Charmers, Fraudsters and Villains: Infamous Figures of 18th Century England


The 18th century was a time of urban growth, social upheaval, and increasing crime rates in England. In this era of lawlessness, a fascinating rogues gallery emerged – a group of charmers, fraudsters, and villains whose stories continue to captivate us to this day. These individuals often targeted the wealthy and powerful, taking advantage of the widespread corruption in society. They were master manipulators, able to charm and deceive their way into positions of trust and authority. Despite the risks, many people were drawn to their daring exploits and flamboyant lifestyles, making them both feared and admired.

Charmers Fraudsters and Villains: An Overview

The 18th century was a time of great change, with new ideas, new technologies, and new ways of life emerging across the Western world. But it was also a time of great social upheaval, with urbanization and industrialization leading to rising crime rates, fraud, and corruption. From the infamous Jack Sheppard to the rabbit birthing fraud of Mary Toft, these individuals and their exploits captivated the public imagination and left an indelible mark on the history of the 18th century. In this article, we will take a closer look at some of the most notorious thieves, scoundrels, and public heroes of the era, uncovering a fascinating rogues gallery of charmers, fraudsters, and villains.

The 18th century was a time of rapid social and economic change, with the growth of cities and the rise of consumer culture creating new opportunities for both legitimate and illegitimate business. This environment provided fertile ground for criminals and scoundrels to ply their trades, and many rose to infamy through their daring exploits, charismatic personalities, or sheer audacity. While some were celebrated as public heroes or cultural icons, others were reviled as dangerous threats to social order and morality. In this article, we will explore some of the most notorious figures of the 18th century and the stories that have kept them alive in popular memory.

Scoundrels and Fraudsters of 18th Century England

In the 18th century, England was a time of social upheaval, urban growth, and increasing crime rates. Among the many fascinating stories that emerged from this era are those of the fraudsters and scoundrels who captivated the public imagination with their audacious cons, brazen thefts, and ruthless exploits. From charming thieves to con artists and corrupt officials, the stories of these individuals offer a glimpse into a bygone era of crime and scandal.

Charmer and Thief: Jack Sheppard

Jack Sheppard was perhaps the most famous thief and serial escapee of the 18th century. He was a charming rogue who managed to escape from prison four times, becoming something of a folk hero in the process. Despite his criminal activities, Sheppard’s popularity was such that almost a quarter of a million people turned up to witness his hanging in 1724.

Jack Sheppard’s story has inspired many writers and artists, including the famous British author Charles Dickens, who based his character of Jack Dawkins, aka the Artful Dodger, in his novel “Oliver Twist” on Sheppard. Sheppard’s life has also been adapted into plays, films, and even a musical. His story is a reminder of the enduring fascination with charismatic criminals and the blurred line between villainy and heroism.

Fraudster and Con Artist: Mary Toft

Mary Toft was a fraudster who managed to convince no less than King George I and his surgeon that she had given birth to rabbits. Her elaborate con fooled the medical community for several months, until it was eventually exposed. Although Toft’s story is often seen as a bizarre curiosity, it highlights the gullibility of people in the 18th century and the power of a convincing lie.

Toft’s deception is a fascinating case study in the history of fraud, revealing much about the social and cultural context of the time. Her story is a reminder of the significant gaps in medical knowledge in the 18th century and the willingness of people to believe in the miraculous. In many ways, Toft’s rabbit hoax was emblematic of the era, a time when science was rapidly advancing, but superstition and ignorance were still prevalent. Her story also underscores the importance of skepticism and critical thinking, even in the face of seemingly incredible claims.

Villain but Public Hero: Jonathan Wild

Jonathan Wild was a notorious criminal who, despite his many crimes, was appointed “Thief Taker General” by the government. He used his position to control the criminal underworld and enrich himself, but was eventually exposed and executed. Wild’s story is a reminder of the complex and often murky world of crime and justice in 18th century England.

Jonathan Wild was a complex figure who blurred the lines between criminal and law enforcement. He was both feared and admired for his ability to control the criminal underworld and his close ties to the authorities. However, his downfall came when he was exposed for betraying his own gang members to protect his position and profit. Wild’s story serves as a cautionary tale about the corrupting influence of power and the dangers of playing both sides in a criminal underworld.

Corruption and Scandal: The South Sea Bubble

The South Sea Bubble was a financial scandal that rocked England in 1720. It involved the South Sea Company, which was granted a monopoly on trade with South America. The company’s stock prices soared, attracting many investors, before eventually collapsing and ruining countless lives. The scandal led to a public outcry and a loss of faith in the government and financial institutions.

