With Halloween just around the corner, ghosts and ghouls are getting ready for their annual airing. Yet, York is a city well-acquainted with the paranormal, and hauntings are not confined to a solitary night. This city’s cellars are particularly partial to paranormal phenomena, with dank, dark spaces lending themselves to the imagination. Any sound, smell, or visual experience is not immune to supernatural spin, and by adding the merest hint of a rumor, preferably of some tragic demise, and those creaking pipes are suddenly the agonizing cries of the dearly departed.
Harry Martindale’s famous account of a ghostly procession of Roman soldiers passing through the cellar of the Treasurer’s House is a particular favorite of mine although not all of York’s spirits are content to dwell underground.
One such spirit who supposedly makes his presence felt is that of the infamous highwayman Dick Turpin. While his stay in York was cut short by the Tyburn, it didn’t stop the residents from claiming him as their own. And Mr Turpin happens to be a neighbor of mine; he resides in the graveyard at the end of my street. Visitors come to photograph his final resting place, while sightseeing buses include him in their whirlwind tour of the city. He also makes a guest appearance in my Porter Biggleswade series as a lonely pipe-player who haunts the graveyard. Well, it seems fitting, considering.
Richard Turpin was born in 1705, in Hempstead, Essex, and trained to be a butcher like his father. These skills proved useful when he joined a deer poaching gang in his early twenties, and thus embarked on a life of crime. Burglary and murder were soon added to his CV, and he was forced to flee to Yorkshire after killing his accomplice during a botched robbery.
By 1737, he had adopted the alias John Palmer and was posing as a horse trader. An unfortunate incident with a gun and another man’s game cock resulted in a stay at the House of Correction at Beverley. Already suspected of theft and trade in stolen horses (which was a capital offence) Turpin was transferred to the prison in York. It is here he wrote to his brother-in-law for help, something he was later to regret. A former tutor recognised Turpin’s handwriting and exposed him. Turpin was found guilty of horse theft and condemned to death. He was thirty-four.
On 7th April 1739, Turpin was taken through York in an open cart. Crowds observed his macabre progress to the Knavesmire, where the gallows was waiting. Turpin was left hanging until late afternoon when he was cut down and taken to the Blue Boar in Castlegate. His burial in the graveyard of St George’s Church, Fishergate was briefly interrupted by body-snatchers who sold his remains for illegal medical dissection. Fortunately, the crime was discovered, and Turpin was reinterred.
While there is some doubt regarding the authenticity of the grave, belief in Turpin’s ghost is real enough. He is said to haunt a lonely stretch of river path in the former slum area of St George’s field. Once home to those living on the fringes of society, this quiet spot raises expectation of a ghostly encounter. If setting is key, it certainly suits Turpin, who veils himself among the trees, waiting for unsuspecting victims to fleece. Stagecoaches once kept him busy, but now he is reduced to challenging dog walkers, cyclists, and children on scooters, although I don’t fancy his chances with the latter. The area is also prone to flooding, which must be something of an inconvenience.
Whilst it seems fitting that Turpin haunts this spot (an area once inhabited by criminals and the like – presumably, he feels at home), there is no record of him ever having been to St George’s Field. He was a prisoner during his stay in York, brought to the city in chains. While he may have received visitors during his incarceration, he certainly wasn’t at liberty to make house calls. Hence, it would seem more plausible for him to haunt York Castle where he was held, the Tyburn on the Knavesmire or even the graveyard he is asserted to be buried in. A ghostly procession would even be appropriate, materializing on the date he was taken from the prison to the gallows, a stone tape of the grim event imprinted on the fabric of the city.
I decided to track Dick Turpin’s final journey for Amy Investigates one Sunday afternoon. Time shy, I was obliged to do it during Storm Ciara, which certainly made for a dramatic experience. I was blown along his route from outside the former prison towards Castlegate. The streets of York are often bustling, so it was easy to imagine crowds lining the road as Turpin was taken over Ouse Bridge, along Ousegate, and up the incline to Micklegate Bar. Passing through the city’s wall, he progressed along Blossom Street towards The Mount. The Tyburn, which was pulled down in 1812, was waiting for him on the Knavesmire opposite Pulleyn Drive. A paved area and a plaque now mark the spot.
The weather being inclement, I wasn’t surprised to find myself quite alone. Yet, as I stepped onto the paved area the wind suddenly dropped and the sun came out. I took a picture to capture this most extraordinary moment. A great calm descended, as if the tortured spirits of those condemned were taking a breath and in doing so allowed me to collect mine. The moment was extraordinary, and one I’ll never forget. I lingered briefly before retracing my steps back to where Turpin’s body was laid out at the Blue Boar. The rain had started afresh along with the wind.
I continued down to the river in the hope of catching a glimpse of Turpin, but it was not to be. Perhaps he is a fair-weather spirit who favors sunny days rather than stormy, or maybe he doesn’t haunt the city after all. Either way Turpin was little more than a thug and a murderer, a far cry from the handsome, amiable rogue legend has created. Gladys Jones sums him up well in Shadows in the Mist. ‘He was a rotten musician and a second-rate horse thief; people were strung up for less. He should have stayed in Essex.’
Read more in my book:
(‘Shadows in the Mist’ – https://www.lulu.com/en/gb/shop/amy-flint/shadows-in-the-mist/ebook/product-zwg556.html).