A Desperato Teaches Unruly Boys

The following article appeared in several New England and New York newspapers in 1879. In this legend, Michael Martin appears as a wily professional, willing to use a measure of violence to solve a problem that defied conventional society.


How a Desperado Taught School–Stern Justice Dealt Out to Unruly Boys

From the Troy Times

Something over fifty years ago, on a clear, cold afternoon in January, a man on horseback might have been seen approaching a small village nestling among the then snow-white hills of Vermont.

The man was of nearly middle age in life; a little below the medium size, with a bright eye and prepossessing appearance. At the last tavern, at noon, he had spent his last cent to feed his horse; he himself going without a dinner. All the property he possessed was his faithful horse, bridle, saddle, a large clasped dirk, a pocket-pistol, a change of clothing in his valise and two large pistols in his holsters. Owing to his vocation, he did not feel like parting with any of his property, but he was out of money, and himself and horse must live, though in a strange land and among strangers.

As the traveler was passing the school house, just in the outskirts of the village, he heard an unusual noise within the house, which caused him to rein in his horse. In a few moments there appeared at the door four large boys, each having a leg or arm of the schoolmaster, and in that horizontal and uncomfortable position, they conveyed their victim to a near snow-drift, where they used his head for a battering-ram to level the drift. Quite a number of other scholars were doing good execution in pelting the master with large pieces of frozen snow. After witnessing this performance for some minutes, and seeing that no material bodily harm was intended the schoolmaster, the traveler hastened on to the tavern, left his horse and put up for the night. After the horse was well cared for, the traveler, as he sat warming himself before a blazing fire, related to the landlord the incident he had just witnessed at the school-house. The landlord, in listening to the account, appeared dumbfounded. At last he remarked that he did not know what he should do. He was the committeeman of the district, and this was the third master that the scholars had carried out of the school-house that winter, and the money was not half expended. This last master had come 40 miles to teach this large school of over a hundred scholars, and he well knew what he would have to contend with, but still he was carried out of the house the first day. The landlord said that he thought it would be nearly impossible to find a man who would have the courage to attempt to keep the school, knowing the rough usage the previous masters had received at the hands of the scholars.

The traveler listened to the story of the landlord with deep interest, and finally remarked to the landlord that he thought he (the latter) could get out of his trouble by employing him (the traveler) to keep the school. The traveler said he would not promise to teach the scholars, but he would forfeit his horse if he did not keep good order in the school-room. The landlord was ripe for any proposition that would continue the school and bring these unruly boys under subjection. A bargain was soon made, in which the landlord was to pay the traveler $10 a month and board for himself and horse, and the first $10 in advance, so he could purchase the necessary books. The landlord instructed the new master to keep order at all events,”if it required half the hide on the scholars’ backs to do it.”

At an early hour the next morning the teacher was up, and at 8 o’clock was ready to start for his school. He told the landlord he would take his horse, as he had his pistols in his holsters and might want to use them rather than submit to the treatment he witnessed yesterday. When he arrived at the school-house a few of the small scholars were on the ground. The traveler dismounted and hitched his horse to a staple at the corner of the house, amid the yells and taunts of the youths in anticipation of the fun they expected to witness that day, by seeing another schoolmaster baptized in a snow-drift. Soon it was 9 o’clock, and every scholar in the district was on hand. The traveler announced to his scholars that it was time to commence
his school, and, taking his holsters and rawhide from his horse, he followed the noisy crew into the house. At his request all took their usual seats. He then drew his pistol from his pocket and the two horse pistols from his holsters, and placed them on a cross-legged table standing on the floor; also his large dirk-knife and rawhide. After going through this ceremony, with death-like stillness in the house, he drew his roll from his pocket and requested every scholar to answer when his name was called. After roll-call the new master informed the scholars that he was a witness of their unruly character yesterday, and that he was determined to maintain order at all events and that the laws of Vermont would bear him out in taking every life in the school-room in self defense, and this he should do rather than to submit to the treatment he saw them perpetrate on the teacher yesterday. He then went to the outside door and put a nail over the latch. It was quite cold, and the traveler stirred up the fire in the big fireplace. While doing this one of the large boys on the back seat hoisted a window and fastened it up with a ruler. The master ordered the boy (who was the ringleader) to shut down the window, but he peremptorily refused to obey. Tho master said nothing more, but taking one of the pistols from tho table he cocked it, and without moving from his place, took aim and fired toward the window. The ruler was seen to fly out of the window and the sash came down with a crash, while nearly every cheek in the school room blanched.

