English Masked Horse Thief Dick Turpin Executed in York

English Masked Horse Thief Dick Turpin Executed in York


 by Florian Sohnke

Often portrayed as a heroic outlaw figure in the mold of the fabled Robin Hood, he more closely resembled a small-time crook whose pursuit of a life of crime included horse thievery, rustling cattle and terrorizing residents in London’s Epping Forest.  On April 7, 1739, English brigand Dick Turpin was executed in Yorkshire following his arrest for shooting an acquaintance’s game cock on a York street.

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Born in Hempstead, Essex, in 1705, Turpin was destined for a life of crime.  Originally undertaking an apprenticeship to become a butcher, Turpin soon abandoned honest employment in favor of crime, joining the Gregory Gang, which had established a reputation for burglary, horse theft, and harassing homeowners in north Greater London from nearby Essex.  Shortly after a string of successful burglaries, the Gregory Gang was betrayed by a young member and led to the arrest, imprisonment, and execution of several gang members.


Now a wanted man, Turpin went into hiding, formed his own gang and launched into a string of coach robberies in London’s Barnes Common, Southwark, Kingston Hill, and Putney quarters throughout the remainder of 1735.  Adding to their tally of crimes, Turpin and his associates continued their highway robbery through a stick-up netting them six gold coins from a man in Hounslow Heath. Alerted to the crime, constables intensified their hunt for Turpin and his band, netting the arrest of two co-conspirators, but were unable to secure Turpin’s arrest.


Although descriptions of Turpin were abundant, the notorious rogue managed to slip through police dragnets by virtue of the fact Turpin, unlike his contemporaries, donned a mask to conceal his face.


Nearly alone for close to a year, Turpin’s movements were difficult to trace.  Reportedly in Holland, Turpin continued to elude authorities and returned to Greater London, made his way to East Hertfordshire and re-united with his wife.  Resuming his nefarious activities, Turpin, alone or with two associates, robbed several higlers (small traveling vendors) outside Cambridge and slowly made their way back toward the fertile grounds of Greater London.


Arriving back to London, Turpin robbed a man of a horse, which was traced to a Whitechapel pub.  Later the same evening, a Turpin associate, Matthew King, was injured by gunfire when bounty hunters and a local constable attempted to subdue him.  Once again, Turpin dodged arrest amid rumors he himself had fatally shot King to aid his escape. Traveling north through Epping Forest, Turpin was spotted by a forest hand, Thomas Morris, who attempted to arrest him. Armed with a carbine, Turpin shot Morris dead.


With two, possibly three, murders to his name, Turpin continued his flight north to a small village in Yorkshire, settled under the assumed name John Palmer, and began a life of legitimacy, posing as a horse trader.  Intermittently returning to a life of crime, Turpin conducted several small raids to steal sheep and horses; however, Turpin’s undoing came with a minor crime: He shot and killed a prized game cock on a York street in broad daylight.  Jailed in York Castle, Turpin penned a letter to his brother-in-law asking for financial assistance. His brother-in-law refusing to pay postage, the letter was returned to the postmaster but only after Turpin’s former schoolmaster, James Smith, recognized the outlaw’s handwriting.  Exposed as the horse thieving, raping, murdering, thug police had sought for two years, Turpin was sentenced to death.


Achieving folk-hero standing among some for his exploits, Turpin paid a handful of admirers to turn out on his execution day.  Mindful of his image at the gallows, Turpin jumped from the scaffold to impress and excite the crowd.


Later immortalized in books, comics, documentaries and a television series, most of which was a fictionalized account of Turpin’s life blended with the feats of contemporaries, Turpin’s masked crime spree inspired the enduring maxim “Even Dick Turpin wore a mask,” the implication one is being blatantly ripped off.


A stone bearing Turpin’s grave in Yorkshire was later exposed to be a hoax.


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