Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot, starring Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Jeff Morrow

W. R. Burnett’s novel Captain Lightfoot was immediately adapted by Burnett as a screenplay, and production started even before the novel was published. Veteran director Douglas Sirk was brought in to helm the filming, and wisely decided to shoot as much as possible on location in Ireland (including–ironically–the Lord Powerscourt Estate, one of Michael Martin and John Dogerty’s alleed victims).

There are many reviews available online, including a very misleading contemporary review reprint from The New Yorker that suggests the movie was a political drama. The best synopsis can be found on the Turner Classic Movies site.

The film opens with a screen of text: “Ireland 1815: This is the story of Mike Martin-better known as in legend as Captain Lightfoot-and of a great hero called Captain Thunderbolt-and the story of Ireland. The Ireland of deep black rivers and red-coated dragoons riding through a land bitter with resistance against foreign rule. The Ireland of secret societies and highwaymen on the Dublin road-the Ireland of dark deeds performed with a light heart-the bad, good old Ireland.”

Little of Michael Martin’s confession was used in the plot-line. Instead, Burnett introduced Thunderbolt as a retired highwayman, now running a high-rolling Dublin casino from behind the scenes and using his female companion as the proprietress. The profits were to go to Irish nationalists. The main drama surrounds the capture, imprisonment, and rescue of Thunderbolt (Jeff Morrow), with action leavened by a romance between Lightfoot (Rock Hudson) and Doherty’s daughter, Aga (Barbara Rush).

The Irish landscapes look spectacular in Cinemascope and Technicolor, and the costumes are colorful if not period accurate. Despite his strained Irish accent, Rock Hudson played his role ably, and Barbara Rush polished her typecasting as an ingenue.

Looking back, it is surprising that no Irish commentators wondered about the film’s sources, apparently believing it originated as Burnett’s novel. No one noted that Lightfoot and Thunderbolt were supposed to have been based on real characters

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.

Niall Ó Ciosáin on the Context of Michael Martin’s Confession

Irish scholar Niall Ó Ciosáin, a professor of history and philosophy at National University of Ireland, Galway, was asked to assess Michael Martin’s confession in relation to other accounts of 18th and 19th century Irish outlaws. Martin’s confession is not well-known in Ireland, so Dr. Ó Ciosáin brought a fresh perspective to an examination of the text:

“Martin’s confession is very reminiscent of one of the classic Irish criminal lives, The Life and Adventures of James Freney, first printed in 1754 and reprinted many times, usually as a chapbook. Freney, like Lightfoot, was from Kilkenny, and he had a horse called Beefsteaks, as did Lightfoot. The mixture of highway robbery and housebreaking is similar, but I can’t see for the moment that any of Lightfoot’s stories derive from Freney.  

“The story about lending a farmer money to pay tithes and then robbing the money back from the tithe-collector (p.58) is found two other Irish criminal lives, those of Captain Power and Redmond O’Hanlon, both of which feature in the classic Irish compendium of criminal biography. This was A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Highwaymen, Tories and Rapparees, also known as The Irish Rogues, a collection whose earliest surviving edition dates from 1747. According to Daithí Ó hÓgáin in his discussion of these lives, this story is an international migratory legend. (Ó hÓgáin, The Hero in Irish Folk History (1985), 178-192) 


“The other narrative that came to mind, possibly first published around 1820, is The Life and Adventures of Jeremiah Grant. Grant was hanged in 1816. This is also a mixture of housebreaking and burglaries in the same geographic area as Lightfoot – Waterford, Kilkenny, Kildare and up to Drogheda. Again, though, I can’t see any obvious borrowings by Lightfoot.  

“The writing style of the Lightfoot narrative is different to either Freney or Grant. It is quite plain and matter of fact, whereas Freney and particularly Grant are more ‘literary’, mock-heroic for the most part.

“The geography of the narrative is plausible enough, although the distances covered are sometimes very large. The one slip I noticed is placing Dungarvan in Co. Cork (p.33), although that’s not a huge mistake as it’s in Waterford, an adjoining county, about 30 km (20 miles) from the border with Co. Cork. 

