Face of Dick Turpin revealed at new £200,000 York Castle Prison gallery

By Culture24 Staff | 17 July 2009
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A police fit picture of a criminal

(Above) North Yorkshire Police have made the first ever E-Fit of 18th century highwayman Dick Turpin, a portrait Museum officials say is "not pretty"

A police profile of infamous 18th century fugitive Dick Turpin will finally go on display – 274 years after a warrant for his arrest was first issued.

North Yorkshire Police have used E-Fit technology to produce the first accurate picture of the mythical highwayman, who committed a spree of robberies, stake-outs, burglaries and murders before being executed at York in 1739.

Despite achieving legendary status for his relentless felonies, no depictions of the bandit were ever made. He is widely romanticised as a dashing, devilishly handsome rogue, but researchers at York Castle Prison, where Turpin spent his last night alive, have drawn contrasting conclusions as they unveil the mugshot today (July 17 2009).

"The results are not pretty," said the Museum's Dr Katherine Prior. "Richard Turpin is one of the most infamous highwaymen in the world, but very little information on what he actually looked like survives.

"There are no drawings or paintings of Turpin created during his lifetime. We have worked with North Yorkshire Police to create an E-Fit of Turpin, just like they would do from a description of a criminal today."

a drawing showing a large stone building with a tower on the top

(Above) Picture courtesy York Museums Trust

The partnership used details from newspapers issued in pursuit of Turpin as the government chased him between 1735 and 1737, increasing the initial £50 reward to a hefty £200 bounty.

The outlaw was reported to have been 5ft9in tall and of a brown complexion, marked by smallpox, broad cheekbones, a thinning jaw, broad shoulders and a short Visage. He chose a blue-grey coat and light wig as accessories.

Turpin was transferred to York after drunkenly allowing himself to be arrested at his lodgings in nearby Brough under his alias of John Palmer. A letter he wrote to his brother-in-law from the Prison fell into enemy hands, allowing authorities to identify him as a horse-stealer – an offence punishable by death – at York's Grand Jury House.

He achieved celebrity status in the build-up to his execution, welcoming visitors who paid to visit his cell and buying a dapper death outfit for the ceremony, where he was waved through the city and gave a 30-minute speech to the baying throng.

an ealy period photograph showing men in shirtsleeves in a large yard

Debtors exercising in Eye of York (circa 1860). Picture courtesy York Museums Trust

He is thought to have been buried in the churchyard of St George's Church in York, although bodysnatchers may have later dug up his body. A century later his iconic re-imagining began with William Harrison Ainsworth's novel, Rookwood, which claimed Turpin rode the 200-mile stretch between London and York in one day on horseback.

The exposé is part of a new £200,000 refurbishment of the prison quarters, revealing the cramped conditions where some of the county's most ruthless villains were deprived of daylight.

"From Turpin to a young tearaway arrested with a boiled egg in his pocket, York Castle was once full of people with incredible and often moving stories to tell," said the Prison's Mike Woodward. "For the first time we will be using these to take an in-depth look at this building's fascinating history."

Two separate areas will divide the gaol, chiming keys, chains and the murmurings of prisoners through "dark and eerie" corridors. Audio-visual techniques will then tell tales of the thieves and debtors who temporarily called it home.

Highlights in the second half include graphic details of the release, death or transportation to colonies the prisoners endured, objects from the site and a list of surnames allowing visitors to find out if their ancestors were incarcerated at York.

Detailed Facebook and Twitter pages telling Turpin's story and a new website for the Prison have also been launched.

Museum open 9.30am-5pm. Admission £4-£7.50 (free for under-fives and York residents.)

Follow Dick Turpin on Twitter and check out The Real Dick Turpin at York Castle Prison on Facebook for more details.

Keep an eye on York Castle Museum online for news on the launch of the new Prison website.

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