Jack Sheppard was a popular novel by British novelist William Ainsworth and illustrated by George Cruikshank. It was published as in serialized installments between 1839 and 1840 with ink drawings by George Cruikshank. The novel appeared in the same magazine and at roughly the same time as Dickens' Oliver Twist. At the time, Ainsworth's novel enjoyed greater popularity than Dickens' novel, but has since faded into obscurity.
Jack Sheppard is based on the life of the notorious thief, burglar, and folk hero by the same name. The real Jack Sheppard (4 March 1702 – 16 November 1724) had a brief but memorable career as a criminal which ended in him being hanged. His popularity was based on his colorful escapades, including humorous escapes from custody, which captured the imagination of the public and made him a sort of folk anti hero.
Sheppard's execution was attended by thousands, and a sort of carnival atmosphere prevailed. The author William Defoe penned ghost wrote an autobiography of the famous criminal and it sold well among the crowds who came to see the hanging. Even after his death, Sheppard continued to excite the public imagination and he was immortalized as a character in many works of fiction. He was the basis for the character of Macheath in John Gay's Beggar's Opera, and was mentioned by Bram Stoker in Dracula.
Ainsworth's novel presented a complete history of Jack Sheppard's life, from his difficult childhood, to his years as an apprentice carpenter, his gradual seduction into the criminal underworld, and finally his exploits as a career criminal and fugitive from the law. Ainsworth's novel was illustrated by George Cruikshank with fine black and white drawings that effectively convey the London underworld and its inhabitants.