Emerson Bennett’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” [1866]

This feature article was reprinted in several American newspapers in 1866. This was Bennett’s second story involving Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The subject of the highwaymen must have intrigued Bennett, since he returned to it three times. Bennett was one of the most popular American writers of the 1850s and 1860s, and produced dozens of adventure novels, most set on the frontier of the United States.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.


John Doherty, alias Captain Thunderbolt, was born in Scotland, somewhere about the year 1780. In his youth he was sent to school, and received a very good education. He had a clear, active intellect, was quick to perceive and learn, and, with a proper moral balance and fair opportuni1y, would undoubtedly have made a man of respectable distinction. But he was by nature a rogue–a rascal at heart, if not a villain. He had some redeeming qualities, but not enough to keep him in the path of rectitude. He was worldly, passionate and licentious, and could not see the advantage of being honest for honesty’s sake, if dishonesty would better serve his immediate purpose. He was selfish in his own pleasures, and would stop at nothing to gain his ends and gratify his dominant whim. He was naturally a great leveler, and looked upon the stringent laws of society as made for the benefit of the rich rather than the poor, and thought it the proper course of every man of spirit to set them at defiance. He had his own ideas of honor, was averse to cruelty and bloodshed, and possessed certain chivalric notions of propriety. Through his long career of vice and crime, it was his boast that he had never intentionally robbed a poor man or a female. He was bold and fearless, and would risk every1hing to carry out some romantic idea, or obtain what he was wont to term poetical justice.

A case in point. A certain judge once boasted that he would yet have the pleasure of giving Captain Thunderbolt the death-sentence. A few nights after, a very staid old Quaker called on him, at his private residence, and requested to see him alone a few minutes on some important business. On being ushered into the presence of the judge, in his library, the stranger very coolly repeated the words his lordship had used; and then, drawing a pistol, declared that he himself was the veritable Thunderbolt, and that he had come to lay bis lordship under contribution for making so foolish a boast. In short, he demanded his lordship’s watch, purse and jewelry; and having obtained treasure to the value of nearly a thousand pounds, he quietly departed, with the threat that, if followed, he would blow his lordship’s brains out the next time they should meet. He was not followed, for the chagrined judge, not caring to be laughed at by his friends, kept the matter a secret for years, and then only revealed it to a confidential few.

Thunderbolt was benevolent in his way–that is he would give a poor man a portion of what he had taken from his rich neighbor; and whenever he chanced, in any of his wild pranks or exploits, to injure one of the inferior class, he would never rest easy till he had made what he considered a suitable recompense to him or his family.

At what precise age John Doherty took to the road as a profession, and assumed the name of Thunderbolt, which subsequently became such a word of terror throughout the United Kingdoms of England, Scotland aod Ireland, does not appear-though it is certain he commenced his wild career quite young, and was soon discarded by his family and young friends. His wonderful exploits, his almost incredible boldness and daring, and his thousand hair-breadth escapes, favored more of the romance of past ages than of the realities of the present century; and no modern writer of fiction would venture to place an imaginary hero in so many situations of peril, and expect to extricate him by what would seem so many invented, unnatural chances. He had a wonderful faculty for disguising himself, and could so change his appearance in a few minutes, that his most intimate acquaintance might pass him without recognition. Now as a priest, zealously expounding the doctrines of the church–anon as a beggar, beseeching charity; now as a Quaker, proclaiming his non-resistant notions of peace–anon as a soldier, fighting over the battles of his country; now as a peddler, trying to dispose of his petty wares–anon as a huntsman, deeply interested in the subjects of game and poachers; now as a gentleman, traveling to kill ennui–anon as a doctor, prepared to effect wonderful cures; he was continually roving over the United Kingdoms, robbing men on the highway, stealing horses, and changing localities with a rapidity that defied all attempts at detection and arrest. He made his assumed name of Thunderbolt a word of terror throughout Great Britain, and though small bills and posters were out in every quarter, describing his person and offering large rewards for his apprehension, yet, by reason of his rapid change of places and complete disguises, he was often enabled to lodge safely at an inn where the principal topic of public discussion was his own wonderful exploits and hair-breadth escapes. in which deeply interesting conversation to him, he sometimes joined, in a very learned and edifying manner. He had a fearful reputation for years before he became connected with his subsequent partner in crime, Captain Lightfoot–so much so, even, that when he confidentially announced his name to the latter, who had himself been a thieving villain all his life, the fellow actually turned pale and trembled, and would have fled had he not been completely in the power of his strange companion.

John Martin, alias Michael Martin, alias John Hendley, alias Captain Lightfoot, was born near the city of Kilkenny, Ireland, in 1795. Of his early life it is only necessary to say he was a good-for-nothing, thieving rascal, and finally had to leave home on account of his vicious habits and propensities–his own family and all his relations, who seem to have been quite respectable people, being glad to get rid of so worthless a fellow. When about twenty years of age, and while roaming about the country a regular vagabond, he stopped at an inn, where he first fell in with John Doherty, alias Captain Thunderbolt, who, it appears, not only knew him by sight, but all about his character. The wily highwayman, who wanted a companion in crime, at once settled in his own mind that the strong, robust, unprincipled Martin was the man for his purpose. The redoubtable robber was at this time passing himself off as a Protestant clergyman; and his elegant attire, his tall, commanding person, his strongly-marked, expressive features, and his peculiar style of conversation, were sufficient to impose this deception upon all the inmates of the inn, including Martin himself. To the latter Thunderbolt did not reveal himself at once, but gradually wormed himself into his confidence; plied him with liquor, and then mystified him by talking religion and robberies alternately. At last, when he had thus insidiously drawn all of Martin’s secrets from him, and felt that he had him completely in his power, he made himself known, to the utter astonishment and alarm of the man of lesser crimes. But Martin, in such congenial company, soon recovered himself; and, lending a willing ear, it did not take long for the highwayman to persuade him to join his future with his. As soon as he had gained his consent to the compact, he dashed a glass of brandy in his face and named him Captain Lightfoot.

