Today criminal investigations rule the media. Once or twice each year a trial transfixes the public, a new cause célèbre born seemingly each season. Spectators travel hours to courthouses; tickets to trials 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. But when did it all begin, this mixing of criminal and celebrity? Searching for the origin of the phenomenon took me back three centuries to the nascent years of the newspaper and across the Atlantic to London. In the middle of it all stood Daniel Defoe, a wily old newspaperman and the aging author of Robinson Crusoe, who battled for the scoop amid the muck 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 Capone, 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 known today primarily as a novelist, his skills as a journalist mostly forgotten. His colorful tales about the pair teemed with details, but, as with nearly 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.
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.
For Defoe, it mattered not what the subject was-- he tackled what interested him at any given moment; economics, politics, religion, trade, and when a scourge of criminals ran roughshod over London in the early eighteenth century, Defoe turned his attention to crime. It was a subject that had no shortage of action or characters, the city was teeming with highwaymen, footpads, pickpockets, housebreakers, and prostitutes.
In February 1704, at the age of 43, Defoe became a reporter for the first time when he established the newspaper the Review. Newspapers were still very much in their infancy at the time. England's first newspaper, the Oxford Gazette (later the London Gazette) first appeared in 1665, and the nation's first daily paper, the Daily Courant, appeared in March 1702. Across the Atlantic, America's first newspaper, the Boston News-Letter, appeared weekly, starting in 1704, as well. Journalism was about to explode into the eighteenth century.
Defoe's paper's original title--A Weekly Review of the Affairs of France: Purg'd from the Errors and Partiality of News-Writers and Petty-Statesmen, of all Sides--made it clear that the paper intended to criticize others.
Defoe was a fearless writer, who had served time in both prison and the pillory. The stint in shackles later gave him unexpected credibility as a muckraker ready to take on church, state, and fellowman. He set aside a special section in the Review just for this type of mudslinging, which he meant to lighten the mood: "After our Serious Matters are over" he wrote, "we shall at the end of every Paper, Present you with a little Diversion, as any thing occurs to make the World Merry; and whether Friend of Foe, one Party or another, if any thing happens so scandalous, as to require an open Reproof, the World may meet with it there."
He called this section "Advice from the Scandal Club, To the Curious Enquirers; in Answer to Letters sent them for that Purpose." Here he offered conversation on everyday interests, and devoted space for answering readers' questions on courtship, marriage, vice, etiquette, friendship, and civic duties--anything and everything.
Defoe had no reservations about dealing in scandal A few months into the paper's run, he imagined an array of possible targets, such as "a drunken Justice fallen into the Mill-pond, or an eminent Citizen taken with a Twelve-penny Whore," or "a Magistrate stabbing a Man into the Back in the Dark, or a Man of Letters corresponding with our Enemies abroad. If these things are true and can be made out; if these Men have Names and are to be found out by their Characters," then all was fair in printing the sordid details.
So the "Scandal Club" provided entertainment, which counterbalanced the "Solemn and Tedious Affair." He was right on target. The paper was in every sense a huge hit, and, as his biographer Maximillian Novak observes, "Advice from the Scandal Club was an important journalistic innovation."
The Review had found a new market and brilliantly capitalized on it.
Defoe then scored literary achievements with the novels Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders. But in 1724, when the housebreaker Jack Sheppard won the hearts and attention of his city brethren following the final of his four prison breaks, the last his greatest feat to date, miraculously breaching six successive stout and locked doors in the black of night, then dangling from a blanket from the prison roof to his freedom-- it was in this newfangled rag called the newspaper where citizens, rich and poor, young and old, even the illiterate--having tales read to them aloud-- found the latest updates on the great Sheppard. The thief had quickly become the most famous man in the city. The city was so driven into a frenzy by the daily news pieces that when it was all said and done and Sheppard was caught for the final time, the audience at his hanging parade and his march to the gallows at Tyburn was 200,000 strong.
Every Londoner already knew the name of city's eminent sleuth, the self-crowned Thief-Taker General of England and Ireland, Mr. Jonathan Wild. In an era that predated police, it was the thief-taker, a sort of bounty hunter, who was paid £40 by the government for each criminal he captured and had hanged that filled the void. Nobody was nearly as adept at it as Wild, who also ran a business in the Old Bailey known as the Lost Property Office, where he helped victims of theft get their valuables back. No matter that, unbeknownst to the city, it was Mr. Wild who had released the thieves in the first place, having staffed them in his so-called "corporation,"-- the two faced Wild was at once a thief-taker and a "thief-maker."
When the thief-taker was finally exposed, the numbers at his execution surpassed even Sheppard's, though it was hatred this time that drove the mob to grow to nearly half of the total citizenry in the Metropolis.
Daniel Defoe had the scoop on both men, having taken up the role of correspondent he had visited both men on death row to get their stories firsthand. No sooner than the dirt had been tossed on the criminals than the shrewd writer had published separate biographies on the pair. The best-sellers went through multiple printings in a matter of days, proving for the first time that scandal indeed sells.
And tabloid journalism as we know it had begun.
Aaron Skirboll is an independent journalist and the author of the Thief-Taker Hangings: How Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Wild, and Jack Sheppard Captivated London and Created the Celebrity Criminal (Lyons Press, $26.95).