My Bonny Black Bess (II) (Poor Black Bess; Dick Turpin's Ride) [Laws L9]
DESCRIPTION: Dick Turpin bids farewell to the horse that served his so well, making his exploits possible and finally carrying him from London to York in a single day. Now the hounds are on his trail and he cannot escape; he shoots Bess and waits to die himself
EARLIEST DATE: 1928 (Mackenzie); before 1878 (broadside LOCSinging, sb30428b)
KEYWORDS: robbery horse punishment outlaw
1735 - Dick Turpin comes to the attention of the authorities as a robber
April 1739 - Hanging of Dick Turpin (by then retired from highway robbery; he was captured after getting drunk and shooting the landlor'd cockerel)
FOUND IN: US(MA,MW,Ro,SE,So) Canada(Mar)
REFERENCES (13 citations):
Laws L9, "My Bonny Black Bess"
Randolph 167, "Bonnie Black Bess" (3 texts, 1 tune, with the "A" fragment and "B" text belonging here; the "C" text is Laws L8)
BrownII 122, "My Bonnie Black Bess" (1 text)
Moore-Southwest 65, "Bonnie Black Bess" (1 text, 1 tune)
Gardner/Chickering 130, "My Bonny Black Bess" (1 text text plus 1 fragment and an excerpt, 2 tunes)
Peters, p. 189, "Dick Turpin and Black Bess" (1 text, 1 tune)
Hubbard, #139, "My Bonnie Black Bess" (1 text, 1 tune)
Mackenzie 126, "Dick Turpin's Ride" (1 text)
Fife-Cowboy/West 7, "Bonny Black Bess" (2 texts, 1 tune; the "A" text is this piece while the "B" text is Laws L8)
Ohrlin-HBT 12, "Bonny Black Bess" (1 text, 1 tune)
WolfAmericanSongSheets, #1899, p. 128, "Poor Black Bess" (3 references)
DT 422, BLCKBESS* BLCKBES2 BONNBESS*
ADDITIONAL: _Sing Out_ magazine, Volume 25, #4 (1977), p, 9, "Bonnie Black Bess" (1 text, 1 tune, from James and Mary Atwood)
Warde Ford, "My bonny black Bess" (AFS 4212 A1, 1939; in AMMEM/Cowell)
Lawrence Older, "Bonnie Black Bess" (on LOlder01)
LOCSinging, sb30428b, "Poor Black Bess," H. De Marsan (New York), 1864-1878
Murray, Mu23-y1:027, "Poor Black Bess," James Lindsay Jun (Glasgow), 19C
cf. "My Bonny Black Bess (I)" [Laws L8]
cf. "Dick Turpin and the Lawyer [Laws L10]" (subject)
Poor Dog Tray (per broadsides LOCSinging sb30428b, Murray Mu23-y1:027, and the one listed in WolfAmericanSongSheets p. 128)
Bonnie Black Bess
NOTES [2535 words]: This is much the more popular of the Black Bess songs; to distinguish it from Laws L8, consider the following stanza:
When blindness did guide me, I left my abode;
When friends proved ungrateful, I took to the road.
For to plunder the wealthy and relieve my distress,
I bought you to aid me, my bonny Black Bess.
The problem is, Turpin did not buy Black Bess, and never rode her to York. Although Dick Turpin was real, most of the exploits traditionally attributed to him are false. This is, at least in part, because the hack writers of his time rarely mentioned him in their accounts of famous highwaymen (Sharpe, pp. 73-74), when later writers resurrected him, they had few real facts to operate on. Even our knowledge of his death is relatively slight -- Sharpe, p. 18, points out that much of what we know about his execution comes from a cheap pamphlet, and we know how reliable those are! But here is the biography we can give.
The only real description of Turpin is a single sentence, from a proclamation seeking him: "About thirty years of age, by trade a butcher, about five feet nine inches high, of a brown complexion, very much marked with the small pox, his visage short, pretty upright, and broad about the shoulders" (Sharpe, p. 137; Pringle, p. 216, has a similar but not identical version).
According to Sharpe, p. 109, Turpin was born probably on September 21, 1705, although other sources give the year as 1706. He was baptized on September 23, 1705, however, which would seem to settle the matter. He was son of an Essex innkeeper; James Turpin was still keeping "the Bell at Hempstead" at the time of his son's trial and execution (Sharpe, p. 31).
Apprenticed to a butcher, Turpin apparently married (although there is no known record of the marriage; Sharpe, p. 109, and Brandon, p. 116, gives two possible names for his wife) and went into business around 1726. But several sheep turned up missing near his establishment in Waltham Abbey. Apparently forced out of the Guild of Butchers for his misdeeds (Pringle, p. 202), he took to a life of open crime.
