Visitors to York can see his grave in St George’s churchyard, his place of hanging at York’s Tyburn and his condemned cell in the Museum that was formerly York Castle prison. He has had a romantic reputation as a highwayman who held up stagecoaches at gunpoint and then sped away on his magnificent horse ‘Black Bess.’  Black Bess has been glamorised herself as the only horse who ever rode to London from York in one day rather than the customary two to three days! However, Dick Turpin was never really a highwayman for long and never on the Great North Road but rather the shorter tracks in Epping Forest!  He never owned a horse called Black Bess either!  She probably belonged to John Nevison (‘Swift Nick’) who may have been a successful highwayman fifty years before Turpin was born.  It is doubtful that his Black Bess could have made London in a day before collapsing with exhaustion!  Turpin was only ‘hiding out’ in Epping Forest after being involved with a nasty gang that tortured rich inhabitants in their own houses until they parted with some valuable property.  

Dick Turpin soon had to flee north to Lincolnshire and then Yorkshire to avoid arrest, calling himself John Palmer.  He operated as a horse dealer either selling horses he had stolen or somebody else had stolen. He dealt in stolen sheep as well as horses.  Within two years John Palmer had been arrested and he was also soon charged with his earlier crimes down south when his real identity was exposed. Therefore, we need to remember that Dick Turpin was hardly a swashbuckling highwayman.  He has rather got lots of attention for his self- promotion as a celebrity.  He would have undoubtedly have exploited all the opportunities of social media had he lived today!   He welcomed many visitors to gawp through the bars of his prison cell and then made the most of his last journey to the gibbet when travelling on a cart through the streets of York wearing a frock coat and a top hat. He wept, wailed, waved and bowed to the crowds who were in York for the Races and welcomed some free entertainment.  He even paid for five mourners to weep and wail as well!  From the gibbet he addressed onlookers with tales and jokes for half an hour and then jumped from the top of the ladder before his hangman was ready with the noose – demonstrating a love of flamboyant theatrical display.  The York Courant reported the drama and scenes from his colourful end were acted out and gossiped about in the pubs of York.  His corpse was initially on view in the Blue Bell in Castlegate but, despite a first burial in St George’s churchyard, it seems that grave robbers dug him up and he was found behind a doctor’s house in Stonegate a few days later!  It is very doubtful that he does lie underneath the headstone we see today!

This rather unsavoury character called Dick Turpin only first became notorious around his death but a lot of the more recent films and books about him stem of course from William Harrison Ainsworth – a Victorian writer very good at elaborating legends from history.  

Article contributed by Louise Fawn: