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Richard (Dick) Turpin (bap. 1705 – 7 April 1739) was an English highwayman whose exploits were romanticised following his execution in York for horse theft. Turpin may have followed his father's profession as a butcher early in life, but by the early 1730s he had joined a gang of deer thieves, going on to become a poacher, burglar, horse thief, and murderer. He is best known today for his fictional overnight ride from London to York on his steed Black Bess, a story that was invented by the Victorian novelist William Harrison Ainsworth almost 100 years after Turpin's death.

Turpin became involved in the crime for which he is most remembered—highway robbery—following the arrest of the other members of his gang in 1735. He then disappeared from public life towards the end of that year, only to resurface in 1737 with two new accomplices, one of whom he may have accidentally shot and killed during a skirmish with those trying to arrest him. Turpin fled from the scene and shortly afterwards killed a man who attempted his capture, before later that year resurfacing under the alias of John Palmer. While he was staying at a Yorkshire inn, local magistrates became suspicious of "Palmer" and his lifestyle, and made enquiries as to how he made his money. Suspected of being a horse thief, "Palmer" was imprisoned in York Castle, to be tried at the next assizes. Turpin's true identity was revealed by a letter he wrote to his brother-in-law from his prison cell requesting the latter's assistance, which was apprehended by the authorities. On 22 March 1739 Turpin was found guilty on two charges of horse theft and sentenced to death; he was executed on 7 April 1739.

Although considered during his lifetime to be an unremarkable figure, Turpin has become the subject of legend since his execution, romanticised as dashing and heroic in English ballads and popular theatre of the 18th and 19th centuries, and in film and television of the 20th century.


Early life

Turpin was baptised on 21 September 1705 (see fifth entry)
Richard 'Dick' Turpin was born at the Blue Bell inn (later the Rose and Crown) in Hempstead, Kentmarker, the fifth of six children to John Turpin and Mary Elizabeth Parmenter. He was baptised on 21 September 1705, in the same parish where his parents had been married more than ten years earlier.

Turpin's father was a butcher, and also an inn-keeper. Several stories suggest that Dick Turpin may have followed his father into these trades; one story explains that as a teenager he was apprenticed to a butcher in the village of Whitechapelmarker, and another suggests that he ran his own butcher's shop in Thaxtedmarker. Testimony from his trial in 1739 suggested that he had a rudimentary education, and although no records survive of the date of the union, about 1725 he married Elizabeth Millington. Following his apprenticeship they moved north to Buckhurst Hillmarker, Essex (on the modern boundary of north east London), where Turpin opened a butcher's shop.

The Essex gang

Turpin most likely became involved with the Essex gang of deer thieves in the early 1730s. Deer poaching had long been endemic in the Royal forest of Waltham, and in 1723 the Black Act (so called because it outlawed the blackening or disguising of faces while in the Forests) was enacted to deal with this problem, but in 1731 seven verderers became so concerned by the recent increase in activity that they signed an affidavit which demonstrated their worries. The statement was directed at Thomas Pelham-Holles, 1st Duke of Newcastle, who responded by offering a £10 reward to anyone who helped identify the thieves, and a pardon to those thieves who gave up their colleagues. Following a series of incidents, including the threatened murder of a keeper and his family, in 1733 the government increased the reward to £50 (about £ as of ).

The Essex gang (sometimes called the Gregory Gang), which included Samuel Gregory, his brothers Jeremiah and Jasper, Joseph Rose, Mary Brazier (the gang's fence), John Jones, and a young John Wheeler, needed contacts to allow them to dispose of the deer. Turpin, a young butcher who traded in the area, almost certainly became involved with their activities. By 1733 the changing fortunes of the gang may have prompted him to leave the butchery trade, and he became the landlord of a public house, most likely the Rose and Crown at Clay Hillmarker. While there is no evidence to suggest that Turpin was directly involved in the thefts, by summer 1734 he was a close associate of the gang, which may indicate that he was known to them for some time.

