Dick Turpin was executed in York on a cold spring Saturday in 1739. In those days, before the invention of the trapdoor drop, the prisoner was expected to climb a ladder, the noose around his neck, and step off into space. Turpin, dressed in finery suitable for a wedding or a funeral, died admirably, for he 'went off this stage with as much intrepidity and unconcern, as if he had been taking horse to go on a journey'. This contemporary description indirectly acknowledges Turpin's status as a self-defined gentleman (his father was a butcher), for gentlemen took horse, while the poor walked. For weeks, Turpin had been 'eating, drinking and carousing', 'joking, drinking and telling stories' with an unending stream of visitors to the York jail: his jailer had made £100 selling them drink. Some of those who had laughed and joked with him were gathered that Saturday in the Blue Boar tavern, where his body was laid out after it had been cut down from the scaffold; a few of them had been appointed by Turpin to secure his corpse, which they did by burying it deep in the churchyard the next day. At 3 a.m. on the Tuesday, however, the body was found to have been dug up, presumably to be sold for dissection. A mob gathered and reclaimed it, carrying it through the streets 'in a sort of triumph', and reburied it in a coffin filled with lime to ensure its rapid decomposition. Within a few days, a broadside ballad was published called 'Turpin's Rant', a song which survived into the last century as a folksong, 'Turpin Hero', the chorus of which is: 'For I'm the hero, the Turpin hero, I am the great Dick Turpin Ho.' 'Turpin Hero' is the source of Joyce's title for the forerunner to Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, 'Stephen Hero'.
LRB 3 February 2005 | PDF Download