Archive for April 7th, 2009

1739: Dick Turpin, outlaw legend

15 comments April 7th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1739, famed desperado Richard “Dick” Turpin rode through York on an open cart, saluting his admirers, then sat upon his gallows at the York raceway for half an hour, chatting with spectators and executioners, until he “with undaunted courage looked about him, and after speaking a few words to the topsman, he threw himself off the ladder and expired in about five minutes.”

Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which (we were almost about to say, we regret) is now altogether extinct. Several successors he had, it is true, but no name worthy to be recorded after his own. With him expired the chivalrous spirit which animated successively the bosoms of so many knights of the road; with him died away that passionate love of enterprise, that high spirit of devotion to the fair sex, which was first breathed upon the highway by the gay, gallant Claude Du-Val, the Bayard of the road — le filou sans peur et sans reproche — but which was extinguished at last by the cord that tied the heroic Turpin to the remorseless tree…

Turpin, like the setting sun, threw up some parting rays of glory, and tinged the far highways with a lustre that may yet be traced like a cloud of dust raised by his horse’s retreating heels.

The cloud hasn’t settled since William Harrison Ainsworth wrote those words.*

The “knight of the road”, one understands, is an artifice — a romantic construct. One name to bear its lustre to the present may be as good as another. Even so, in Dick Turpin, it has an exponent who bore very scant resemblance to the archetype … save for celebrity.

Turpin washed out of his apprenticed career as a butcher and took to the road, where he joined the “Essex Gang”. Far from dashing post-road stickups, this troupe specialized in invading domiciles where they would torture women into revealing the household stashes of valuables.


The Newgate Calendar captions this image, “Dick Turpin placing an old woman on the fire, to compel the discovry [sic] of her treasure”

Turpin’s highwayman career commenced when the gang was busted — our principal leaping out a window to evade capture — and he had a profitable couple of years plundering the traffic around Epping Forest.

Many are the colorful tales of Turpin’s career; the one of most moment for his legacy may be this chance encounter with a fellow outlaw, as related in the Newgate Calendar.

On a journey towards Cambridge, he met a man genteelly dressed, and well mounted: and expecting a good booty, he presented a pistol to the supposed gentleman, and demanded his money. The party thus stopped happened to be one King, a famous highwayman, who knew Turpin; and when the latter threatened destruction if he did not deliver his money, King burst into a fit of laughter, and said, “What, dog eat dog? — Come, come, brother Turpin; if you don’t know me, I know you, and shall be glad of your company.”

The well-mannered Tom King — “the gentleman highwayman” — seems to have had his courteous mien conjoined in legend with his much more villainous partner’s prolific career.

Nor is King the only fellow-outlaw whose exploits Turpin has absorbed.

Our anti-hero’s days pillaging the environs of London came to an end in an escapade that saw Turpin shoot his accomplice while trying to rescue him — a klutzy critical miss not usually associated with the swashbuckling rogue character kit. The dying King is supposed to have repaid this bit of friendly fire by revealing to the authorities the pair’s Epping Forest hideouts.

Escaping capture once again, Turpin changed his address, and it is said that the highwayman shed his pursuers with a marvelous 200-mile ride north to Yorkshire in 15 hours.

This feat was not Turpin’s originally, but ascribed to the 17th-century robber John “Swift Nick” Nevison, although even that might be folklore.

Ainsworth, bless his heart, fabricated (pdf) the Turpin ride in the interest of his yarn — “they were distancing Time’s swift chariot in its whirling passage o’er the earth … [Turpin] rode like one insane, and his courser partook of his frenzy. She bounded; she leaped; she tore up the ground beneath her; while Dick gave vent to his exultation in one wild prolonged halloo.” (Picturesquely, he rides his famous steed Black Bess to death on the trip.)

The story has been fixed ever since in the firmament, and licenses every pub along the route to claim Turpin’s patronage.

His end, if not heroic, was certainly attention-grabbing. Turpin settled in Yorkshire under the alias “John Palmer” and passed as a gentleman farmer … with a larcenous side business rustling stock.

His career, in a sense, had come full circle: ’twas a youthful cost-cutting practice of abducting animals that had put the kibosh on his legitimate butcher’s business.

His cover was blown most ingloriously, when he was detained as a possible horse thief and sent a pseudonymous letter to his brother in London asking for help. The brother was too cheap to pay the postage due, so the letter returned to the post office where Turpin’s schoolmaster chanced to see writing in a hand he recognized, and journeyed to York to identify the wanted man and pocket the reward.

So it was not housebreaking, highway heists, or his homicide that hung Turpin, but horse-rustling … although Turpin’s celebrity career attracted curiosity-seekers from far and wide when word of his capture got out. Whatever Ainsworth may have made of Turpin, he did not fabricate the man’s fame; Dick Turpin earned his own ballad sheets and made his own legend possible playing the man at his death.

This man lived in the most gay and thoughtless manner after conviction, regardless of all considerations of futurity, and affecting to make a jest of the dreadful fate that awaited him.

Not many days before his execution, he purchased a new fustian frock and a pair of pumps, in order to wear them at the time of his death: and, on the day before, he hired five poor men, at ten shillings each, to follow the cart as mourners: and he gave hatbands and gloves to several other persons: and he also left a ring, and some other articles, to a married woman in Lincolnshire, with whom he had been acquainted.

On the morning of his death he was put into a cart, and being followed by his mourners, as above-mentioned, he was drawn to the place of execution, in his way to which he bowed to the spectators with an air of the most astonishing indifference and intrepidity.

When he came to the fatal tree, he ascended the ladder; when his right leg trembling, he stamped it down with an air of assumed courage, as if he was ashamed of discovering any signs of fear, Having conversed with the executioner about half an hour, he threw himself off the ladder, and expired in a few minutes.

The spectators of the execution were affected at his fate, as he was distinguished by the comeliness of his appearance … The grave was dug remarkably deep, but notwithstanding the people who acted as mourners took such measures as they thought would secure the body: it was carried off about three o’clock on the following morning; the populace, however, got intimation whither it was conveyed, and found it in a garden belonging to one of the surgeons of the city.

Having got possession of it they laid it on a board, and carried it through the streets in a kind of triumphal manner, they then filled the coffin with unslacked lime, and buried it in the grave where it had been before deposited.

* LibriVox has a well-done free reading of Rookwood.

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Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Outlaws,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Theft

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