York Castle Museum

Star Work

Dick Turpin - hero or villain?

Dick Turpin was hanged on York's Knavesmire on 7 April, 1739, after being held for six months in the prison which later became York Castle Museum.

His popular image is down to William Harrison Ainsworth whose 1834 novel, Rookwood, portrayed him as a likeable rogue who rode from London to York in a day on his horse, Black Bess.

In reality Turpin was a violent criminal. Baptised in Essex in 1705, he was a butcher who got involved with a gang of poachers and house breakers. When most of the gang were arrested in 1735 he became a highwayman.

In 1737 Turpin was recognised by servant Thomas Morris and shot him dead. A Royal Proclamation was issued for his capture offering a 200 reward.

Turpin fled north to Brough, where he called himself John Palmer, a horse dealer. He was arrested after shooting a cockerel in the town street in 1738. When evidence of his horse stealing came to light he was transferred to York Castle Prison.

His real identity was revealed when his handwriting was recognised in a letter home and people travelled to see the infamous highwayman. He was found guilty on two charges of horse stealing on 22 March 1739 and was hanged on 7 April. He is buried in St George's Churchyard in York.