Crime and Punishment

Carla Anderson and Steve Newman

[This essay, redacted for inclusion on this site by Steve Newman, was written for his graduate seminar on The Beggar’s Opera at Temple University in the Fall of 2015.]

One of the most innovative and controversial elements of The Beggar’s Opera is its placing criminals at the center of a nominally high genre and frequently likening them to “the great” from Air I on.  This is given added spice by the way Gay draws on two famous criminals of the day.  One inspiration for the double-dealing Mr. Peachum is Jonathan Wild (1683-1725), the self-appointed “Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland” who both helped run a criminal gang and turned criminals in for a reward (including members of his own gang).  And one inspiration for the ‘dashing’ Macheath is Jack Shepard (1702-24), the thief who garnered a great deal of attention for his multiple escapes from prison.   But their lives and what Gay makes of them must be understood within the context of Gay’s era.

In eighteenth-century England, crime and punishment was a large part of a society just beginning to develop the concept of a “gentleman,” a respectable class apart from the more well-established English nobility. Criminals—from murderers to thieves and pickpockets—became a focus of numerous writings, from court records to elaborate tales of the supposedly autobiographical accounts of notorious criminals. The popularity of this body of criminal literature is evidenced by the large amount of publications and references to criminals in other texts, suggesting that criminal literature was a source of entertainment as well as a record of institutionalized punishment or a morality tale. John Gay’s interest in beggars and criminals is a natural extension of his society’s interest; thus, many of his writings, such as Trivia and The Beggar’s Opera engage with his contemporary society’s fascination with criminality, all the while satirizing the pretensions of the new genteel class.

In the early eighteenth century, law enforcement was still a new idea, and not entirely effective. According to Frank McLynn, the Watch—the prototype of a more organized police force—was largely seen as ineffective (19-20). This was partly due to their social status: members of the Watch were underpaid and often men desperate for a job (20). The further incompetencies of the Watch as an organization can be easily explained by the lack of a constant presence in the streets and a predictable schedule, which thieves could easily avoid. Crime in London was therefore still rampant and the citizens were often easy prey for thieves, especially pickpockets or home invasions (6-7). Without a way to prevent widespread theft as it occurred, the English government turned to a harsh penal code—often called the “Bloody Code” (xi)— in an attempt to deter citizens from attempting any crime at all. Crimes—even petty theft or other small misdemeanors—were often punishable by death, which was carried out in the form of a public hanging.

Out of these laws, we find a vast body of institutional records describing both crimes and the punishments meted out; see The Old Bailey Online for access to these records as well as useful background essays on a range of topics related to crime and punishment in England. Like the hangings, these records were published and made available to the public. Court proceedings are the most basic of these official records, and merely summarize the names of the convicted criminals and their punishments. In one such proceeding from August 12, 1724, the record lists punishments as follows: “Received Sentence of Death, Six […] Burnt in the Hand, Nine […] To be Transported, Thirty One […] John Mackfedre, Fine Twenty Marks, to saffer [sic] Twelve Months Imprisonment, and to find Security for his good Behavior, for Three Years” (“Old Bailey Proceedings”). This particular court record gives no account of the crimes of each of the convicts.

John Sheppard

More detailed accounts do appear, however, in detailed court records of the trial for a particular criminal. A Joseph Sheppard, we learn, was indicted three times of theft before finally being found guilty. After a detailed description of those crimes, he was sentenced to death (“Trial of Joseph Sheppard”). The Ordinary’s Accounts of criminals also give more detailed information. In these accounts, we see the beginnings of narrative development and a certain amount of embroidery to basic fact, which allows the Ordinary to add a moral lesson to his record of trial proceedings. One such account opens with a description of a sermon preached in the prison chapel:

The Sermon preach’d on Sunday last to those under Condemnation was bottom’d upon the 5th Verse of the 6th chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galations [sic], For every Man shall bear his own Burden. From which Words, we took occasion to show the Effect of Sin in the Life, and the Misery of the Sinner. We show’d that the genuine Consequent of an uninterrupted Sinful course of Life is a Burden; and that this Burden will certainly lye heavy on the Shoulders of the Thoughtless inconsidering Sinner; that he, and he alone who commits the Crime, should undergoe the Punishment due unto it. (“Ordinary’s Account”)

