Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1333
When Owen Wood goes to offer his condolence to Joan, the widow of Tom Sheppard, who was executed for stealing from Wood, he finds the woman living in misery near the Old Mint, a haven for mendicants, thieves, and debtors. Joan tells Wood that Van Galgebrok, a Dutch seaman and conjurer, prophesied that her baby, Jack, would be executed as his father was. The prophecy was based on the presence of a mole behind Jack’s ear. Wood offers to take the infant out of the sordid environment in order to avert fulfillment of the prophecy, but the mother refuses to part with her child.
Left alone with the infant while Joan goes to the attic to get a key that her deceased husband ordered to be given to Wood, the carpenter is accosted by a mob led by Sir Rowland Trenchard, in pursuit of a young man named Darrell. In the confusion, Jonathan Wild, a thief-taker, picks up the key that Joan was to return to Wood.
While a great storm rages, Darrell, the fugitive, with a baby in his arms, is again pursued by Sir Rowland. The chase continues to the flooded Thames, where Darrell is drowned after a struggle with Sir Rowland. On his way home, Wood rescues the baby from drowning. Some falling bricks save him and the baby from Sir Rowland’s wrath. Understanding little of the night’s strange events, Wood takes the child home with him. He names the boy Thames Darrell.
Twelve years later, Wood takes Jack Sheppard as an apprentice in his carpenter shop, but he finds the boy indifferent and listless in his work. Thames, reared by the Woods, is a model apprentice. A third child in the household is Winifred, Wood’s daughter, a charming, beautiful girl. The three twelve-year-olds are very fond of one another.
Mrs. Wood, a termagant, has long berated her husband for his kindness to Jack and to Joan Sheppard, who live modestly and respectably in Willesden. Following an episode in which Thames is injured while trying to prevent injury to Jack, Mrs. Wood reprimands Jack and predicts that he will come to the same end that his father met. Her chastisement is strong enough to arouse a spirit of criminality in Jack.
Wild, who had hanged Tom, boasts that he will hang the son as well. A resolute and subtle plotter, he works slyly to bring about the boy’s ruin. One day, he gives Jack the key that he found on the floor of the Mint twelve years before. It is Wood’s master key; his hope is that Jack will rob the carpenter. Investigating Thames’s parentage, Wild learns also that Thames is the child of Sir Rowland’s sister, Lady Alvira, whose husband Sir Rowland drowned and whose child he tried to destroy on the night of the great storm. Later, Lady Alvira was forced to marry her cousin, Sir Cecil Trafford. Lady Trafford is dying, in which event the estates will revert to her brother if she leaves no other heir. Wild promises Sir Rowland that he will remove Thames in order that Sir Rowland can inherit the entire estate. As a hold over the nobleman, he tells him also that he knows the whereabouts of Sir Rowland’s other sister, Constance, carelessly lost in childhood to a Gypsy.
Wild and Sir Rowland trap Thames and Jack in Sir Rowland’s house and accuse them of robbery. Imprisoned, Jack and Thames make a jailbreak from Old Giles’s Roundhouse, the first of innumerable and difficult escapes for Jack, and the last for Thames, who is sent off to sea to be disposed of by Van Galgebrok, the Dutch seaman and conjurer.
Jack is soon fraternizing with the patrons of the Mint, much to the pleasure of the derelicts, prostitutes, and gamblers who gather there. It is in this environment that Joan sees Jack as the criminal he is. When she goes there to admonish her son to live a life of righteousness, she is answered by the taunts and sneers of the patrons, who remind her that she at one time enjoyed the life of the Mint. Jack, egged on by two prostitutes, spurns her pleas. Joan returns to her little home in Willesden to pray for Jack.
Wild had rid himself of Thames, an obstacle in his scheme to get control of the fortune of Sir Montacute Trenchard, Thames’s grandfather. He now sets about to remove Sir Rowland as well. Plotting against the aristocrat, Wild has him arrested for treason in connection with a proposed Jacobite uprising against the crown.
Jack uses the key given to him by Wild to rob Wood’s house. Caught and jailed in the Cage at Willesden as he is going to visit his mother, he soon escapes from the supposedly escape-proof structure. At his mother’s house, Jack declares his undying love for her but announces that he cannot return to honest living. Questioned by Joan as to how long he will wait to execute his threat against Jack, Wild, who followed Jack to Willesden, answers boldly and confidently, “Nine.”
Nine years later in 1742, Jack is the most daring criminal and jailbreaker of the day. By that time, the Woods are affluent citizens living in Willesden. Joan goes insane because of worry over Jack and has been committed to Bedlam, a squalid, filthy asylum. Sir Rowland is released from prison. Thames, thrown overboard by Van Galgebrok, is picked up by a French fishing boat and carried to France, where he is employed by and subsequently commissioned by Philip of Orleans. Wild continues in his pleasures of execution and in collecting keepsakes of his grisly profession.
Jack and Blueskin, one of Wild’s henchmen, quarrel with Wild because he will not help Thames get his rightful share of the estate that Sir Rowland confiscated, and Blueskin becomes Jack’s loyal henchman. The two rob the Wood home again, Blueskin slashing Mrs. Wood’s throat as she attempts to detain him.
Jack goes to see his mother, a haggard, demented object of human wreckage, in chains and on a bed of straw. Wild follows Jack to the asylum. During a brawl, Wild strikes Joan, and the blow restores the poor woman’s senses. After her release from Bedlam, Wild divulges to Sir Rowland the fact that Joan is his long-lost sister and an heir to the Trenchard estates.
Wild disposes of Sir Rowland by bludgeoning him and throwing him into a secret well. Sir Rowland, almost dead from the beating, attempts to save himself by catching hold of the floor around the opening of the well, but Wild tramples his fingers until the nobleman drops to his watery grave. The thief-taker, still plotting to secure the Trenchard wealth, takes Joan captive, but she kills herself rather than be forced into a marriage with the villain. At her funeral, Jack is apprehended after a jailbreak that required passage through six bolted and barred doors and the removal of innumerable stones and bricks from the prison walls.
In the meantime, Thames returns from France to visit the Wood household. Through information contained in a packet of letters that reaches him in circuitous fashion, he learns that his father, the fugitive known only as Darrell, was the French Marquis de Chatillon. His paternity proved, he inherits the Trenchard estates as well. He then marries Winifred Wood.
After his seizure at his mother’s funeral, Jack Sheppard is executed at Tyburn. As his body swings at the end of the rope, Blueskin cuts him down in an attempt to save his life. A bullet from Wild’s gun passes through Jack’s heart. The body is buried beside Joan in Willesden cemetery; in later years, the Marquis de Chatillon and his wife tend the grave and its simple wooden monument. Wild eventually pays for his crimes; he is hanged on the same gallows to which he sent Jack and his father.
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