Martin’s Amazing Escape Attempt

One potentially revealing clue about Michael Martin’s background–and the veracity of his stories of Lightfoot and Thunderbolt–is not found in his narrated confession, but in his attempted escape from jail on December 8, 1821. This attempt occurred after he had completed his series of interviews with F. W. Waldo, but Waldo wrote of the attempt in his publication of Martin’s confession:


On the morning of Saturday, the 8th of December, he made a most desperate attempt for his liberty. On Friday, at 2 o’clock, the writer of these pages left him in his dungeon. He was unusually earnest that I should return in the after-noon, but other business prevented. He was confined alone, in a lower room of the stone jail, at Lechmere Point. The dungeon is about eight feet by ten, having no wood work about it; with a thick iron door, fastened by two large bolts, the handles of which, meet in the center of the door, where they are secured to each other by a large padlock, of very peculiar construction. There was no light or air admitted to this cell, but through three apertures in the wall, each about four inches wide, and twenty long. The entrance was just about wide enough for a common sized man to enter, and is within six feet of the massive outer door, which is of iron also. He was confined to a ring bolt in the center of the cell, by a large chain, appended to the left foot — the clasp on the ankle, to which it was attached, being very large and heavy.

This chain was also connected with another, attached to his right hand, the links of both being about half an inch in diameter. The chain was sufficiently long to permit him to move all round the room, excepting to go near the door and windows. He had a small stove, which kept him as comfortable as the dampness of the vault would permit, which, together with a straw bed, were placed within his reach. He was very kindly attended, and his appetite was always gratified through the humanity of the jailer, Mr. Train, and his assistant, Mr. Cooledge. He was forbidden nothing but ardent spirits, but had as much wine as was considered necessary for him.

On Saturday morning, December 8, the turnkey, Mr. Cooledge, came in at the usual hour, to make his fire; he was attended by one or two others. Martin was then covered with a great coat, was sitting in his chair, and apparently vomiting. He complained of having been very unwell during the night, and spoke in a very languid tone. He requested of Mr. C. to bring him some wine. The latter went out, still fastening the door after him, and returned in a few minutes, with the wine, attended as before. In about twenty minutes after this, Cooledge came the third time, with his breakfast. He was then unaccompanied by any other person. Martin was then standing up, with the great coat over his shoulders, trembling very much, and rattling his chains. Cooledge sat down his breakfast on a small table near him, and was about leaving the cell, when Martin slyly pulled down a paper of tobacco, which was on the table, and then said, in a feeble voice, “Mr. Cooledge, will you please to pick up that paper of tobacco, I am so weak that I can’t stoop.” The other very kindly stooped for the purpose, and Martin at the same moment raised the chain by which his hand had been confined, and which he had cut off some days before, and struck Cooledge a most violent blow over the head, which brought him to the ground — He remained insensible for some minutes. Martin then threw off his coat, put on his hat, and pushed out of the jail. He ran with great violence against a gate, which was about ten yards from the outer door of the jail. This gate was made of thick double boards, placed transversely, and strongly nailed. It was fastened on the inside, with a large padlock, attached to a very stout clasp and staple. Martin threw the whole force of his body against it four successive times, without success, running some distance back every time. When he came out of the jail, there was a young man in the jail-yard, who immediately gave an alarm in the house.

After the fourth attack upon the gate, he bethought himself that he had made a great mistake, in not fastening Cooledge in the dungeon, and was returning for that purpose, but he heard the outcry from the women and children in the house — “Martin’s gone! Martin’s gone!” — and he then made his last desperate leap at the gate. It yielded this time, and everything was forced away, locks, hinges and all. At the same moment, Cooledge had recovered himself, and came to the outer door, just in time to see Martin break down the gate. The alarm had become general; and at that hour in the day, rendered his escape difficult; for it happened that a number of workmen were returning from their breakfast, in the neighborhood of the jail. However, he went through a barnyard, in the rear of the jail, over a fence into a cornfield, where he was overpowered by numbers, and taken, after knocking down one or two of his pursuers. The first person who grappled with him, was Cooledge, and he kept firm hold of him until he was supported by the rest. Martin had ran about one hundred yards from the jail-yard. He was securely tied, and brought back to another room, until stronger fetters were forged for him. He was here closely guarded and hand-cuffed; and displayed not the slightest degree of sorrow for attempting to get away: but from that time to the day of his death, always expressed his strong regret that he should have at all injured Cooledge; and said to the last hour of his life, that he had prayed the night before, most earnestly, that he might not kill C, but only disable him, so that he might prevent his pursuing him.