By October 1734 several in the gang had either been captured or had fled, and the remaining members moved away from poaching, to raid the home of a chandler and grocer named Peter Split, at Woodfordmarker. Although the identities of the perpetrators are not known, Turpin may have been involved. Two nights later they struck again, at the Woodford home of a gentleman named Richard Woolridge, a Furnisher of Small Arms in the Office of Ordnance at the Tower of London. In December Jasper and Samuel Gregory, John Jones, and John Wheeler, attacked the home of John Gladwin (a higler) and John Shockley, in Chingfordmarker. On 19 December Turpin and five other men raided the home of Ambrose Skinner, a 73-year-old farmer from Barkingmarker, leaving with an estimated £300.

Two days later, the gang—minus Turpin—attacked the home of a Keeper, William Mason, at Epping Forestmarker. During the robbery Mason's servant managed to escape, and returned about an hour later with several neighbours, by which time the house was ransacked and the thieves long gone. On 11 January 1735 the gang raided the Charlton home of a Mr. Saunders. For the robbery of a gentleman named Sheldon, one week later at Croydonmarker, Turpin arrived masked and armed with pistols, with four other members of the gang. In the same month two men, possibly from the same gang, raided the home of a Reverend Dyde. The clergyman was absent but the two cut his manservant around the face "in a barbarous manner". Another brutal attack occurred on 1 February 1735 at Loughtonmarker, where an elderly widow named Shelley was forced at gunpoint to reveal where she kept her money. They threatened to "lay her across the fire" if she refused, and unwilling to see his mother tortured her son told them what they wanted to know. They found £100, drank wine and ale from the cellar, and cooked some meat.

The gang lived in or around London. For a time Turpin stayed at Whitechapelmarker, before moving to Millbankmarker. On 4 February 1735 he met John Fielder, Samuel Gregory, Joseph Rose, and John Wheeler, at an inn along The Broadwaymarker in London. They planned to rob the house of Joseph Lawrence, a farmer at Earlsbury Farm in Edgwaremarker. Late that afternoon, after stopping twice along the way for food and drink, they captured a shepherd boy and burst into the house, armed with pistols. They bound the two maidservants, and brutally attacked the 70-year-old Lawrence. They pulled his breeches around his ankles, and dragged him around the house, but Lawrence refused to reveal the whereabouts of his money. Turpin used his pistols to beat Lawrence's bare buttocks until they were badly bruised, and the gang beat him around the head with their pistols, emptied a kettle of water over his head, and forced him to sit on the fire while bare-buttocked. They also pulled him around the house by his nose, and hair. Gregory took one of the maidservants upstairs and raped her. For their trouble, the gang escaped with a haul of less than £30.

Three days later Turpin, accompanied by the same men along with William Saunders and Humphrey Walker, brutally raided a farm in Marylebonemarker. The attack netted the gang just under £90. The next day the Duke of Newcastle offered a reward of £50 in exchange for information leading to the conviction of the 'several persons' involved in the two Woodford robberies, and the robberies of the widow Shelley and Reverend Dyde. On 11 February three of the gang were apprehended. Two accounts of their capture exist. One claims that on their way to rob the Lawrence household the gang had stopped at an alehouse in Edgeware, and that on 11 February, while out walking, the owner noticed a group of horses outside an alehouse in Bloomsburymarker. He recognised these horses as those used by the same group of men who had stopped at his alehouse before the Lawrence attack, and called for the parish constable. Another account claims that two of the gang were spotted by a servant of Joseph Lawrence. Regardless, Fielder, Saunders, and Wheeler, who were drinking with a woman (possibly Mary Brazier) were promptly arrested and committed to prison. Wheeler, who may have been as young as 15, betrayed his colleagues, and descriptions of those yet to be captured were circulated in the press. Turpin was described as "Richard Turpin, a butcher by trade, is a tall fresh coloured man, very much marked with the small pox, about 26 years of age, about five feet nine inches high, lived some time ago in Whitechapel and did lately lodge somewhere about Millbank, Westminster, wears a blue grey coat and a natural wig".