The details of the sermon emphasize not only personal responsibility, but justify the punishments as well. The account of the sermon is followed by a brief account of the lives of each of the criminals—again, with a strongly moralizing narrative. One Joseph Ward relates his life story and, we are told, “was in all Appearance a Man conscious to himself of his Folly, and attoning [sic] for it by Self-punishment, and Condemnation” (“Ordinary’s Account”), after which he received the sacrament before his death. Given the strongly religious and moralizing nature of the account overall, we can take this description of Ward’s repentance with a certain amount of skepticism. In this same account, we learn also that the same Joseph—whom we now find out is also the infamous John or Jack Sheppard who was sentenced to death for his thefts—labeled “a notorious thief and housebreaker”— had escaped from the prison in which he was held (“Ordinary’s Account”). Rather than give a thrilling account of the escape, however, the Ordinary merely cautions his readers to “Contribute their utmost to defend themselves against [Sheppard]; especially such upon whom he has vow’d a bloody Revenge” (“Ordinary’s Account”). The Ordinary’s Accounts are the most entertaining and detailed of the official criminal literature, but due to the nature of the institution, the entertainment they can provide is ultimately rooted in encouraging the citizens to remain law-abiding.

Entertaining descriptions of criminals and their lives also appear outside the realm of official documents, taken up by more popular and obviously literary publications. In Trivia (1716), Gay advises his readers how to avoid becoming the victims of theft as they walk through the city streets:

Where the Mob gathers, swiftly shoot along,

Nor idly mingle in the noisy Throng.

Lur’d by the Silver Hilt, amid the Swarm,

The subtil Artist will they Side disarm […]

Here dives the skulking Thief, with practis’d Slighty,

And unfelt Fingers make thy Pocket light.     (lines 51-60)

This moment of instruction in Gay’s poem echoes less literary publications– for example, the canting dictionary. In several different publications, thieves’ cant, or slang, was codified as dictionary for the elucidation of the more genteel classes. Cant itself has a long history in Europe, originating as early as the sixteenth century (McMullen 96). John McMullen explains,      Closely allied to the rising tide of vagrancy, it was a vocabulary of international dimensions; essential terms were common to many Beggars’ Brotherhoods […] Cant, then, was not an informal deviant speech known by various sections of the population, but the language of outlawed deviant populations. (96)

Because cant is associated not just with vagrancy but with willful criminality, by the eighteenth century this thieves’ slang was a secret language that allowed criminals to evade the surveillance of the law enforcement. The language itself, then, became as deviant as its users. As explained by one author of a canting dictionary, “The Canting Dialect, is a confused Jargon, and not grounded on any Rules; and no wonder, since the Practicers thereof are the chief Fathers and Nourishers of Disorder” (Anon., n.p.). Despite the need to bring order to the disorder by codifying the cant in a dictionary, however, the accuracy of the canting dictionaries published and republished in the eighteenth century is doubtful. As McMullen notes, each new dictionary relied on earlier editions or glosses that contained many errors and misprints across various editions (McMullen 98). The canting dictionary, then, became less about actually decoding the thieves’ language and more about the entertainment that the reader could gain from the experience of deciphering a strange language. The definition of “Academy,” for example, is quite suggestive: “a Brothel; a Bawdy-House; a Receptacle for all sorts of Villains, where the young Ones are initiated in the Canting Language, and all manner of Cheats and Impostures […]” (Anon., n.p.). Canting dictionaries, then, are closer to entertainment than instruction.

The final type of criminal literature that was widely published is the “life and times” type of memoir or biography. These are perhaps the most obviously fictionalized to some degree to enhance the excitement and sensation of the story. Here, the purpose is quite clearly based on entertainment value. John Sheppard, from the Ordinary’s account, now gets his own memoir, which purports to be a narrative “Giving an Exact Description of the manner of his wonderful Escape from the CASTLE in Newgate, and of the Methods he took afterward for his Security” (Sheppard). The title page further assures us that this narrative has been “Written by himself during his confinement in the Middle Stone-Room after his being retaken in Drury-Lane” (Sheppard).

