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[p. 81]

The Turnpike highwayman's Fate.

In ‘History of Medford,’ the chapter on Crimes and Punishments deals only with those of Colonial and Provincial days. It has been suggested that there were some happenings in Medford (from murder downward) in later (not to say latest) days, which a faithful chronicler might mention. But is it known to people generally, that a century ago Massachusetts had just enacted a law making highway robbery, when accompanied with threat, violence and exposure of a deadly weapon, a capital offence? Such was the fact, and there are those who, on account of recent increase in crime, and the facilities of escape offered by the automobile, think it would be well if such penalty was restored. The recent hold-up of Boston bank messengers in Chelsea is cited as an example.

One, nearly related to Medford, is mentioned in the Register, Vol. XXIII, p. 9, which must have caused much excitement in our old town just one hundred years ago. The Columbian Centinel of August 15, 1821, thus tells the story:—

Wednesday, August 15, 1821.
Daring Robbery. On Monday evening, before nightfall, as Major John Bray of this town, was returning from Medford in a chaise with his lady, he was stopped on the turnpike near the Ten Hills Farm, by a robber who, after commanding the chaise to stop, presented a pistol to the Major's breast and demanded his money. Major B. saw that the pistol was cocked, and took out his pocket book and gave the robber a sum of money. The latter then demanded the Major's watch, which was also given him and he rode off towards Medford. A gentleman returning from Medford met a person on horseback who answered the description of the robber who was of dark complexion, dressed in dark clothes, mounted on a dark bay horse, with a portmanteau. When first seen by Mr & Mrs Bray the robber was on foot standing by his horse and observed by them very sharply as they passed. He must have immediately mounted followed the chaise and committed the robbery He offered no insult to Mrs. B. and remarked that he robbed none but gentlemen. The pursuit set on foot by Major B. succeeded so far as recovering the horse, which the robber rode, but the highwayman is not yet taken.

[p. 82]

It was said that on that evening ‘Governor Brooks gave an assembly’ at his mansion on High street, which afforded the highwayman the opportunity of waylaying the returning guests, who were of the class most likely to be victims of plunder.

It was told that after the robber's escape from pursuit up High street, he found refuge in a cave in the woods at West Cambridge (now Arlington). From thence he went to Springfield, where, a week later, he was arrested and brought to the jail at East Cambridge.

The Centinel of August 22 said

The highwayman taken. Yesterday Michael Martin was examined at Cambridge on charge of being the person who robbed Major Bray on the Medford Turnpike. He was fully committed to take his trial in October next.1

The Centinel, October 20, said,

The sentence of Michael Martin, convicted of highway robbery has not been passed upon him. His counsel have moved an arrest of judgment for misdirection of court matters of law and the court has assigned a future day for hearing arguments on the motion

It seems that the ‘future day’ was not long deferred, for on October 22—

the Chief-justice after a most dignified and pathetic address to him pronounced the awful sentence of the law.

There must have been much excitement over the case, as this was the first sentence under the law before alluded to. His counsel made every effort in his power, but to no purpose. The Centinel of December 5 said,

No doubt that Martin would be executed.

But with the fatal day drawing near, ‘Mike Martin’ undertook to do something for himself. On the morning of the eighth of December, as the keeper entered his cell bringing his breakfast, Martin gave him a stunning blow, rushed through the doorway and throwing himself against the gate, forced it open and escaped into the open field, [p. 83] where he was soon recaptured. It was found that he had some time before secreted the knife accompanying his food, nicked its back, thus making a crude hack-saw with which he had severed the links of his chain. The cuts thus made were filled with a mixture of grease and dust, making them unnoticeable until broken in his ‘desperate attempt.’ He told the sheriff that ‘he prayed to God twice on his knees, that the blow he was about to inflict on the keeper might not prove fatal.’ Twelve days later (Thursday, December 20) the sentence of death was executed. A vast concourse of people assembled at ‘Lechmere Point’ to witness it. East Cambridge was not then a network of railway tracks and closely built factories, and the scaffold was in plain view of the state prison at Charlestown, and of Boston across the Charles River.

The Centinel of the 22d gave a graphic account of the same, mentioning the appeal of the sheriff to the assembly to maintain respectful silence and order ‘while the last offices of religion were performed to the unhappy man’ by the attending priest, stating

The request was complied with and the regularity and decorum with which [the execution] was conducted must have made a deep impression upon the great body of spectators which witnessed it, and inspired them with a suitable awe for the energy and majesty of the laws.

We of today may wonder a little that this execution took place outside the security of the jail enclosure, and that the sheriff should have had so small a number of guards present. But a century ago executions were public for the purpose of enforcing a respect of law and order. Martin was described as a young man of twenty-seven years, in perfect health, and perhaps the coolest and most collected of the company that stood upon the elevated stage which supported the scaffold. He remarked that it was well that he should thus suffer, for had he succeeded in escaping he would probably have gone back to his former life. [p. 84]

In the foregoing it will be observed that the quotations are from the Centinel, a leading semi-weekly of the time. It was then the custom to print (in pamphlet form) reports of capital and noted trials, sometimes illustrated by wood-cuts of the criminals and their execution. In the archives of the Massachusetts Historical Society is the story (third edition) of this case (70 pages) by F. W. Waldo published by Russell & Gardner, 1822. This contains the story of his life as confided to that writer by Martin, whose real name was not ‘Mike’ but John.

There is also a smaller pamphlet by Mr. Waldo which is a detailed report of the court proceedings as reported by him, and by the same publishers, in 1821.

Still another, probably elicited by the first named, deals with the publicity given to the reputed penitence of criminals, and is a careful exposition and defence of the then existing law.

A later publication of forty-eight pages, in 1845,— ‘Mike Martin, or the last of the highwaymen. A Tale of Reality’—was by F. A. Durivage, the editor of the Olive Branch, and frequent contributor to the columns of the famous Gleason's Pictorial of the '50s. As his work was twenty-four years later, it is evident that whatever reality of the tale there was, he derived from the earlier one of Waldo, With his vivid imagination and ability in embellishment, ‘there was a woman in the case,’ and Durivage's work, like many others, is very readable, but not altogether reliable. His book was illustrated by a wood-cut, showing Martin upon a horse, overtaking his victim in a chaise (its top turned down), lashing the horse, and directly opposite the Ten-hills mansion.2

As the indictment charged the robbery in Medford, this is comparable to the old weapon found in the river at the building of Cradock Bridge and brought to the Historical Society, and said to have ‘been Mike Martin's,’ but which was a revolver. [p. 85]

Another writer, perhaps with some reason, gives the ‘Devil's Den’ in Menotomy Rocks park at Arlington as his hiding place, giving a minute and interesting account of its features. The date of this latter cannot be fixed but, as before stated, perhaps was 1886.

Another haunt of Martin's is said to have been on the slope of Central hill, where was (and still is) the spring, just northward from the railroad station known as Winter hill. But neither Martin nor any one else ever dreamed of a railroad then.

The sheriff doubtless had then and there good reason to ask of the assembly respect of the rites of religion, but it is a sad commentary on some phases of modern civilization that, after the lapse of a century, the chief executive of the commonwealth has found it needful to appeal to our citizenry for respect of law and order, or that younger men than Mike Martin can commit more daring crimes in daylight and succeed in a quick getaway.

1 The file of the Centinel consulted is incomplete, but from another source we learn that he was convicted on October 9.

2 This was in Charlestown, now Somerville, though a part of the estate extended into Medford.

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