For a time, he was associated with a brutal group of poachers and robbers known as "Gregory's Gang"; according to Sharpe, pp. 106-108, they took the King's Deer from Waltham in Essex. Turpin apparently helped them sell their kills (Sharpe, pp. 108-109). By 1734, the gang had turned to robbery. By 1735, they had moved from Essex to London (Sharpe, p. 115).
The really do seem to have been a brutal bunch; Sharpe, pp. 117-118, describes how they beat and burned an old farmer during a robbery -- while one of them raped a servant. Large rewards were put on their heads in 1735, but Turpin escaped when the others were taken. He turned to highway robbery (Sharpe, pp. 128-129). It is possible that he also went to Holland for a time (Sharpe, pp. 131-132).
Turpin in this period worked with various companions, the most noteworthy being Tom King (died 1737 -- possibly killed by Turpin himself as they struggled with people who were attempting to apprehend them; Sharpe, pp. 133-134; Pringle, p. 214; Brandon, p. 122; Alexander, p. 297). King, according to Alexander, p. 297, was known as the "King of the Highwaymen," but in fact he does not seem to have been very noteworthy on his own. About this time, Turpin killed one Thomas Morris who was attempting to apprehend him; for the first time, Turpin was clearly guilty of murder (Sharpe, p. 135; Pringle, p. 213; Pringle implies that it happened before the death of King, Sharpe perhaps after).
Turpin had already had a price on his head; this caused it to be increased to 200 pounds (Sharpe, p. 136). But Turpin had disappeared (Pringle, p. 216). He had moved to Yorkshire, and was calling himself John Palmer (Sharpe, p. 2). He seems to have lived a relatively honest life in the town of Welton, posing as a horse-dealer (Alexander, p. 299) -- but in October 1738, in a fit of mindless brutality, he shot a gamecock belonging to his neighbour (Sharpe, p. 136; Pringle, p. 216 -- a bad move, because the bird apparently had brought its owner good results, and perhaps income, in cockfights; Brandon, p. 123). This presumably is the origin of the claim in "Dick Turpin and the Lawyer" [Laws L10] that he was taken for "shooting of a dunghill cock").
The charges need not have been fatal, but they led to an inquiry into how he made his living (Sharpe, p. 13). In a comedy of errors which started with the fact that Turpin did not pay the proper postage for a letter (Alexander, p. 297), a sample of his handwriting came to the attention of his old schoolteacher, who supposedly recognized it (Sharpe, p. 20). The man then came to Yorkshire and identified his face (Sharpe, p. 21). The indictment against Turpin was technically invalid, according to Sharpe, p. 27, but he was eventually convicted of horse-stealing and sentenced to hang (Pringle, p. 218).
The date of Turpin's hanging is uncertain; generally dated to April 7, 1739 (so, e.g., Pringle, p. 218, and Brandon, as well as Sharpe, p. 1), but the day may have been April 6 or April 10. He apparently went to great lengths to put on a good show, buying new clothes and hiring five mourners to accompany him (Sharpe, p. 1). And he jumped off the ladder himself, considered a mark of courage and style, rather than waiting to be dropped (Pringle, p. 218; Brandon, p. 125). A second man, John Stead, was executed at the same time (Sharpe, p. 2).
Reportedly Turpin was executed by another highwayman, Thomas Hadfield, who was pardoned in return for doing the duty; York did not have a professional executioner (Sharpe, p. 3). What is purported to be Turpin's grave still exists, but Sharpe, p. 35, points out that the headstone is not contemporary.
There is little evidence in the historical record of the sort of nobility of character found in many of the songs about him.
The rest of the legend in the songs is equally suspect. There was, almost certainly, no Black Bess, and the twelve hour race to York was not undertaken by Turpin. Logan reports that the feat was performed by one "Nevison or Nicks, who plundered a traveler at four o'clock in the morning on the slope at Gadshill, and was in the bowling-green at York... at a quarter before eight in the evening."
Brandon, p. 127, also mentions "a highwayman named Harris" making the trip to Yorkshire, although he mentions Nevison first. Sharpe, p. 74, notes that Daniel Defoe attributed the trip to Nicks (Nix?), who lived around 1676 and whose actual name was Richard Dudley.
Pringle has more details on this, devoting a whole chapter to "Who Rode to York?" (pp. 135-144). He notes that it was perfectly possible to cover the London-to-York distance (about 190 miles) in a day -- if one could change to fresh horses along the route (Pringle, pp. 141-142). The improbable element of "Turpin's Ride" is the idea of doing it on *one* horse.
