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A Brief Biography of Captain Mayne Reid

Captain Mayne Reid

Introduction | Childhood and Youth In Ireland | First American Sojourn
Reid in the Mexican War | American Interlude
Rise and Fall of a Successful Author | Second American Sojourn | Final Years in England

Mayne Reid's English RancheDuring the mid-1860s, if you visited the village of Gerrard's Cross, a small hamlet situated 29 miles northwest of London, and you chanced to walk past the gates of a private estate called "the Ranche," the sight of a Mexican hacienda - a dwelling completely out-of-place in its surroundings - might astonish you. If you stopped to stare you might also spot the owner of this curious residence strolling the grounds around it, wearing a bright red dressing gown and matching smoking cap, with a woman who looked young enough to be his daughter (but was in fact his wife) holding his arm. In town you might encounter the same fellow walking on the village common, dressed in a Norfolk jacket and wearing a black sombrero on his head; or instead, you might spot him galloping past on a jet-black horse outfitted with a military saddle and tiger skin. And if you had the opportunity to ask some passerby to identify this eccentric character, he or she would probably reply, "Why, that's Captain Mayne Reid!"

Thomas Mayne Reid, more popularly known as Captain Mayne Reid, enjoyed a life and career that was truly "transatlantic." At one time, he was one of the most widely read authors of both adult and juvenile adventure novels in Europe and North America, something our imaginary nineteenth century visitor to Gerrard's Cross might have known, even if he or she did not recognize the colorfully attired writer on sight. Today, both Reid and the tales he authored are largely forgotten in the English-speaking world for which he originally wrote, although he still seems to have a following in other nations, principally Russia.

Childhood and Youth in Ireland (1818-1839)
Reid was born on April 4, 1818 at Ballyroney, County Down, Northern Ireland. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister. His family expected him to follow in his father's footsteps but Reid had different ideas.

First American Sojourn (1840-1846)
Reid and AudubonSeeking adventure, Reid left Ireland upon reaching manhood and took passage on a ship to the United States, where he arrived at New Orleans in January 1840.

The adventurous young Irishman spent his first two years in America working for a New Orleans commission house (where he was fired for refusing to whip slaves), clerking in a general store in Natchitoches, and teaching school in Nashville. For several months in 1841-1842 he may have traveled as far as Santa Fe, New Mexico before returning to the United States by way of the Republic of Texas.

In Ohio, Reid had a brief career as a traveling actor before making his way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he began his literary career in 1842 contributing poetry to a newspaper, the Pittsburgh Morning Chronicle. After a few months, he moved to Philadelphia, becoming, along with his newfound friend Edgar Allen Poe, a regular contributor of both poetry and prose to Godey's Lady's Book and Graham's Magazine. Reid also wrote for several other publications.

Reid spent the summer of 1846 in Newport, Rhode Island as correspondent for the New York Herald. In September he went to New York, where he worked for another newspaper, The Spirit of the Times.

Reid in the Mexican War (1846-1848)
Battle of ChapultepecIn November 1846, after the war between the United States and Mexico began, Reid abandoned the literary life to join a regiment of New York volunteers. With the rank of lieutenant, he participated in the siege of Vera Cruz and the battles of Contreras, Churubusco, and Chapultepec, where he was severely wounded. While recovering in Mexico Reid continued to hone his writing skills as a war correspondent for The Spirit of the Times, a New York newspaper.

When the army launched its final assault on Mexico City, Reid reportedly led the charge at Chapultepec, where he was seriously wounded. While recuperating, the young officer met and courted a Mexican woman, the daughter of a high government official. Although a U.S. newspaper spread a rumor that the couple had wed, the account, apparently, was untrue.

American Interlude (1848-1849)
After leaving the army, Reid returned for a brief sojourn in Philadelphia, where his play Love's Martyr enjoyed a brief run at the Walnut Street Theater. Afterward, he spent several months enjoying the hospitality of the family of his friend and fellow journalist Donn Piatt in Ohio. There, at Mac-o-chee, Reid wrote the first of his many books, War Life, or the Adventures of a Light Infantry Officer, a fancifully embellished version of his own experiences in Mexico.

In the spring of 1849 the aspiring novelist traveled to New York City, where he found a publisher for his book, but instead of continuing his literary career, he helped Hecker, the German revolutionary, raise a company of volunteers to aid the uprisings in Bavaria and Hungary. On June 26, 1849, Reid left the United States aboard the steamer Cambria, not to return for nearly two decades.

The Rise and Fall of a Successful Author (1849-1867)
Capt. Mayne ReidWhen Reid and Hecker reached Liverpool in July 1849, they learned that the Bavarian Revolution had been put down. While waiting for the other would-be revolutionaries to cross the Atlantic, Reid went home to visit his family for the first time in ten years. After two weeks he joined Hecker in London, intending to go from there to fight in the Hungarian revolution but it also failed. Instead of returning to the United States, Reid stayed in London, where he rewrote War Life, retitling it The Rifle Rangers, and found a publisher. Afterward, he went home to Northern Ireland, where he spent the winter of 1849-1850 writing his second novel, The Scalphunters, which he claimed was based in part on his own adventures in the Far West. In the spring of 1850 Reid settled in London. Over the next decade and a half, he churned out several novels, many of which had settings in North America. During this period of his life, in which it is generally acknowledged that he produced some of his very best work, he met Elizabeth Hyde, a young Englishwoman more than half his age. The couple, who wed in 1854, remained married until Reid's death. Apparently, they never had any children.

For most of the period from 1856 to 1866, Captain and Mrs. Reid were residents of Gerrard's Cross, a small village in Buckinghamshire, where, as previously noted, the former soldier oftentimes appeared in public outlandishly attired. Although the sale of his books provided him with a handsome income, Reid spent his money as quickly as it came in. By 1866 he was bankrupt.

Second American Sojourn (1867-1870)Onward cover
In an attempt to salvage his fortunes, Reid returned to the United States in 1867. In New York City the eccentric Irishman became a U.S. citizen, launched Onward, an unsuccessful boys' magazine, and upon the advice of friends, applied for a Mexican War invalid's pension (which was granted). He also endured a lengthy period of hospitalization for treatment of his old war wound, during which time he came dangerously close to dying. Seriously ill and in debt, Reid returned to England in 1870 upon the recommendation of his physician. His wife, who had accompanied him to the United States, later wrote that he was delirious during most of the voyage home. Among the insolvent author's American friends was Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., father of the future president, who contributed to the fund that helped pay the Reid's passage to Great Britain.

Final Years in England (1870-1883)Reid's grave
After trying to cure his melancholia at the hydros of Matlock, the Reids returned to London, where they resided for the next several years. In 1876, they went to live in Herefordshire. There, the ailing author, although weakened by his illness, continued to write as prolifically as ever. Yet it was painfully clear to all but his most devoted readers that, with a few notable exceptions, his best work was already behind him. Reid and his wife eventually returned to London, where he died at home on October 22, 1883. He was buried in London's Kensal Green Cemetery, where a unique headstone, decorated with an anchor, a sword, and a verse from one of his books, marks his grave to this day.

References for Biographical Sketch

Reid, Elizabeth. Mayne Reid: A Memoir of His Life (London: Ward & Downey, 1890); revised and re-published as Captain Mayne Reid: His Life and Adventures (London: Greening & Co., Ltd., 1900).

Steele, Joan. Captain Mayne Reid (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978).

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