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The Hand Of Turpin
It took about three minutes to compose the letter. Dick Turpin had been scribbling furiously; now he sat back and read it through with quiet satisfaction. He had never been much of a writer – he had struggled with his letters at school – but he could at least put down a few simple words. And the message was clear enough.
Turpin dipped the quill into the ink bottle one last time, tapped away the excess fluid, and with a flourish signed a name at the bottom of the page: John Palmer. He smiled and folded up the letter, sealing it quickly. With the last of the ink, he carefully marked out the address: Mr Pompr Rivernall, The Blue Bell Inn, Hampstead.
Turpin sat back on the hard wooden chair. The light from a tiny barred window at the far end of the cell dimly illuminated the room. He frowned, looking across at the thick iron bars. This time, he knew, there would be no escape. York Castle was one of the best defended fortresses in England. He could not simply slip out a door here, as he might have done at Beverley.
Security at that first prison had been rudimentary. It would have been a simple matter to abscond before things had taken a more serious turn. That would have been the sensible thing to do.
Of course, if he’d had any sense at all, he would not have got himself arrested in the first place.
Turpin had been out on a shooting expedition a couple of weeks before. There had been little sport in the forest that day, but on the way home he'd spotted a game bird hopping about on open ground near the village.
He'd aimed his pistol without thinking and shot it.
A labourer was passing by, a scruffy thick-set man, who immediately berated him. ‘That’s Mr Hall’s bird,’ he protested. ‘You can’t go around shooting other people’s livestock!’
Turpin lost his temper and threatened to put a bullet in the man. The labourer took fright and, whilst Turpin was reloading his pistol, had made a swift exit. That, Turpin assumed, would be the end of the matter.
It was not the end. The labourer reported him to a local magistrate and the next day he was arrested.
Even then, things might have gone well, if Turpin had paid out the surety the authorities had demanded. That way, he might have avoided imprisonment altogether. He could have absconded before the trial; left the county and set himself up under a new name somewhere else. But Turpin resented paying out bail money that he could not get back. In any case, it was a petty offence and it was not as if they had any idea of his real identity. He was John Palmer, a local horse-breeder, not the notorious highwayman Dick Turpin. And so he had allowed himself to be remanded to a House of Correction, in advance of the trial.
But then the magistrates had begun to delve into his background. Even for Mr John Palmer, there was a bit of a record. Suspected sheep stealing; suspected horse theft. Nothing catastrophic, but enough to upgrade him from a petty offender to a full-blown criminal. Horse theft was technically a capital crime, though the penalty was rarely enforced.
What Turpin needed now was a few good character witnesses. His brother-in-law would find the people and send them to York. The magistrates would hear their testimony and take pity on John Palmer. It was a first offence, after all. He might get off with a short gaol term or perhaps just a heavy fine.
Turpin glanced down at the letter.
A few more days and all would be well.
Pompr Rivernall was in a foul mood. The brewery had failed to deliver six barrels of ale and there were not enough reserves in the basement to keep the Blue Bell supplied for more than a day. His wife Dorothy was out at the market picking up various provisions. Rivernall had to mind the inn all on his own. There were a couple of serving wenches, but they were no use at all. Always gossiping and giving free drinks to anyone they liked the look of. It wasn’t even Rivernall’s inn. The place was owned by Dorothy’s father. But John Turpin had got himself jailed over some trivial misunderstanding, and Rivernall had been left holding the baby. Then this morning some snotty-nosed boy had come along to inform him that a letter had arrived at the local office and would he please come and collect it? As if he had the time for that.
Dorothy arrived back mid-afternoon. She was a sturdy, buxom thing, broad-hipped, with a jovial manner. Rivernall grunted as she backed herself in through the side door, carrying a small crate of vegetables. He didn’t offer to help and observed with contempt the meagre fair she had spent several hours bartering for. ‘That was a waste of a trip,’ he growled. ‘There’s nothing here at all.’ After the glut of the harvest, things were beginning to slow down.
Rivernall left his wife to clean up the bar while he popped out to see about the letter. The post office was at the back of a nearby draper’s shop. A clerk in a dusty tunic sat behind a desk in the corner, sorting through a stack of mail. He was an ugly fellow in late middle age, with a broken nose and an obvious squint. Rivernall disliked him at once.
He took a deep breath. ‘I understand there’s a letter for me.’
The clerk looked up and Rivernall gave him his name.
‘Ah yes. That’s right, sir. It’s here somewhere.’ The man stood and gathered a small pile of correspondence from a nearby shelf, which he quickly sorted through. ‘Oh yes. Here it is.’
He pulled a crumpled letter from the pile.
Rivernall regarded it suspiciously. ‘Who’s it from?’
The other man peered at the address. ‘Er…the stamp is from York, sir.’ He flipped it over. ‘There’s no return address. Perhaps on the inside?’ He handed the letter across.
Rivernall scowled. ‘I don’t know anybody in York.’ He looked down at the front, seeing his own name there and noting the appalling quality of the handwriting.
The clerk had other considerations. ‘That’ll be thruppence postage, sir.’
‘Thruppence!’ Rivernall roared. ‘I’m not paying thruppence!’
‘I’m afraid that’s the cost of the postage, sir.’
Rivernall threw the letter back contemptuously. ‘You can keep your bloody letter, then!’ So saying, he turned and stormed out of the shop.
James Smith was heading in the opposite direction. A plump, smartly dressed man in his mid thirties, Smith had also received word of a letter and was heading to the draper’s shop to collect it. As he moved to the doorway, he nearly collided with Rivernall, who was steaming headlong out into the street. ‘I beg your pardon, sir,’ Smith said automatically, doffing his hat. The other man did not pause in his stride. Damnably rude, Smith thought, staring after him. The departing figure seemed vaguely familiar.
