William Harrison Ainsworth’s “Jack Sheppard” commenced serialization in Bentley’s Miscellany in January 1839 and came to a conclusion in February 1840. Bentley’s then re-issued the romance in fifteen monthly parts in 1840 with plates by George Cruikshank.
In George Augustus Sala’s description:
“In “Jack Sheppard” he out-Newgated Bulwer’s Newgate epics. Every student of criminal annals knows that John Sheppard, footpad and housebreaker, was a vulgar, squalid, illiterate, drunken scamp, whose only talent was one for breaking out of gaol. Ainsworth made him a dashing young blood of illicitly noble descent, who dressed sumptuously and lived luxuriously ; but even had the novelist refrained from converting this vulgar gaol-bird into a hero of romance, there was quite enough in the vigorous description of his escapes from Newgate, and the extraordinarily able illustrations thereof by George Cruikshank, to delight and enchant a public which had already been captivated by the murder and housebreaking scenes in “Oliver Twist”, and especially by George’s etchings of the death of Sikes and Fagin in the condemned cell. Harrison Ainsworth, as is well known, assumed the editorship of Bentley’s Miscellany, when the post was relinquished by Dickens, and “Jack Sheppard” followed “Oliver Twist.””
At first the book was well received, Ainsworth wrote in a letter; “Jack has made a most successful launch. Bentley is in tip-top spirits.” Within five months the critics were nipping at Ainsworth’s heels.
In Fraser’s Thackeray wrote;
“The public wanted something more extravagant still, more sympathy for thieves, and so Jack Sheppard makes his appearance. Jack and his two wives, and his faithful Blueskin, and his gin-drinking mother, that sweet Magdalen! -- with what a wonderful gravity are all their adventures related, with what an honest simplicity and vigour does Jack’s biographer record his actions and virtues.”
Ainsworth had planned a third criminal “biography,” this time with Claud Duvall as the hero, but his reputation as the “Tyburn Plutarch” led to his abandoning the Newgate romances. Claud Duvall would eventually figure in the novel “Talbot Harland.”
Dick Turpin and Jack Sheppard were melodramatically staged in penny gaffs and theatres utilizing real horses in the part of Black Bess. Thomas Beggs , investigating juvenile depravity in 1849 wrote;
“The amusements of these youths are the low theatres, the dancing saloons, and entertainments of a like description. Many of the penny theatres are frequented only by boys and girls who are already thieves and prostitutes. “Jack Sheppard,” “Dick Turpin,” “Claude Duval,” and other exhibitions of dexterous and daring crimes attract the attention and ambition of these boys, and each one endeavours to emulate the conduct of his favourite hero.”
Melodramatist Chance Newton understood the appeal of the penny dreadful romance.
“I have a suspicion that, whether we confess it to ourselves or others, my otherwise gentle readers, like myself, have a special fondness for dabbling in crime stories both printed or play acted. Also that we are especially moved by the lives and adventures of the Knights of the Road, or “High Toby Merchants,” as they were wont to be called. And even the more romantic housebreakers, or crib-crackers, from Jack Sheppard downwards, we study with especial interest.”
“Moreover, that species of murderers and desperadoes known as Burkers, who gleefully slew unoffending citizens for the sake of selling their corpses to surgeons for anatomical vivisection, have also thrilled us, have they not? Far into the night have we panted with secret excitement as the Bow Street Runners gained nearer and nearer on their prey, or were spoofed from time to time by such great criminal heroes as the aforesaid Jack or his terrible traitorous companion, Jonathan Wild. And with what smothered joy have we read of such still more romantic criers of “Stand and deliver!” and “Your money or your life!” as Claude Duval, Paul Clifford, Tom King, Dick Turpin, Nick Nevison, the Golden Farmer, Jerry Abershaw, George Barrington, Old Mop, Sixteen String Jack, Springheel Jack, Scarlet Dick, and so on and so forth.”
Walter Goodman described the original version ending of Jack Sheppard as performed on the Adelphi stage in 1839.
“But this highly respectable moral speech is not quite the end of the drama, as in the next and last scene of all we are shown the exterior of Newgate in the Old Bailey, with Jonathan Wild’s house occupying most of the stage. The thief-taker has been imprisoned in his own house for some days, along with his accomplice, Mendez, and Blueskin has sworn to make them pay dearly for their various acts of villainy, should Jack Sheppard be captured and taken to the gallows. So, finding that their beloved Captain has been run to earth and is already on his way to Tyburn, Blueskin and his pals carry out their threat by setting fire to Wild’s domicile. this being done, the wretched inmates of the burning house meet with a fate which completely satisfies the audience, who have all along been thirsting for their blood; for Wild and Mendez are buried alive in the smouldering ruins when the interior of the house falls, and this last episode, of course, brings down the other house and the curtain.”
