The unbelievable true crime story behind the swinging jazz standard “Mack the Knife.”
Once upon a time, there was a five-foot-four London folk hero who inspired John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, which inspired Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s The Threepenny Opera, which contained the song “Mack the Knife,” which became a snappy lounge tune for jazz bopper Bobby Darin.
This is the true tale of Jack Sheppard, born into poverty in 1702 in Spitalfields, England. Sent to work at six years old after his father died, Sheppard lived with a new master, Jonathan Kneebone, who eventually apprenticed Jack to a carpenter when Jack became a teenager, and life was good. For a time.
As fate would have it, Sheppard fell in with a charismatic, strapping yet morally suspect woman, Elizabeth Lyon, who was known about the neighborhood as Edgworth Bess for her propensity to liberate objects from their owners, including money for carnal knowledge that she possessed.
She introduced Sheppard, a young man of 21, to the vices of the London underbelly at the Black Lion, a local tavern. Quickly, Sheppard discovered he liked the Black Lion and Elizabeth more than carpentry, and in 1724, he made a life-changing (and, as you will discover, dear reader, a life-ending) decision to forego his upstanding path as a carpenter for a life as a petty thief and an escapologist of remarkable talent.
Sketch of Jack Sheppard in Newgate Prison shortly before his execution, attributed to Sir James Thornhill.
Elizabeth introduced Jack to Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, a well-known thief. With his new associates, Jack began pilfering, earning a reputation as one of the city’s notable housebreakers.
After stealing spoons from Charing Cross, Jack landed in prison in February 1724. Tying strips of his bedsheets together, Jack escaped after breaking a hole in the roof and lowering himself to freedom. This stunt garnered public attention and admiration after people learned that Sheppard got away scot-free by standing amongst them, pointing at a rooftop and shouting “Look! There he is!”
A few months passed, yet Jack was caught pickpocketing in May 1724 and was thrown into a more substantial prison. Elizabeth visited him, was arrested herself and locked in the cell with Jack. As man-and-wife, they were moved to a new prison. Friends sneaked in a few small tools, allowing Jack to saw through the manacles. With a 25-foot drop to the ground, Jack needed more than his bedsheets, so Elizabeth gave her petticoat to the cause. Unfortunately, the 25-foot drop was into another prison yard. Jack drove spikes into the wall, the two climbed over and fled into the city.
If Jack’s exploits sound like make-believe, wait until you read about the next escapes.
A bigger problem for Jack arrived in the form of the self-appointed “Thief-Taker General,” Jonathan Wild. Wild was an utterly contemptible criminal who’d fashioned himself as a champion of the people by configuring an elaborate robbery scheme whereby he magically “found” people’s stolen property and scooped up all of the reward money. He could find all of their goods because his gang of thieves stole them in the first place. Wild ran the London thieves’ underground from the police station, and he pretty much ran the police department. He had the press wrapped around his finger. No one could rat him out or he’d cry “thief” and have the person hanged without trial. It was a good gig for Wild until he decided that nabbing Jack Sheppard would be his coup de grace. But he had to find Jack first.
A book illustration of Jonathan Wild by Charles Knight.
Wild found Elizabeth, made nice and got her drunk, wherein she divulged Jack’s whereabouts. Wild’s goons apprehended Jack, threw him in Newgate Prison, and the court sentenced him to hang.
By now, everyone knew Jack Sheppard. Public opinion of the law and the upper class turned sour, especially as the disparities in treatment between the rich and poor became glaringly obvious. Jack was low-born, clever, unstoppable, heroically in love and handsome. No one actually wanted him to pay for his crimes. They wanted him to outfox the authorities forever. Suddenly, Jack was the champion of the people, not the smug Thief-Taker General.
Elizabeth, smarting from her betrayal, gathered another one of Jack’s paramours, Poll Maggot, and the two conspired to help Jack from his latest predicament. They smuggled him a nightgown. After loosening a bar on his cell window, Jack squeezed through the bars into a hallway, donned the nightgown, walked unrecognized across the reception area and out the main door. He escaped Newgate Prison with Elizabeth and Poll only hours before his gallows bell tolled. News of this flagrant escape spread like fire. People cheered him as the Hero of London.
Wild hated it. He managed to capture Jack again, this time chaining him to the floor with handcuffs. In October 1724, Sheppard somehow unshackled himself, broke open the padlocks on six separate prison doors and shimmied up the chimney to the rooftop. Once there, he realized he forgot his trademark sheet. So, he returned to his cell, grabbed his sheet, shimmied back to the roof through the chimney, then lowered himself to a neighboring house before spiriting into the night.
Just the day before, in a confounding turn of events, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake found himself against Jonathan Wild in court. Wild, still considered the law, gave damning testimony about Blake, who was sentenced to hang. Enraged, Blake drew a blade, slashing Wild’s throat. Chaos ensued, authorities rushed Wild to the hospital.
Jack burgled a final time and was apprehended, drunk, in a tavern wearing the clothes he’d purloined. Carted to the maximum-security room in Newgate Prison, Jack was chained to the floor under 300 pounds of irons. Prison guards charged four shillings for a glimpse of the great Jack Sheppard, raking in mountains of money.
“The Last Scene” engraved by George Cruikshank in 1839 to illustrate William Harrison Ainsworth’s serialised novel, Jack Sheppard.
In November, Blueskin Blake hanged, and five days later, the gallows cart trundled to Tyburn Hill for the execution of Jack Sheppard. Reports say 200,000 people followed Jack to his hanging, with women throwing flowers and men fighting for the chance to shake his hand. Jack Sheppard died, well-admired, on November 16, 1724, nine months after the start of his life of crime.
And Wild? Well, he recovered physically, but his reputation was never the same. Despised, Wild fell from favor, his gang of thieves turning evidence on him one by one. Tried, convicted and sentenced to death, Wild met the gallows at Tyburn Hill six months after Jack Sheppard. There was also a large crowd that day, but no one clamored to shake Wild’s hand.
The courts banished Elizabeth Lyon to America, a fitting place for prostitutes and moral degenerates, though her story is lost after she arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, shortly after Jack’s death.
Portrayal of Macheath and Peachum in Jobsite Theater’s upcoming version of The Threepenny Opera.
The impassioned tale of Jack Sheppard, Jonathan Wild and Elizabeth Lyon captured the public’s imagination. Only four years after Jack hanged, John Gay composed The Beggar’s Opera, with the main characters of Macheath and Peachum inspired by Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild respectively.
In 1928, Brecht and Weill remade Gay’s work into the ribald THE THREEPENNY OPERA, adding, at the very last minute, an intro number for Macheath called “Mack the Knife.”
Original poster for The Threepenny Opera from Berlin, 1928.
Though Macheath is a psychopathic interpretation of the Jack Sheppard legend, “Mack the Knife,” took on a life of its own, becoming a hit for Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and most memorably in its lounge-worthy Bobby Darin rendition.
If you want to hear “Mack the Knife” and see what Macheath and Peachum are up to, catch up with Jobsite Theater as they perform The Threepenny Opera, Oct. 18 – Nov. 12, in the Jaeb Theater.