New Hampshire’s Last Highwaymen

Advertisement by Huse Karr of his
robbery near Boscawen NH in 1821.

New Hampshire doesn’t seem like a hot-spot for highwaymen, and indeed there have not been many. In the early history of the State, travelers either did not have much coin or they didn’t travel with it.

Because the roads were so poor, boats on the Merrimack or the Connecticut Rivers were popular modes of travel, resulting in a near impossible method for a highwayman to ply his trade. But as the roads improved, as toll roads were built, and as more affluent people began to travel, meeting a highwayman was a possibility, though a rarity.

Highwaymen were not the romantic figures of the pulp fiction novels. They were thugs, thieves, and miscreants. They threatened people’s lives and tried to steal their hard-earned money and possessions. In colonial New England getting caught was risky, for the punishment was death.

Color Sketch of highwaymen from The tour
of Doctor Syntax, A  poem by William Combe,
1903 (original 1823)
from the Internet Archive.

As early as September of 1790 a New Hampshire newspaper announced that a highwayman had taken to accosting travelers near what is now Portland, Maine. “Portland, September 6. On Monday evening last, a Mr. Adams belonging to the county of York, was stopped in the woods betwixt this town and Saccarappa [now Westbrook, Maine], his money demanded, and his life threatened. Mr. Adams drew some money from his pocket, and presented it, but the highwayman in attempted to take it, dropt a blanket that was wrapt about him by the fall of which Mr. Adam’s horse was affright, reared, sprang forward, and left both the robber and his blanket behind him–neight of which have since been heard of. We are also informed that another person was assaulted, during the last week in Saco Woods, but the highwayman was obliged to make off. The particulars have not yet come to hand.” [New Hampshire Gazetteer, Exeter NH, 24 September 1790, page 3]

On the 9th of August in 1821 probably one of the most famous highwaymen of the day robbed Mr. Huse Karr of Lyndeborough, New Hampshire who was traveling to visit a brother in Boscawen New Hampshire. What made this particular highwayman, so-called Michael Martin, noteworthy is that he accosted several people in New Hampshire and Massachusetts, then was captured and executed.   The Concord NH newspaper wrote extensively on what occurred to Mr. Karr as follows.  New Hampshire Patriot and State Gazette, Monday, August 20, 1821 Concord NH. “Some further particulars of the Robbery in Boscawen. Sham robberies have been so frequent recently, that a real one, when it happens, can hardly gain credit. A man, who is permitted to escape with this life, suffers no more from the robbery, than he does from an apprehension, that he may be accused of attempting an imposition on the public. TO the loss of property and to the risk of his life, is superadded the jeopardy also of his reputation. The person robbed feels almost as strong motives to conceal the fact of the robbery, as the robber himself. It would be a very just and equitable provision in our  criminal code, that any person who should simulate a robbery, should suffer the same punishment, that the laws inflict on the crime of robbery itself. The offence evinces as great wickedness and depravity, and in every point of view is as mischievous to society. It is indeed an offence that deserves the utmost rigor and severity in punishment.

Print of Highwayman from “Account of the
imprisonment and execution of Poor Dennis, an
Irishman by Joseph Crawhall, before 1896.

The late robbery in Boscawen, is beyond question a genuine and real one. Of this no man can entertain any doubt, who is acquainted with the circumstances. Mr. Karr lives in Lyndeborough in this State, and has a brother living in Boscawen, about a mile below Dr. Woods’. He started from home in the morning and reached his brother’s a little before nine in the evening. His brother, who had been at work for Dr. Wood, had not returned, and he thought he would ride and meet him. He had proceeded about seventy trods, when he saw a man sitting on the bank by the side of the road. He took him to be his brother and spoke to him. He rose and approached him, and Karr still supposing it to be his brother, turned his horse towards him–the robber seized the horse by the bridle, and drawing a pistol from his pocket, cocked it and presented it to Karr, demanded his money; he gave him his pocket-book. He next demanded his watch; he gave him that. He then ordered him off his horse and to a small distance, and speaking as if to some person in the bushes, said, “John! take care of this fellow,” mounted the horse and took the turnpike to Salisbury. Within fifty rods of the robbery he met Karr’s brother returning home. Several persons saw him before he got to Salisbury, were able to describe him and the horse–noticed the coat mailed on behind him, and that he carried two bundles in one hand and managed the horse with the other. At Salisbury he left the turnpike and took the road that leads to Warner.