After he had re-loaded his pistol and the smoke had cleared up, the traveler ordered the ringleader to walk out on the floor. At first the scholar hesitated to obey, for he was a third larger than the master, In an instant a cocked pistol was leveled at his head, with a voice stating that a messenger would be sent to bring him dead or alive, if he desired one. The boy was not prepared for the emergency, and, deeming
discretion the better part of valor, marched out on the floor. He was then ordered to take off his coat, and hesitating a pistol was pointed at his head, and his coat dropped from his
shoulders like leaves from a tree before a fall wind. He was then ordered to be seated on the “dunce’s block” with his back toward the schoolmaster. The traveler then, with his rawhide in his right hand, and his pistol in his left, walked up to his subdued pupil and gave him such a rawhiding as never fell on the shoulders of a Vermonter before or since. The next boy on the list was called up and obliged to submit to a similar flogging, and so on until twenty or more went back to their seats with smarting and lacerated backs and shoulders.

After finishing this part of the programme, the traveler ordered a small boy to come out on the floor and act as monitor. He then told the scholars to take their books, and attend to their studies, while he went to the hotel and put up his horse; and that on his return, the scholars reported as having looked off their books would receive the same treatment which befell the other boys that morning. He then took all his effects and went out, locking the door after him.

One o’clock arriving, and no schoolmaster making his appearance for dinner, the landlord, together with a few neighbors, concluded to go to the school-house and learn if they could see who had won the victory–the scholars or the new master. On arriving at the school-house all appeared to be still within, the door was locked, with the key left in the padlock. They looked in at the windows, and there saw the terror-stricken scholars with their eyes fastened on to their books like so many statues.

It required but a short time to show that the landlord had been duped by his new master, who had received a night’s lodging and $10 at the landlord’s expense. The scholars were released from their bondage, but many were not relieved from sore backs for several weeks. The young men were raving mad but they had got a merited flogging, and could not help themselves. It had its salutary effect, for the district has never been afflicted with unruly scholars since that date. The landlord lived to a good old age, and frequently said that he never paid out any money which gave him so much satisfaction as that which he paid the traveler to flog those unruly boys.

The hero of this exploit was said to have been Michael Martin, alias “Lightfoot,” the great highway robber and burglar, traveling from Montreal to Boston. He was born in England, and his robberies forced him to leave and take shelter in Ireland, thence he came to America, where he landed either in Boston or Portsmouth about sixty years ago. Over fifty years ago, on a fourth of July, he robbed a gentleman and a lady in a chaise, we think on Warren bridge. For this act he was arrested, tried, convicted and finally hanged.

–A.J.F.

A Silver Tankard for Captain Lightfoot

By the end of the 19th century, the stories about Michael Martin, aka Captain Lightfoot, had been passed down orally several generations, and retellings added new context to his legend. The short story below appeared in The Youth’s Companion magazine of June 22, 1893. The author is unknown, but the story was given “Third Prize Folk Lore Story.” It was also reprinted in Christian publications, since it espoused the values of childhood innocence, moral instruction, charity, and forgiveness. The story setting varies far from any historical truth about Martin’s actions, and “Captain Lightfoot” is still portrayed as a professional criminal, but one who still has some good in him–the same attitude expressed by the general public towards Michael Martin in 1821.


In the early days of the eighteenth century Antipas Goodwin’s farm lay about four miles away from a small village situated about fifteen miles north of Portsmouth. It was a source of grief to the pious landholder that the meetinghouse was so far away that he and his family could not walk to and fro on Sunday, while his wagon was not large enough to hold them all. Generally his eldest daughter, Charity, now twelve years old, went to meeting with a neighbor, who lived a mile farther from the village than Goodwin did, beyond a tract of woods.

One Sunday morning the neighbor, from some extraordinary cause, did not go. Mr. Goodwin decided that Charity should stay at home, and occupy her time, lest it he wasted, In committing to memory a Psalm and two hymns.

Just as Mr. Goodwin was clucking to his horses to start, a man came riding rapidly from the direction of the village, and beckoned Antipas Goodwin to one side.

“Are you going to meeting to-day, Neighbor Goodwin?” he whispered.

“I always attend divine service with my household on the Lord’s day,” answered Mr. Goodwin,
with old-fashioned gravity.

“Have you not heard the evil tidings? You had better stay at home to-day,” continued his friend.

