A 17th century mugshot hangs in the streets of Amsterdam. A bearded man wearing a beautiful blue coat with red cuffs over a white blouse is looking at you, with a ladder behind him. In yellow, antique handcuffs wrap a hand around his neck. He is Jaco.
To the left is another gablestone depicting four buildings, two red-bricked houses in the middle, men and women at their doors and a figure in a window. Other little windows are broken through, or ajar.
Born Jacob, called Jaco, and forever Sjako, he is a legend in Amsterdam, the only living person with two dedicated gable stones.
He was also a murderer, a gang leader, a thief, and lived an incredible life – if he lived it at all. A man called Sjako was executed and broken on the wheel on the Nieuwmarkt, that is known. The rest of the story has been disputed for 300 years.
Born in Germany in 1690, he learned to cheat from his stepfather. His misdemeanors became hard crime, and by 24 was arrested in The Hague, branded, flogged and given 25 years of prison – which he quickly escaped using his talent for tools and disappearing.
He became leader of the Black Gang thieves that terrorized Amsterdam in the 1700s. The Fort of Sjako was headquarters on Elandsgracht 71-77, and thanks to the home he was able to work for another few years. He built secret pathways and hatches, filling the home with escape routes – anyone on his chase would suddenly find nothing.
His downfall was cockiness, celebrating a difficult escape with a loud party. He was arrested and executed for the crimes of multiple murders, grand theft, larceny, housebreaking and more in 1718. His body was left as bird food in Noord. A big ending, bigger in legend – the people of Jordaan remembered Sjako as a Robin Hood, stealing from the rich for the greater good. He had a good heart, they said. So he is remembered.
It also seems the Zwarte Gang, and the wild story of Sjako, were nothing more than a good tale by writer Jacob van Lennep. But why ruin a good story with the facts?