On the second night of their companionship a tumult was heard in the yard of the inn, and Thunderbolt, ever on the alert for danger, said it was probably soldiers in pursuit of himself. Then telling Lightfoot where to meet him, he opened the window, leaped out, and made his escape.

The first road exploit of Lightfoot was to rob, in broad daylight, a party of gentlemen on their way to join a hunt. This he did under the direction of his superior, who remained in the background–ready, however, to come to his assistance, if needed. He commanded the four men to dismount and submit to a search, which they did. He took what money and articles of value he found on their persons, compelled one of them to change his coat and hat with him, and then, selecting the best horse for his own use, rode quietly away–a piece of impudent daring that scarcely has a parallel.

This was the beginning of a series of exploits together, in which they seemed to strive to make each succeeding one more audacious than the rest. They dashed about the country in every direction, boldly entered different cities, and carried everything with a high hand. A high price was set upon their heads, and they were constantly followed by the emissaries of justice. On several occasions they were pursued by squads of cavalry and shot at, but they seemed possessed of charmed lives. They boldly entered the city of Cork, put up at an inn, and actually spent three days there in drinking and carousing on the money they had stolen on their way thither. Discovering at last that they were suspected, they left suddenly and on foot. At Doneraile they found an advertisement in the house where they took their lodgings, giving an exact description of their appearance. The next morning, Lightfoot saw several persons, among them soldiers, approaching the inn; and waking Thunderbolt, who was sleeping with his clothes on, they rushed down stairs, the latter knocking down the landlord who attempted to stop them. They started across the fields, and the soldiers pursued and fired at them. One ball struck Thunderbolt in the calf of the leg, and so impeded his running, that it was only with the greatest difficulty he succeeded in making his escape. They finally concealed themselves in a wood, and Lightfoot cut the ball out of Thunderbolt’s leg, and both remained here several days, till the latter was able to travel again.

After this they had the audacity to enter Clonmel and attend the Criminal Court, where some United Irishmen were being tried, whom they even talked of liberating. They next push on to Dublin, stealing horses and robbing travelers every few miles of their journey. At Dublin they robbed four priests, and were pursued by a party of soldiers. Lightfoot outran them, and Thunderbolt plunged into the river and escaped by swimming.

After numerous adventures of a like nature, both in Ireland and Scotland, Lightfoot, against the advice of his partner, set off alone to rob a stage-coach full of passengers, in broad daylight. He succeeded in cutting off several trunks, but got nothing of value. On returning to Dublin, in search of his companion, he heard he had sailed for the West Indies; and finding the country getting rather too warm for himself, he embarked for America, and landed at Salem, Massachusetts.

He now made an effort to reform his vicious habits, hired himself out as a laborer, and worked steadily for more than a year; but at length fell to drinking and quarreling, and got his discharge. About this time he heard of the death of his father, and received from his brother a few hundred dollars as his share of his father’s estate. With this money he went to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and purchased a small brewery. He here failed in business, and was sold out by the sheriff. Becoming disgusted, discouraged and reckless, he returned to the road, and perpetrated a series of robberies in this country, which, for romantic daring, rivaled those in his native land.

Being at length in Boston, on the day of a military parade, and hearing that the Governor of Massachusetts was to give a dinner party at Medford, he had the audacity to go thither, watch the house for the leaving of the guests, and actually succeeded in robbing a Major Bray on his way home from the festival. He followed up this robbery with one or two others, and was at last apprehended in Springfield. He was subsequently taken to Cambridge, tried, convicted, and condemned to be hung.

After his sentence, he was put in irons and confined in a dungeon. He managed to cut his irons, knock down the turnkey and get out of prison–but was again arrested before he could make his escape. The extreme penalty of the law was finally carried into effect, on the twenty-second of December, 1822. Thus ignominiously perished this bold, bad man, in the very prime of early manhood, being only six-and-twenty years of age.

Of the fate of Thunderbolt nothing is positively known; but about the period he was supposed to leave Ireland, a Scotchman, answering his description, arrived at a small town in Vermont, by the Boston stage. This man, who gave his name as John Wilson, remained in the place for three or four years, teaching school in the winter season and gradually getting into the practice of medicine. He was always a mysterious kind of a man, would never give any account of his early life, and invariably left the room whenever a stranger was about to be ushered in. He next settled in the town of Newfane, Windham county, and set up as a physician and surgeon; but finally removed to Brattleboro, where he subsequently married, separated from his wife, and at last died, leaving one child, a son.

During his last illness he would not suffer his clothes to be removed–not even his neckerchief. After his death, it was discovered that the calf of his leg was withered by reason of an old wound, that his neck was much scarified, and that he had a cork heel.

Among his effects were two double-barreled guns, four horse-pistols, six dueling pistols, a number of swords, a dozen walking canes, and a great variety of powder-horns, shot-bags, bullet-pouches, and so forth.

Doctor John Wilson may have been devoid of any crime, but busy suspicion pointed to his dead body as the mortal remains of the lost John Doherty, the terrible Captain Thunderbolt of other days!

What a moral may be drawn from the end of such a man! who, in the path of rectitude, might have been a brilliant ornament to society, and gone down to an honored grave!

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