“Forsake not the assembling or yourselves together,” replied the householder, in the same voice which he used in public prayer.

“But, Neighbor Goodwin,” insisted the other, laying his hand solemnly on Mr. Goodwin’s arm, “they say that Lightfoot and his gang of robbers have taken up their abode in Negutaqua woods, and intend to search the neighborhood; and there is a report that they have special designs upon your house for the store of silver
you are known to have.”

“My silver and my gold are the Lord’s,” replied Antipas Goodwin, soberly. Such phrases were not considered cant in those early days. They were earnestly uttered and literally interpreted.

“Yes, neighbor,” urged his friend, “but that is no reason why they should be the robbers. I shall conduct services in my own house this Sabbath, that I may protect my little ones and my goods, even as I worship the Lord.”

With a warning gesture this sensible man rode off at a hurried pace, leaving Mr. Goodwin silent for a moment. It is probable he spent that moment praying. At any rate his face lightened, as if the problem were divinely solved.

He hurried back into the house to the room where Charity sat already at her Bible. There the usually undemonstrative father caught her in his arms, and kissed the astonished girl again and again before he said: “Daughter Charity, be a good child, and if any persons come to call while we are away, treat them with all kindness and hospitality, as your mother would.”

Then this Puritan father rejoined his wife in the wagon and whipped up his horses to get to church, four miles off, where ho worshiped God in his own stern, sincere way, 1eavving his daughter alone at the homestead. He did not even tell his wife the news that he had heard. Was not his faith in God enough for bis family?

Charity had not committed five verses of the ninety-first Psalm to memory when she heard a click at the garden gate at the back of the house.

“Perhaps there are father’s callers,” she thought. She put down her Bible with a happy face, unbarred the back door, and ran out in the sun to meet the guests.

There they stood–ten dark-browed, evil men armed to the teeth, and as fierce as the figures in a wild dream. Charity ran on as far as the currant bushes, where she stopped.

The robbers and the child confronted each other. For a moment neither seemed to know just what to do next. Then Charity held out her little hands cordially. Her blond, waving hair, bathed in white light, looked like a halo about her head, and she seemed more like an angel bidding good men welcome to a heavenly home than a sweet-hearted farmer’s daughter asking terrible robbers
to enter her father’s house.

“I am so glad you have come!” she began, smiling brightly. Father told me that if visitors came I should take care of them as my mother would if she were here.”

The ten evil faces exchanged glances. Then twenty astonished eyes stared at Charity. What could this mean? Tho robbers whispered together. They were suspicions and hesitating. Into what trap were they likely to he led?

“Why do you wait?” pleaded Charity, prettily, putting out her hand to the leader. “Come right in!”

The men began to move toward the house. They had a dazed expression. The child led the way, chattering: “I’m so sorry they’re out! They’ve all gone to meeting. You might have seen them there; but I will do the best I can. Come through into the parlor. If you do not wish to wipe your feet you needn’t trouble yourselves. I’ll brush up, for father wished me to be very polite.”

With such artless talk Charity took the nonplussed leader by the hand and led him into the best room. Nine rough, staring men followed. Each wiped his shoes carefully on the worn straw mat as he passed in.

They were villainous-looking men. Great horse-pistols were thrust into their belts, and their faces were scarred and distorted. They walked as outlaw men do, with slinking, irresolute motions.

Following the unusual example of their leader, they took off their hats and laid them on a mahogany table in the hall as they passed into the front room.

“This is a strange business!” whispered one robber to another with a half-pleased smile. “Snared by a little maid! Who’d ‘a thight it o’ us? Hey, capt’n?”

“I’m too hungry to think about it yet,” answered Captain Lightfoot, the tallest, least ill-looking and strongest of the gang.

Charity had been looking over her guests with the pride of a little housekeeper, and was nodding her curly head as she counted each one off; but when she overheard the captain’s answer, she looked at him pityingly, and her lip quivered with sympathy.

“Are you hungry? Oh, I am very sorry, I’ll do tho best I can. It is the Sabbath, you know,
and the dinner must needs be cold. Mother would give you a better meal than I can get, but I know how she sets the table for company, and I should gladly do it for you. I’ll go right away
and make it ready.”

She tripped to the door. The men looked at her; if ever there were ten completely dumbfounded robbers, these were the ten. The red-handed thieves had not a word to say. They glanced at their leader helplessly.

