The wind was a torrent of darkness among the gusty trees,
The moon was a ghostly galleon tossed upon the cloudy seas,
The road was a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
And the highwayman came riding, riding, riding,
The highwayman came riding, up to the old inn door. . .
So begins Alfred Noyes’s famous 1906 poem, “The Highwayman.” A beautiful, sensuous, moody piece that begins with a lovers’ meeting and ends in tragedy, it has been set to music more than once, by singers as diverse as Loreena McKennitt and the late Phil Ochs, and has served as a theme for a Fleetwood Mac video.
Noyes wrote very much in the tradition of the Victorian writers who preceded him, romanticizing those who made a living by robbing travelers along England’s highways, especially in the years before railroads replaced stagecoaches as the most popular means of travel. The great age of the highwayman lasted from roughly 1650 to 1850, and while a few of the self-styled “gentlemen of the roads” or “Knights of the High Toby” were indeed gentlemen, most were simply thugs. Most of them died either at the point of a pistol or on the end of a rope, and—need I say—many of them left ghosts, of themselves and, occasionally, their victims.
Possibly the most famous of all English highwaymen was Richard (Dick) Turpin, and no one of them was less deservedly so, for Turpin was a sociopath. Born in Hampstead in Essex in 1706, he was originally apprenticed to a butcher, and his earliest criminal activities involved thefts of sheep and cattle. Eventually, he became a member of a gang of Essex delinquents known as “Gregory’s Gang,” because, it appears, nearly half the members came from a family surnamed Gregory. Their depredations so infuriated the country people they were robbing that prices were placed on their heads, and all the members save Turpin were captured and hanged or transported to penal colonies.
Turpin turned to highway robbery. For awhile, he worked with a man named Tom King, who was that rarity—a true gentleman, despite his calling. In 1737, however, Turpin accidentally killed King in a shootout with thief-takers (bounty hunters of a sort) over the theft of a racehorse called White Stockings. King lived just long enough to tell authorities where all Turpin’s hideouts were, and Turpin, deciding to lay low for awhile, changed his name to John Palmer and hid out as a Yorkshire schoolmaster. Probably because that life was too dull for a sociopathic adrenaline junkie, he began stealing sheep, cattle and horses again, got in trouble over killing a game rooster that belonged to his landlord, was revealed to be the infamous Dick Turpin, and was hanged on September 10, 1739, on a charge going back to the theft of the racehorse.
Two stories about the ghost of Turpin will suffice:
While he was a member of the Gregorys Gang, he and some of his associates robbed an elderly woman named Shelley, who allegedly kept a large amount of money hidden in her house. When she did not immediately hand over the loot, the cretins tortured her by holding her bottom over the grate in the kitchen fireplace. Widow Shelley did not long survive her ordeal. After Turpin was hanged, it was said that, three times a year, his ghost was seen riding hell-for-leather down a long hill in front of the widow’s house with the ghost of his screaming victim clinging around his waist from behind.
Turpin has also been seen as a ghost on Hampstead Heath near London, where as recently as the last thirty years or so his horse almost ran down a jogger, just at twilight.
It was the Victorian novelist Harrison Ainsworth who turned Turpin from thug to hero in an 1834 novel called ROOKWOOD. Otherwise, Turpin’s evil exploits are best recounted in that compendium of eighteenth century crime known as the Newgate Calendar.
Another famous highway robber was, somewhat improbably, a woman. Lady Katherine Ferrers (1634-1660) has gone down in history as “The Wicked Lady of Markyate Cell.” Married at the age of fourteen to a man named Fanshawe, she allegedly took to a life of crime because she was bored. Dressed as a man, she worked first with a farmer named Chaplin. After he was captured and hanged, she continued on her own until she was mortally wounded by a would-be victim who fought back. Legend says that she had a secret hiding place in the ruins of a priory called Markyate Cell, in Hertfordshire, and that a servant found her dead body there. The scandal was hushed up, and she is said to be buried in holy ground.
Later historians have wailed that Lady Katherine was not the ruffianly woman of the legend, and that the crimes ascribed to her were actually committed by a woman named Martha Coppin. Nonetheless, Lady Katherine’s life of crime has been the subject of two feature films and inspired the Blackadder the Third episode “Amy and Amiability.” And it’s said that her ghost, dressed in a man’s black suit, can still be spotted in the trees alongside the road near Markyate Cell.
The U. S. had its highwaymen too. One of them, Joseph Thompson Hare, worked on the old Natchez Trace, both alone and occasionally as part of a gang, and while he has not returned in ghostly form, he once saw a ghost on the Trace. One night circa 1812 or 1813, Hare had just robbed a man on the Trace and was making a getaway when he saw the apparition of a white horse that appeared out of nowhere and vanished before Hare’s startled eyes. Hare, badly frightened, stopped overnight at a farmhouse instead of continuing his getaway, and was captured by a posse before morning. Put on trial and sentenced to five years in prison, Hare served his time but returned to his criminal ways and following a robbery on the road near Havre de Grace, Maryland was arrested and at last hanged for his crimes. Until the day he died, however, he talked about the spectral white horse he had seen on the Trace.
Which brings us back to where we started, for Noyes’s highwayman too returns as a ghost:
Still on a winter’s night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon, tossed upon the cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding, riding, riding,
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn door. . .
to be met by his beloved Bess, also in ghostly form.
There are a number of entries online about Dick Turpin and Lady Ferrers. Other information can be found in the following books.
Supernatural England (1977), by Eric Maple
Haunted England (1987), by Terence Whitaker
Thirteen Mississippi Ghosts and Jeffrey (1974), by Kathryn Tucker Windham.