He wasn’t from York, he wasn’t the dashing outlaw of legend and he didn’t own a horse called Black Bess. But Dick Turpin was tried and executed in the city and his grave can be seen in an otherwise unremarkable graveyard.
Born in Essex, Turpin was a member of the violent Gregory Gang, becoming a highwayman when they split up. Having shot and killed a man who attempted to capture him he fled to Yorkshire. He stole horses in Lincolnshire and returned with them to Brough to sell, a trade which was exposed while he was in Beverley House of Correction having shot his landlord’s cockerel. He gave his name as John Palmer.
He was moved to York Castle, from where he wrote to his brother asking for help. His brother refused to pay the sixpence due on the letter and it was returned to the local post office – where Turpin’s old schoolmaster recognised his handwriting. His identity was revealed and he was sentenced to death.
At his hanging at Tyburn, Turpin hired five professional mourners to follow him up the scaffold and he put on a show for the large crowd.
His body was dug up by a labourer and taken to the garden of a surgeon, who paid for corpses for illegal medical dissection. But York people discovered what had happened and descended in an angry mob on the surgeon’s house, and Turpin was laid to rest for good. The doctor and the labourer were arrested and fined.
Turpin became a legend after his death. His story became linked in print with a legendary ride from London to York to establish an alibi, a tale previously attributed to the highwayman William Nevison. This fictional version was further established when it was included in an 1834 bestseller called Rockwood, in which the author Harrison Ainsworth added a new twist: that Turpin’s horse, Black Bess, expired at York after the record-breaking ride. None of this was true.