Then Lightfoot, the most courteous gentleman Charity thought she had ever seen, arose and gave the little dame a courtly bow, which she returned with a pretty courtesy. It was a strange sight–this little farmer’s daughter singly arrayed against the most dreaded highwayman of his day and his picked bandits!

“while you are waiting,” continued Charity, in her musical voice and standing on the threshold, “you can read father’s books or sing a hymn. There are six Bibles and five tune-books on that
shelf; over there are Baxter, and Edwards ‘On True Virtue.’ I read that one with father. I could not understand all of it, but you could of course.”

She closed the door and hustled about getting dinner. She did not hear the gruff expletives of wonder that burst after a minute’s silence from those sin-steeped men. What withered heart had
her simple trust touched?

“This is a go!” repeated the roughest ruffian of the gang. “I’ll be –“
·
“No, you won’t be anything but a decent man in a house like this,” interrupted Lightfoot, sternly, “until I give contrary orders.”

Charity went to the linen closet and took out the finest, sweetest-scented table-cloth, and spread it carefully, smoothing the wrinkles as she had seen her mother do. Then she reached down from the cupboard the best old china, covered with rose patterns. From the high, inlaid case she took the silver knives and forks, which were used only on great occasions.

Then she went to a secret place and brought out carefully the great silver teapot and sugar bowl and cream pitcher, precious family heirlooms, and put them before her place at the head of the table. Besides these, she laid all the silver spoons she could find, both big and little. While she worked she sang to herself, now louder, now softer:

God is the refuge of His saints
When storms of sharp distress invade

“What’s the young one tunin’ up for?” asked one of the robbers, uneasily, of his neighbor.

As a last touch the little hostess brought out the silver tankard, her mother’s wedding present, which had been given to Charity to have as her own because she was the eldest child.

Charity loved the tankard better than anything else she owned. She filled it with sparkling spring water, and placed it at the end of the table where the captain was to sit.

There was an abundance of hearty food: cold lamb, fresh Saturday’s bread, pies, doughnuts, and Indian pudding, and–

“Hello there!” shouted a harsh voice, penetrating two heavy oaken doors and startling the
faithful girl. “Hurry up! We can’t wait! We’re as hungry as–“

Charity did not hear any more. Her beaming face became sober with sympathy. “Poor, poor men!” she said to herself. “They are starving! My wicked pride–” she cast a reproachful look at the flashing table–“has kept
them too long.”

She hurried into the parlor and opened tho door. Her guests were scattered about the room, evidently examining tho ornaments with great care. One man had a silver inkstand in his hand which he was weighing. He started as if caught in some wickedness. The empty inkstand fell to the floor.

With a muffled exclamation the abashed man stooped and picked it up, and laid it softly upon the table.

“I didn’t mean to keep you waiting so long. Your dinner is ready now,” said Charity, in a sweet voice.

With her face flushed with excitement, responsibility, and embarrassment, she walked up to the leader. Then Lightfoot bent low and offered her his arm. This Charity took with all seriousness, for she had seen her
mother conducted by some guest to the table in the same way.

As the men stumbled out to the dining-room, one loitered behind. He took up the inkstand and slipped it into his pocket. Then a strange expression overspread his face. He took it out–and stood undecided. A tender look came into his eyes–he put the inkstand down, and quickly followed the rest. He wondered what was the matter with him. For the first time in his life he had missed a chance to steal.

Charity sat in her mother’s high-backed chair and place, her eyes beaming with satisfaction. The man whom they called “Cap’n” sat opposite, and began immediately to drink from the massive silver tankard.

“Won’t you ask the blessing first?” said the daughter of the godly house, gently, and a little reprovingly. She made the sign at the captain, and bowed her head reverently and shut her eyes.

At this extraordinary request, Lightfoot flushed. His men glanced at him. Some began to snicker. Some bowed their heads–it seemed as if they could not help it–for the first time since they were innocent children in Christian homes.

Some stared at the little girl and dared not stir. Thoughts such as they had not had for many a wicked year swept over them and shamed them. The ten scoundrels hardly dared to breathe at the table which they had come to plunder, until the blond hair lifted itself and showed a grieved face.

“I guess I did not ask the right man,” she began. Then she brightened. “Oh, I know. You asked a silent blessing. Father does sometimes, when he is very tired. Now do eat! There is more in the house.”

They ate, for the most part in silence. At last the hunger of her guests was satisfied, and one, the rudest of the lot, arose.

“Come now, cap’n,” he roared. “We’ve had enough of this pious fooling. Let us take the silver and be gone.”