“There’s one other aspect of Lightfoot’s narrative that to me adds to its plausibility, and that’s the references to the Irish language. The mixture of languages that is described in his first encounter with Doherty (p.21), the use of Irish for secret Ribbonmen communications (p.73) and for talking to Irish soldiers in Salem (p.95), all these are things that suggest a narrator who was born in an area that was bilingual. County Kilkenny was such an area around 1800. “


(The page references are to the 1926 Wayside Press reprint edition.) “

Dr. Wilson’s Injuries

Foremost among the reasons why many Brattleboro, Vermont residents came to believe that their long-time local physician, Dr. John Wilson, had been Martin’s “Captain Thunderbolt” in his former life were the injuries that were found on his body upon his death. John B. Miner’s pamphlet on Dr. Wilson quotes a second-hand account of those wounds:

“…he says the lower part of his leg was perished–that there was a scar on the calf of his leg, about the size of a cent, having the appearance of a knife or some sharp instrument run into that same scar, and slitted out, making the whole scar some two or three inches in length–that his heel was gone…Also, that a slash some four or five inches long was on the side of his neck, commencing near the carotid artery, and running round towards the back part; the scar being about one-half inch in width. That his front teeth in the under jaw had the appearance of having been knocked in, but were still in the jaw, and a bit of cork was insulated between the lip and the teeth.”

Miner and others thought it suspicious that Wilson tried to hide his injuries. They also believed that the calf injury coincided with the section of Martin’s confession where he relates that John Doherty, Captain Thunderbolt, was struck in the calf of his leg by a dragoon’s musket ball.

However, in Michael Martin’s account of the wound, which happened within the first year of their combined exploits, he mentions that Doherty spent two weeks recuperating after the musket ball was extracted. Martin never mentions the injury again, nor indicates that Doherty was in any way hindered by it. Martin also does not mention any injuries to Doherty’s heel, neck or teeth.

Publisher John B. Miner did relate that Dr. Wilson’s brother, Robert Wilson, explained that the doctor’s heel injury was the result of a sore that festered during a childhood fever. However, Miner then goes on to question Robert Wilson’s integrity, stating that he provided a different explanation for the doctor’s leg injuries on other occasions. Miner–apparently–did not consider the idea that the several injuries had different causes. Hugh Begg, Wilson’s son-in-law, said that Dr. Wilson received the leg injury as a boy at the Muirkirk Iron Works.

Miner, and Wilson’s other post mortem accusers in Brattleboro, not only took highwayman Michael Martin’s account about Thunderbolt to be absolutely true–they also suggested that Dr. Wilson’s family and friends were lying in order to protect his true identity. In Miner’s day, all his arguments assailing Dr. Wilson might have been described as: a pure cock and bull story.

The Exceptional John Doherty

Among the billions of ordinary souls, the world has had many exceptional people: people of great beauty, strength, intelligence, artistic talent, empathy, skill, etc. When telling a story and making a character sketch, the more unique qualities one ascribes to a real or fictional character, the more you are asking listeners to suspend their disbelief that such a rare person not only existed, but was a central figure in the events being retold.

Consider what Martin told us about John Doherty:

  • “…elegant, fine proportioned, between thirty and forty years of age, about six foot and an inch in height, with an uncommon appearance of muscle and strength…”. According to Martin, Doherty could be easily identified in a crowd from descriptions given in reward advertisements.
  • He was well-versed in many disciplines, except religion
  • Doherty was masterful at disguises: he could transform himself in an Anglican priest; a plain Quaker; a beggar; a servant; a soldier; an officer; a doctor; or a huntsman.
  • He lived by a moral code, taking from the rich and not molesting the poor; and would not kill or maim a man
  • He had been married five times under different names, and had acquired money through these unions
  • He had been a highwayman in Ireland, Scotland, and England for many years, but had never been captured; yet even when with Martin, he had to elude dragoons many times
  • He carried medicine with him him that allowed him to recover from a musket ball being removed from his calf with loss of blood; and knew what other medicines to get from an apothecary to treat the wound. While disguised as a doctor, he treated patients successfully.
  • He eluded imprisonment during his criminal career despite having one of the richest rewards on his head, retired on his own terms, and used his loot to assume a new life as a gentleman somewhere in the West Indies.