“I won’t leave go!” screamed Mrs. Wood. “Fire! -- murder! -- thieves! -- I’ve got one of them!”
A review in The Athenaeum, Saturday, October 26, 1839 criticized George Cruikshank's illustrations:
“Jack Sheppard, then, is a bad book, and what is worse, it is of a class of bad books, got up for a bad public; and it is on this last account that we select it for observation, as a specimen of one of those literary peculiarities, which we consider to be signs of the times. If we had the means of addressing our readers with the volumes in their hands, the shortest and perhaps the best means of conveying our estimate of their contents, would be by a reference to the engraved illustrations, -- “look upon this picture and on this.”
In these graphic representations are embodied all the inherent coarseness and vulgarity of the subject; and all the horrible and (if it is not too strong to say) unnatural excitement, which a public, too prudish to relish humour, and too blasé to endure true pathos, requires to keep alive attention and to awaken a sensation. The engravings are, in fact, an epitome of the letterpress, and they seem to bear the same proportion to the entire work, that Mr. Stanfield’s beautiful scenery does to a picturesque melodrama; leaving it doubtful whether the plates were etched for the book, or the book written to illustrate the plates. Perhaps it were a better comparison to say, that the plates perform the same part in these volumes, that “the real gig” of Thurtell did on the Surrey stage; and that the authors in both cases have trusted to the oculis fidelibus, for producing that “elevation and surprise,” which their pens could not elicit from such a theme. These faithful images of “what you shall see,” beaming from the windows of booksellers shops like the baked meats and sausages depicted on the outsides of cookshops in Italy, are appeals ad hominem, not to be resisted ; and if they are signs of “that within which passeth show,” are not less so, of the tastes and appetites of those whose custom they solicit.”
The Examiner, Nov. 3, 1839, was also critical:
“We notice this “romance” with very great reluctance, because we have thought the author capable of better things. It is however in every sense of the word, so bad, and has been recommended to circulation by such disreputable means, that the silence that we meant to preserve upon the subject would be almost as great a compromise with truth as the morals of the book or the puffs of the bookseller.
Bad as we think the morals, we think the puffs more dangerous. Our silence would never have been broken if the book had been suffered to rest on its own merits. Little danger might then have been anticipated. Poisonous work is done by means of more cunning doses, nor are the ways of licentiousness, for those classes into whose hands such a book was in that case likely to fall, paved with such broad stones.
The danger is in the resources that have been called in aid; in the paragraphs that with such nauseous repetition have drugged every town and country paper; and in the adaptations of the “romance” that are alike rife in the low smoking-rooms, the common barber’s shops, the cheap reading places, the private booksellers’, and the minor theatres.
Jack Sheppard is the attraction at the Adelphi; Jack Sheppard is the bill of fare at the Surrey; Jack Sheppard is the choice example of morals and conduct held forth to the young citizens at the City of London; Jack Sheppard reigns over the Victoria; Jack Sheppard rejoices crowds in the Pavilion; Jack Sheppard is the favourite at the Queen’s; and at Sadler’s Wells there is no profit but of Jack Sheppard. In every one of these places the worst passages of a book whose spirit and tendency we are about to describe to our readers, are served up in the most attractive form to all the candidates for hulks or rope - and especially the youthful ones - that infest this vast city. Mr. Ainsworth superintends “rehearsals” in person, and Mr. Cruikshank in person assists the arrangement of “pictures.” Mr. Ainsworth also travels about with assistance for the various adapters; honours Mr. Moncrieff with visits to supply materials for his closing scenes, and has his visits duly chronicled; and writes to Mr. Davidge a public approval, which is advertised every morning in the Times and Chronicle and Post , of the very worst specimen of rank garbage thus stewed up at these places of amusement. In this we see danger. We should say, indeed, that since Tom and Jerry crowded the theatres with thieves and the streets with brawlers, or since the doings and the histories of Messrs. Moffat and Haggard hurried their various victims to the gallows, public morality and public decency have rarely been more endangered than by the trumpeted exploits of Jack Sheppard. All the original insignificance of the thing is lost, in the pernicious influences that are set at work around it.”