Martini, with Harmston’s, turned up in Singleton NSW as Harmston’s Circus and Wild West Show on Friday 23 January 1891. The show contained a trio of Japanese balancers, a Madame Minette, who possesses a jaw of iron, Madame Le Blonde performed as a rider and Martini and Barotta showed their skills on the bars with exceptionally clever feats. The local newspaper said that the streets of Singleton were almost deserted on the night of the performance and that there were fully 1500 who patronised the show. The attachment of the Wild West Show phrase to the circus’ name indicates a shift in such travelling shows and awakened possibilities in Martini’s mind. The inclusion of these Americans displaying wild west activities such as rough-riding, lassoing and revolver shooting no doubt explained the unusual high attendance for the evening.
Amongst the American contingent was a colourful character who went by the name of Texas Jack and possessed a fascinating background. He was named after the man who found him when droving cattle through Kansas where he found two small girls and a five-year old boy whose family had been killed by Native Americans. This boy took the name of Texas Jack Jr after his saviour Texas Jack. The latter received the nickname while droving cattle across the famed Chisholm Trail.
The older Texas Jack’s formal name was John Baker Omohundro. He was born in 1846 and developed into a larger than life character. During his relatively short life – dying in 1880 just before the age of 34 – he had been a frontier scout, served in the Confederacy during the American Civil War and became a legendary figure of the American Wild West. He also acted in numerous theatre productions. He was associated with well-know names like Ned Buntline, Wild Bill Hickok, President Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth and the ill-fated General George Custer.
When Texas Jack died in June 1880, Texas Jack Jr dropped the qualifying junior from his name. The young Texas Jack had understandably become familiar with the interests and lifestyle of his foster father and became a sharpshooter and stunt rider.
The Australian bard, Henry Lawson, wrote the poem A Word to Texas Jack as he was fed up with Americans visiting Australia and returning to America because:
They’ve left behind no larnin’ but they’ve carried off our tin.
A survivor of his family’s massacre by native Americans as a child, he emulated his saviour and mentor, the original Texas Jack, becoming a roughrider, sharpshooter, and theatrical showman. One of his productions was based on the Australian bushranger Ned Kelly.
Other than his birth at Araluen, where his father was gold mining, little is known of young Martin’s earlier life. His father, William, had arrived in Sydney at the age of 20 years aboard the bounty ship Columbia in September 20, 1854. William had brothers, Patrick and Michael, already living in the colony. The brothers had arrived in Sydney on the Sir George Seymour in 1852, Patrick then 17 and Michael 33 years. William’s parents were listed as Patrick (deceased) and Brigit (nee Mulvihill). The family’s Native Place & County was given as Ballinakill [also Ballynakill], Co Galway, Ireland. The three brothers had all given their occupation as Farm Labourer.
Martin’s mother was Julia Feehan, who had arrived at Port Phillip from Co Kilkenny, Ireland, on the Ocean Monarch in June 1856. William (most likely called Liam) left the colony of New South Wales for the goldfields of Victoria where he met and married Julia two days after Christmas Day in 1860 at a Mrs Daniels’ of Deep Creek, Keilor Plains, just out from Melbourne. His occupation was given as a miner, and his wife was described as a servant. Julia’s age was recorded as 23 and William’s as 27.
Two years later their first child, Patrick, was born at ‘Frye’ – probably Fryers Creek, (later to be called Fryerstown), near Castlemaine and nearby Irishtown – and another son, William, was born in 1865 at Wanalta, about 100 km north-east from Castlemaine. Nurse Mrs O’Malley delivered Martin, on April 28, 1868 at Redbank, in the middle of the picturesque Araluen Valley in south-eastern New South Wales, where gold had been discovered in August 1851. Obviously William snr was still mining. Two daughters were born in the same district: Johanna in 1870 and Mary in 1873. Another daughter’s birth was registered in 1877 at Broulee, near today’s Bateman’s Bay. This, their last child, was given the mother’s name of Julia.
Records shows various spellings of the family’s surname. Breheney, Breheny and Breheney are, understandably, common interpretations of this Irish name. However, when Martin’s birth was registered at nearby Braidwood it was recorded as Berkerry and Julia’s was given as Brekewy. Remembering that William’s first language was most likely Irish, these spellings perhaps indicate both a certain pronunciation and interpretation. Interestingly, Julia’s death certificate gives the spelling of her father’s surname as Feehon.
