relations. Shepherd and he therefore getting into the acquaintance of one Anthony Lamb, an apprentice of Mr. Carter, near St. Clement's Church, they inveigled the young man to consent to let them in to rob his master's house. He accordingly performed it, and they took from Mr. Barton, who lodged there, to a very considerable value. But Grace and Shepherd quarrelling about the division, Shepherd wounded Grace in a violent manner, and on this quarrel betraying one another, they were all taken, Shepherd only escaping. But the misfortune of poor Lamb who had been drawn in, being so very young, so far prevailed upon several gentlemen who knew him, that they not only prevailed to have his sentence mitigated to transportation, but also furnished him with all necessaries, and procured an order that on his arrival there he should not be sold as the other felons were, but that he should be left at liberty to provide for himself as well as he could.
It seems that Shepherd's gang (which consisted of himself, his brother Tom, Joseph Blake, alias Blueskin, Charles Grace, James Sikes, to whose name his companions tacked their two favourite syllables, Hell and Fury) not knowing how to dispose of the goods they had taken, made use of one William Field for that purpose, who Shepherd in his ludicrous style, used to characterise thus: that he was a fellow wicked enough to do anything, but his want of courage permitted him to do nothing but carry on the trade he did, which was that of selling stolen goods when put into his hands.
But Blake and Shepherd finding Field somewhat dilatory, not thinking it always safe to trust him, they resolved to hire a warehouse and lodge their goods there, which accordingly they did, near the Horseferry in Westminster. There they placed what they had taken out of Mr. Kneebones' house, and the goods made a great show there, whence the people in the neighbourhood really took them for honest persons, who had so great a wholesale business on their hands as occasioned their taking a place where they by convenient for the water.
Field, however, importuned them (having got scent they had such a warehouse) that he might go and see the goods, pretending that he had it just now in his power to sell them at a very great price. They accordingly carried him thither and showed him the things. Two or three days afterwards, though he had not courage enough to rob anybody else, Field ventured to break open the warehouse, and took every rag that had been lodged there; and not long after, Shepherd was apprehended for the fact and tried at the next sessions of the Old Bailey.
His appearance there was very mean, and all the defence he offered to make was that Jonathan Wild had helped to dispose of part of the goods and he thought it was very hard that he should not share in the punishment. The Court took little notice of so insignificant a plea and sentence being passed upon him, he hardly made a sensible petition for the favour of the Court in the report, but behaved throughout as a person either stupid or foolish, so far was he from appearing in any degree likely to make the noise he afterwards did.
When put into the condemned hold, he prevailed upon one Fowls, who was also under sentence, to lift him up to the iron spikes placed over the door which looks into the lodge. A woman of large make attending without, and two others standing behind her in riding hoods, Jack no sooner got his head and shoulders through between the iron spikes, than by a sudden spring his body followed with ease, and the women taking him down gently, he was without suspicion of the keepers (although some of them were drinking at the upper end of the lodge) conveyed safely out of the lodge door, and getting a hackney coach went clear off before there was the least notice of his escape, which, when it was known, very much surprised the keepers, who never dreamt of an attempt of that kind before.
As soon as John breathed the fresh air, he went again briskly to his old employment, and the first thing he did was to find out one Page, a butcher of his acquaintance in Clare Market, who dressed him up in one of his frocks, and then went with him upon the business of raising money. No sooner had they set out, but Shepherd remembering one Mr. Martin, a watchmaker near the Castle Tavern in Fleet Street, he prevailed upon his companion to go thither, and screwing a gimlet fast into the post of the door, they then tied the knocker thereto with a spring, and then boldly breaking the windows, they snatched three watches before a boy that was in the shop could open the door, and so marched clear off, Shepherd having the impudence, upon this occasion, to pass underneath Newgate.
However, he did not long enjoy his liberty, for strolling about Finchley Common, he was apprehended and committed to Newgate, and was put immediately in the Stone Room, where they put him on a heavy pair of irons, and then stapled him fast down to the floor. Being left there alone in the sessions time (most of the people in the gaol then attending at the Old Bailey) with a crooked nail he opened the lock, and by that means got rid of his chain, and went directly to the chimney in the room, where with incessant working he got out a couple of stones and by that means climbed up into a room called the Red Room, where nobody had been lodged for a considerable time. Here he threw down a door, which one would have thought impossible to have been done by the strength of man (though with ever so much noise); from hence with a great deal to do, he forced his passage into the chapel. There he broke a spike off the door, forcing open by its help four other doors. Getting at last upon the leads, he from thence descended gently (by the help of the blanket on which he lay, for which he went back through the whole prison) upon the leads of Mr. Bird, a turner who lives next door to Newgate; and looking in at the garret window, he saw the maid going to bed. As soon as he thought she was asleep, he stepped downstairs, went through the shop, opened the door, then into the street, leaving the door open behind him.
