On the 7th April 1739, notorious highwayman Richard Turpin was hanged for his crimes, most notably horse, cattle and sheep stealing, robbery with violence, and murder at the Knavesmire in York.
Turpin was documented to have been born in the Blue Bell Inn, Hempstead, the son of John Turpin who has been accredited with trades including butchery, farming and inn-keeping, and Mary Elizabeth Parmenter in c1705, the fifth out of their six children and as a young man completed an apprenticeship as a butcher, in Whitechapel. He set up in business for himself in the Essex area. Some sources claim that his father had links with smuggling and as a result, Dick quite possibly had a childhood resume of crime. What is certain is that once established as a butcher, Turpin forged a working relationship with a local Essex gang, alternatively known as the Gregory Gang and the Essex gang, who specialised in Poaching, mainly deer, and livestock theft, through which he was able to embellish his legitimate business. Some sources claim that during his apprenticeship, possibly in 1725, Turpin married Elizabeth Millington, although others suggest this is unsubstantiated.
It seems at some point during this association around 1734, Turpin abandoned his business in favour of the arguably more profitable criminal activities, and set up as an inn-keeper probably for distribution purposes. Towards the end of that year, the gang had progressed to burglary, mainly of farms, although it has not been proven whether Turpin initially took an active role in this. Some of the gang by this point had either been arrested for their crimes, or left the area when the threat of arrest became too likely. By the end of January 1735, Turpin was known to be involved in the house-thefts after turning up at the home of a Mr Sheldon, masked and armed with four members of the gang. Further robberies, each becoming more violent, occurred within the space of a few weeks, during one such crime, the house-holder was stripped of his lower clothing and his buttocks burned over the fire, and a maid-servant raped. This robbery and violence netted the gang just £30 but led to the Duke of Newcastle offering a reward of £50 for any information leading to their capture.
Due to the inclination of the gang to remain in the same area, it wasn’t long before more members of the gang were apprehended, one being shot and dying later in Prison, the others tried, convicted and hung as a result of the evidence of gang member young John Wheeler, who was later released after his betrayal of the rest of the gang. Wheeler later died in 1738, in Hackney. No cause of death has been recorded, the most accepted explanation being natural causes, due to no official involvement in his death, although unsubstantiated rumour suggests that his death may have been the result of retaliation by Turpin or another associate for Wheeler’s part in the execution of several gang members. In truth, it was probable that the Gang were either “brave or stupid” to remain in the same area, knowing the net was closing in on them, and continuing their activities.
Following the loss of his gang, Turpin appears to have, for the most part, dropped off the radar. But in May 1737, he was involved in two fatal shootings within a matter of days. Thomas Morris, a game-keeper was shot in cold blood after confronting Turpin in Epping Forest, followed by Matthew or Tom (depending on source) King, Turpin’s new accomplice in an attempted capture. Whilst the evidence over who caused King’s death is debatable, the bullet was fired either by Turpin or Richard Bayes, landlord of the Inn where the shooting occurred and later biographer of Turpin. His original statement implicated Turpin of firing the fatal shot, was later amended to reflect that it was possibly his own weapon that killed King, this version was corroborated by other statements, including Turpin’s own, it was generally accepted that King’s death was accidental.
Following the death of King, Turpin changed his name to John Palmer and made the move to Yorkshire. After several months of living what appears to be a crime-free life, mixing with gentlemen, Turpin was caught up in a minor incident when for some reason, he shot the cockerel of a John Robinson, in the street. In the following argument, “Palmer” threatened to shoot Robinson too. Constabulary were called and Palmer was escorted to Beverly House of Correction, and later transferred to York castle, after it was suspected Palmer was living off illegal earnings. A letter he wrote to his brother, for which his brother refused to pay the postage, was opened by a judge, and the hand-writing identified as that of Turpin by his former teacher, James Smith. Palmer was identified.
On March 22nd 1739, Turpin appeared at York Assizes charged with 3 charges of horse theft. One of the horses had been recovered by the owner after he tracked it down to John Turpin, with whom Richard had left it. Despite having no formal defence – accused persons were not afforded the right to legal counsel at this point, unless they privately appointed such – and claiming that he hadn’t been sure of where or when the trial was to take place, therefore hindering his ability to prepare his defence properly and produce his witnesses, the judge found Turpin guilty and sentenced him to death within the trial. On April 7th, dressed in a new jacket and shoes, and escorted by a group of five hired mourners, Turpin was taken to Knavesmire, where he gave an overly long speech which the executioner finally cut short; he threw himself from the scaffold, depriving the executioner of his moment of glory. After five minutes on a short drop rope, Turpin died of suffocation. Following confirmation of his death, Turpin’s remains were taken away and interred, allegedly in St George’s churchyard, Fishergate. As he had been convicted on charges of Horse Theft alone, which was a capital offence, but not that highway robbery, Turpin was spared the usual post-mortem practice of his remains being displayed either in chains or gibbet, around the city. And further, as he had not been charged or found guilty of the murder of Thomas Morris, he was excluded from dissection under the terms of the Anatomy Act.
However a legend remains that after his burial, his body was exhumed and taken to a local doctor for that purpose, but upon discovery of this desecration, a local mob formed and tracked down Turpin’s body and had him re-buried, this time in lime. Although St George’s church no longer exists in its original form, in the nineteenth century, the Roman Catholic St George’s was built across the road from the original. When the church was demolished, the supposed grave of Dick Turpin was preserved, and remains in situ to this day, alone in an otherwise empty, overgrown patch of walled in waste-ground in the middle of a slightly run-down housing estate.
As time has passed, the legend of notorious highwayman, Richard Turpin has evolved into something of an eighteenth century Robin Hood, however peeling back the romanticism and studying the facts as available it seems that highway robbery wasn’t really an accurate description of Turpin’s known criminal proclivities. Whilst there may have been occasions where he robbed travellers, his main focus seems to have been poaching, theft of animals, and burglary with violence. His legendary 200 mile ride from London to York causing the death of his beloved side kick, his horse Black Bess, nothing more than fiction, based on a previous similar event, when 17th century Highwayman John aka William “Swift Nick” Nevison road through the day from pre-dawn to early evening, from London to York in order to provide himself with an unshakeable alibi after committing a robbery. He made his way to a bowling green and engaged the Mayor in conversation, placing a bet on the outcome of the match. When subsequently arrested for the crime, he produced the mayor as his witness and the judge agreed there was no possibility of a man being able to cover the journey in 16 hours on a horse. Ironically, Nevison was eventually caught and convicted in 1684 and hanged in York. His body is buried in an unmarked grave in St Mary’s Church, Castlegate. Nevison is infamous for never having used violence during his robberies.
Murder committed during the act of theft was one of the last capital crimes, still punishable by death to be repealed by the British Government. In December 1969, the Houses of Commons and Lords confirmed the abolition of the death penalty for murder, following up the earlier 1965 Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act. This was followed by the 1999 signing of the 6th Protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights by the Home Secretary, thereby officially abolishing the death penalty in the UK, including the crimes of Piracy and High Treason which had remained capital offences punishable by death until 1998