£500 on Thunderbolt’s Head

“He had been often advertised; and but a few days before, I had seen an advertisement offering a reward of £500 for his head.”

The Life of Michael Martin, alias Captain Lightfoot

The above quote from Michael Martin’s confessions may be one of the most telling clues in his claims concerning Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. The “advertisement” referred to was a general term, covering both handbills posted in public spaces and similarly-worded public notices published in newspapers. Such handbills were extremely ephemeral, and a handful or less of any kind still survive. On the other hand, complete runs of several Irish newspapers from the first two decades of the 19th century exist, and they contain many examples of rewards offered for the capture and conviction of criminals, in amounts varying from £10 to £500.

As has been mentioned elsewhere on this site, Irish and British newspapers of the period 1810-1820 make no mention of highwaymen “Captain Lightfoot,” “Captain Thunderbolt,” “Michael Martin,” “John Doherty,” or anyone matching their description. It could be supposed that this is because they were at-large, and authorities did not want to give them more notoriety; but that does not explain why rewards were published for other criminals.

What is especially problematic is the amount Martin mentions: £500. Only a few criminals had such a high price put on their capture and conviction, and those few had committed very serious offenses: murder, firebombing residences, violence against officers of the law, and forgery resulting in the loss of thousands of pounds. Though few in number, these high reward offers were precisely the ones most likely to be repeatedly run in newspapers. And yet nothing corroborates Martin’s account, which must be counted as a mark against his credibility.

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