It’s April 7th, 1739, in the north of England.
On a chilly spring morning, beneath skies of wintery gray, a horse-drawn cart rattles through the streets of York. Sitting in the back is a condemned prisoner: the notorious highwayman, Dick Turpin.
Dick glances up at a large crowd that’s lined the streets to witness his execution.
Following behind the cart is a group of professional mourners Dick has hired for the occasion. They weep and clutch their hats. Dick closes his eyes and listens to the sound of their tears.
Eventually, the cart reaches the scaffold at Knavesmire, on the outskirts of York.
The crowd falls silent as Dick steps onto the gallows, his head held high. Dick looks dapper in his new frock coat and shoes – purchased specifically for this occasion. The hangman places a noose around Dick's neck as he takes a deep breath and looks out over the crowd. Pride swells in his chest that so many people have come to see him off. A smile flashes across his lips. And then… he steps off the scaffold.
Dick Turbin is the most famous highwayman in history. In modern times, his name conjures up images of a heroic, masked bandit who performed daring and dashing feats atop his trusty steed, “Black Bess”.
But the legend of Dick Turpin is a wildly romanticized falsehood; the result of writers and artists weaving fact with fiction, and creating a hero out of the life of a villain. In reality, Dick Turpin was a brutish, hard-hearted criminal; a violent thief who terrorized the lonely roads of England during his short but eventful life which came to an end when Dick met the hangman’s noose on April 7th, 1739.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is April 7th, 1739: The Execution of Dick Turpin.
Act One: The Essex Gang
It’s 1733, six years before Dick Turpin meets his end.
In the village of Buckhurst Hill, in Essex, a young butcher sharpens his cleaver. Blood splatters his apron and face as he hacks away at the carcass of a pig. But the butcher doesn’t flinch. He’s grown accustomed to the sight of blood.
The butcher, Richard “Dick” Turpin, is just twenty-seven years old – but he feels much older. Dick’s been married for eight years, and his marriage – like his work – has started to bore him. He makes ends meet here in Buckhurst Hill, but for an ambitious man like Dick, making “ends meet” just isn’t enough.
Dick hacks furiously at the carcass, his cleaver smashing through bone and sinew. He has always been a hard-working, law-abiding man. But he has little to show for it. And today, he's had enough.
He tosses down his cleaver in anger, and a shadow falls across his chopping block. Dick looks up to see a group of strangers entering his shop. They’re well-dressed, in frock coats and tricorn hats, but Dick knows these aren’t respectable gentlemen. He recognizes one of them; a tall, dark-haired criminal named Samuel Gregory, the leader of a notorious group of deer poachers, known as the Essex Gang.
Gregory has come to Dick’s shop with a business proposition. Gregory needs help chopping up and selling off his stolen goods, and he wants Dick to do the dirty work. Hearing how much money Gregory is offering, Dick doesn’t think twice. He says ‘goodbye’ to his mundane, law-abiding existence, and ‘hello’ to a new life of crime.
The Essex Gang gets back to terrorizing local landowners, and Dick gets to work butchering and selling the stolen venison. Soon enough, the profits start rolling in. But it doesn’t take long for the authorities in Buckhurst Hill to grow suspicious of the seemingly endless supply of meat in Dick’s shop. Whispers begin to circulate that Dick is in league with the Essex Gang. Fearing these rumors will reach the local constable, Dick decides to skip town.
He abandons his wife and becomes a full-time member of the Essex Gang. By now, Samuel Gregory and his band of rogues have given up deer poaching and turned to the more lucrative business of armed robbery.
So throughout the winter of 1734, Dick, Gregory, and the gang launch violent raids in the villages of Woodford, Croydon, and Barking. Wielding pistols and wearing black masks over their eyes, they ransack homes and rob the occupants. With their purses full, the robbers ride off to their hideout in nearby Epping Forest.
In his new criminal occupation, Dick excels. He’s ditched the butcher’s apron and replaced it with a frock coat with shiny brass buttons, and a black tricorn hat. People used to ignore Dick Turpin. But now, they fear him.
Later that winter, on February 1st, in the village of Loughton in Essex, Dick and five other members of the Essex Gang break into the home of an elderly widow. When she refuses to tell them where her money is, Dick grabs the old lady and holds her over the fireplace, threatening to burn her alive if she doesn’t cough up the cash. There’s a crazed look in Dick’s eye – a wild exuberance that makes the other robbers howl with menacing laughter. Terrified, the widow gives up the money, and the thieves gallop away.
