A Desperato Teaches Unruly Boys

The following article appeared in several New England and New York newspapers in 1879. In this legend, Michael Martin appears as a wily professional, willing to use a measure of violence to solve a problem that defied conventional society.


How a Desperado Taught School–Stern Justice Dealt Out to Unruly Boys

From the Troy Times

Something over fifty years ago, on a clear, cold afternoon in January, a man on horseback might have been seen approaching a small village nestling among the then snow-white hills of Vermont.

The man was of nearly middle age in life; a little below the medium size, with a bright eye and prepossessing appearance. At the last tavern, at noon, he had spent his last cent to feed his horse; he himself going without a dinner. All the property he possessed was his faithful horse, bridle, saddle, a large clasped dirk, a pocket-pistol, a change of clothing in his valise and two large pistols in his holsters. Owing to his vocation, he did not feel like parting with any of his property, but he was out of money, and himself and horse must live, though in a strange land and among strangers.

As the traveler was passing the school house, just in the outskirts of the village, he heard an unusual noise within the house, which caused him to rein in his horse. In a few moments there appeared at the door four large boys, each having a leg or arm of the schoolmaster, and in that horizontal and uncomfortable position, they conveyed their victim to a near snow-drift, where they used his head for a battering-ram to level the drift. Quite a number of other scholars were doing good execution in pelting the master with large pieces of frozen snow. After witnessing this performance for some minutes, and seeing that no material bodily harm was intended the schoolmaster, the traveler hastened on to the tavern, left his horse and put up for the night. After the horse was well cared for, the traveler, as he sat warming himself before a blazing fire, related to the landlord the incident he had just witnessed at the school-house. The landlord, in listening to the account, appeared dumbfounded. At last he remarked that he did not know what he should do. He was the committeeman of the district, and this was the third master that the scholars had carried out of the school-house that winter, and the money was not half expended. This last master had come 40 miles to teach this large school of over a hundred scholars, and he well knew what he would have to contend with, but still he was carried out of the house the first day. The landlord said that he thought it would be nearly impossible to find a man who would have the courage to attempt to keep the school, knowing the rough usage the previous masters had received at the hands of the scholars.

The traveler listened to the story of the landlord with deep interest, and finally remarked to the landlord that he thought he (the latter) could get out of his trouble by employing him (the traveler) to keep the school. The traveler said he would not promise to teach the scholars, but he would forfeit his horse if he did not keep good order in the school-room. The landlord was ripe for any proposition that would continue the school and bring these unruly boys under subjection. A bargain was soon made, in which the landlord was to pay the traveler $10 a month and board for himself and horse, and the first $10 in advance, so he could purchase the necessary books. The landlord instructed the new master to keep order at all events,”if it required half the hide on the scholars’ backs to do it.”

At an early hour the next morning the teacher was up, and at 8 o’clock was ready to start for his school. He told the landlord he would take his horse, as he had his pistols in his holsters and might want to use them rather than submit to the treatment he witnessed yesterday. When he arrived at the school-house a few of the small scholars were on the ground. The traveler dismounted and hitched his horse to a staple at the corner of the house, amid the yells and taunts of the youths in anticipation of the fun they expected to witness that day, by seeing another schoolmaster baptized in a snow-drift. Soon it was 9 o’clock, and every scholar in the district was on hand. The traveler announced to his scholars that it was time to commence
his school, and, taking his holsters and rawhide from his horse, he followed the noisy crew into the house. At his request all took their usual seats. He then drew his pistol from his pocket and the two horse pistols from his holsters, and placed them on a cross-legged table standing on the floor; also his large dirk-knife and rawhide. After going through this ceremony, with death-like stillness in the house, he drew his roll from his pocket and requested every scholar to answer when his name was called. After roll-call the new master informed the scholars that he was a witness of their unruly character yesterday, and that he was determined to maintain order at all events and that the laws of Vermont would bear him out in taking every life in the school-room in self defense, and this he should do rather than to submit to the treatment he saw them perpetrate on the teacher yesterday. He then went to the outside door and put a nail over the latch. It was quite cold, and the traveler stirred up the fire in the big fireplace. While doing this one of the large boys on the back seat hoisted a window and fastened it up with a ruler. The master ordered the boy (who was the ringleader) to shut down the window, but he peremptorily refused to obey. Tho master said nothing more, but taking one of the pistols from tho table he cocked it, and without moving from his place, took aim and fired toward the window. The ruler was seen to fly out of the window and the sash came down with a crash, while nearly every cheek in the school room blanched.

After he had re-loaded his pistol and the smoke had cleared up, the traveler ordered the ringleader to walk out on the floor. At first the scholar hesitated to obey, for he was a third larger than the master, In an instant a cocked pistol was leveled at his head, with a voice stating that a messenger would be sent to bring him dead or alive, if he desired one. The boy was not prepared for the emergency, and, deeming
discretion the better part of valor, marched out on the floor. He was then ordered to take off his coat, and hesitating a pistol was pointed at his head, and his coat dropped from his
shoulders like leaves from a tree before a fall wind. He was then ordered to be seated on the “dunce’s block” with his back toward the schoolmaster. The traveler then, with his rawhide in his right hand, and his pistol in his left, walked up to his subdued pupil and gave him such a rawhiding as never fell on the shoulders of a Vermonter before or since. The next boy on the list was called up and obliged to submit to a similar flogging, and so on until twenty or more went back to their seats with smarting and lacerated backs and shoulders.

After finishing this part of the programme, the traveler ordered a small boy to come out on the floor and act as monitor. He then told the scholars to take their books, and attend to their studies, while he went to the hotel and put up his horse; and that on his return, the scholars reported as having looked off their books would receive the same treatment which befell the other boys that morning. He then took all his effects and went out, locking the door after him.

One o’clock arriving, and no schoolmaster making his appearance for dinner, the landlord, together with a few neighbors, concluded to go to the school-house and learn if they could see who had won the victory–the scholars or the new master. On arriving at the school-house all appeared to be still within, the door was locked, with the key left in the padlock. They looked in at the windows, and there saw the terror-stricken scholars with their eyes fastened on to their books like so many statues.

It required but a short time to show that the landlord had been duped by his new master, who had received a night’s lodging and $10 at the landlord’s expense. The scholars were released from their bondage, but many were not relieved from sore backs for several weeks. The young men were raving mad but they had got a merited flogging, and could not help themselves. It had its salutary effect, for the district has never been afflicted with unruly scholars since that date. The landlord lived to a good old age, and frequently said that he never paid out any money which gave him so much satisfaction as that which he paid the traveler to flog those unruly boys.

The hero of this exploit was said to have been Michael Martin, alias “Lightfoot,” the great highway robber and burglar, traveling from Montreal to Boston. He was born in England, and his robberies forced him to leave and take shelter in Ireland, thence he came to America, where he landed either in Boston or Portsmouth about sixty years ago. Over fifty years ago, on a fourth of July, he robbed a gentleman and a lady in a chaise, we think on Warren bridge. For this act he was arrested, tried, convicted and finally hanged.

–A.J.F.

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