Mr. Karr, as soon as the robber left him, ran back to his brother’s, and from thence to the next neighbors, almost a mile, in a direction opposite to the course the robber took. Men rallied in pursuit as soon as possible–in a short time it became dark–people were in bed and could give no information, and none of the various parties happened to take the Warner road. That a robbery should be committed near so public a road, in so populous a place, and before nine o’clock in the evening– that the robber with the horse, saddle and bridle should go clear, is a little extraordinary. Several accidents and circumstances favored his escape. Karr, instead of raising the “hue and cry” in the wake of the robber, ran in an opposite direction for help, and it was some time before people could get their horses and be in pursuit. His leaving the main road, and the approach of darkness favored him. Besides, a pursuit of this kind is always liable to many accidents, is retarded by the necessary inquiries, and often takes a wrong direction in consequence of misinformation. Some men, who feel brave, and most men are brave in the absence of all danger, may blame Karr for yielding so readily to the demands of the robber–and I dare say Karr himself, will consent to be hided severely, by the man, who, in a strange place, in the night, and with the muzzle of a loaded pistol at his breast, shall defend successfully his person and property from the attack of a desperate highwayman. It is very natural for persons, in the vicinity at least, to enquire who the person could be, that is guilty of this crime. That the man who committed the robbery absconded with the horse, is as evident as that the robbery itself was committed.

Section of the City of Concord NH map, 1855 by
S.C. Badger. Shows road to
Boscawen, and to Warner,  the route of the highwayman. Map example at Wikipedia.

Upon a very general and strict inquiry, no person in the town, and none in the neighborhood that can be heard off, has been missing, or absconded about that time. It is believed he was the man who came down the 4th Turnpike the day of the robbery. He answered very well the description given by Karr, as to size, age, dress and speech, and carried two bundles in his hand. He rode on Mr. Peck’s wagon eight miles and left him in the lower part of Andover, on pretence of being unwell. He called at two houses on the turnpike in Boscawen, near Rogers’ tavern, late in the afternoon, and was seen lurking in the road near the place of the robbery just at dusk, under such suspicious circumstances, that two gentlemen in the neighborhood, hearing of it, had their horses secured in their barns. Peck and the persons where he called took him to be a foreigner. No account could be obtained of him after the robbery, on the most thorough and diligent enquiry. If he had not disappeared with the horse, some information would have been obtained of him on some of the roads, or at some public or private house. It would seam, that he might have been as well traced after as before the robbery. It is also to be noticed that every person who saw the robber on the way to Salisbury observed that he carried his two bundles in one hand and guided the horse with the other. The style also of the robbery strengthens the probability that the robber was a foreigner. It is altogether European. An American would have taken some horse from a pasture, and procured a saddle from a saddle house. It is matter of consolation to us, that almost every robbery, of a character outrageous and aggravated like this, is committed by foreigners, and we think there is reason to believe that the perpetrator of this deed of villainy is a foreigner also.”

Sketch of highwayman from St. Nicholas
magazine for Young Folks,The Refugee,
Chapter V. 1910; Internet Archive.

Word spread quickly of the deed.  It was only a day after the above newspaper report that the local headline read: ROBBER CAUGHT. [Portsmouth Journal of Literature and Politics, Portsmouth NH, 25 August 1821, page 3]  Boston, August 22.–The highwayman, who committed the daring robbery upon Major Bray, has been taken in Springfield and brought to Cambridge for trial. He was yesterday committed to the jail in Cambridge, to await his trial at the next term of our Supreme Court in Middlesex. He is an Irishman, Michael Martin by name, and is supposed to be the same man who recently robbed Mr. Kerr in Boscawen (N.H.). Maj. Bray, we understand recognized him and is ready to testify to his identity. The circumstance which led to his apprehension is of rather a peculiar character. Having made his escape from the pursuit in the immediate vicinity of the robbery, it appears that he pursued a westerly route, and having travelled till he was tired of walking, in the town of Palmer stole a horse. He was in consequence pursued and overtaken. His clothes being examined, the watch taken from Major Bray was discovered among them, which immediately fastened suspicion upon him as the highwayman. He was accordingly apprehended upon that charge and brought to Cambridge.  Martin came to this country two years since; he arrived in Salem, where he worked about a year; he has since resided in this town several months with a bad reputation, and absconded with a stolen horse and chaise, which it is said he sold in Canada–By a late law the crime with which he stands charged is punishable with death.