As he spoke, he bent forward and gathered up the spoons within his reach. Mechanically a few followed his example. One grasped the teapot, another the sugar-bowl, and another the silver tankard at the captain’s right hand.

Poor Charity started back with a piteous cry. Her blue eyes began to grow very large, and fi11 with tears. She shrank, and then, not knowing what else to do, did the most daring and the surest thing she could–run to her friend, the captain, for protection.

In the meanwhile the table was in the wildest uproar. The glitter of greed shone dangerously in the faces of these ferocious men. But before their hands could find time to drop their plunder into their deep pouches, Lightfoot cried “Hold!” with one hand upon the girl’s shoulder, and with the other leveling his huge pistol at the miscreants before him.

“Put that silver back upon the table,” he shouted. “Would ye plunder the maid who has treated us like honest men?”

The captain’s great form towered them all. Charity leaned her head against his rough belt, and looked up at him confidingly. He cast a quick, reassuring glance at her, and faced his men imperiously. Most of them cowered before their lender, and obeyed. But one, he who had proposed the plunder, sneered back:

“No, no, cap’n–not this time. You’re elected to steal, and not to preach. You led us here for silver, and I mean to have it. You’re one against too many.”

With a sullen chuckle he reached forward for the tankard, which another man had dropped.

At this juncture the fellow who had left the inkstand in the parlor stepped out from the nine, and ranged himself behind his captain.

“You scoundrel!”

The voice that spoke was so terrible, and the eyes that blazed were so commanding, that the man who was handling the silver trembled and stopped.

“Put it down, or die! Obey!”

The conquered fellow obeyed.

“This is the first home dinner we have bad, for”–the captain’s voice quivered a little–“for too many years. We have been treated
like gentlemen. Shall we repay the hospitality of this little maid by plunder that a brute would scorn?”

“Please,” interrupted the little hostess with shaking lip: “Don”t take father’s silver or mother’s. It does not belong to me to give.”

She hesitated, and the captain looked at her protectively. The robbers hung their heads. She seemed to them a being from another world; and indeed she was. She went to the table and took up the silver tankard by the captain’s plate, and held it out to him with a pleading look.

“There! If you must take anything do you take this. My mother gave it to me to keep. I’ll try not to care;” she gulped down a sob. The splendid captain looked undecided.

“Aye,” he said, with emotion, which he strove in vain to conceal, “I will take it. This is the first thing I have come by honestly for fifteen years. I’ll keep it a while to remember you, dear child. Now men!” he shouted. “You have my orders. Obey me! Go! Leave this good house as ye have found it! Go!”

He stood until the last man of them had passed out. Then the captain lifted the child in his arms and kissed her.

Was it a tear she saw? He turned his face and put her down. The last of all his gang, he passed along the worn path–the tankard in his hand brushed the currant bushes.

The little gate shut with a click. They were gone. But nothing else was gone–except the tankard; not even a salt-spoon.

Charity, trembling and sobbing, got down upon her knees before the disordered dinner-table and tried to say her prayers. But all she could think of was the ninety-first Psalm. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High,” sobbed Charity, “shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.”

Three months after, strange news reached the home which the kindly impulse of a child’s sweet faith had protected. Lightfoot’s crimes had carried him too far. He had been arrested, and after trial was convicted of many crimes, had been sentenced and must die. From his prison in Portsmouth he sent by a trusty messenger the silver tankard back to Charity.

“I kept it for her blessing,” he had said. “I never meant to part with that for a thief’s price. Now take the silver to the maid, and tell her I should die a better man if so be I could see her face again before I hang.”

Charity began to sob, and begged of her father, “Let me go to the poor man, for I feel that I must.”

So her father himself took her to the prison, and even to the cell of the condemned man. It is said that the child stayed with the captain almost to the last hour of his life on earth; and the story further runs, God only knows how truly, that the robber died sincerely sorry for his sins–saved for Christ’s love, through the little girl, the only human creature who had trusted him, and whom he did not harm.

Mike Martin’s Cave (#1)

The October 27, 1885 edition of the Boston Daily Globe announced that a shallow cave had been re-discovered in Arlington, Massachusetts–which even then was a fairly well-developed suburb of Boston. From the streets mentioned in the article, it is clear that this cave was somewhere in the current Menotomy Rocks Park, which in 1885 was still a wooded farm. Consensus in Arlington was that it had been the hideout of Michael Martin, the highwayman. This was based on the fact that some old firearms had been found within; and also some old residents swore that they had seen Martin entering the woods in the area.