Three days later, on February 4th, Dick, Samuel Gregory, and other gang members break into the farmhouse of a seventy-year-old man named Joseph Lawrence. Once again, Dick demonstrates an aptitude for sadistic violence. He pulls Lawrence’s pants down around his ankles, then pours boiling water over the old man’s head, before making off with his money.
Before long, the Essex Gang has accumulated a sizable fortune. But their violent crime spree is about to come to an end. On February 11th, two members of the Essex Gang are drinking in a public house in London, when one of the customers recognizes them from the robbery at Joseph Lawrence’s farmhouse. Both men are arrested. And one of them starts naming the names of their fellow gang members.
The next day, Dick Turpin’s name and description appears in the London Gazette, alongside a warrant for his arrest. When Dick sees it, he immediately flees London, warning the other members of the Essex Gang to do the same. But while Dick will escape the authorities, the others will not be so lucky.
Soon, Samuel Gregory and nearly all of the rest of the gang will be rounded up, tried, and hanged – their bodies left to rot in iron-hooped gibbets. Dick, now a wanted man, will return to the gang’s former hideout in Epping Forest. There, Dick will take up a new racket; a crime for which he will become infamous – highway robbery.
Act Two: Highwayman
It’s August 1735, four years before Dick Turpin’s execution.
A stagecoach is traveling across Barnes Common, a few miles west of London. Suddenly, two masked men on horseback emerge from the trees. They force the travelers to hand over their possessions at gunpoint. Then the two highwaymen gallop off into the gathering dusk.
After putting enough distance between themselves and the stagecoach, Dick Turpin removes his mask. He looks over at his partner, the last surviving member of the Essex Gang, Thomas Rowden. They tether their steeds and count their money. It’s not a bad haul, but as always, Dick is hungry for more.
Since the break-up of the Essex Gang in 1734, Dick decided raiding houses was too risky. Instead, he and Thomas began robbing lone travelers and stagecoaches passing through Epping Forest. Dick likes highway robbery. It’s quick, clean, and lucrative.
Soon, authorities grow wary and offer a hefty reward for information on the masked highwaymen. But Dick and Thomas are smart; their methods are disciplined, their horses swift. And for nearly a year, they evade capture and rake in a fortune. Until July 1736, when Thomas is caught trying to use counterfeit coins. Thomas is arrested, leaving Dick Turpin alone once again. But he won’t be without a partner for long.
In March 1737, Dick lurks by the side of a country road, ready to pounce on the next unsuspecting traveler who passes by. When he spots a wealthy-looking gentleman traveling alone, Dick springs from behind a tree, his pistol raised. But the traveler seems neither surprised nor frightened. Instead, he smiles and introduces himself.
The traveler’s name is Matthew King. And like Dick, Matthew is a highwayman and a thief and he’s impressed by Dick’s gumption. Soon, the two men become partners, carrying out multiple robberies throughout the spring of 1737. Dick and Matthew’s collaboration blossoms into a genuine friendship, with Dick calling Matthew: “the best fellow man I ever had in my life.” But soon, a bungled robbery will result in tragedy, and spell the beginning of the end for Dick Turpin.
It’s April 29th, 1737, in the village of Whitechapel.
Dick walks toward a tavern to meet his friend and partner, Matthew King. Dick and Matthew recently stole a horse named Whitestockings’ from outside the Green Man Pub in the nearby town of Leytonstone. Now, they intend to sell Whitestockings. But as Dick approaches the tavern in Whitechapel, he hears a gunshot. He runs inside to find Matthew in a fight for his life with an unknown assailant.
Unbeknownst to Dick, Whitestockings’ owner reported his horse missing to the landlord of the Green Man Pub in Leytonstone, a man named Richard Bayes. Soon, Bayes got a tip that a horse fitting Whitestockings’ description was stabled at a tavern in Whitechapel.
So Bayes made the journey from Leytonstone to Whitechapel. And when he arrived, he found the horse in Matthew’s possession. Bayes confronted Matthew. But Matthew pulled out a rifle. The shot missed. And now, as Dick runs inside the tavern, Bayes tries to pry Matthew’s rifle out of his hands.