From the Concord Observer, Concord NH, 1 September 1821, page 3. “Boston, August 23.  The highwayman mentioned in yesterday’s paper as having been apprehended for robbing Maj. Bray on Monday evening the 13th instant, calls his name Joseph Handley,* appears to be about 27 years of age, and an Irishman or Scotchman by birth. He was taken at Springfield on Saturday last, about 1 o’clock in the morning, by Mr. Sedgwick, of Palmer. It appears that on Wednesday evening last after the robbery, and after he had abandoned the horse on which the robbery was committed, he stole another horse, saddle and bridle, belonging to Mr. Stephen Adams of Holliston, afterwards broken into a shoemaker’s shop in that town, stole a quantity of shoes and proceeded to Palmer. Here he stopped at the house of Mr. Sedgwick, tried to sell some of the shoes, and incautiously exhibited the watch stolen from Maj. B. Soon after, Mr. Sedgwick saw an advertisement offering a reward of $35 for the recovery of Mr. Adam’s horse &c., and conjecturing him to be the person described, pursued him to Springfield, where he arrested him in bed as beforementioned. Mr. S. searched his garments as he gave them to him, but was unable to find any thing of consequence except a knife which he took from him. On Saturday evening at a tavern where he stopped, Mr. Sedgwick saw the advertisement in the Boston paper relative to the robbery of Maj. Bray, and believing his prisoner to be the person, he determined to search for the watch which he was him have when he stopped at his house.–Witnesses being called, at the prisoner’s request, a strict search was made, and the watch found in a handkerchief, tied round his body under his shirt. There was no specified reward offered, but Maj. Bray, on being called on by Mr. Sedgwick on Monday evening, generously gave him his check for forty dollars.  He was examined yesterday forenoon, and fully committed for trial before the S.J. Court, Cambridge, at the next term, commencing Oct. 9. The punishment of the highway robbery by the laws of this Commonwealth, if committed with a deadly weapon, is death, if without, is imprisonment for life. The fellow who robbed Mr. Karr of his horse &c. on the 9th inst. in Boscawen, N.H. is stated to be a foreigner having the accent of a Scotchman–middling size, dark complexion. The horse was of a dark colour, natural trotter, about 12 years old, square deck, and had a great coat matted up behind. We have heard that the horse from which Hadley, alisa Martin, escaped after the robbery of Maj. Bray had a coat behind the saddle as described in the Boscawen robbery. [*At the examination he denied that name, and called himself Nicholas Martin].”

Map showing a view of Boston and Lechmere Point where the prison and cemetery were located in 1821.

We don’t know whether Mr. Karr got his horse back, or in fact any recompense for the robbery.  What we do know is that  colonial justice moved swiftly. It was just 3 months later that the news came that so-called Michael Martin was bound for the gallows.  Hampshire Gazette newspaper, Wednesday, December 5, 1821, Northampton, Massachusetts, page 2: “From the Boston Centinel, Nov 28. The Supreme Executive have ordered the execution of the sentence of death on Michael Martin, convicted of highway robbery, to take place on Thursday, the 20th December, between the hours of 10 and 2. It is probable the execution will take place at Lechmere’s Point. The above order was communicated to Martin on Saturday, by Gen. Austin, Sheriff of Middlesex, accompanied by Bishop Chevreux; and the information was received by M. without emotion.”  The List of Criminals capitally executed under Sentence of the U.S. Circuit Court for Massachusetts District, from the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, in 1789, to Dec 24, 1830 shows:  Michael Martin, convicted of Highway Robbery, executed Dec 20, 1821.

This is not quite the end of Michael Martin’s story, for an F.W. Waldo published a booklet called, “The Life of Michael Martin, who was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821.”  According to this story, the highwayman called Michael Martin, was actually John Martin, son of Joseph & Maria (O’Hanlan) Martin, born 9 April 1795 in Connehy parish near Kilkenny, Ireland. John Martin was executed as stated above, at Lechmere’s Point in Boston, and probably buried next to the prison (see view from that spot today).

Thackerayana, by Joseph Grego, 1875. Internet Archive

Some so-called history authorities list this as the last highwayman in New England, which of course it was notThe history of the Town of Lyndeborough NH writes of Capt. Peter Clark, who “was the hero of an incident that was much talked of at the time: While traveling alone about two miles south of Amherst (NH) village on the afternoon of July 18, 1850, he was attacked by two highwaymen, who sprang from the woods a little in advance of his team. One seized his horse by the bit, while the other presented a pistol at his head and demanded “his money or his life.” But they were mistaken in their man. Capt. Clark had the courage and grit of his Revolutionary ancestors., and did not propose to surrender valuables without a struggle. His only weapon was a heavily loaded whip in the wagon. Seizing this he sprang upon his assailant, dealing him a blow that felled him to the ground. At the same time the other man fired point blank at Mr. Clark’s head, the pistol being held so close that his face was filled with powder; then ensued a hand to hand struggle, the frightened horse meanwhile turning around in the road. His assailants getting the worst of the encounter, jumped into the wagon and drove rapidly away, leaving Mr. Clark master of the situation, but minus the team. He walked to Amherst village, where his burned and blood-stained face created much excitement. His horse was driven to Boston that night. It was subsequently recovered, but that ninety-mile drive practically ruined it. The town of Amherst offered a reward of two hundred dollars for the capture of the footpads, but they were never found.