Pointing out all these unique aspects to John Doherty’s character is not intended to question whether such a person could have existed in real life.

But why is it that only Michael Martin related anything about him?

Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)

Now nearly fifty years old, Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot has been reviewed dozens of times, and in many respects the film has not aged well. Its misogyny and homo-eroticism were noticeable even upon its release, yet it was still a box-office hit thanks to the craft and charisma of its stars: Clint Eastwood, Jeff Bridges, and George Kennedy. However, no previously published review has dwelt on the relation of Cimino’s script to his source material: the confession of Michael Martin, the original Lightfoot. There are some scenes that are giveaways that Cimino had read Martin’s confession and taken notes–and they stick out in relation to the rest of the story (which is a conventional bank heist with Eastwood wielding a very big gun).

  • In the opening scene, Red Leary (George Kennedy) attacks John Doherty (Clint Eastwood, aka Thunderbolt), who is preaching to his congregation. Doherty escapes from the church and runs through a field to the road, where a passing Lightfoot (Jeff Bridges) allows him to crawl into the car. Michael Martin’s Lightfoot also met his John Doherty as he was posing as a clergyman.
  • Clint Eastwood resets his own dislocated shoulder using a trick involving his belt and a tree. Michael Martin did the same thing while he was on the run from robbing Major Bray at Medford, Massachusetts.
  • One early scene shows Eastwood drying off from a shower and we see a brace on his lower leg, indicating an old injury. This is never explained or expounded upon on in the film, though we might assume it was an old war injury. This recalls the calf wound that Martin’s John Doherty received from a dragoon’s musket fire; and also the injured leg that Dr. John Wilson had that led many to believe he had been Martin’s John Doherty.
  • Eastwood and Bridges threaten a couple to trade their stolen car for the couple’s car–much like Martin and Doherty accosted highway travelers and forced them to trade horses. In general, Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot features many car chases, recalling the attention Martin gave to horses in his account.
  • As part of the heist plan, Lightfoot’s role is to dress in drag to distract the alarm company manager. In Martin’s account, Thunderbolt has Martin dressing in drag in order to gain entry to a wedding party so that they could rob other attendees.
  • The MacGuffin of the film is the lost loot hidden in the vanished one-room schoolhouse. Who was known for building a one-room (round) schoolhouse? Dr. John Wilson, Vermont’s favorite candidate for being Thunderbolt.

In sum, Cimino seems very familiar with both Michael Martin’s confession and the accusations against Dr. Wilson, which were published together in popular editions. It is less obvious whether Cimino made any nods towards Douglas Sirk’s Captain Lightfoot film, but I would argue that he did in a crucial manner: Cimino framed his film around the desolate, wild beauty of Montana, much the way in which Sirk employed the lush, ancient landscape of rural Ireland. The land is a star in both movies.

Other reviewers have put forth the idea that the theme of the movie is the New West vs. the Old West, verbalized when Eastwood utters “Progress” with contempt, and explains why the schoolhouse was moved out to the desolate freeway: “History. History, damn it!” I can’t argue with that interpretation. Cimino is not around to ask anymore (and gave few interviews during his career), so it’s hard to tell why he thought Michael Martin’s story fitted this theme. Perhaps it was because he read of Martin being described as one of the last highwaymen, the last of a breed–and transferred that to a story of an honorable, veteran thief convinced to pull one more heist.

Lightfoot and the Lord-Lieutenant

One episode in Michael Martin’s stories of Captain Lightfoot and Captain Thunderbolt stands out from the others, for a multitude of reasons: the robbery by Martin of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland in his own garden. It should be viewed as the penultimate crime in the whole tradition of Irish rebel outlaws, with Martin (alone, without Thunderbolt to take partial credit) striking at the very head of British rule in Ireland, trespassing on his treasured land (the formal garden), stealing his wealth, watching him beg, and then taking by trickery his precious toy, a snuff box fitted with a spyglass lens–used by its owner to view his own servants through keyholes, which more than hints at perversity. Martin, as Captain Lightfoot, leaves his victim totally emasculated. Generations of Irish balladeers and storytellers could not have imagined a more triumphant yarn, calculated to humiliate the nation’s oppressors.