In the post office, the ageing clerk was just placing the rejected letter back on top of the pile. Smith coughed and the fellow glanced up at him.
‘James Smith. I believe there’s a letter for me?’
The clerk thought for a moment and then nodded. ‘Ah yes, sir.’ He rose to his feet and went to a shelf where another stack of letters was carefully stock-piled.
‘Was that Mr Rivernall I saw just leaving?’ Smith asked.
‘Indeed sir. Come to collect a letter too. But he wouldn’t pay the postage.’
Smith shrugged. ‘Doesn’t surprise me. Unpleasant fellow. He’s married to Dick Turpin’s sister.’
The clerk's eyes widened. ‘What, the highwayman?’
‘That’s what some call him. Cutpurse more like.’ Turpin was nothing but a common criminal. He attacked and robbed undefended farmhouses. There had been talk of rape. Murder, even. ‘Is that the letter?’
The clerk nodded. ‘I’ll have to send it back where it came from.’ He sighed. ‘What did you say your name was again?’
‘Yes, of course.’ The clerk looked through the mound of paper on the shelf. The original letter was still on the desk.
Smith leaned across. ‘This is the one for Mr Rivernall?’
The clerk glanced back. ‘That’s right, sir. Shocking handwriting.’
Smith peered at the letter closely.
‘My God!’ He picked it up.
The clerk looked around. ‘Sir?’
James Smith stared in disbelief. ‘I don’t believe it!’ he exclaimed. ‘This is Dick Turpin’s hand.’
The magistrate was sceptical. ‘How can you be so sure?’
James Smith was adamant. ‘I went to school with him. I taught him to read and write. And I’d recognise that handwriting anywhere.’
The magistrate, Thomas Stubbing, rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
The clerk in Hampstead had sent the letter on to Saffron Walden, at Smith’s request. Only a magistrate had the authority to open other people’s correspondence. Stubbing had paid the postage and acquired the letter.
Smith eagerly read through the contents. His suspicions were confirmed at once. Though the note was clearly signed "John Palmer", it was in the hand of the infamous highwayman.
Stubbing regarded James Smith thoughtfully.
‘And you just happened to be passing by the post office?’
‘I was picking up a letter of my own,’ he explained. ‘I live quite close to an inn that’s owned by John Turpin.’
‘According to this letter,’ Stubbing said, ‘Mr John Palmer is in prison at York Castle on some minor offence. If this man is who you think he is we need to let the authorities up there know.’
That much was obvious.
Stubbing considered for a moment.
‘You say you knew him as a child?’
‘We went to the same school. It was my job to teach some of the younger children. He was an awkward fellow, even then.’
‘But would you recognise him as an adult?’
Smith nodded. ‘I’ve met him once or twice since then, although not recently, I’m afraid.’
‘Could you describe him?’
‘Well…about five feet nine. Broad shouldered. Scarred by the pox. Not handsome by any means. Usually wears a dark wig.’
Stubbing folded up the letter.
‘In that case, Mr Smith, I think a trip to York might be in order…’
The guards had been eyeing him suspiciously all morning. Something odd was going on. Turpin was convinced of it. He had not been a criminal for all these years not to pick up on a change in mood. None of the other prisoners seemed to notice. There were fifteen of them in the cell. Scoundrels all. Some of them he knew, others were strangers. All of them would cut his throat as soon as look at him. Mind you, he would do the same if there was any money in it.
When the guards came for him in the afternoon, he knew it was serious. They looked over a few of the other prisoners and told them to come too. But it was Turpin they were interested in.
‘Have I got a visitor?’ he asked, as he was led out of the cell into a larger chamber.
‘Something like that,’ the guard replied gruffly. ‘Just stand there. You too.’ He gestured to the others. There were about half a dozen of them standing around, just as confused as he was.
This was not a room for visitors, Turpin thought. It was just a large empty space. He could hear the sound of keys unlocking doors somewhere nearby.
The gaoler herded the group into a rough line.
Feeling distinctly nervous, but not quite sure why, Turpin watched as the door at the far end swung heavily open.
Two figures were silhouetted in the frame of the door. One of them was a magistrate. Turpin had never seen him before. The other man looked familiar. Turpin wracked his brains, trying to place the face. It took only a few seconds. And then he shuddered. It was James Smith. Someone he had been at school with. A man who could reveal his true identity.
How could he be here? How could anyone have known?
The two men stepped further into the room. Smith locked eyes with Turpin at once. There was a half smile on his face.
‘Take your time,’ the magistrate said. ‘Have a close look. Do you recognise any of these prisoners?’
Smith nodded slowly. He hadn’t even glanced at the others. ‘That’s him,’ he said, indicating the highwayman. ‘That’s Dick Turpin.’
Turpin stared back in horror. His life had come to an end. The noose was already around his neck. Anger boiled up inside him. ‘You son of a –’ He lunged forward but the gaoler grabbed hold of him. His arms, in any case, were tied at the wrist.
Smith took a step backwards.
The magistrate turned calmly to the gaoler. ‘And this is the fellow claiming to be John Palmer?’
‘That’s right, sir.’
‘Very well. Take him away.’
‘How did you know?’ Turpin demanded angrily as he was dragged towards the other door. ‘How did you know?’
James Smith took the letter from his pocket and held it up for Turpin to see. Smith smiled in satisfaction. ‘It was in your own hand,’ he said.
[Author’s note: the book “Dick Turpin: The Myth Of The English Highwayman” by James Sharpe was invaluable in the development of this story. Anyone who wishes to learn more about the life of Dick Turpin should certainly pick up a copy.]