Credit:  A General History of the Lives and Adventures of the Most Famous Highwaymen, Murderers, Street-Robbers, &c. To which is added, a genuine account of the voyages and plunders of the most notorious pyrates. (1734), British Library, Shelfmark C.59.h.1. ‘To lash the age’: John Gay and The Beggar’s Opera | The British Library (

However, the likelihood of this being true is relatively slim, and the manner of speech in the narrative reads as smoothly as a novel. The attraction of this publication is further enhanced by the addition of an engraving illustrating Sheppard’s escape [link to JPEG, from ECCO, assuming permissions come through], which shows a small man being pulled through the bars of a window by two women while the guards’ backs are turned. The overall effect is generally quite humorous. In the text, there is less humor, and narrator often adopts the same pious language that appears in the Ordinary’s accounts. Sheppard reflects on how he became a criminal, saying “I had too great a Loose given to my evil Inclinations, and spent the Lord’s Day as I thought convenient” (5). While he seems quite unwilling to accept responsibility for his crimes, writing, “I may justly lay the Blame of my Temporal and (without God’s great Mercies) my Eternal Ruin on Joseph Hind” (5), Sheppard nonetheless appears repentant throughout the narrative—just as society dictates he should be. His story is therefore partly a “sob story” and partly a detailed confession, filled with the salacious details of his misdemeanors and crimes. The entertainment value is apparent either way, along with a more subtle moral message.
John Sheppard

In contrast to Sheppard’s autobiography, the memoir of  the “Famous” Jonathan Wild does not purport to be told by Wild; instead, it is framed in much the same way as a “tell-all” exposé. Johnathan Wild was indeed notorious for his extensive crimes, introduced by the author of the memoir as “[exceeding] all Mankind hitherto Born in all Manner of Villany” (Smith 1). Accordingly, Wild is described as sub-human, with “a skin like a Mulatto, and in his Face the very Features of a Baboon” (2). J.A. Sharpe explains some of the reasons for the vitriol directed at Wild. He as a “criminal entrepreneur” (Sharpe 111) who established the perfect system: he established himself as a receiver of stolen goods, collecting some of the profits from their sale (112). Eventually, Wild simply sold goods back to their original owners as “recovered” (112). In this position, Wild was able to keep track of a network of thieves as well, and used this to his advantage. Sharpe says, “Thieves operating outside his control or in opposition to him were informed against, and his competitors were thus removed via the gallows or the transport ship” (112). Using this power—which came with a veneer of respectability—Wild attempted to rise in society. However, eventually the law caught and hanged him for his part in receiving stolen goods (112). Wild has to be demonized, then, because his closeness to the power and influence that a more respectable gentleman had was a threat: Wild was not at the fringes of society in the same way that someone like John Sheppard was. In his introduction to Wild’s story, the author acknowledges the closer involvement of society and writes that one of the evils besetting society is “the Neglect of such Prosecutions, occasion’d by our shameful Negotiations with Thieves, or their Agents, for the Recovery of Stolen Goods, by which, in Reality, we become Aiders and Abettors to them” (Smith iv). This memoir, then, is not only a warning about what happens to members of society who turn to criminal activity, but serves to remind its readers that they can also be held accountable.

Jonathan Wild Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland. c.1725. © London Lives.

The interest in criminals in the eighteenth century, as evidenced by the wide body of popular criminal literature, makes John Gay’s choice to focus on beggars and thieves in The Beggar’s Opera a logical one. Erin Mackie observes, “The notions of the modern polite gentleman emerges in good part from the commonplace juxtaposition of the gentleman and the criminal described at one level by this literary history” (Mackie 2). In other words, mainstream society’s fascination with the language and narratives of thieves is not based not only a desire for entertainment and vicarious excitement, but in a desire to define themselves as a higher class.

