In eighteenth century York, as in the rest of England, county courts held by magistrates dealt with civil and criminal matters—from licensing to petty theft. More serious crimes were referred on to the Assize courts where a jury and professional judges sat in judgement. These high-ranking judiciary figures, often aristocrats, knights of the realm or holders of government office, came to York twice a year in March and in August to sit. From 1720 to 1806, the lodging for these visiting judges was a smart Georgian townhouse in the very centre of town: Judges’ Court.
In these eighty years or so, the judiciary who passed through Judges Court saw more than two hundred criminals convicted and hung at the Knavesmire in York.
Offences such as treason, riot, murder and burglary with violence saw the miscreant hung, and sometimes quartered and beheaded. Murderers were often denied a Christian burial, instead being ‘hung in chains’, their bodies bound in chains near the scene of their crime, strung up and left to decompose.
The most celebrated case tried by one of the residents of Judges’ Court, was in 1739 when Judge William Chapple convicted a Wakefield man of horse-stealing. The man he sentenced to hang was John Palmer, but his real name was Richard Turpin—Dick Turpin.
Dick Turpin is a name familiar to every English school child—a notorious highwayman in frock coat and boots, holding up stages at pistol point, astride his trusted stead Black Bess on whom he famously rode from London to York in one day.
Away from the legend, Dick Turpin was a horse-stealer, a poacher, a house-breaker and a torturer as well as a highwayman. As part of the notorious Essex Gang, he and the gang would break into remote houses and torture the occupants until they revealed the whereabouts of their valuables. When a servant of one of the Epping Forest keepers tried to apprehend him and was shot dead on the spot by Turpin, the Government offered a reward of £200 for information which might lead to his arrest. Turpin was now the most wanted man in England.
If the real Dick Turpin fell somewhat short of his legend as a criminal, as a prisoner awaiting trial he lived up to his status as a folk-hero. Although tried as John Palmer for horse-stealing, after being arrested originally for shooting his landlord’s cockerel, it was widely accepted that the man in York Castle awaiting trial was Dick Turpin and people came from all over the country to pay their respects to the infamous highwayman. It was said that Turpin’s gaoler earned over £100 in providing drinks for Turpin’s stream of visitors.
Turpin himself began to play the part, ordering a new frock coat and pumps for the day of the execution, and paying five local men ten shillings each to follow his cart as professional mourners. To add to the theatre, bodyguards also followed his cart, since the authorities feared that his friends may try to spring him on the way to the gallows. He faced his death with equanimity, bowing to the spectators on his way to the Knavesmire, chatting at length with the noose around his neck to the hangman, and then, without waiting for the cart to move forward, throwing himself off the cart without ceremony. He expired almost immediately.