In English legal history, a thief-taker was a private individual hired to capture criminals. The widespread establishment of professional police in England did not occur until the 19th century. With the rising crime rate and newspapers to bring this to the attention of the public, thief-takers arose to partially fill the void in bringing criminals to justice. These were private individuals much like bounty hunters. However, thief-takers were usually hired by crime victims, while bounty hunters were paid by bail bondsmen to catch fugitives who skipped their court appearances and hence forfeited their bail. Both types also collected bounties offered by the authorities. Sometimes, thief-takers would act as go-betweens, negotiating the return of stolen goods for a fee. However, they were often corrupt themselves, for example extorting protection money from the crooks they were supposed to catch. Government-funded rewards for the capture of criminals was a corrupting influence, leading directly to the Macdaniel scandal.
Jonathan Wild is perhaps the most notorious thief-taker. He operated in London and by the 1720s, was a famous and popular figure. However, he actually led a gang of thieves; he would arrange the return of property stolen by his own underlings. To keep up the belief that he was working legitimately, he would even hand over members of his gang, who would inevitably end up being hanged at the Tyburn Tree. When this was discovered, he himself was hanged for theft in 1725.
- Charles Hitchen, one of Wild's rivals
- Bow Street Runners, London's first professional police organization, founded in 1749
- Bounty hunter