Jack Sheppard: A Romance

George Cruikshank (1792-1878), [Illustrations to Jack Sheppard, by William H. Ainsworth (1805-1882)] (London: R. Bentley, 1839). Graphic Arts Collection (GA) Cruik 1839.01

William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), Jack Sheppard: a Romance. Illustrations by George Cruikshank (London: R. Bentley, 1839). 3 volumes with 27 etchings. Includes 4 additional pencil drawings. Graphic Arts Collection (GA) Cruik 1839

At the age of twenty-two, the handsome Cockney thief Jack Sheppard (1702-1724) was arrested and imprisoned five separate times in the same year. Each time he escaped, only to be captured again. Near the end of the year he was recaptured, convicted, and hanged.

During his final incarceration in Newgate prison, Sheppard was bound with three hundred pounds of iron weights. Guards charged visitors four shillings to see him. 200,000 people followed him through the streets of London to attend his hanging. A play based on his life opened less than two weeks later.

Dozens of book, plays, and songs have been written about Sheppard, including William Ainsworth’s novel Jack Sheppard, a Romance (seen here) illustrated by George Cruikshank. Ainsworth’s story was serialized in Bentley’s Miscellany beginning January 1839 and the complete book released before the end of the year, outselling Oliver Twist.

George Herbert Rodwell (1800-1852), Nix my dolly palls fake away: sung by Mrs. Keeley & P. Bedford, composed by G. Herbert Rodwell (London: D’Almaine, [ca. 1839]). Words by William H. Ainsworth and illustrations by George Cruikshank. The drama was first performed at the Adelphi Theatre, London, on 28 October 1839. Graphic Arts Collection (GA) Oversize Cruik 1839.7.183-q

Here is a small selection of projects based on the life of Jack Sheppard:

  1. A narrative of his life, published by John Applebee Harlequin Sheppard (1724)
  2. A pantomime by Thurmond, performed in Drury Lane in December 1724
  3. The character of Macheath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) and The Threepenny Opera of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill (1929)
  4. “Industry and Idleness,” a series of twelve engravings by William Hogarth (1747)
  5. Jack Sheppard the House-breaker (1825)
  6. A melodrama by W.T. Moncrieff Jack Sheppard
  7. A novel by William Harrison Ainsworth (1839) (later the same year adapted into a play by John Buckstone)
  8. Little Jack Sheppard, an operetta with libretto by Henry Pottinger Stephens and William Yardley, and score by Meyer Lutz (1885)
  9. Silent movies: The Hairbreadth Escape of Jack Sheppard (1900) and Jack Sheppard (1923)
  10. Where’s Jack? directed by James Clavell (1969)
  11. The Thieves’ Opera by Lucy Moore (1999)