Black Bess is a heavily fictionalised account of the life and death of the infamous English highway bandit Dick Turpin (1705-1739). Published in 254 short volumes over five years, the entire completed work runs to some 2,228 pages – with the first murder occurring oddly late in the proceedings, on page 1,757. Black Bess was named for Dick Turpin’s horse on which, legend has it, Turpin road the 200 miles between York and London in a single night. (This detail appears to have been invented by the novelist William Harrison Ainsworth in his 1834 novel Rookwood.)
The lurid content of Black Bess and its rapid serial publication have led to it being described as a ‘penny blood’ or ‘penny dreadful’. By the 1830s, advances in printing made it possible to produce short works in large volume for an affordable price; printing onto cheap paper drove costs even lower. As a result, instalments of Black Bess and similar novels could be sold for a penny a time. The first penny dreadfuls tended to be influenced by the popular Gothic fiction of the pre-Victorian era – featuring gypsies, pirates and romantic adventure – but gradually the focus turned to tales of true-life crime, and later true-life detection.
Edward Viles, usually credited with writing Black Bess, appears to have written a number of companion volumes in parallel to his main work, among them The Black Highwayman (1866-1868) and The Ladies’ Highwayman (1864). It evidently didn’t pay to change a winning formula.