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Lightfoot and Thunderbolt – The Last New England Highwaymen

In July of 1816, Michael Martin encountered an odd clergyman at a tavern in his native Ireland who dazzled him with his wealth: fine clothes, rich jewelry and an endless river of liquor.

The clergyman put him through a series of tests to measure his strength and his running speed. Martin impressed the man so well, especially with his foot speed, that he offered him a job, a partnership really. But not as a clergyman, as a highwayman robbing unwary travelers.

lightfoot and thunderbolt

Captain Lightfoot robbing Maj. Bray (Captain Lightfoot, the last of the New England highwaymen)

The clergyman revealed himself as a notorious robber in disguise, Captain Thunderbolt -- so named because he struck fast and without warning – and he was offering 20-year old Martin a place in the fraternity of highwaymen.

Martin hesitated momentarily, he would later say. He had not, to this stage of his young life, committed any serious crimes. But he was about to start.

Thunderbolt dubbed Martin "Captain Lightfoot," for his foot speed, and he schooled his new partner in his own personal highwayman's code:

  • Steal from the wealthy, not the poor.
  • Never kill anyone unless threatened with death.
  • Be courteous, even charming, to those you rob.
  • Never rob a lady, and
  • At all times use minimal violence.

What Thunderbolt stressed was that most people, especially wealthy people, were quick to hand over their money and jewelry if they didn't feel they would be harmed.

Armed with brass pistols, the two men took to the highways, robbing at will and drinking and dining around Scotland, England and Ireland. By 1819, both Doherty and Martin were feeling harassed. Though they were charming rogues, they were still rogues and the law wanted them found.

Though Thunderbolt and Lightfoot’s stock in trade was disguise, posing as Quakers, beggars, physicians and altering their ages and features, the hunt for them was so intense they feared being caught.

So, being separated in Dublin one day, Martin made the jump to go to New York. From that day forward, he said, he never saw his old friend Thunderbolt again. He did receive a letter from him, he said, in which Doherty explained that he had dropped his Captain Thunderbolt identity. Doherty said he was traveling to the West Indies, and he planned to drop his criminal ways and go straight.

Martin, meanwhile, travelled to Boston and from there north to Salem, Massachusetts. He worked for a time for Elias Hasket Derby, Jr., heir to many of Salem’s China Trade millions. But he soon received news from home that his father had died. On the heels of that news came $400 from his brother -- it represented Martin's inheritance.

Now with nearly $500, Martin took a last stab at going straight. He set himself up as a brewer, but the beer making business proved too difficult for him to master and by 1821 he was broke and in debt.

Martin resumed his robbing as Captain Lightfoot travelling up to Montreal and back down through Vermont. He had a close call robbing a large man in Boscawen, N.H.

"He was a stout fellow and if he had shown spirit enough, might have given me a good battle," Martin said. After robbing another man in Portsmouth, he headed south toward Boston.

His plan, he said, was to find some people to rob in Boston or, "...if I did not succeed, I could probably find an opportunity of embarking for the West Indies, to meet my old friend Thunderbolt."

Martin stole a horse in Salisbury, Mass. and rode to Medford. On the road there on an August night, he happened on the coach carrying Major John Bray and his wife.

lightfoot and thunderbolt

Dr. John Wilson of Vermont (a.k.a. Captain Thunderbolt)

He stopped he coach and robbed Major Bray at gunpoint. As Bray's wife clutched at her jewelry, the ever-gallant Martin assured her that he never robbed a lady – not strictly true, but it was that night.

From beginning to end it was a typical Lightfoot-Thunderbolt robbery. Get in, get out, get going. Only this time, the victims weren't on a desolate road with miles to go before they could sound an alarm. Word spread of the robbery instantly and Martin found himself running from a mob of angry townspeople. In a fall from his horse, he dislocated a shoulder.

His fleet feet did not fail him, however, and he outran the pursuers finding a barn in Cambridge where he tied together his cravat and suspenders, attached one end to a post and the other to his wrist and re-located his shoulder -- a painful process, he recounted.

Martin would keep up his flight all the way to Springfield where his pursuers finally captured him.

Martin was convicted, but he would first make one last desperate escape attempt. He was able to obtain a file and cut through his ankle chains. When his jailer entered his cell, Martin clobbered him with the manacles, knocking him senseless and allowing him to nearly escape.

However, his escape was thwarted at the jail yard gate, which would not yield to his repeated charges. Michael Martin (a.k.a. Lightfoot) was hanged dead in Cambridge in December of 1821. He walked to the gallows and with a noose around his neck signaled to the hangman that he was ready by dropping his handkerchief. He was the first man sentenced under the new law that called for the death penalty for highway robbers.

The legends of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot might have ended there were it not for Martin's decision to tell his story to a writer who published it soon after his death.

In it he gave a precise description of Captain Thunderbolt and New Englanders, traumatized by Lightfoot’s raids, kept a wary eye out for the other highwayman.

In Dummerston, Vermont, Dr. John Wilson had established himself as a physician. He was a Scot who had said he spent a short time in the West Indies. A smart dresser and heavy drinker, he was nevertheless a well-regarded country doctor and something of a curiosity with his thick brogue.

Lightfoot had said that Thunderbolt was adept at passing himself off as a physician and there were whispers that Wilson might be the missing Thunderbolt. But the talk never amounted to anything, though Wilson was obsessed with the Lightfoot tale.

Over time, Wilson moved to Newfane and Brattleboro, where he married, and divorced, Selah Chamberlain. He was a tyrant, she said, and what's more she said she knew he had been a robber and she took him for as much money as she could get.

By the 1840s, Dr. Wilson had become something of a recluse. Often drunk and disheveled, he wore an ascot year-round. When he died, he demanded that he be fully covered. The undertaker, preparing Wilson for burial, discovered some unusual things. The cravat was hiding a large scar on his neck. The scar matched one that Thunderbolt had received in jail back in England, according to Lightfoot.

In addition, Dr. Wilson was found to be missing part of his left heel and his left calf had a hole in it and was misshapen -- an exact match for the wounds that Lightfoot described him receiving in a shootout. His whole life, Wilson disguised his leg injury by wrapping his calf with paper so it looked normal and stuffing cork into his shoe to hide the shorter leg. He never even limped.

Upon his burial, the townspeople of Brattleboro concluded that Wilson, whose home belongings included some brass pistols and unexplained jewelry, was in fact Thunderbolt.

His biographer would say: “Sometimes I think he was the Thunderbolt and sometimes I think he was not. But the opinion is gaining very rapidly in this place, that he was the veritable man.”