As soon as the narrator heard of the attempted escape, he went over to the jail, and was left alone some time with Martin. He had refused to tell the officers or the sheriff, the manner in which he unshackled himself, or the true means, by which he became possessed of the tools, to effect the purpose. He still insisted, that he should do everything in his power, to escape; and told them they must watch him very sharply, or he should give them the slip again. He explained to me the manner of his escape. That before he was put in irons, a good friend of his, had thrown him a case knife and a file into the window: That the knife was of most excellent temper; and that he had employed his leisure moments in manufacturing it into a saw. This he kept concealed, sometimes about his person, and sometimes in a crevice between the stones of the floor, which he would cover over with a kind of paste, that passed very well for mortar; and evaded all investigation. With this saw, he cut off the second link from his ankle, taking out a piece about an inch long. It was cut on both sides of the link, transversely; and before it was quite sawed off, it was broken, so that it should be a little jagged and hold into the link, when he chose to rattle his chains. He selected the second link, because he supposed that the first one would be examined with more accuracy than the rest. The key which confined the iron upon his wrist, he had filed off in the first instance, and could take it out, and liberate his right hand, at pleasure. It was so nicely done, and he had managed it so well, that the strictest examination could not discover that it had ever been removed.

The chains were examined frequently, sometimes twice or thrice a day, by the sheriff, the keeper, and a smith, and no fracture could be detected. On Wednesday preceding his escape, his chains were cut off, and he was removed for the sake of security, and to cleanse his dungeon, into an upper room. Yet throughout all this close investigation, there was no suspicion that he could possibly break from those irons. The smith pronounced them perfectly safe, and he was recommitted to his cell at evening, with every belief in his security. He told me that his chains were cut at the time they removed him into the upper room, and that the interstices in the link were filled up with a composition, which he had prepared of tallow and coal dust. This was so ingeniously put in, and was so much of the color of iron, that the strictest scrutiny was not able to detect it. He observed that they did not understand their business, or they would have either changed his irons every week, or else have struck each link with a hammer, when they examined them. At this time, he seemed to think that escape was impossible; he knew they would guard him close, but he hoped he should not be treated cruelly in consequence of the attempt. He said that he had made only one mistake, which was, in not fastening the door of the cell upon Cooledge, for he was the first man that came up to him — That it was impossible for him to attempt to escape at night, because there was a guard, with loaded muskets and bayonets, at the door of the prison. The reasons he gave for the failure were, that he had been so long confined that he had not the perfect use of his legs, that the clasp on the ankle, and the link appended to it, impeded his progress, and prevented him from running as fast as he used to do; besides which, he had to carry the chain on his hand, which weighed about 17 pounds. He was induced to take this with him for purposes of defense, he said, although he might have easily disencumbered himself of it.

He was put back at evening, into his old cell, and bound down to the floor, with a much larger and stronger chain, besides being handcuffed.


In Martin’s confession, he details his entire life from young manhood, through to his exploits with Thunderbolt, and his activities in America. Not once does he mention that he had been previously incarcerated. So the question must be asked: Can the planning, skill and daring exhibited in his escape attempt be attributed to a man who had never before been in jail? Recruiting outside help to smuggle tools? The crafting of a metal saw? The tallow-and-coal-dust trick? Selecting the second link? Observing that the jailers should have tested each link, and didn’t know their business? All these indicate a level of cunning only an experienced inmate would have.

The answer inevitably leads to the next question: When and where had Martin been jailed, since his documented timeline in America did not include such an episode?

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