Martin was born in 1782 near Low Gate, Hexham. He came from a famous family of painters and inventors but he became notorious as the ‘evil incendiary’ of York Minster: he was widely referred to as ‘Mad Martin’. His autobiography reveals the terrible suffering he endured during his life, including the time spent in ‘correctional’ facilities in the North East.
His early years in Northumberland were troubled. Until he was six years old he was ‘tongue-tied’, a condition now known as ankyloglossia, which made talking very difficult. He became a loner and often got up in the middle of the night to walk among the lead-mines of Hexhamshire. His sister was a close companion in childhood but when Martin witnessed her ‘murder’ (she was thrown down a stone stair-case by a neighbour) he entered into a downward spiral.
He became disenchanted with his hometown and the tannery industry to which he was apprenticed. He spent some time as a shepherd on Hadrian’s Wall but went to London in 1804 whereupon he was ‘press-ganged’ into the Navy. He served as a look-out and had numerous accidents and was even lost overboard. On returning to England he adopted an austere Methodism. He saw himself as inherently sinful whilst also believing he was called to punish the sins of others. This manifested in stark, vivid dreams that he often committed to paper. For a time he even dressed in seal-skins and rode on a donkey. Whilst this behaviour was unusual, it was not perceived as dangerous, and in fact it helped Martin to make a living by selling his autobiography.
This changed in 1817 when he was brought before Justices at Stockton for possessing a (broken) gun with intent to kill the Bishop of Oxford, Edward Legge:
“I was asked if I had a pistol to shoot the Bishop with; to which I replied, ‘that I did not mean to injure the man, although I considered they all deserved shooting, being blind leaders of the blind, consequently both must fall into the ditch.’ […] They asked me … would I really have shot the Bishop? I replied ‘it depended upon circumstances, I would ask him some questions out of the Creed and if he did not answer me satisfactorily, as to his conversion, and the evidence of the Spirit, he must be branded as a deceiver of the people’. For this I was sentenced to be confined in a mad-house for life”.
For a time he was well cared for in Norton Asylum. Keepers of asylums were not trained staff – they were considered as ‘menials’ or servants but in reality they had significant authority over and responsibility for their patients. For some this burden was too great. Martin’s keeper was often drunk and erratic and he took to beating Martin with a stick; at other times he chained him to his bed and deprived him of food. Martin received a head-injury which may have compounded his other mental health problems – he possibly received it during his time in Norton. The people of Norton heard of Martin’s terrible treatment and they arranged for him to be moved to Gateshead; again his fortunes were mixed – for a time he was valued and appreciated, but his insistence on prayer and preaching among the patients led to tensions with his keepers. One day he wandered off from the asylum (amazingly he had been given a set of keys) and was ‘recaptured’ and permanently shackled. He escaped again, this time for good, and settled in York.
Throughout his life Martin had vivid dreams. One dream recurred so often that he included it in his autobiography:
He saw black clouds hovering over Britain and an angelic-being firing arrows into the door of York Minster. Taking this dream as a sign from God, Martin stole into the Minster on the 1st of February 1829 and set fire to the carved medieval wooden choir. It was completely destroyed, together with the pulpit and screen; the fire was so fierce that it melted the lead roof. Martin walked (and rode in a coal cart) back to Hexham where he was caught at Codlaw Hill on the 4th of February. He was taken to the House of Correction and secured in a first-floor cell. Although some of the walls and annexe were later bulldozed, much of the structure of the House of Correction survives and is now managed by Museums Northumberland. It is probable that the cell that housed Martin is part of the remaining block.
William Stainthorpe, the sheriff’s officer, and John Leigh, the keeper at Hexham, were integral to Martin’s trial at York. Leigh discovered items that connected Martin to the arson during his discussions with the prisoner and Stainthorpe recorded Martin’s confession.
The people of York were hostile towards the prisoner but the trial itself seems to have been a shining example of British jurisprudence. Two “medical gentlemen” were subpoenaed by the court to give testimony and assess evidence relating to issues of Martin’s insanity. He was described as a monomaniac; the Surgeon of York said “I believe his dreams to have more influence over him, than they would have over a person of sound mind.” Martin was thought to be unable to distinguish between right and wrong upon “subjects which [he] was deluded”, i.e., religion. Today Martin would probably have been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and a range of other issues such as psychosis, which may or may not have been triggered by his head injury. His suffering during his incarceration (exposure to cold, and hunger) were also important factors.
A jury took ten minutes to find him guilty and declared that he was “of insane mind.” He was confined to the Criminal Lunatic Department of Bethlem Hospital London. He died nine years later aged 56.
A portrait painted of Martin in 1829 can viewed here.
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