Did such a journey happen? Defoe's version is that it was done by Nix in 1676. It started with a robbery at Gad's Hill (where else?) at 4:00 a.m. (quoted on p. 137 of Pringle), and Nicks arrived at York that afternoon (Pringle, p. 138). Pringle points out that Defoe wrote this tale in 1724, before Turpin took to the road.
There is a 1668 report of a robber named "Swift Nicks," though it isn't known if it is the same guy.
The other fellow Logan mentions, Nevison, is certainly historical, though there is a lot of uncertainty about him. His name was probably William (Pringle, p. 123), but this is not certain; it might have been John (Pringle, p. 124). He did most of his work in Yorkshire, became the subject of broadsides, and later was mentioned by Maccaulay (Pringle, p. 123).
Sharpe, p. 68, reports that Nevison was born in 1639, began to steal at age 14, and soon ran off to London, then Holland. His birthplace is uncertain; Pringle, p. 124, mentioned four places that claim him. Sharpe, p. 69, reports, "He was charitable to the poor, and Robin Hood-like in giving them some of the spoils he collected from rich people he robbed. And [this being the era of the Civil Wars] he was a convinced royalist...." He was executed at York in 1684 -- although he supposedly had already faked his own death once by then (Pringle, pp. 131-132). On the evidence, much of the Turpin legend could have derived from tales of Nevison.
The reason for Nevison's ride, however, is different. Nevison had robbed an official, and the victim had insufficient cash, so he wrote a bank draft for 500 pounds. Nevison made his ride from York to London (not London to York!) to cash the draft before the official could stop it; Sharpe, p. 69.
The link between Nevison and Nicks is tenuous. According to Brandon, p. 82, Nevison earned the nickname Nicks because he had ridden to York as fast as Old Nick. Right.
Personally, I'd guess it's a confusion of name. There is a place in Yorkshire known as "Nevison's Leap," because, according to Kellett, p. 124, it "refers to the legendary escape of the Yorkshire highway man John Nevison, who is supposed to have avoided capture by making a horseback leap from the top of Giggleswick Scar." And Nevison's Leap, Kellett says, was also known as Nevison's Nick. From there, it isn't much of a stretch to equate Nevison with Nick(s).
According to Pickering, p. 297, "Turpin never made such a ride," and Pringle, p. 135, says, "It is a good story; but, in the unequivocal words of Encyclopedia Britannica, 'pure fiction.'"
So how did this semi-legendary feat come to be associated with Turpin? As far as popular culture is concerned, there is no question but that the responsibility must be pinned on William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882), who made it a major element of his first major novel, Rookwood (1834). "There was," Pringle admits on p. 136, "no Turpin controversy. No one got up and defended Ainsworth's version."
It was the forerunner of a great deal of highwayman fiction, usually featuring improbably gentlemanly robbers, much of it found in "penny dreadful" format. These created a great body of nonsense and such absurd characters as "May Turpin, the Queen of the Road" (Sharpe, p. 179).
And yet, it was so popular that it reshaped the legend. Westwood/Simpson, p. 2, quote Ainsworth's biographer S. M. Ellis as writing, "All along the Great North Road the legend is truth; every village through which the highwayman galloped (in the imagination of Ainsworth) during that famous ride has its own peculiar tale and relic of Turpin's feat." This was in 1911.
Ainsworth's long account is mostly out of his own head, but it's thought that the seeds of the legend came to him from his family; he said that his father told stories of highwaymen and that, as a boy, he and his friends had acted them out (Sharpe, p. 142). Could they have gotten their ideas from one of the Black Bess songs? Or did these songs get it from Ainsworth? It is unlikely, now, that we will ever be able to answer that question.
There are some hints. Derek Barlow did find an 1808 booklet which apparently transferred Defoe's tale of "Swift Nicks" to Turpin, so seemingly Ainsworth did have a source for that (Sharpe, p. 158). And we find Turpin with a mare named Bess in "Turpin and the Bishop" as published by Horace Smith in 1825 (Sharpe, p. 158; cf. Pringle, p. 143). But Ainsworth seems to have been responsible for turning Bess the black mare into Black Bess (Sharpe, pp, 158-159).
Some of the details of the song may well have originated with Ainsworth and Rookwood -- e.g. Ainsworth claimed that Bess leapt the Hornsley tollgate, perhaps inspiring the line "no toll bars could hold you." He also gave us a Turpin/Bess death scene -- though Turpin in Ainsworth's account merely lingered as the horse died; he didn't shoot her.