Surely there could be no evidence of this cave still existing in the center of a metropolis? However, it appears to have been rediscovered by “JimP,” one of the contributors to the Rock Piles blog concerning stone sites in New England.

JimP had heard stories about a cave in the area, but apparently did not know the legend of Mike Martin. JimP found the cave opening had been mostly filled in with dirt, prohibiting access. [There is no reason to try–generations of local children apparently knew all about the shelter, leaving no artifacts.]

Photo from Rock Piles blog article, “Menotomy Rocks Park – Arlington, MA (Part One)” by JimP.

According to Michael Martin’s confession, he spent less than 48 hours in Middlesex County, so it is extremely unlikely that he used a rock shelter as a hideout.

The Original Captain Thunderbolt

Michael Martin stated that he first met John Doherty, aka Captain Thunderbolt, in July 1816. However, seventeen years earlier, a different man who went by that alias was executed in Macroom, Cork County (about 100 miles from Martin’s Kilkenny County). His name was John Duggan, and his case was so infamous that it is likely that whispered stories about this Captain Thunderbolt persisted for decades.

In early 1799, John Duggan was part of a militia party of about 15 United Irishmen that raided the mansion of Colonel Hutchinson, a magistrate and landlord who resided about a mile from Macroom. The party was led by John Duggan’s uncle, Malachi Duggan, and included other Duggan family members. Their plan was to plunder the household, but not to injure the inhabitants. Among the raiders was Hutchinson’s gamekeeper. Colonel Hutchinson was at home when the men broke into his house, and recognized his gamekeeper as being among the group. Upon that recognition, Malachi Duggan ordered the gamekeeper to shoot Hutchinson.

The crime was reported in newspapers all over Ireland, and both the Belfast and Dublin papers named John Duggan as one of the party’s captains, and indicated that he went by the alias Captain Thunderbolt.

The story of the crime and the treachery involved in the capture of the raiders was so sensational that Charles Dickens edited an article about it in his magazine All the Year Round in October, 1862–fully 63 years after the events. Dickens, of course, was English, and little sympathy for the murderers of Hutchinson or their cause; and had few apparent qualms over the punishment they received. What fascinated Dickens was the brazen betrayal involved.

The brutal administration of justice may, as Dickens claims, discouraged rebel activity in Cork in the short term. In the long term, it must have created nothing except hate toward the oppressive authorities:


DUGGAN AND HIS GANG.

Though it is now sixty years ago, there are travelers yet alive who, going by stage-coach from Cork to Tralee, have seen the eight skulls that were stuck on spikes on the roof of the market-house in the town of Macroom, in the barony of Muskerry.

People did not like to talk about the skulls. When questioned, the country people said “they were the murderers of Colonel Hutchinson;” but no more could be got out of them. The skulls were a source of disgust and horror to the inhabitants of Macroom, and to all the country round. They had not been subjected to any previous process, as was usually the case with the horrible remains of traitors’ heads and members, ordered to be exposed. These heads had been put over the market-house at Macroom just as they were struck from the bodies to which they belonged.

Above one of the heads there was nailed a hand, severed at the wrist, and the sight of the half-bleached skulls was hideous. They cowed the people, and struck more fear of the law into their hearts than as many regiments of dragoons. That part of the country, for many years after the event that gave rise to this spectacle, was the most peaceable district in Ireland. The fate of the “murderers of Mr. Hutchinson” was a very effective terror to evil-doers. But who were they and what was the story? Here it is: for though people would not tell it, it is on record in the criminal trials.

Mr. Hutchinson was an amiable and worthy man, who lived at a house called Codrum, about a mile out of the market-town of Macroom. It stood in its own plantation, on a rising ground, with a lawn before it, dotted with ornamental trees, and adorned with fair beds of flowers. Colonel Hutchinson was a man of property; he belonged to what was called a “new family” but he was much respected by the neighbouring gentry; the poor people were fond of him, for he was an excellent and charitable man. In 1782, he had held a commission in the Irish Volunteers, and when they were disbanded the title of “Colonel” was allowed to most of the officers. Colonel Hutchinson’s sister resided with him, and he had one man-servant. Although he was popular, he was nevertheless an active magistrate, and had been so, in the famous year ’98; but no harm had ever been done to him or his property. It was his habit to sit up reading late at night, and the light in his bedroom could be seen at all hours. He was known to have much valuable property in the house; but he took no extra precaution.