However, in The Beggar’s Opera, Gay mocks the aspirations of his audience, instead setting up two characters who both seem to aspire to gentlemanly status in some way: Peachum and Macheath. Mr. Peachum is, of course, very similar to Wild in his mode of operation. When a thief ceases to monetarily useful to him, Peachum turns him or her in for a reward. In the opening scene, it is clear that Peachum feels himself to be respectable as he says, “A Lawyer is an honest Employment, so is mine. Like me too he acts in a double Capacity, both against Rogues and for ’em; for ’tis but fitting that we should protect and encourage Cheats, since we live by them” (Gay 5). Accordingly, Peachum expresses his pretensions towards gentility, such as when he says to his wife, “Let not your Anger, my Dear, break through the Rules of Decency” (14). Of course, these pretensions are quickly broken down when Peachum’s frustration with his daughter leads him to sink back into vulgar language (15)—a reminder of just how thin his veneer of gentility actually is.

Macheath, too, presents an interesting tension between the distinction between a criminal and a gentleman. As a highwayman, he is the most romanticized character, and on the surface presents himself as what Mackie calls “the iconic ‘gentleman highwayman’” (Mackie 4): he dresses in a (slightly ragged) red coat and, according to Peachum, “looks upon himself in the Military capacity, as a Gentleman by his Profession” (Gay 14). Despite their anger that their daughter has married Macheath, the Peachums do seem to admire him and consider him a gentleman. As the play continues, however, Macheath shows himself to be far less genteel than he initially seems—his dalliances with prostitutes, promise of marriage to Lucy, and the final appearance of four more women with children gotten by him in Act three, for example—and, therefore, cannot offer even a romantic view of a criminal. Instead, his imitations of genteel behavior are unsettling for an audience that believed themselves to be gentlemen.

One contemporary essay on The Beggar’s Opera picks up on the subversive potential of Macheath’s character, particularly if Macheath is understood to be the main character—especially because he is a highwayman who imitates the behavior of a gentleman. The supposed author, playfully named Peter Padwell of Paddington, indignantly exclaims, “[Gay’s] satirical strokes upon Ministers, Courtiers, and Great Men, in general, abound in every part of this most insolent Performance” (Bullock 52). The writer here refers to the comparisons between Macheath and a lord—Mrs. Peachum, for example, cries, “Why, thou foolish Jade, thou wilt be as ill-us’d, and as much neglected, as if thou hadst married a Lord!” (Gay 14). Padwell further points out that Peacham’s similarities to Jonathan Wild, that notorious thief-taker, make him a poor subject to take the moral high ground in relation to the nobility (Bullock 52). This contemporary essay, though framed as a critique, is a good indication that some members of Gay’s audience were equally aware of the inherent hypocrisies how a gentleman is defined.

Criminal literature itself, then, offers some direct reference for the types of characters that appear in The Beggar’s Opera, particularly the figure of the thief taker—from Wild to Peachum—that was of immediate contemporary concern in both the social and the political sphere of eighteenth century. The larger cultural context of how this body of criminal literature was received also offers insight into how eighteenth-century society understood the changing social definitions as a new and not completely defined class of “gentlemen” was beginning to emerge.


Anonymous. A New Canting Dictionary. London: London and Westminster, 1725.

Anonymous. Author of Dalton’s Narrative. Villany exploded: or, The mistery of iniquity laid open: In a faithful relation of all the street-robberies, committed by the notorious gang now in Newgate. London, 1728. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web.

Anonymous. The history of the lives and actions of Jonathan Wild, thief-taker. Joseph Blake alias Blueskin, foot-pad. And John Sheppard, housebreaker. London: printed for Edward Midwinter, at the Looking-Glass upon London-Bridge, 1725. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web.

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Bullock, Christopher. Woman’s revenge: Or, a match in Newgate a comedy. As it is acted at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields. The third edition. To which is added, a compleat key to the Beggar’s Opera, By Peter Padwell of Padington, Esq;.Dublin, Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Web.

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Smith, Alexander. Memoirs of the Life and Times of the Famous Jonathan Wild, together with the History and Lives, of Modern Rogues. London: Sam Briscoe, n.d.