Sharpe, p. 160, notes the irony that Rookwood was published just about the time highway robbery became ineffective -- an improved banking system meant that few travellers carried much cash. The book itself seems to have come together in fits and starts; Sharpe, p. 148, observes that, despite its importance to the Turpin legend, Rookwood is not primarily about Turpin. It is a novel with Gothic elements about the Rookwood family, which is gripped by several dark secrets (Sharpe, pp. 149-151, sums it up, but it's really too complicated to repeat).
Turpin is part of a subplot, first appearing as "Jack Palmer," a variation of the name he used at the end of his life. Turpin's Ride is the subject of Book IV of Rookwood, which ends with Black Bess dying in sight of York Minster. Book IV begins with a semi-real incident, Turpin's accidental killing of Tom King (Sharpe, p. 155). This caused Turpin to flee from Kilburn to York.
Ainsworth himself admitted that Bess, not Turpin, was the real heroine of Book IV (Sharpe, p. 156). And the book was popular enough that it could have spawned legends -- five editions were published from 1834 to 1837 (Sharpe, p. 160).
Although Ainsworth had great literary success for a few years after Rookwood, tastes soon changed. He lived for almost another half century, but was almost forgotten by the time he died (Sharpe, pp. 168-170). His revision of the Turpin legend proved far more durable.
The one part of his story that's true is that Turpin, late in his career, transferred from the London area to Yorkshire, though it was not at the very end of his life.
As Brumwell/Speck note on p. 394, "While undoubtedly a prolific and daring highwayman, Turpin was raised above the ranks of his fellows largely because he managed to evade the hangman's noose for longer than most. By the time of his execution in 1739, Dick Turpin was already celebrated in anecdotes and ballads that cast him in a Robin Hood role. He was subsequently credited with other exploits -- notably the famous ride from London to York -- previously linked with other folk heroes. The reality of Turpin's life was less glamorous and more violent."
Based on Sharpe, pp. 197-198, the first Turpin song seems to have been "Dick Turpin and the Lawyer" [Laws L10], published in broadside form around the time of Turpin's death. It is noteworthy that it does not even mention a name for Turpin's horse.
Underwood reports that the hoofbeats of the ghost of Black Bess (presumably with Turpin aboard) have been heard at the "Woodfield" estate at Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire (p. 18 and photo facing p. 225), where Turpin was said to have had a safe house. Alexander, who notes many "Turpin Inns" around England, mentions on p. 299 a spot in Oxfordshire where it is also alleged that Bess's hoofbeats can be heard; it boasts several alleged artifacts. Such a list of traces of the fictional Turpin could easily be extended.
The reign of Queen Anne (1702-1714) was considered the heyday of the English highwayman -- probably because the amount of travel was increasing, so there were more targets, but there was no effective national constabulary. Turpin of course came after that time; he was arguably a victim of the reforms that the previous banditry had inspired. - RBW
Broadside LOCSinging sb30428b: H. De Marsan dating per Studying Nineteenth-Century Popular Song by Paul Charosh in American Music, Winter 1997, Vol 15.4, Table 1, available at FindArticles site. - BS
Last updated in version 4.1
- Alexander: Marc Alexander, A Companion to the Folklore, Myths & Customs of Britain, Sutton Publishing, 2002
- Brandon: David Brandon, Stand and Deliver: A History of Highway Robbery, Sutton, 2001
- Brumwell/Speck: Stephen Brumwell and W. A. Speck, Cassell's Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cassell & Co., 2001
- Kellett: Arnold Kellett, The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition, and Folklore, revised edition, Smith Settle, 2002
- Pickering: David Pickering, The Cassell Dictionary of Folklore, Cassell, 1999
- Pringle: Patrick Pringle, Stand and Deliver: Highwaymen from Robin Hood to Dick Turpin, (no copyright date listed but after 1935; I use the 1991 Dorset edition)
- Sharpe: James Sharpe, Dick Turpin: The Myth of the English Highwayman, Profile Books, 2004 (I use the 2005 paperback edition)
- Underwood; Peter Underwood: Gazetteer of British, Scottish & Irish Ghosts, originally published as two volumes, A gazetteer of British Ghosts (1971?) and A gazeteer of Scottish and Irish Ghosts (1973?); although the two volumes still have separate title pages, the 1985 Bell edition I use has continuous pagination and a single index
- Westwood/Simpson: Jennifer Westwood and Jacqueline Simpson, The Lore of the Land: A Guide to EnglandŐs Legends, from Spring-Heeled Jack to the Witches of Warboys, 2005 (I use the 2006 Penguin paperback edition)
Go to the Ballad Search form
Go to the Ballad Index Song List
Go to the Ballad Index Instructions
Go to the Ballad Index Bibliography or Discography
The Ballad Index Copyright 2018 by Robert B. Waltz and David G. Engle.