27. The Skeleton of Jonathan Wild


Object type: Articulated Male Skeleton

Materials: Bone and Wire

© Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons, London


John Gay, by William Aikman (ca. 1720)  (c)c National Portrait Gallery of Scotland, PG718

Jonathan Wild (see Exhibit 26) was a man put together out of other people’s property.  So, too, was John Gay (right).  The similarities between the two men go beyond their shared Christian names; their lives were parallel in a number of ways.  Each was born in a small English town; they came into the world at about the same time, and moved, within a few years of one another, to London, where they took up apprenticeships in shop trades.  Wild arrived as a buckle-maker; Gay manned a counter selling silks and other textiles.  Each however found innovative ways to borrow and steal, to sell things back to their proper owners.  Wild was a pioneer in bureaucratizing the newish institution of the lost and found.  This was of course the Lost Property Office, which is the object of Exhibit 26.  Like Wild, Gay pioneered a cheeky new form of art that tried something similar.  This was the so-called “ballad opera,” of which his Beggar’s Opera was the first; the idea was to borrow common materials—things like ballads and small songs—only to sell them back to people who knew them already.  Each man was, in other words, a merchant trafficking in the property of others.

It was no accident that the early eighteenth century saw the explosion of laws pertaining to property.  London was at the center of an empire, and its citizens were owning small objects of property at an unprecedented rate.  These new habits of ownership were matched by new laws to protect them, a series of increasingly draconian laws, ratcheting up the penalties for theft to the point where stealing something worth as little as twenty shillings might earn the death penalty. 

An anonymous engraving of Jonathan Wild, offered as a satirical "ticket" to his execution (ca. 1725).  Photo by Curator from a private collection.

These laws were prompted in no small part by Wild’s Lost Property Office; this perplexing experiment became the target of a series of acts aimed at the mere possession of stolen property.  These laws are in fact how Wild’s skeleton ended up as an exhibit; caught with ten pounds-worth of stolen linen, Wild was convicted of theft, a capital crime.  His body, perhaps the most private of private objects, was forfeit first to the criminal justice system, and then to the medical profession.  For not only was he converted into a staged exhibition of the power of the law, hanged by the neck until dead (left), but he was subsequently given over to the anatomists, where he was made use of as an anatomy lesson.  The relics of this procedure, the leftover bits of the body of Jonathan Wild, are now in the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons (above).  (A more striking example of the translation of late medieval display into modern museum practice could hardly be imagined—see Exhibit 17.)

Speaking of bodies and displays, Wild might have been shocked that he himself was forfeit to the law, but he had been surfing the strange precarity of dispossession for years.  Sometime around 1844, more than a century after his death, workmen in London were digging new footings for the Holborn Viaduct when they ran across a grisly archive.  London is a city of the dead (Arnold, Roach); it has stood on the same site for two millennia, and so dig crews turn up graveyards and burial sites all the time.  But this was unusual even by these standards—a network of passages, cellars, and subterranean rooms, partly stocked with old weapons, relics from public executions, and bits of human remains.  A flurry of salacious pamphlets record what came to be called the “Blood Bowl”; it was, it seems, what remained of the violent career of thief-taker Jonathan Wild, for Wild had been socking away relics from violent crimes, mementoes from public executions, and even bits and pieces of famous criminals.  It is perhaps the first attested collection of murderabilia—and a case study in the wages of dispossession.

What interests me is this: at nearly the same time as Wild’s strange experiment was prompting new innovations in property law, there was installed a series of strikingly similar laws about intellectual property.  London’s property-owning people were starting to think of themselves as owners of things, inside and out.  By this account, ideas could be owned just like any snuffbox, account book, or lock of hair, and laws had to be written to protect them.  And just as laws were put in place to protect snuffboxes (etc…), so, too, laws were framed to defend this regime of interiorized property.  Finally, if laws regarding portable property had Jonathan Wild as their emblem and figurehead, so, too, laws of intellectual property sought out their avatars: people like Alexander Pope (see Exhibit 25) and John Gay.

Title page to the 1728 edition of The Beggar's Opera.  That's John Hippisley as Wild as Peachum on the far right.   Image from the Burden Collection at the University of Adelaide.