Breakup of the Essex gang

Once Wheeler's betrayal became apparent, the other members of the gang fled their usual haunts. Turpin informed Gregory and the others of Wheeler's capture, and left Westminster. On 15 February 1735, while Wheeler was busy confessing to the authorities, "three or four men" (most likely Samuel Gregory, Herbert Haines, Turpin, and possibly Thomas Rowden) robbed the house of a Mrs St. John at Chingfordmarker. On the following day Turpin (and Rowden, if present) parted company with Gregory and Haines, and headed for Hempstead to see his family. Gregory and Haines may have gone looking for Turpin, because on 17 February they stopped at an alehouse in Debdenmarker and ordered a shoulder of mutton, intending to stay for the night. However, a man named Palmer recognised them, and called for the parish constable. A fracas ensued, during which the two thieves escaped. They rejoined Turpin, and along with Jones and Rowden may have travelled to Gravesendmarker before returning to Woodford. Another robbery was reported at Woodford toward the end of February—possibly by Gregory and his cohorts—but with most avenues of escape cut off, and with the authorities hunting them down, the remaining members of the Essex gang kept their heads down and remained under cover, probably in Epping Forest.

Six days after the arrest of Fielder, Saunders, and Wheeler, just as Turpin and his associates were returning from Gravesend, Rose, Brazier, and Walker were captured at a chandler's shop in Westminster, while drinking punch. Fielder, Rose, Saunders and Walker were tried at the Middlesex General Session between 26 February and 1 March 1735. Turpin and Gregory were also named on the indictments for burglary. Walker died while still in Newgate Prisonmarker, but the remaining three were hanged at Tyburn gallows on 10 March, before their bodies were hung to rot in gibbets on Edgware Roadmarker. Walker's body was hung in chains. A report of "four suspicious men" being driven away from an alehouse at East Sheenmarker appeared in a newspaper on 8 March, and was likely describing Gregory and his companions. The remaining members of the Essex gang were not reported again until 30 March, when three of them (unsuccessfully) attempted to steal a horse from a servant of the Earl of Suffolk. Turpin was present with four of the gang at another robbery, reported on 8 March. Jasper Gregory meanwhile was captured, and then executed late in March. His brothers were arrested in Rake, West Sussexmarker, after a struggle during which Samuel lost the tip of his nose to a sword, and Jeremy was shot in the leg. He died in Winchester gaol; Samuel was tried in May, and executed on 4 June. His body was later moved, to hang in chains alongside those of his colleagues at Edgeware. Brazier and Jones were transported to the Thirteen Colonies. Herbert Haines was captured on 13 April, and executed in August. John Wheeler, who had been instrumental in proving the cases against his former colleagues, died at Hackneymarker in January 1738.

With the Essex gang now smashed by the authorities, Turpin turned instead to the crime he became most noted for—highway robbery. Although he may have been involved in earlier highway robberies, he was first identified as a suspect in one event on 10 July, as "Turpin the butcher", along with Thomas Rowden, "the pewterer". Several days later the two struck again at Epping Forest, depriving a man from Southwarkmarker of his belongings. With a further bounty of £100 on their heads they continued their activities through the latter half of 1735, in the areas of Barnes Common and Hertfordshiremarker. Rowden had previously been convicted of counterfeiting, and in July 1736 he was convicted of passing counterfeit coin, under the alias Daniel Crispe. Crispe's true name was eventually discovered and he was transported in June 1738.


Little is known of Turpin's movements from the end of 1735. He may have travelled to Hollandmarker, as various sightings were reported there, but he may also have assumed an alias and disappeared from public life. In February 1737 however he spent the night at Puckeridgemarker with his wife, her maid, and a man called Robert Nott. The three were arrested on charges of "violent suspicion of being dangerous rogues and robbing upon the highway", while Turpin made his escape to Cambridgemarker. They were imprisoned at Hertford gaol, although the women were later acquitted. A month later Turpin was reported to be working alongside two other highwaymen, Matthew King (then, and since, incorrectly identified as Tom King), and Stephen Potter. By April 1737 the trio were based in London, where King (or Turpin, depending upon which report is read) stole a horse at Leytonstonemarker. The owner of the horse reported the theft to Richard Bayes, landlord of the Green Man public house. Bayes (who later wrote a biography of Turpin), tracked the horse down, and found King's brother, John, who told the local constable the whereabouts of Matthew King. During the resulting mêlée, King was fatally wounded by gunfire.