In the morning, when the keepers were in search after him, hearing of this circumstance by the watchman, they were then perfectly satisfied of the method by which he went off. However, they were obliged to publish a reward and make the strictest enquiry after him, some foolish people having propagated a report that he had not got out without connivance. In the meanwhile, Shepherd found it a very difficult thing to get rid of his irons, being obliged to lurk about and lie hid near a village not far from town, until with much ado he fell upon a method of procuring a hammer and taking his irons off.
He was no sooner freed from the encumbrance that remained upon him, than he came secretly into the town that night, and robbed Mr. Rawlin's house, a pawnbroker in Drury Lane. Here he got a very large booty, and amongst other things a very handsome black suit of clothes and a gold watch. Being dressed in this manner he carried the rest of the goods and valuable effects to two women, one of whom was a poor young creature whom Shepherd had seduced, and who was imprisoned on this account. No sooner had she taken care of the booty but he went among his old companions, pickpockets and whores in Drury Lane and Clare Market. There being accidentally espied fuddling at a little brandy-shop, by a boy belonging to an alehouse, who knew him very well, the lad immediately gave information upon which he was apprehended, and reconducted, with a vast mob, to his old mansion house of Newgate, being so much intoxicated with liquor that he was hardly sensible of his miserable fate. However, they took effectual care to prevent a third escape, never suffering him to be alone a moment, which, as it put the keepers to a great expense, they took care to pay themselves with the money they took of all who came to see him.
In this last confinement it was that Mr. Shepherd and his adventures became the sole topic of conversation about town. Numbers flocked daily to behold him, and far from being displeased at being made a spectacle of, he entertained all who came with the greatest gaiety that could be. He acquainted them with all his adventures, related each of his robberies in the most ludicrous manner, and endeavoured to set off every circumstance of his flagitious life as well as his capacity would give him leave, which, to say truth, was excellent at cunning, and buffoonery, and nothing else.
Nor were the crowds that thronged to Newgate on this occasion made up of the dregs of the people only, for then there would have been no wonder; but instead of that they were persons of the first distinction, and not a few even dignified with titles. 'Tis certain that the noise made about him, and this curiosity of persons of so high a rank, was a very great misfortune to the poor wretch himself, who from these circumstances began to conceive grand ideas of himself, as well as strong hopes of pardon, which encouraged him to play over all his airs and divert as many as thought it worth their while by their presence to prevent a dying man from considering his latter end, who instead of repenting of his crimes, gloried in rehearsing them.
Yet when Shepherd came up to chapel, it was observed that all his gaiety was laid aside, and he both heard and assisted with great attention at Divine Service, though upon other occasions he avoided religious discourse as much as he could; and depending upon the petitions he had made to several noblemen to intercede with the king for mercy, he seemed rather to aim at diverting his time until he received a pardon, than to improve the few days he had to prepare himself for his last.
On the 10th of November, 1724, he was by "Certiorari" removed to the bar of the Court of King's Bench, at Westminster. An affidavit being made that he was the same John Shepherd mentioned in the record of conviction before him, Mr. Justice Powis awarded judgment against him, and a rule was made for his execution on the 16th.
Such was the unaccountable fondness this criminal had for life, and so unwilling was he to lose all hopes of preserving it, that he framed in his mind resolutions of cutting the rope when he should be bound in the cart, thinking thereby to get amongst the crowd, and so into Lincoln's Inn Fields, and from thence to the Thames. For this purpose he had provided a knife, which was with great difficulty taken from him by Mr. Watson, who was to attend him to death. Nay, his hopes were carried even beyond hanging, for when he spoke to a person to whom he gave what money he had remaining out of the large presents he had received from those who came to divert themselves at Shepherd's Show, or Newgate Fair, he most earnestly entreated him that as soon as possible his body might be taken out of the hearse which was provided for him, put into a warm bed, and if it were possible, some blood taken from him, for he was in great hopes that he might be brought to life again; but if he was not, he desired him to defray the expenses of his funeral, and return the overplus to his poor mother. Then he resumed his usual discourse about his robberies and in the last moments of his life endeavoured to divert himself from the thoughts of death. Yet so uncertain and various was he in his behaviour that he told one whom he had a great desire to see on the morning that he died, that he had then a satisfaction at his heart, as if he were going to enjoy two hundred pounds "per annum".
At the place of execution, to which he was conveyed in a cart, with iron handcuffs on, he behaved himself very gravely, confessing his robbery of Mr. Philips and Mrs. Cook, but denied that he and Joseph Blake had William Field in their company when they broke open the house of Mr. Kneebone. After this he submitted to his fate on the 16th of November, 1724, much pitied by the mob.
 While in Newgate he sat for his portrait to Sir James Thornhill.
 Over 200,000 persons witnessed his execution at Tyburn, and a riot which broke out concerning the disposal of his corpse was quelled by soldiers with fixed bayonets.
Source: Hayward, Lives of the Most Remarkable Criminals