In the summer of 1821, near Medford, Massachusetts, a highwayman held up and robbed a traveler. He was subsequently captured, tried, and convicted. Massachusetts state law had recently reinstated the death penalty for highway robbery. While awaiting execution, the prisoner–an Irish immigrant who gave his name as Michael Martin–offered a confession dictated to a Boston newspaperman/lawyer named Francis W. Waldo. In that confession, Martin claimed that he was “Captain Lightfoot,” the partner of John Doherty, aka “Captain Thunderbolt,” and that they had been infamous highwaymen in Ireland and (briefly) in Scotland from 1816-1819.
Waldo published the confession in a pamphlet weeks after Martin’s execution in December 1821. The publication was widely circulated and immensely popular. Speculation arose among readers that Martin’s mentor, “Captain Thunderbolt,” still lived and was residing in New England–though Martin’s confession stated that he had last heard of Thunderbolt through a letter sent by him from the West Indies.
In 1823, a Portland, Maine barber named Richard Relhan went on spree under the alias “John Johnson” and created a flurry of excitement that he was “Captain Thunderbolt.”
Many years later, in 1847, when long-time local physician Dr. John Wilson died in Brattleboro, Vermont, a publisher there put out a pamphlet claiming that Wilson was Thunderbolt. The claim was based on physical similarities to Martin’s description; and on Wilson’s allegedly suspicious behavior; and other circumstantial observations.
The legend of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot took on a life of its own in popular culture through embellished, romanticized fictions by such writers as Emerson Bennett and W. R. Burnett; Burnett’s novel Captain Lightfoot presented the pair as heroic Irish rebel outlaws, and was made into a 1955 movie of the same name directed by Douglas Sirk and starring Rock Hudson and Barbara Rush. In turn, this inspired a 1974 movie Thunderbolt and Lightfoot that re-imagined a tale of a veteran criminal abetted by a young partner set in contemporary America, starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges.
This site explores the veracity of Martin’s confession; the identifications of “Captain Thunderbolt”; the works in popular culture inspired by the legend; and the tradition of Irish outlaws as folk heroes. Select these themes from the menu at the top of this page to open articles and documents.
The central question to be examined is: did Captain Thunderbolt and Captain Lightfoot really exist, and were they infamous highwaymen in Ireland and Scotland?