Reid, Thomas Mayne (1818–83), novelist and adventurer, was born 4 April 1818 at Ballyroney, Co. Down, son of the Rev. Thomas Mayne Reid (1787–1868), presbyterian minister and later senior clerk of the Irish general assembly, and his wife, a daughter of the Rev. Samuel Rutherford. Educated at the RBAI, he rebelled against his father's plans for him and decided not to pursue a career in the church. He briefly ran a school at Ballyroney before emigrating to the USA in 1839. Residing at New York, he was a corn factor for six months but left, or so he later claimed, because he refused to whip slaves. Travelling across America, he worked as a teacher, a clerk and an Indian-fighter, and published his first poem, anonymously, in August 1843. Later that year he met Edgar Allan Poe in Philadelphia and the two became close friends. Poe later admitted that Reid was ‘a colossal but most picturesque liar’ (quoted in Cutrer, online), but was impressed by his brilliant story-telling abilities.
With the outbreak of the Mexican war in 1846 Reid enlisted in the 1st New York Volunteer Infantry and was commissioned second lieutenant. Contributing a series of reports from the front, under the pseudonym ‘Ecolier’, he performed with great bravery at the storming of Chapultepac on 13 September 1847. Wounded during the battle, he was promoted to first lieutenant three days later; after his discharge from the army in 1848 he claimed to have reached the rank of captain, but this was another of his inventions. His first play, ‘Love's martyr’, premiered in New York in October 1848, and the following year he published an embellished account of his experiences in Mexico entitled War life; all his works were published under the name ‘Captain Mayne Reid’. In July 1849 he sailed to England with a group of Hungarian radicals, but decided against accompanying them to the Continent. Returning briefly to Ireland, he settled in London in 1850 and wrote a novel, The rifle rangers. It was an immediate success and was followed quickly by The scalp hunters (1851), The desert home (1852), and The boy hunters (1853). While in England in 1851 he met and fell in love with a 13-year old girl, Elizabeth Hyde. When he discovered her age he told her that she was ‘getting old enough to have a lover, and you must have me’ (Reid, 202). Two years later he continued with his suit, and this time was successful; they married in 1853. Reid was immensely proud of his young bride, and later wrote a semi-autobiographical novel The child wife (1868), based on their relationship.
Establishing a reputation as one of the most popular novelists of his generation, Reid did much to enhance the romantic image of the American West. His internationally successful books include The white chief (1855), Bush boys (1856), Oceola (1859), and The headless horseman (1865), and his novel about miscegenation, The quadroon (1856) was later plagiarised by Dion Boucicault (qv) for The octoroon (1859). A champion croquet player, he wrote a treatise on the subject in 1863. Disaster struck in November 1866 when he was declared bankrupt: he had squandered all his money on the construction of ‘The Ranche’, a Mexican-style hacienda in England. To raise money he returned to the USA and embarked on a successful lecturing tour. Settling at Newport, Rhode Island, he wrote another novel, The helpless hand (1868), which was a huge success and alleviated some of his difficulties. His wife hated America, however, and after he was briefly hospitalised in 1870 they decided to return to England.
Ill health, artistic doubts, and financial insecurity plagued his final years. Diagnosed with acute depression, he was unable to recapture his earlier audience and, despite a pension from the US government, he struggled for money. He died at Ross in Herefordshire on 22 October 1883 and was buried at Kensal Green cemetery in London. His epitaph was a quotation from The scalp hunters: ‘This is a “weed prairie”; it is misnamed: it is the garden of God’. Although not regarded as an important novelist, Reid none the less had a significant influence on subsequent writers. The young Vladimir Nabokov was deeply impressed by his adventure stories, and one of his own first works was a poetic recreation of The headless horseman in French alexandrines. Both Robert Louis Stevenson and Arthur Conan Doyle were admirers, and politicians as diverse as Theodore Roosevelt and Leon Trotsky also made reference to his varied output. In total, Reid published over sixty novels, which were printed in ten languages. All told the story of young men becoming heroes despite overwhelming odds, and captured the spirit and adventure of an idealised American West.