Wild was shuffled off to the anatomist’s theater, but his repurposing by an interested public wasn’t over; Gay fashioned his most successful play, the hit musical The Beggar’s Opera, on Wild’s famously double life.  Actually, Wild shows up in several ways, in bits and pieces scattered throughout the play: as Peachum, a thief-taker and broker of lost property, but also in such minor characters as “Crook-Finger’d Jack,” whose name is the familiar by-name for both John and Jonathan (Gay and Wild twinned here in this minor pickpocket).  This was a play that was a sign of the times; it was about Jonathan Wild, but Wild himself only stood as a double and doppelgänger for the poet-playwright.  The Lost Property Office was the icon and emblem of Gay's own poetics.

Were Wild around to have seen it, no doubt he would have wondered how someone else could profit from his own story, but this had always been Gay’s strength as an author.  Gay made a living from small satires on public people, epic poems about everyday life, and short pieces designed for rapid circulation.  He had made his start in London as a salesman of everyday goods; now he was making his mark writing about the same sorts of things (a poem entitled “The Fan,” another called “Wine,” a "Town Eclogue" called "The Toilet," and so on).  The Beggar’s Opera, however, launched Gay’s celebrity.  A thing made up of the stuff of others, it nevertheless catapulted Gay into instant fame.  He had become, in the words of friend and fellow scribler John Arbuthnot, “a public person.” 

One of the more interesting characters in intellectual property case histories is George Bickham the Younger.  Bickham was the son of a well-known and highly accomplished engraver, who specialized in engraving ornate handwriting (see Exhibit 23).  When his son took over the business, he looked aggressively to expand it, and expansion meant coming up with appealing new material.  Some of this meant dipping into materials related to the oldest profession; he was once in court (in 1745) for graphic engravings of a book advertised as The School of Venus.  But in the midst of this, he was in trouble with the law for a much more novel set of crimes.  He was found to have forged Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man.  It is the nature of the defense that interests me.  Pope brought Bickham to court for copyright infringement—in one of the first cases to try out a new raft of copyright laws.  Bickham, for his part, insisted in essence that he was not pirating An Essay on Man at all, but only publishing an engraving by his own hand; it just so happened that the engraving looked exactly like Pope’s poem (see Hunter).

John Gay, by George Bickham, Sr, "A New Deceptio Visus" (ca. 1729). Photo by Curator.  Many copies have survived, for instance National Portrait Gallery, NPG D9490.

The Bickhams, younger and elder, had specialized in selling objects made to look like the real thing; they had, what is more, specialized in selling engravings made up of the property of other people.  One such example is what they titled A New Deceptio Visus—that is, a new trompe l’oeil or trick of the eye.  Not quite a portrait of John Gay, it is designed to look like a litter of things on a table, all of which add up to Gay in one way or another: scraps of his poetry, an image of his likeness, bits and pieces of things associated with him.  This is stolen property—at least in the intellectual sense.  But the Bickham portrait nevertheless captures something particular about Gay himself—for Gay was, perhaps more famously than any of his contemporaries, someone put together out of the property of others.

This, then, is the place I’d like to end—with a sort of aporia, a central paradox of possessive individualism.  Once we think of ideas as objects, we open ourselves up to an insoluble problem; once we accept that there is nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses, it becomes difficult to figure out how anything can be owned, or at least any idea can be owned, that does not belong to someone or anyone else.  For what is authorship, in such a regime, but the clever rearrangement of things culled from the commons?  What is a work of art but the repurposing of the property of others?  And how may we think of creativity except as the selling back of things to people who owned them already?

It may be that all ideas are stolen; this was a concept floated by Joshua Reynolds (Exhibit 20), who had stolen it from Jonathan Richardson (who got it from Thomas Browne, and so it goes).  It might be that everything is borrowed from the Ancients; this was mooted by Laetitia Pilkington (Exhibits 23 and 24), who had it from Jonathan Swift, who might have gotten it from Joseph Addison (Exhibits 13 and 14), who in any case had it from John Locke, and so on all the way back to Aristotle.  It is the essential paradox of the mind as a collection; to insist on ideas as possessions is already to open us up to a strange, vertiginous dispossession.  To think of ideas as things is to insist that they outlive us; we become the receptacles in which ideas make an uneasy home.