Charles Hitchen

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Charles Hitchen (c. 1675 – 1727) was a "thief-taker" (unofficial policeman) in 18th-century London who was also famously tried for homosexuality.

He came from a poor family and was apprenticed as a cabinet maker before he married Elizabeth, daughter of one John Wells, in 1703. Hitchen set up trade as a joiner for a time and the couple lived on the north side of St. Paul's Churchyard in the City of London. In 1711, Elizabeth Hitchen's father died and she inherited property, which she sold. Charles used that money to purchase the position of Under City Marshal for 700 pounds in 1712. There were two city marshals, and each had a staff of six men. Their job was to police the city for prostitutes, vagrants, and unlicensed tradesmen. For this, they received all the fines paid as well as a 100 pound salary from the Lord Mayor of London. This encouraged the marshals to increase fines, rather than to decrease crime.

As Under City Marshal and crime lord[edit]

Hitchen was not the first to use his position as a form of legal theft, but he was particularly obvious about it. He began to extort bribes from brothels and pickpockets to prevent arrest and he particularly leaned on the thieves to make them fence their goods through him. With the growth of paper money transfers, the early draught notices, and "notes of hand" (agreements to pay the bearer), pickpockets were causing larger and larger economic losses to traders and merchants, and Hitchen, like Jonathan Wild later, acted as a "finder" of stolen merchandise and negotiated a fee for the return of the stolen items. Hitchen regarded this matter as commonplace enough that he began to boast of controlling dozens of thieves and actually try to extort money out of tradesmen to prevent their being robbed (a practice now known as a protection racket). The complaints were loud and frequent enough that the board of aldermen investigated him in 1712 and relieved him of his duties in 1713 (while keeping him in his title and salary). Hitchen enlisted Jonathan Wild to help him keep control of his thieves while he himself was out of action.

In April 1714, Hitchen was reinstated. The end of the War of the Spanish Succession had increased the number of former soldiers on the streets, and violent crime was on the rise. However, Jonathan Wild was now Hitchen's chief rival for criminal control. Wild, unlike Hitchen, did not merely receive goods or extort; he made money by informing on thieves (usually not his own) and apprehending them. He began to cut down on Hitchen's own group of thieves and Hitchen attempted to expose Wild in 1718 with A True Discovery of the Conduct of Receivers and Thief-Takers in and about the City of London. In it he called Wild "The Regulator" of crime. He said that Wild hanged petty thieves and protected experienced thieves. Wild answered Hitchen with An Answer to a Late Insolent Libel and explained that Hitchen had employed him to run thieves (an activity which he had nothing to do with) and that Hitchen was a customer of molly houses – homosexual brothels. Hitchen attempted to answer with The Regulator, but, by that point, his credibility had been destroyed.

Downfall and sodomy arrest[edit]

Jonathan Wild became the master of organized crime in the City, and Hitchen, although he probably still extorted money from taverns and brothels, continued his position as Under City Marshal. In 1727, however, the end came for both Wild and Hitchen. Wild was caught after performing a violent jail break and stealing jewels from the installation ceremony for the Knights of the Garter. Hitchen, however, was targeted by the Societies for the Reformation of Manners, which performed a sweep of London attempting to root out "sodomitical practices." Hitchen was caught and put on trial for sodomy (a capital offence) and attempted sodomy. He was acquitted of the former and convicted of the latter. His sentence was to pay 20 pounds, be put in the pillory for one hour, and then serve six months in prison.

The newspapers carried details of his crime and trial, and they also announced the exact place and time of his pillorying. He was put in the stocks in Katherine Street End in the Strand on 26 April 1727. The public beat him viciously, and the Under-Sheriff took him down long before the hour was out to save his life. Hitchen then served six months in jail. At the conclusion of his prison term, the Board of Aldermen stripped him of his position as Under City Marshal on the grounds of his attempted sodomy and his failure to perform his duties during the six months he had spent in prison.

Hitchen died soon after his release from prison, probably as a result of complications and infections from the beating in the pillory and his time in prison. His wife had to appeal for aid from the City Council and received a 20 pound annuity.

References[edit]

  • Matthew, H.C.G. and Brian Harrison, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. vol. 27, 335–6. London: Oxford UP, 2004.