The Highwayman

200px-Dick_turpin_jumping_hornsey_tollgateOnce upon a time there was a man named Dick Turpin who was…not a very nice man.  Though born into a nice enough family (his father was a butcher and innkeeper), Dick seemed reluctant to take up a trade and, after a brief stint as a butcher himself, he fell in with a gang of deer thieves in the early 1730s. Deer poaching was becoming so endemic at the time that the government offered a £50 reward for the capture of such thieves and sentenced them to seven years’ transportation—and believe me, you did not want to be transported to any of the hellholes deemed fit for convict comfort in those days.

Within a year, most of Turpin’s gang had been captured or fled, which you’d think might have been a warning sign for him, but no, he kept on raiding and poaching, even hitting the home of Richard Woolridge, a gentleman whose day job was supplying guns to the Tower of London. Turpin and his gang became bolder, attacking more homes and starting to move from robbery to assault—in one case, they beat and burned a 70-year-old farmer and only got away with a haul worth around £30. It wasn’t long before the Duke of Newcastle got fed up and offered a reward in exchange for information on the gang. Turpin’s associates were captured, and soon a description of him was circulating.

Instead of laying low for a bit, like someone with a functional brain would, Turpin continued robbing, now taking up position along the highways to attack passing coaches. He picked up some new gang members, all of whom were eventually captured, though Turpin, one of the world’s luckiest idiots, somehow always managed to be elsewhere when they were. During an ambush over some stolen horses, one of Turpin’s remaining gang members was killed, adding ‘possible murderer’ to Turpin’s long rap sheet. He finally decided to hide out in Epping Forest, but he did a crap job of it and was spotted by Thomas Morris, a servant of one of the Forest’s Keepers. Turpin shot and killed him and took off to commit more robberies, despite the £200 reward now on his head. He did, at least, have the sense to change his name to John Palmer.

As Palmer, Turpin lived semi-quietly in Linconshire, but then he threatened to shoot a guy in the street and attracted the attention of the local magistrates. They threatened to bind him over, but Turpin, still being kind of an idiot, refused to pay the surety and was arrested and sent to the house of correction at Beverley. Now that they had their eye on him, the magistrates started to wonder just how Palmer/Turpin supported his lifestyle. Their investigations turned up accusations of unpaid debts and thefts of livestock, which was a serious offense at the time—horse thieving was actually punishable by death. He was sent to the more secure York Castle while the investigation continued.

While in jail, Turpin decided to send a letter to his apparently Tolkein-named brother-in-law, Pompr Rivernall. When Rivernall saw the letter at his local post office, he refused to pay the delivery charge, claiming he didn’t know anyone in York. The letter was sent to a different post office, at Saffron Walden where, in one of those moments so crazy you’d hardly believe it if you saw it in a movie, the schoolteacher who had taught Turpin to write as a wee lad saw it and recognised the handwriting. The letter was turned over to the local Justice of the Peace and Smith travelled to York and identified Palmer as Dick Turpin on 23 February. He received his £200 reward for it.

Turpin had been wanted for some time for stealing horses (which he left with his father, because he really was pretty brainless) as well as for the murder of Morris. Oddly, it seems that he was only put on trial for stealing the horses, and he was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hanged in York on 7 April 1739. He might have faded into obscurity, if 19th century author William Harrison Ainsworth hadn’t rediscovered him and romanticised his exploits in his 1834 novel, Rookwood. Suddenly, Turpin—a thief and murderer—was cool, he even got a wax figure in Madame Tussauds and a weekly TV show that ran for four seasons in the late 1970s and early 80s (though with many details of his life changed to make him a bit more likeable and sympathetic). It’s only more recently that there’s been an effort to dispel the myth:



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