word craft


Story Behind the Story #66:
The Unexpected Life
of Oliver Cromwell Pitts

Jonathan Wild, illus­tra­tion from Charles Knight (1791–1873) Old Eng­land : a pic­to­r­i­al muse­um of regal, eccle­si­as­ti­cal, munic­i­pal, baro­nial, and pop­u­lar antiq­ui­ties. Lon­don: James Sang­ster and Co. p. 325

Jonathan Wild (1685–1725) was England’s most noto­ri­ous crook. Daniel Defoe (Robin­son Cru­soe) wrote about him, as did Hen­ry Field­ing (Tom Jones). It has been sug­gest­ed that Dick­ens’ char­ac­ter, Fagan, from Oliv­er Twist is based on him. Conan Doyle’s Sher­lock Holmes’ arch rival, Mori­ar­ty, is also said to be mod­eled on him.

In 18th Cen­tu­ry Eng­land, pover­ty was extreme, wealth was extreme, and the city of Lon­don was grow­ing to mon­strous pro­por­tions. Hard­ly a won­der; crime became ram­pant. The gov­ern­ment enact­ed a series of laws to pro­tect prop­er­ty, col­lec­tive­ly known as “The Bloody Codes,” which estab­lished dra­con­ian penal­ties for what we might, today, con­sid­er rel­a­tive­ly minor crimes.

Regard­ing crim­i­nal enforce­ment, England—and London—had no pro­fes­sion­al police forces. Thieves were to be appre­hend­ed by cit­i­zens, and brought to mag­is­trates for tri­al. If con­vict­ed, a cit­i­zen would be reward­ed by large sums of mon­ey. No sur­prise, pro­fes­sion­al “thief-catch­ers” came into being.

The great­est thief-catch­er of all was Jonathan Wild—except Wild employed the thieves. The thieves would give Wild the loot, then Wild would sell the stolen prop­er­ty back to the vic­tim. And/or, if the thief did not please Wild, Wild would turn the thief in, and col­lect a reward. Wild kept care­ful ledgers of his activ­i­ties. If he did not like what you did, he put an X next to your name. Run afoul of him twice, a sec­ond X would be put down, and Wild would turn you in. Hence, you would have been dou­ble crossed, the ori­gin of the word.

It was said that Wild grew immea­sur­ably rich as he con­trolled most of the crime in Eng­land, Scot­land and Ireland.

The Unexpected Life of Oliver Cromwell PittsIt was as I learned about England’s crim­i­nal world, that I cre­at­ed the sto­ry of Oliv­er Cromwell Pitts, a boy who becomes entan­gled in England’s crim­i­nal world and its legal sys­tem. Jonathan Wild is part of the sto­ry, and makes an appear­ance but, how­ev­er impor­tant he is to the plot, it’s a small part. Vast­ly more impor­tant is the 18th Cen­tu­ry world in which Oliv­er lives.

Indeed, part of the book’s style derives from 18th Cen­tu­ry fic­tion, Field­ing, Sterne, and others.

To write this way gives me—and readers—much fun, because 18th Cen­tu­ry writ­ing is play­ful, sly, satiric—and full of ener­gy. One must be clever to write this way, clever in the sense that one nev­er knows what will hap­pen next. I am con­struct­ing a house of many doors—and you, the read­er, nev­er know what is behind the next door.

As for Wild, he was exe­cut­ed when the gov­ern­ment dou­ble crossed him. In the curi­ous way of Eng­lish cul­ture, Wild’s skele­ton is on dis­play at the Roy­al Col­lege Hunter­ian Muse­um in London.

As for The Unex­pect­ed Life of Oliv­er Cromwell Pitts, it’s on dis­play at bet­ter book stores everywhere.

3 thoughts on “Story Behind the Story #66: <br>The Unexpected Life <br>of Oliver Cromwell Pitts”

  1. I also agree. The stuff about Jonathan Wild was a rev­e­la­tion to me. I love know­ing the ori­gin of “dou­ble-crossed”!


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