One morning, early in the summer of the year 1800 [sic, 1799], the neighbourhood was thrown into commotion by the report that Colonel Hutchinson had been murdered in the night. Some labourers passing to their work saw the large kitchen window, in the front of the house, completely smashed. Going up to learn what had happened, they found the shutter broken in, the front door open, and the body of Colonel Hutchinson lying dead and stiff at the foot of the stairs, with a wound through his heart. Shot dead, as was supposed.

None of the inmates could give any account of the matter. Miss Hutchinson could only say that she had been awakened by the noise of the kitchen window being smashed in, and the sound of several persons rushing into the house. In her fright she left her bed and hid behind a large press, upstairs in a garret, and had not ventured out till long after all was quiet. Reen, the man-servant, stammered and looked exceedingly guilty; but could give no information. He declared he was very deaf, and had not heard anything whatever during the night; that he had been, besides, fast asleep. Of course, he was an object of suspicion, and was taken into custody; but nothing could be got out of him. All the neighbouring gentry belonged to the yeomanry corps Catholics as well as Protestants and they bound themselves by an oath not to rest until the murderers were dis-covered.

A reward of three hundred pounds was offered for any information that could lead to their detection. One remarkable thing was, that, although a handsome looking-glass had been broken, and some furniture pulled about, nothing had been stolen. Suspicion at last fell on a man named Malachi Duggan. He was a farmer of the better class; superior to the common peasantry in education and intelligence, as well as in position. He bore, however, a very bad character. In appearance he was the type of a ruffian; of gigantic stature, and strong in proportion; his countenance was brutal and ferocious, with a dash of cunning which made it more repulsive; oddly enough, he was in great request in the neighbourhood as a juryman! People who had a cause in court used to bribe him to be on the jury, and if he were satisfied with the amount, he, possibly, also bribed the summoning officer. He then always either tired out, or bullied, or over-persuaded, his fellow jurors. When the officers went to his house, accompanied by several magistrates, they found him at home. He made no attempt to escape, but treated the charge lightly. One of the magistrates advised him to give orders about his farm, as he would be away a long time.

“Sure it will not be more than a couple of days, at furthest,” said he.

“It will be more than two days, or two weeks, or two years,” said the magistrate.

Malachi shrugged his shoulders, ordered his nag to be saddled, and he cut a long willow switch for the purpose of urging on his horse. He did not seem to attend to anything passing round him, but rode on in silence, with the end of this rod in his mouth. He continued to bite it, and when he and his escort arrived at Macroom, a distance of only three miles, the willow switch was bitten to within an inch of the end. He had been considering. He offered to turn informer if he might be assured of the three hundred pounds offered for reward. His offer was accepted, and Malachi Duggan stated that on the night in question fourteen men, under his orders, assembled and went in a body to attack Codrum, with the intention of plundering whatever they could carry off, but without any design to harm Colonel Hutchinson. Colonel Hutchinson was sitting up reading as usual, and, on hearing the noise of the window smashed and the shutter broken in, he immediately came down stairs to see what was the matter. He found the hall filled with men, some of whom were armed; amongst them he saw his own gamekeeper, named MacCarthy, and incautiously exclaimed:

“Are you here, MacCarthy?”

Malachi Duggan, the captain of the gang, at once called out:

“MacCarthy, do your duty.”

The gamekeeper raised his gun and fired. Colonel Hutchinson fell dead. The sight of his dead body struck them with panic, and they hastily left the house, taking nothing with them. Malachi Duggan gave the names of all the men who had been with him. The magistrates and gentry immediately began a strict search, but the criminals, as soon as it was rumoured that Malachi had turned Informer, took to the hills and concealed themselves, all the country people of course assisting and aiding them. The county of Cork was at that period under martial law, and the Cork yeomanry were a formidable body. They were determined that the murderers of Colonel Hutchinson should not escape, and they hunted down all the peasants suspected of giving them shelter. One day they were on the track of some of the murderers; but the inhabitants of a mountain hamlet had aided their escape. Prompt measures were taken on the spot. The cabins were searched; every article of furniture was dragged out, piled in a heap, and then set on fire; the wretched owners standing round, not daring to say a word. One of the soldiers, separated from the ranks, searching an outhouse, found a feather-bed carefully concealed. He was dragging this poor bed to share the fate of the rest, when the captain, a man of humanity, cried out:

“No, gentlemen; these wretched people have suffered enough; let us leave them at least this bed.”

