A Stage Spectacular: “Mike Martin, The Highwayman”

Michael Martin was executed in December 1821 and the pamphlet of his confessions was published in January 1822. A year later in Maine, Portland barber Richard Relhan was accused of being Captain Thunderbolt. However, from 1823 on, no mentions appeared in any publications concerning Martin, Captain Lightfoot, or Captain Thunderbolt until 1842, when a trove of buried coins was uncovered near Cambridge, Massachusetts. This news item might have revived the interest of a local writer, Francis A. Durivage, who reworked Martin’s confessions into a novel, Mike Martin: Or, The Last of the Highwaymen. A Romance of Reality, which was published in 1845. Two years later, Dr. John Wilson died in Vermont, and the pamphlet accusing him of being Captain Thunderbolt came out shortly afterwards. The revival of interest in Michael Martin by this next generation of New Englanders was capped by the Boston debut in April, 1849 of a new drama based on his exploits, Mike Martin, The Highwayman.

Mike Martin, The Highwayman was conceived as an equestrian drama, or hippodrama: a theatrical production featuring trained horses. Hippodramas had been popular in America since the early 19th century, and previous productions had featured English and French highwaymen. Michael Martin, as the most notable American highway robber, seemed a fitting subject. The author, playwright William B. English, removed the setting of Martin’s Irish and Scottish exploits entirely, making both Martin and John Doherty (as Lightfoot and Thunderbolt) wholly American highwaymen. The horses of the two stars were given equal billing, as was their trainer, William R. Derr. When the production moved from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, Derr himself sometimes played the role of Martin; but in the original Boston production, Martin was played by Junius B. Booth, the famous father of the infamous John Wilkes Booth.

The play was a hit. Although the script does not appear to have survived, the Boston Herald offered an act-by-act description of the action:

The production was reviewed by none other than Francis Durivage himself:

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