The satirical content of The Beggar’s Opera stems largely from its characters’ resemblance to known political figures. However, John Gay also drew from another contemporary, real-world model: London’s real criminal underworld.
One of the most notorious of this criminal underworld was Jonathan Wild, the “thief-taker.” The Newgate Calendar, a bulletin of executions and biographical pamphlet of criminals, describes how Wild, himself an able thief, ran a gang of pickpockets and cutthroats while acting as a go-between for the authorities at the law courts. This is to say, Wild sold intelligence betraying his own gang for reward money, all the while profiting from the resale of goods pilfered by the same gang. This is Peachum’s profession to the letter.
Wild was also known to be a meticulous accounts keeper; our first glimpse of Peachum reveals him bent over his accounts book. Wild lived profligately and proudly, his arrogance trumping his prudence. He was eventually hanged at Tyburn in 1725, after which the town was flooded with accounts of his exploits.
Whether Gay consciously or explicitly used Wild as a model for Peachum is unknown, but the story of Jonathan Wild certainly provides a chance to understand the vicious world that Gay so marvelously transformed into comedy.