Saturday, May 08, 2010

Jack Sheppard escapes . . . and escapes . . . and escapes . . .

{Portrait of Jack Sheppard by James Thornhill, 1724}

Feeling imprisoned by gray and gloomy weather, I spent the morning flipping through Kelly Grovier's recent popular history of Newgate Prison, The Gaol (2008). The best story I've come across thus far is that of thief and highwayman Jack Sheppard, who escaped from prison four times in seven months in 1724, including twice from Newgate.

His escape from St. Giles, a relatively pedestrian matter of digging through the ceiling of his cell, made him famous, but it was easily topped by his subsequent escape from Clerkenwell with his wife, a "pudgy cutpurse and prostitute" named Bess. Grovier's account reveals the lax standards of security that prevailed at the prison, as
a steady stream of visitors succeeded . . . in slipping Sheppard sharp tools--bits of broken-off saw and picks. Before long their cell was strewn with iron filings and oak shards as Sheppard cut his way through fourteen pounds of fetters and the nine-inch wood plank that barred the window. Strips from Bess's petticoat and ripped-up sheets were knotted into a makeshift rope down which the two abseiled into the adjoining exercise yard of the Bridewell House of Correction. What happened next would instantly enter local legend. Hoisting Bess--which was itself a challenge--on to his shoulder, his feet groping in the moonlight for a grip on the slippery bolts and hinges of a conveniently situated gate, Sheppard scaled the twenty-two-foot wall that separated the couple from freedom and whirled his rotund mistress down to the street below. . . . "It has been allow'd by all the Jayl-Keepers in London," one pamphlet would relate, an escape "so Miraculous was never perform'd before in England; the broken Chains and Bars are kept at New Prison to Testifie, and preserve the Memory of this extraordinary Villain."

Perhaps not quite as impressive on its face as Casanova's escape from the Doge's Palace over the leads, but then Casanova didn't have to bring along any of his lady friends.

Partly through the offices of the endlessly fascinating double agent Jonathan Wild (whom Fielding immortalized), Sheppard was soon recaptured, having returned to crime, as Defoe put it, "like a dog to his vomit." Remanded to Newgate, he quickly escaped yet again, this time dressed (with the aid of Bess, who remained free) as a woman.

Brought in one more time, placed in "the Castle," Newgate's central cell, and facing certain hanging based on perjured--if accurate in spirit--testimony cooked up by Wild, Sheppard proceeded to mount one last escape. Grovier's account delivers the full drama of the scene, alongside Sheppard's impressive determination. He jimmied his handcuffs with a nail, escaped his leg irons through some contortions, and climbed the chimney to the disused room above his cell. But he was still far from free:
The locks presented little challenge to Jack, nor did a series of others on his way to the prison chapel. Finding the chapel door bolted from the inside, Jack rammed the door repeatedly with the crow bar that he had [pried from the chimney and] brought with him. Eventually, he punched a hole large enough for him to slip his slender hand through and he was able to reach in and slide back the bolt. So he went, through door after bolted door without so much as a match to help him see in the darkness, anxiously expecting to hear the clatter of boots galloping after him at any moment. Eventually, Jack found himself standing on the ledge of the Upper Leads of the prison, too high above the roofs below to leap safely.

Teetering precariously on the brink of either freedom or death, Jack Sheppard made on of the most remarkable decisions of his short life. He climbed back inside the prison to retrace his footsteps to the Castle and retrieve the bedclothes from his cell, out of which to fashion a rope. Back down the chimney and up again, trampling broken door handles and bolts as he ran, Jack made it back to the ledge, tied the end of the riped sheets to a pennant hook and lowered himself down on to the roof of William Bird.

Now that escape does seem worthy of Casanova; Wild's determination reminds me of Casanova;s answer to a fellow prisoner the night he made his escape attempt:
He asked me my plans at once, telling me he thought I had taken my first steps too lightly.

"I only ask," I answered him, "to carry on until I find freedom or death."
Unlike Casanova, who escaped to Paris and a long life of debauchery, Sheppard found not one but both--or, rather, he found freedom, and death found him, as he was eventually recaptured and hanged before an enormous crowd at Tyburn.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic blog. Keep on rockin, Radu Prisacaru – UK Internet Marketer & Web Developer