Ghostly Highwayman in York
The second ghost of St George’s Field is that of a man who came from far less exalted stock than did Stafford, but who is far better known: Dick Turpin. Turpin was born in Essex in 1706 and apprenticed to a butcher, but he went bad at a young age and when only a teenager was buying stolen cattle at a cheap price, then passing them on to his master at a profit. When this was discovered he was dismissed and took to burglary. By the age of 21 he was leading a tough and merciless gang who specialised in breaking into isolated farms and torturing the inhabitants into revealing the whereabouts of any valuables.
At the age of 25 Turpin made a career change that would ensure his fame when he became a highwayman. In the 1730s the highwaymen were the noblemen of crime, and with good reason. They were looked up to by other criminals, respected by the public and feared by the forces of law and order. Those who became ‘gentlemen of the road’ knew that to gain the respect of their fellows, the favours of ladies of easy virtue and the wealth they craved they had to behave as a highwayman was expected to do.
The highwayman was a uniquely English type of criminal. He had first entered the scene in the 1640s when several well-born gentlemen were driven to robbery by circumstance. Those who had joined the Royalist cause had their property confiscated by a vindictively victorious Parliament, and those who joined the rebellion of the youthful Charles II that ended at the Battle of Worcester in 1651 were condemned to death as traitors even before they were arrested and tried.
One such was Captain James Hind who found himself penniless and marked out for death. He had only his horse, his sword, his pistol and the clothes he rode in. Fortunately for Hind he had a magnificent charger and the fine clothes of a gentleman. When he took to crime the ruffians with whom he mixed could scarcely believe their eyes, nor could many victims who took Hind for the gentleman he was and were aghast when he produced his pistol and demanded “your money or your life”. Hind once stopped a coach that contained none other than Oliver Cromwell, but the other occupants of the coach turned out to be well armed, so Hind fled empty handed. When he was eventually captured, Hind was executed for treason not for his many robberies.
The pattern set by Hind as well as other poverty-struck cavaliers such as Captain Philip Strafford, Zachary Howard and John Cottington (a Catholic who made a speciality of discussing theology with any Puritan preacher that he robbed) was soon followed by low-born criminals who craved the respect of their social betters. By 1700 most highwaymen still dressed in the finest clothes and rode expensive horses, but none of them had been born gentlemen. Turpin was typical in that he made the change to being a highwayman as a conscious decision to raise his social status among the criminal fraternity.
from Haunted Places of York by Rupert Matthews
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