Matthew cries out: “shoot him, Dick! Or we are taken by God!” In a hurried frenzy, Dick pulls out his weapon and fires. But he too misses and hits Matthew instead. Dick stares in horror as his partner in crime collapses to the floor dead.
Shaken and bereft, Dick turns and runs out of the tavern. He flees to his old hideout in Epping Forest and takes shelter in the cave the Essex Gang once used to stash their loot. There, Dick weighs his options. He knows he’s a wanted man, and that if he ever shows his face again, the authorities will surely arrest him. So Dick decides to lay low.
But days later, on May 4th, 1737, Dick hears a rustling outside of the mouth of the cave. Cautiously, he picks up his weapon and steps out into the light only to find a startled man pointing a rifle at him.
Dick doesn’t know who he is or what he’s doing here. But he suspects that he’s not a lawman or a bounty hunter. Dick can tell by the way his hands tremble as he grips his rifle.
So Dick slowly lowers his weapon and backs away to show he means no harm. Seeing this, the frightened man starts to relax. But just as he lowers his rifle, Dick raises his gun and pulls the trigger.
By the time the authorities discover the body, Dick will be long gone. He’ll move to a new town and take up a new name. But the infamous highwayman will not be able to hide forever. In the end, the law will catch up to Dick Turpin, and he will pay the ultimate price.
Act Three: John Palmer
It’s October 2nd, 1738 in Beverley, a small market town in the East Riding of Yorkshire, six months before Dick Turpin’s execution.
An elegantly dressed prisoner sits in a jail cell. With his black wig, silk breeches, and knee-length boots, he doesn’t look like a criminal. But this man, John Palmer, is a dangerous character.
Earlier today, for no apparent reason, Palmer lost his senses. With wild-eyed exuberance, he shot his landlord’s rooster, before threatening to kill him, too. Not long after, the local authorities placed Palmer under arrest and locked him up here at the House of Correction in Beverley.
But soon, the authorities discover that John Palmer is more than just a rooster killer. He’s a known horse-thief, a crime that’s punishable by death. So Palmer is sent to a larger, more secure prison at York Castle.
Before long, the authorities collect sufficient evidence to convict him for stealing horses. But what the authorities don’t yet realize is that John Palmer is more than a petty horse-thief; he’s also the infamous highwayman, Dick Turpin.
As Dick languishes at York Castle, he plots his next move. He realizes the authorities don’t yet know who he really is, but he also knows they have more than enough evidence to convict him and put him to death. So, in an act of desperation, Dick decides to write to his brother-in-law who lives in Essex.
Dick chooses his words carefully, writing, “I am sorry to acquaint you, that I am now under confinement in York Castle, for horse-stealing…” Dick goes on begging for help, “Heavenly brother, do not neglect me…”
But Dick knows he cannot reveal his true identity. If the authorities find him out, they’ll add armed robbery and murder to the list of charges against him. So Dick signs the letter, “I am yours, John Palmer.” As he mails it out, Dick prays his brother will see past the pseudonym and come to his rescue.
But Dick’s letter will never reach his brother-in-law. Instead, when it arrives at a local post office in Essex, a man named James Smith happens upon it and recognizes the handwriting as belonging to one of his childhood friends. Soon, Smith travels to York and informs the authorities that “John Palmer” is actually Dick Turpin. Smith collects a handsome reward. And Dick braces himself for the punishment he knows is coming.
In the end, Dick is tried, convicted, and sentenced to death on three counts of horse theft. By the time of his execution, on April 7th, 1739, the name “Dick Turpin” is already the stuff of legends. Supposedly, his jailer at York Castle charged admission to visitors who were desperate to lay eyes on the infamous outlaw. According to some accounts, the jailer made a killing: the equivalent of tens of thousands of dollars today.
And after his death, Dick’s legend only grows. As time marches on, the cold and ruthless criminal is recast in the popular imagination as a dashing, loveable rogue; a far cry from the real Dick Turpin, a notoriously violent highwayman whose life of crime finally came to an end on April 7th, 1739.
Next onHistory Daily.April 8th, 1838, the Great Western, the first transatlantic steamer, embarks on its maiden voyage from Bristol, England, to New York City.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing and sound design by Mollie Baack.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.