Monday, May 10, 2010

"Descend the stairs of humility!" or, more on Jack Sheppard

Saturday's post about Jack Sheppard left out one important part: the role God played in Sheppard's jailbreaking exploits.

Kelly Grovier opens his account of Sheppard's career in The Gaol with a sermon that was delivered from a London pulpit soon after Sheppard's fourth and final escape:
Oh, that ye were all like Jack Sheppard! Mistake me not, my brethren--I don't mean in a carnal, but in a spiritual sense; for I propose to spiritualize these things. What a shame it would be if we should not think it worth our while to take as much pains, and employ as many deep thoughts to save our souls as he has done to preserve his body!

Let me exhort ye, then, to open the locks of your hearts with the nail of repentance! Burst asunder the fetters of your beloved lusts! --mount the chimney of hope! --take from thence the bar of good resolution! --break through the stone wall of despair, and all the strongholds in the dark entry of the valley of the shadow of death! Raise yourself to the leads of divine meditation! --fix the blanket of faith with the spike of the church! let yourselves down to the turner's house of resignation, and descend the stairs of humility! So shall you come to the door of deliverance from the prison of iniquity, and escape the clutches of that old executioner the Devil!
Leaving aside the silliness of the sermon's central conceit, I have to admire some of the imagery. For every one that doesn't work--"the leads of divine meditation," "the chimney of hope"--there's one that works beautifully, like "the blanket of faith" and "the stairs of humility." (Is it a mark of immaturity and prurience that when the word "mount" follows the word "lusts," it's not a chimney I expect to be mounted?)

Sheppard, on the other hand, seemed to enjoy invoking God's name throughout his public career. Of his wife, Bess, who at one point betrayed him to Jonathan Wild, he said,
There is not a more wicked, deceitful, lascivious wretch living in England. God forgive her. I do.
More brazen by far was Sheppard's testimony in the Old Bailey when he was offered immunity in exchange for testimony against his unknown co-conspirators. According to Grovier,
Jack refused to co-operate and took umbrage at the suggestion that his prison breaks were in any way staged. His only help, he exclaimed to gasps of horror from the bench, had come from God.
It wasn't confidence in God, however, that gave Sheppard at least an appearance of calm as he faced the gallows:
Hopeful that the resuscitation efforts that would inevitably take place immediately after the hanging might actually succeed, Sheppard turned down the opportunity to address the crowd at length and invited those in attendance to purchase the pamphlet entitled A narrative of all the robberies, escapes, &c., of John Sheppard, written by himself and printed by John Applebee of Blackfriars, which he said contained his final confession and which he stood to profit substantially from if he were to be revived.
The press of the crowd, however, prevented any real efforts at resuscitation, unlikely as their success might have been.

Within two weeks, however, Sheppard had been resurrected--with the help, though, not of any god, but of a mere dramatist. He was the main character in a play called Harlequin Sheppard; A Night Scene in Grotesque Characters that was "a bizarre balletic reconstruction" of his final escape, with the lead played by an actor who went so far as to visit Sheppard in Newgate days before his execution. To repeated questions about the details of his escape, Sheppard reportedly replied, "I should be glad to have it in my power to play my own part."


  1. Anonymous1:06 PM

    On the contrary, I find "the chimney of hope" to be quite pleasing and quite apt! -thatbob

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