The South Sea Bubble is a cautionary tale of greed and speculation in 18th century England. It highlights the dangers of unchecked financial speculation and the vulnerability of ordinary people to the whims of the wealthy and powerful. The scandal had far-reaching consequences, not only for those directly affected by the collapse of the South Sea Company, but for the wider public perception of the government and financial institutions. The legacy of the South Sea Bubble serves as a reminder that financial scandals and market crashes are not a new phenomenon, and that the lessons of the past are still relevant today.

Other Infamous Figures of 18th Century England

This period was a time of great social change and upheaval, which led to an increase in crime and corruption. Along with the famous names of Jack Sheppard, Mary Toft and Jonathan Wild, there were many other notorious figures from the era who made their mark on history. Here is a list of some other infamous figures from the 18th century who were equally fascinating and scandalous.

  • Blackbeard: This infamous pirate terrorized the seas off the East Coast of America in the early 18th century. He was known for his fierce appearance, which included a long black beard and multiple weapons, as well as his ruthless tactics. Blackbeard’s reign of piracy came to an end when he was killed in a battle with the British Navy.
  • The Gordon Riots: In 1780, a series of riots broke out in London, sparked by tensions between Protestants and Catholics. The riots lasted for several days and resulted in widespread destruction and violence, including the burning of homes and buildings. The British government was forced to call in troops to quell the unrest.
  • Sawney Bean: According to legend, Sawney Bean was the leader of a clan of cannibals who lived in a cave in Scotland in the 18th century. The clan reportedly murdered and ate hundreds of people before they were finally caught and executed.
  • The Hellfire Club: This secret society of wealthy and influential men in England was known for its debauchery and excess. Members were said to engage in all sorts of scandalous behavior, including orgies, blasphemy, and even Satan worship.
  • The Tichborne Claimant: In the late 19th century, a man named Arthur Orton claimed to be Sir Roger Tichborne, a wealthy Englishman who had disappeared years earlier. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, Orton managed to convince many people that he was the real Tichborne, and even took legal action to try to claim the Tichborne estate. The case became one of the most famous trials in English history.
  • Dick Turpin: A highwayman who became famous for his daring robberies and daring escapes. He was eventually caught and hanged, but his legend lives on in popular culture.
  • The Cato Street Conspiracy: A plot to assassinate British Prime Minister Lord Liverpool and his cabinet in 1820. The conspirators were caught and executed, and the incident helped to fuel fears of radicalism and political unrest in the early 19th century.
  • Elizabeth Brownrigg: A notorious child abuser who was executed for torturing and killing her young apprentices.
  • The Black Act: A law passed in 1723 in England that made over 200 crimes punishable by death, including poaching, hunting with a blackened face, and cutting down a young tree.
  • Admiral John Byng: A controversial trial and execution in 1757 of a British naval officer who was found guilty of failing to do his utmost in battle. The execution was widely criticized and is said to have influenced the later abolition of the death penalty for military offenses.

The Legacy of Infamous Figures of 18th Century

The legacy of the infamous figures of the 18th century is a complex one. On one hand, their stories serve as cautionary tales of the dangers of greed, deception, and the pursuit of power at any cost. They remind us of the darker side of human nature and the consequences of unchecked ambition. On the other hand, these stories also offer a fascinating glimpse into the social and cultural landscape of the time, revealing the complexities and contradictions of an era in which the boundaries between right and wrong were often blurred.

Ultimately, the legacy of these figures is one of intrigue and fascination, serving as a reminder of the enduring power of scandal and the human desire for both justice and spectacle. The stories of these notorious figures from the 18th century continue to fascinate us today, not only for their shocking deeds and exploits, but also for what they reveal about the society and culture of the time.

They offer a glimpse into the dark underbelly of urban life and the complexities of human nature, reminding us that the pursuit of wealth and power can sometimes lead to devastating consequences. As we look back on these figures, we are reminded of the importance of integrity, justice, and the rule of law in our society.


The stories of these charmers, fraudsters, villains, and heroes offer a fascinating glimpse into the world of 18th century England. They remind us of the darker side of urban life and the complexity of human nature. Whether they were charming thieves or ruthless criminals, their stories continue to captivate us and offer a window into a bygone era of crime and scandal. Through their tales of cunning and deceit, these figures also shed light on the power dynamics of the time, revealing the ways in which social class, gender, and politics played a role in determining who rose to infamy and who was punished for their crimes.

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