Dr. John Wilson’s Chronology: Conflicts with Martin’s Thunderbolt

Everything known about John Doherty, aka Captain Thunderbolt, including his name, age, activities–in fact his very existence–derives [thus far] from the confession interviews of Michael Martin, recorded in late 1821. To date [May 2021] no other documents have surfaced that can confirm that he was a real person.

Much more is known about Dr. John Wilson; various dates in his timeline can be verified with documentation; and more dates were attested to by his friends and relatives. Much of the information below can be found on Vermont historian Thomas St. John’s Brattleboro History website.

  • John Wilson’s birth date was about 1789. His gravestone gave his age as 58 (died in 1847), as does his death record. The 1840 U.S. Census indicates his age as between 40 and 49, which would mean a birth year of between 1791 and 1800. In contrast, when Michael Martin met John Doherty in 1816, he described him as being between 30 and 40 years old, which would mean a birth year of between 1776 and 1786–and likely closer to the first. So Doherty appears to be at least 4 years older than Wilson–perhaps closer to 10. In one of their adventures in 1817-1818, Thunderbolt acted the role of Michael Martin’s father, with Martin himself being 22 or 23 years old at the time.
  • John Wilson was born in Muirkirk, Ayrshire, Scotland. Martin states that Doherty was born near Crawford, South Lanarkshire, Scotland. The two villages are about 25 miles from each other.
  • When Michael Martin met Doherty in 1816, he described him as having been well-known in southern Ireland as a highwayman for several years. Compare that to the testimony of Dr. D. G. Watson, a physician in Philadelphia, whom John Morrison quoted as stating that he and Wilson had been students together at the college in Glasgow between 1812-1815.
  • Starting later in 1815, Wilson switched from the college at Glasgow to the University of Edinburgh, where he completed his medical studies. He wrote letters to his father from Edinburgh that were dated 1815 and later, and these were found among his effects after his death by his lawyer, Larkin J. Mead (along with copious notes from medical lectures).
  • According the the John Morrison letter, Dr. Wilson arrived in Boston in 1818. He was sent by his brother, Robert Wilson, to oversee Robert’s business interest in the quarrying of slate in Dummerston, Vermont. Wilson also taught school in Dummerston for several semesters in 1818-1819. An antiques dealer in Vermont had a book autographed by Dr. Wilson and dated Feb 3, 1819, Boston. But while Dr. Wilson was already in Vermont, Michael Martin’s account says that he was with Doherty in Ireland until March, 1819; and that he received a letter from Doherty (who was in the West Indies) after he arrived in America, which was in June, 1819. In that letter, Doherty stated that he missed Martin’s departure in April, 1919, and sought for him for several weeks.
  • In Michael Martin’s description of his 1818 tour of Scotland with Doherty, when they arrived in Edinburgh, Martin mentioned that Doherty had not visited that city in four years, i.e. since at least 1814. John Wilson, of course, was in Edinburgh studying medicine between 1815 and 1818.

In summary, setting aside other reasons why Dr. John Wilson could not have been the highwayman Thunderbolt, nothing in their respective timelines matches.

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