Sketch of a highwayman from the Oregon Daily
Journal, 8 Jan 1911 page 48

Another example of an attempted robbery in the road occurred in 1858, again near Boscawen New Hampshire, as shown by the following newspaper account.  Manchester Daily newspaper, Manchester NH, Saturday, November 06, 1858, page 2 Foot Pads Abroad–Bold Attempt At Robbery.–Mr. D.S. Burbank, who resides in that part of Boscawen locally known as Bashan, supplies many families in this city with milk, and leaves home at an early morning house, with a brim full wagon of that essential commodity.  On Wednesday morning, as Mr. Burbank was on his way to town, and passing, in the darkness, between 3 and 4 o’clock, on that portion of highway between West Concord and the Mast Yard, known as the Bog Road, he was met by a man, who asked, in a heavy voice, if that was the Boscawen milk wagon. Being told that it was, he said he wanted some money. Mr. Burbank replied he should like to see him get it, when he began to clamber over the wagon wheel. Mr. Burbank struck him with the butt of his whip, and sprung out of the wagon to give battle. Quite a scuffle ensued, the highwayman getting the worst of the conflict, being finally knocked down and left in the road. As Mr. Burbank drove off the robber shouter, “I shall see you again sir.” All right; call anytime, was the reply. Mr. Burbank found that the ruffian had used a knife in the contest; his hat being cut through, and his coat perforated in three places by a large blade, the stroke cutting through a buffalo and under coat, and into a stout bill book, in his breast pocket, while he had escaped without a scratch. The foot-pad doubtless thought Mr. Burbank’s first of the month collections were carried with him. If he fulfills his promise to call again he will meet with a warm reception.” [Were these unnamed robbers the last known highwaymen of New Hampshire?]

There may be other incidents of highwaymen in New Hampshire, but at some point, every good author must end their tale.  For this post I will end with an enigmatic story that was published more recently than the rest, and refers to an event that I cannot verify.  It may have some truth to it, for the Whiting family spoken of in this story date back to the late 1700s in Wilton, New Hampshire.  However, that in itself does not prove a thing.  The Wilton NH Historical Society researchers have no knowledge of the monument, nor the story when queried by email recently.  If I was going to guess what this is, I’d say probably the monument is probably the same as this one to Captain Sam Greele, killed by a falling tree in 1798.

Nashua Telegraph, Thursday, October 24, 1935, page 13
WILTON, Oct 24 — On a hill, surrounded by beautiful towering pine trees, in back of the residence of Harvey A. Whiting, stands a monument. Through the years, for more than a century, this block of stone has weathered the storms. Now green with age it still stands, marking the grave of an eighteenth century bandit and bad man who, fearing tortured death in the hands of his pursuers, took his life near this spot.

The story reads like some fabled yarn of yesteryear, but the monument stands and the story goes on, handed down from one generation to the other, to live, possibly forever, as a last memory of a crime wave about the time of the founding of Wilton and other Souhegan Valley towns, back in the year years of 1700. The monument, which is known to only a few, seems to bear no markings of means of identification, but stands as it has stood for probably 160 years locating the spot where a tired and hard pressed outlaw ended his existence. A prominent Wilton citizen told us this story yesterday as it was told to him many years ago by his father.

European Bandit.
In some parts of Europe, at the time Wilton was only a wilderness, robbery was considered a major crime and punishable by death. This man, who lies beneath that monument on Burns hill, was implicated in several such cases in his home country and realized what might befall him should he come in contact with representatives of the law, fled to America. We judge the man was a first class highwayman of that day and probably found business fairly good and quite safe in this country. He undoubtedly was able to gather up many dollars in the larger cities such as New York and Boston. He profited and decided to take a vacation in the country.

One day he boarded the stage which passed through Wilton. Whether he was being followed by representatives of the law and realized the penalty he must pay if caught or whether he became suddenly tired of his bandit life we do not know. At any rate he left the stage at Wilton and ended his life near where the monument now stands.”

If any of my readers has knowledge of a stone marker on Burns Hill, Wilton, on the former Harvey Whiting property, or have knowledge of other New Hampshire highwaymen, please add your comments here, as I would love to hear from you.

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5 Responses to New Hampshire’s Last Highwaymen

  1. Janet Barter says:

    Great story…loved it. Have you done any tales on trench art?

  2. Amy says:

    All I could think of while reading this was the poem we studied in school, The Highwayman by Alfred Noyes. It has always stuck in my head—the images, the metaphors, the passion—so appropriate for my young adolescent self!

    • Janice Brown says:

      Amy wow what a great rendition of that poem. Unfortunately the actual highwaymen were NOT romantic figures. When I was a kid I remember asking my grandmother who she liked to read about in history. This very saintly woman who went to Catholic church every single day said “Jesse James.” So there has to be something about the “bad boys” that people like to romanticize.

      • Amy says:

        Yes, after reading your post it did make me think differently about the poem. But wow, that poem still has power after so many years.

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