Bayes' statement regarding the death of Matthew King may have been heavily embellished. Several reports, including Turpin's own account, offer varying accounts of what actually happened on that night early in May 1737, however Turpin escaped to a hideawaymarker in Epping Forest. He was seen by Thomas Morris, a servant of one of the Forest's keepers. Morris, armed with pistols, attempted to capture Turpin on 4 May; Turpin however shot and killed him with a carbine. The murder was reported in The Gentleman's Magazine:

Turpin murdered Thomas Morris at Epping Forest

As John Palmer

Sometime around June 1737 Turpin boarded at the Ferry Inn at Broughmarker, under the alias of John Palmer. Travelling across the River Humbermarker between the historic counties of East Riding of Yorkshire and Lincolnshiremarker, he posed as a horse trader, and often hunted alongside local gentlemen. On 2 October 1738, perhaps out of frustration at an unsuccessful day's hunting, Turpin shot one of another man's cocks in the street. While being rebuked by John Robinson, he then threatened to shoot him also. Three East Riding justices (JP), George Crowle (Member of Parliament for Hull), Hugh Bethell, and Marmaduke Constable, travelled to Brough and took written depositions about the incident. They threatened to bind him over, but Turpin refused to pay the required surety, and was committed to the House of Correction at Beverleymarker. Incomprehensibly, Turpin made no attempt at escape, and made the journey himself.

Robert Appleton, Clerk of the Peace for the East Riding, and the man whose account details the above incident, later reported that the three JPs made enquiries as to how "Palmer" had made his money, suspecting that his lifestyle was funded by the proceeds of crime. Turpin claimed that he was a butcher who had fallen into debt, and that he had levanted from his home in Long Sutton, Hampshiremarker. When contacted, the JP at Long Sutton (a Mr Delamere) confirmed that John Palmer had lived there for about nine months, but that he was suspected of stealing sheep, and had escaped the custody of the local constable. Delamere also suspected that 'Palmer' was a horse-thief and had taken several depositions to that end, and told the three JPs that he would prefer 'Palmer' detained. The three JPs now presumed that the case was too serious for 'Palmer' to remain at Beverley House of Correction, and demanded sureties for his appearance at York Assizes. Turpin refused, and so on 16 October he was handcuffed and moved to York Castlemarker.

Turpin had stolen several horses while operating under the pseudonym of Palmer. In July 1737 he stole a horse from Pinchbeckmarker in Lincolnshire, and took it to visit his father at Hempstead. When Turpin returned to Brough (stealing three horses along the way) he left the gelding with his father. The identity of John Turpin's son was well known, and the horse's identity was soon discovered. On 12 September 1738 therefore, John Turpin was committed to gaol in Essex on charges of horse theft, but following his help in preventing a jailbreak, the charges were dropped on 5 March 1739. About a month after "Palmer" had been moved to York Castle, Thomas Creasy, the owner of the three horses that Dick Turpin had stolen, managed to track them down and recover them. This theft, along with Creasy's testimony, became a significant factor in Turpin's trial.

Thomas Kyll's pamphlet, published in 1739, provides an eye-witness account of proceedings at Turpin's trial
From his cell, Turpin wrote to his brother-in-law, Pompr Rivernall, who also lived at Hempstead. Rivernall was married to Turpin's sister, Dorothy. The letter was kept at the local post office, but seeing the York post stamp Rivernall refused to pay the delivery charge, claiming that he "had no correspondent at York". Rivernell may not have wanted to pay the charge for the letter, or he may have wished to distance himself from Turpin's affairs, and so the letter was moved to the post office at Saffron Waldenmarker where James Smith recognised the hand-writing on the letter as that of Turpin. Smith had taught Turpin how to write while the latter was still at school. He alerted JP Thomas Stubbing, who paid the postage and opened the letter. Smith travelled to York Castle and on 23 February identified Palmer as Turpin. He received the £200 (about £ as of ) reward originally offered by the Duke of Newcastle, for Turpin's murder of Thomas Morris.


