The history of crime and policing is often rather murky, and few aspects are more dubious than the eighteenth-century practice of thief-taking. Catching an offender was so lucrative that the trade attracted plenty of its own criminal practices.
Before the advent of the modern police force, sometimes questionable ways of addressing crime had to be found. One of the most controversial was the use of rewards to thief-takers. While the idea of paying a reward to somebody helping solve a crime is apparently straightforward and remains in use today, it caused enormous problems in the eighteenth century as the work of the thieftaker became discredited.
Thanks to the generous sums on offer, especially for serious crimes such as highway robbery, a new profession grew up. Thieftakers dedicated themselves to catching criminals and recovering stolen goods to earn this bounty - but the result was not as simple as professional if unofficial policing. These men generally relied upon intelligence to achieve results, and so were close to criminal culture. Sometimes very close. In fact, so close that they were often criminals themselves - famously, Jonathan Wild would negotiate the return of stolen property for a fee; but his success in locating it turned out to be because his gang of thieves had stolen it in the first place! He would even turn in some thieves, either rivals or associates who had fallen out of favour, for further rewards.
Some went further and lured others into offending so that they could then betray them and collect the reward. An example of the latter occurred in Deptford in 1756:
Yesterday 7 night at the Old Bailey, those notorious thieftakers, Stephen Macdaniel, John Berry, James Egan, and James Salmon, were tried and convicted, upon the clearest evidence, for conspiring together to procure Peter Kelly and John Ellis, two young lads, to commit a robbery on the highway on him the said Salmon, in the parish of Deptford, in July 1754, in order by their conviction, to entitle them not only to the rewards payable by the statute,* but the further rewards offered by the inhabitants of that parish for the apprehending of robbers, for robberies committed there; and for which artificial robbery those young lads were afterwards condemned to die at the then ensuing assizes for the county of Kent, tho’ happily reprieved by the discovery of this conspiracy, thro’ the vigilance of Mr Cox, the high-constable of that parish, before the time fixed for their execution.* An Act of 1692, providing for a £40 reward for apprehending and prosecuting highwaymen. They would also get the felon's horse, weapons and other goods.
And Yesterday Macdaniel and Berry stood on the pillory, pursuant to their sentence, in Holborn, opposite Hatton-Garden; Egan and Salmon are to stand on Monday next in Smithfield. The second time, Macdaniel and Berry the 2d of April in Cheapside, opposite King-street; and Egan and Salmon, the 5th of Aril, near Fetter-lane, Fleet-street; and to find security for their good behaviour for three years.