Almost nothing is known of Martin Breheney’s younger life following his birth at Araluen. Most of what we know came from an interview in the Bulletin – the Bushman’s Bible, as it was known – in January 1906, the year before his untimely death:
My name is Martin Breheny [sic]. I was born at Araluen, N.S.W. in 1868. Had a bit of gymnastic practice as a nipper in Sydney; then picked up with Harmston’s Circus and Wild West Show; and was with them for years as an all-round athlete. I struck Melbourne with Harmston’s in Martini-Henry’s year, and the boys thought I was so smart on the bars (my speciality is bar-work) that they said, “Why, he’s a regular Martini!” And the name has stuck to me ever since.’
As Breheney states, his stage name, Martini, came from the racehorse that won the 1883 Melbourne Cup, which in turn comes from a well-known rifle of the time. The Martini-Henry rifle was abbreviated to just Martini, as the Melbourne Cup winner’s name probably was at the time. Martini is, of course, not far from his first name, which was Martin, so the Martini was only an extension created by the Melbourne Cup winner. While he was always called Mart by those who new him, his full stage name became James Martini, mostly abbreviated to J Martini.
Breheney is reported as saying to the Bulletin reporter that he had been performing as a child, as was common in those days, and added that, he had a bit of gymnastic practice as a nipper in Sydney, before he was with Harmston’s in Melbourne in 1883 at 15 years of age. To be with Harmston’s in 1883 seems unlikely as there is no mention of that circus in Australia until late 1889. As we will see, Martini is also associated with other circuses. Whoever he was touring with in those earlier days, he obviously had considerable talent with his performances on the parallel bars and gymnastics generally.
Unfortunately for today’s readers, advertising and reporting on these circuses and other travelling shows, had not developed in the early 1880s, but improved as the decade progressed.
South Australia – Broken Hill
Martini’s name began to appear in newspapers and the Adelaide Advertiser on Saturday 24 May 1890 stated Harmston’s was to appear in Wakefield Street on the evening of the Friday 30th May. The reporter observed:
An unusually good exhibition on the triple horizontal bar was given by Martini and Gilbarto, the former especially distinguishing himself, and Barotta supplied the comic element.
For a period, Martini was commonly associated with these two other performers.
Broken Hill was visited by Harmston’s Circus in July. The circus performances included a Saturday afternoon party for all children under the age of 14. The invitation was issued by Mayor Thomas Coombe.
Bendigo – Melbourne
In August the steamer Buninyong sailed from Adelaide with the Harmston family aboard, also circus proprietors Mr and Mrs St Leon, Martini and many others. In September Martini, Gilberto and Barotta were mentioned in the Melbourne Age as Harmston’s performers in both Bendigo and Melbourne.
Sydney’s Waverley Cemetery is a beautifully situated, amphitheatre-like piece of land that slopes down towards the Tasman Sea. I have visited this heritage-listed place since the early 1950s and am reasonably familiar with its permanent inhabitants, particularly the poets Kendall, Deniehy, Lawson, McKellar and Rod Quinn. Both my parents are also interred in this striking place
In this cemetery in early 2004 I came across a broken column arising from an impressive grave. Knowing that such a column indicated a break between life and death, symbolising a shortened life or accidental death, I made my way over to the inscription. Having a long-time passion for the history of the Araluen Valley I was amazed to find the dedication to read:
LOVING MEMORY of
“J. MARTINI, SHOWMAN.”
BORN AT ARALUEN 28TH APRIL 1868.
DIED THOUGH INJURIES
ACCIDENTALLY RECEIVED AT ARMIDALE
2ND JULY 1907.
Other inscriptions on the striking monument stated that his parents’ remains were also interred there, his father’s within two years of Martin’s death. I was immediately excited at this discovery. The words ‘J. Martini, Showman’ indicated that the interred man had been a person of some distinction during his life, but whose fame had obviously faded with the passing of time. I had never heard of him, nor had others whom I questioned and who had considerable knowledge of Australian history. (As it turned out I had actually read his name several times, but did not know of him.
Months later I came across ‘Martini’s’ photo in a book titled, The Lady Bushranger – The Life of Elizabeth Jessie Hickman, written by Pat Studdy-Clift. The photo shown was of a handsome, short-bearded man dressed in what I supposed was a gymnastic outfit. The caption read: J. Martini, Showman (Martin Brehemey [sic]).
Thus began many years of research, which I continued until I could find no more information on this interesting man who was born in Araluen the year after Henry Lawson’s birth.
Photo shows the names of Martini’s parents William and Julia (nee Feehan) Breheney who shared their son’s burial site.