Although there was some question as to where the trial should be held, with the Duke of Newcastle wanting him tried in London, Turpin was tried at York Assizes. The trial began three days after the winter Assizes opened, on 22 March. Turpin was charged with the theft of Creasy's horses—a mare worth three pounds and a foal worth 20 shillings, and also with the theft of a gelding worth three pounds. Both indictments stated that the alleged offences had occurred at Welton on 1 March 1739, and described Turpin as 'John Palmer alias Pawmer alias Richard Turpin … late of the castle of York in the County of York labourer'. Technically the charges were invalid—the offences had occurred at Heckingtonmarker, not Welton. The date was also incorrect; the offences were in August 1738.

Presiding over the trial was Sir William Chapple, a senior and respected judge in his early sixties. The prosecution was directed by King's Counsel Thomas Place, and Richard Crowle (brother of Thomas), and proceedings were recorded by a York resident, Thomas Kyll. Turpin had no defence barrister; during this period of English history, those accused had no right to legal representation, and their interests were cared for by the presiding judge. Among the seven witnesses called to testify were Thomas Creasy, and James Smith, the man who had recognised Turpin's handwriting on the letter to his brother. Turpin offered little in the way of questioning his accusers; when asked if he had anything to ask of Creasy, he replied "I cannot say anything, for I have not any witnesses come this day, as I have expected, and therefore beg of your Lordship to put off my trial 'till another day", and when asked about Smith, he claimed not to know him. When questioned himself, Turpin told the court that he had bought the mare and foal from an inn-keeper near Heckington. He repeated his original story of how he had come to use the pseudonym Palmer, claiming that it was his mother's maiden name. When asked by the judge of his name before he came to Lincolnshire, he said "Turpin". Without leaving the courtroom the jury found Turpin guilty of the first charge of stealing the mare and foal, and following further proceedings, guilty of stealing the gelding. Throughout the trial Turpin had repeatedly claimed that he had not been allowed enough time to form his defence, that the trial should be delayed until he could call his witnesses, and that the trial should be held at Essex. Before sentencing him, the judge asked Turpin if he could offer any reason why he should not be sentenced to death; Turpin said "It is very hard upon me, my Lord, because I was not prepar'd for my Defence." The judge replied "Why was you not? You knew the Time of the Assizes as well as any Person here." Despite Turpin's pleas that he had been told the trial would be held in Essex, the judge replied "Whoever told you so were highly to blame; and as your country have found you guilty of a crime worthy of death, it is my office to pronounce sentence against you", sentencing him to death.


Before his execution visitors frequented Turpin's cell (the gaoler was reputed to have earned £100 from selling drinks to Turpin and his guests) although he refused the efforts of a local clergyman, who offered him "serious remonstrances and admonitions". John Turpin sent his son a letter, dated 29 March, urging him to "beg of God to pardon your many transgressions, which the thief upon the cross received pardon for at the last hour". He bought a new frock coat and shoes, and on the day before his execution hired five mourners for three pounds and ten shillings (to be shared between them). On Saturday 7 April 1739, followed by his mourners, Turpin and John Stead (a horse thief) were taken through York by open cart to Knavesmiremarker, which was then the city's equivalent of London's Tyburn gallows. Turpin reportedly "behav'd himself with amazing assurance", and "bow'd to the spectators as he passed". He climbed a ladder to the gallows and spoke to his executioner. York had no permanent hangman, and it was the custom to pardon a prisoner on condition that he acted as executioner. On this occasion, the pardoned man was a fellow highwayman, Thomas Hadfield. An account in The Gentleman's Magazine for 7 April 1739 notes Turpin's brashness: "Turpin behaved in an undaunted manner; as he mounted the ladder, feeling his right leg tremble, he spoke a few words to the topsman, then threw himself off, and expir'd in five minutes."

