A Summary and a Theory

From other articles posted on this site, it should be clear that the central puzzle of “Captain Lightfoot” and “Captain Thunderbolt” is not whether any New England resident might have been Thunderbolt–but instead it is whether Lightfoot and Thunderbolt ever existed; and if they experienced the exploits claimed by Michael Martin in his confession.

  • Martin’s narration of his movements and actions after arriving in America are all documented, including his eighteen months in Salem, four months in Portsmouth, and the crimes he committed starting in April 1821. He recounted his robberies without remorse, and the accounts by his victims indicate he was a practiced criminal. He was, undeniably, a New England highwayman.
  • His account of the near-mutiny aboard the brig Maria is credible. The ship left Waterford and intended to sail to New York City. Bad weather severely delayed it. Martin says that the captain then declared he wanted to re-supply at St. John NB or Halifax NS; at which point Martin and others threatened him unless he made for the nearest American port: Salem. While there are no other accounts of the voyage, the Maria did arrive at Salem on the exact date that Martin indicated; and it did then depart for St. John NB. Martin’s determination to get to an American port aligns with the idea that he was eluding British authorities.
  • Martin’s elaborate and cunning escape attempt while in jail at Cambridge has all the hallmarks of being the work of a veteran inmate; yet Martin makes no mention of ever having been imprisoned in Ireland or Great Britain. So while this supports the idea that he had been a known criminal before coming to the United States, it does bring into question his timeline of the movements of Thunderbolt and Lightfoot.
  • Martin had unnamed accomplices in several of his exploits, including the person(s) who supplied him with the tools for his escape attempt. In Ireland, Martin always seemed to have a relative handy to give him a job, let him into estates, provide him a hideout, etc. He was careful never to implicate anyone else by name–except for John Doherty, Captain Thunderbolt. Martin admits his several aliases, and that his given name was John–but never suggests that “John Doherty” was an alias.
  • Martin portrays John Doherty as a remarkable figure: tall and muscular; a master of disguise; able to romance any woman (and married 5 times under different names); a career thief who had never been captured; and well-versed in many disciplines, including medicine. Yet no other publications or commentators describe anyone matching Martin’s description of Doherty.
  • Martin was undoubtedly familiar with the stories of earlier Irish outlaws, including James Freney’s autobiography and John Cosgrove’s history of Irish highwaymen, both of which were popular reading material in the late 18th century and early 19th century.
  • Martin’s assertion that there was a reward of £500 on Doherty’s head in 1816 is a sticking point. Only a few criminals accused of murder–or attacking uniformed officers, or arson, or heavy forgeries–had such a price put on their capture, and they were well-advertised. No reward offers printed in newspapers of the time match Doherty.
  • Several of the names that Martin drops can not be verified: The Martin’s landlord, Sir William Morris; the widow MacBriar; Colonel Brierton; the Wilbrook estate and three sisters; and all of Martin’s relatives. While is understandable for Martin to have adopted an alias surname, it is less obvious why he would want to hide the identity of his robbery victims–unless they were fictions.

From the above, the most likely explanation of Martin’s history is that he had been a highwayman and thief in Ireland, and had once been imprisoned. John Doherty, aka Captain Thunderbolt, may have been an amalgam of other outlaws that Martin had worked with–but was not one person. Several of the exploits strain credulity: locking up all the Wilbrook estate servants; Martin attending a wedding in drag; robbing the Lord Lieutenant in his garden; Martin wooing the widow MacBriar as a rich member of the gentry; impersonating a physician for weeks, etc. While individually these incidents might have had some slight plausibility, taken together they are too fantastic. Therefore while some of their adventures might have been based on Martin’s real experiences, others must be fabrications.

The legacy of Lightfoot and Thunderbolt should not be seen as the story of any alleged identifications of John Doherty, aka Captain Thunderbolt. Nor should it be the adventures of two rascally highwaymen preying upon the wealthy oppressors of Ireland. The real story–more amazing than any of the above–is what Michael Martin did in prison in October and November of 1821, after he had been sentenced to be executed. Instead of wallowing in remorse, Martin devised two projects: one being a highly technical escape attempt, requiring filing through and disguising gaps in his leg and wrist irons; and the second being the dictation to Francis Waldo of a classic Irish outlaw saga on par with those of John Freney and Cosgrove in which he, Michael Martin, cast himself as the daring Captain Lightfoot. The escape attempt failed, but Martin’s mythologizing of himself succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and guaranteed him a place in American folklore.

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