It is almost too easy to dismiss the story as the work of a talented fabulist…except for that detail about the snuff box. Martin was referring to a device that only wealthy aristocrats in Great Britain Europe would have known about and been able to acquire.

Mentions of these toy optical devices are difficult to find. A copy of Martin’s description was sent to Neil Handley, curator of the museum of London’s College of Optometry, which has a large collection of antique spyglasses and other optical instruments. His assessment:

“The combination of a snuff box with a spyglass is not unusual for the period under discussion. See, for example, https://collection.sciencemuseumgroup.org.uk/objects/co3924/novelty-spyglass-prospect-glass-2-draw-tube-i-opera-glass-telescope-galilean-telescope-refracting

“I would contend that multifunctional optical ‘toys’ (the word by which their vendors often described them) would have been readily available in [Lord-Lieutenant] Chetwynd-Talbot’s time, probably sourced via a London optician, many such  items being originally made in Paris.”

Martin himself was unfamiliar with this device; he said he was told about it by a servant girl in the Lord Lieutenant’s household, who was reluctant to bring Martin into any of the servant’s quarters:

“She objected, saying that the Lord-Lieutenant would find it out — that he had a machine, by which he could see into any room in the house, by holding it to the key hole. I did not believe it; and as she was so much afraid of this machine, I was anxious to see it, and get it away from him if possible. She described it as an elegant gold snuff-box, the top of which was covered with diamonds.”

Later, Martin tricks the Lord-Lieutenant into handing over the snuff box and then…never mentions it again.

If Martin was weaving a fantasy, why would he introduce such a curious detail into his story–describing an object that no one listening to or reading his story would recognize–and then fail to elaborate on it? At some point in his history, Martin must have seen or been told of such a device. Where would he have had that opportunity, unless was told this by another thief or stole one himself?

This is just one example (but perhaps the best one) of the way in which Martin made his stories of Lightfoot and Thunderbolt more credible by the addition of extraneous detail. Looking at these details, it must be judged that some parts of his exploits, if not the whole, are true.

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?

A Stage Spectacular: “Mike Martin, The Highwayman”

Michael Martin was executed in December 1821 and the pamphlet of his confessions was published in January 1822. A year later in Maine, Portland barber Richard Relhan was accused of being Captain Thunderbolt. However, from 1823 until 1842, no mentions appeared in any publications concerning Martin, Captain Lightfoot, or Captain Thunderbolt until 1842, when a trove of buried coins was uncovered near Cambridge, Massachusetts. This news item might have revived the interest of a local writer, Francis A. Durivage, who reworked Martin’s confessions into a novel, Mike Martin: Or, The Last of the Highwaymen. A Romance of Reality, which was published in 1845. Two years later, Dr. John Wilson died in Vermont, and the pamphlet accusing him of being Captain Thunderbolt came out shortly afterwards. The revival of interest in Michael Martin by this next generation of New Englanders was capped by the Boston debut in April, 1849 of a new drama based on his exploits, Mike Martin, The Highwayman.

Mike Martin, The Highwayman was conceived from the start to be an equestrian drama, or hippodrama: a theatrical production featuring trained horses. Hippodramas had been popular in America since the early 19th century, and previous productions had featured English and French highwaymen. Michael Martin, as the most notable American highway robber, seemed a fitting subject. The author, playwright William B. English, removed the setting or Martin’s Irish and Scottish exploits entirely, making both Martin and John Doherty as Lightfoot and Thunderbolt) wholly American highwaymen. The horses of the two stars were given equal billing, as was their trainer, William R. Derr. When the production moved from Boston to New York, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, Derr himself sometimes played the role of Martin; but in the original Boston production, Martin was played by Junius B. Booth, the famous father of the infamous John Wilkes Booth.

The play was a hit. Although the script does not appear to have survived, the Boston Herald offered an act-by-act description of the action:

The production was reviewed by none other than Francis Durivage himself:

£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.