The short drop method of hanging meant that those executed were killed by slow strangulation, and so Turpin's corpse was left hanging until late afternoon, before being cut down and taken to a tavern in Castlegate. The next morning, the body was buried in the graveyard of St George's Church, Fishergate, opposite what is now the Roman Catholic St George's Churchmarker. On the Tuesday following the burial, the corpse was reportedly stolen by body-snatchers. The theft of cadavers for medical research was a common enough occurrence, and was likely tolerated by the authorities in York. The practice was however unpopular with the general public, and the body-snatchers, together with Turpin's corpse, were soon apprehended by a mob. The body was recovered and reburied in the same place, supposedly this time with quicklime. Turpin's body is purported to lay in St George's graveyard, although some doubt remains as to its authenticity.

Modern view

Apart from the trial records, some of the legend surrounding Turpin can be sourced directly to Richard Bayes' The Genuine History of the Life of Richard Turpin (1739), a mixture of fact and fiction hurriedly put together in the wake of the trial, to satiate a gullible public. For instance, details of Turpin's marriage in 1728, for which no documentary evidence has been found, appear to be based solely on Bayes' claim that in 1739 he married 11 or 12 years earlier. Bayes' account also contains elements of supposition; for instance his claim that Turpin was married to a Miss Palmer is almost certainly incorrect. His account of those present during the robberies committed by the Essex Gang often contains names not present in contemporary newspaper reports, suggesting, according to Derek Barlow, that the author embellished the story.

No contemporary portrait exists of Turpin, who as an unremarkable figure was not deemed important enough to be immortalised. An engraving in Bayes' publication, of a man hiding in a cave, is sometimes supposed to be that of Turpin, but the closest description that exists is that made by John Wheeler, of "a fresh coloured man, very much marked with the small pox, about five feet nine inches high … wears a blue grey coat and a light coloured wig". Turpin is best-known for his exploits as a highwayman, but before his execution the only contemporary report of him as such was in June 1736, when a broadsheet entitled "News news: great and wonderful news from London in an uproar or a hue and cry after the Great Turpin, with his escape into Ireland" was published.

Stories of Turpin's activities appeared in chapbooks about 1800, and it was the story of a fabled ride from London to York that provided the impetus for 19th-century author William Harrison Ainsworth to include and embellish the exploit in his 1834 novel Rookwood. In Rookwood Turpin appears as a plot device, and is described in a manner that makes him more lively than the book's other characters. Turpin is introduced with the pseudonym Palmer, and is later forced to escape upon his horse, Black Bess. Although fast enough to keep ahead of those in pursuit, Black Bess eventually dies under the stress of the escape. This scene appealed more to readers than the rest of the work, and since Turpin was depicted as a likeable character who made the life of a criminal seem more appealing, the story helped to create a new legend about Turpin and his exploits. Martin Colnaghi capitalised on Harrison's story, publishing six prints of notable events in Turpin's career.

Ainsworth's tale of Turpin's overnight journey from London to York on his mare Black Bess has its origins in an episode recorded by Daniel Defoe, in his 1727 work A tour thro' the Whole Island of Great Britain. William Nevison had robbed a gentleman in Kent in 1676, and apparently rode to York to establish an alibi, and Defoe's account of this journey became part of folk legend. A similar ride was attributed to Turpin as early as 1819, but the feat as imagined by Ainsworth (about 200 miles in less than a single day) is impossible. This however did not stop the legend of Black Bess from continuing, in such works as Black Bess or the Knight of the Road, a 254-part weekly serial published in 1867–68. In these tales, Turpin was the hero, accompanied by his trusty colleagues Claude Duval, Tom King, and Jack Rann. Such stories about Turpin continued to be published well into the 20th century. The story was also transferred to the stage, where in 1845 George Dibdin Pitt recreated the most notable 'facts' of Turpin's life, and in 1846 Marie Tussaudmarker added a wax sculpture of Turpin to her collection at Madame Tussaudsmarker. In 1906 Fred Ginnett wrote and starred in the film, Dick Turpin's Last Ride to York. Other silent versions appeared for the silver screen, and some adaptations even moulded Turpin into a figure styled on Robin Hood. Sid James appeared as Turpin in the 1977 Carry On film, Carry On Dick, and LWT cast Richard O'Sullivan as Turpin in their eponymous series, Dick Turpin.


  1. National Portrait Gallery, London

  1. National Portrait Gallery, London


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