As he spoke, a ball whizzed past, grazing his ear. Turning round, a puff of white smoke was seen over the brow of a hill behind them. Immediately, he and two other gentlemen galloped to the spot, feeling sure they had come upon the criminals. They, however, found only two peasants, who had no connexion with Duggan or his gang. They belonged to the village, and, exasperated at seeing the destruction of their goods, had fired the shot. They were immediately seized, and dragged to the prison of Macroom. They were tried, not for firing on the yeomanry, but for helping and hiding the murderers, and they were condemned to be transported. Their trial and sentence made a great sensation. When they were on board the hulks, all their relations and friends came in a body to the court-house, and offered, if these two men were restored to their families, that the whole country should join to hunt down the murderers and give them up to justice. After some consideration this offer was accepted.

The men were pardoned, sent back to their homes, and the people of the county began to keep their word. The murderers now led the lives of hunted wolves, and endured fearful hardships. Winter was approaching, and they did not dare to enter a cabin; every one was against them. Two contrived to escape to America; but the others wandered about amongst the mountains of Glenfesk, hiding under rocks, not daring to kindle a fire. At length the people pretended to become friendly to them: some villagers invited them to come to a supper in a barn, where they declared they would be safe. The men, more than half-famished, came down from the mountains, but refused to enter any building, lest they should be surprised; they sat down on the ground and began to eat voraciously. The peasants fell upon them, disarmed them, and gave them up to justice. The trial came on.

Malachi Duggan swore to them all, gave a circumstantial account of the murder, and seemed utterly callous to his own infamy. One of the men was his own cousin, named John Duggan, a stone-mason. This man was not destitute of the family cunning; he declared that Colonel Hutchinson had not been shot at all; that if the body could be seen, it would be found that the wound had been made by a sharp instrument, and that the end of his chisel would fit the wound; therefore, all that Malachi swore about discharging the gun was a lie. This circumstantial statement rather shook the jury. The body was disinterred and examined. Three bullets and a brace of slugs were found behind the heart. This at once settled the matter. The prisoners were all sentenced to be hanged, and their heads to be exposed on spikes round the market-house MacCarthy, the game-keeper, as the man who fired the shot, was to have his hand struck off and affixed above his head.

The prisoners were to be executed at Macroom, and they were conveyed from Cork in an open cart: the hangman–a hideous person–clothed for the occasion in bright green, with a belt on which was printed, in large letters, “Erin go Bragh” to show what Erin go Bragh principles led to.

The priests were removed from the criminals when they had performed about half the journey, in order that the people, seeing them die without the consolation of religion, might be struck with greater awe. One of the criminals was quite a young boy, cousin to the gamekeeper. He protested he was innocent, and that the worst thing he had ever done was stealing some hens’ eggs from his mother. It was the general impression that he was innocent, but that Duggan had sworn against him, in order not to leave one of the family alive, who might take revenge upon him. When the cart and the wretched men arrived at a grove of trees at the entrance of Macroom, they were halted. A beam was laid between two trees, and two of the men were hanged, one at each end: their companions looking on, and the people standing by in silence. When all had suffered, the hangman proceeded to carry out the remainder of the sentence, though even his callous feelings revolted against it, and he required copious draughts of whisky to carry him through it. The sight of eight heads struck a great deal more terror into the people than the execution.

As for Malachi Duggan, the captain of the gang, and treacherous informer, he received the three hundred pounds promised, and returned to his farm. The neighbouring gentry endeavoured to countenance him, but he was quite brutalised, and had no feelings of shame. The first day on which he appeared in Macroom, he looked up to the heads and said, “Ho! ho! some of my soldiers are up there, set in array. It is the best place for the rascals.”

He survived the trial many years, and died in his bed at last; but his memory is held, even yet, in the deepest execration, in that part of the country. Of this there was a curious instance not more than twelve or fourteen years ago. A gentleman living in the neighbourhood, some distance from Cork, had several servants. One of them was a very nice young girl, named Duggan, a far-away cousin of the horrible Malachi. There was a dispute about some trifling matter, and one of the other servants said to Duggan, “We shall really, miss, be obliged to call you Malachi” The poor girl did not answer a word, but that very evening left her place and set off to walk home to Cork, a distance of five-and-twenty miles, so disgraceful was the imputation of belonging ever remotely to the treacherous informer.

The Real Captains of Early 19th Century Ireland

In Michael Martin’s confession, he stated that at age 16 (1811) he joined “the United Irishmen, or, as they were more generally termed, the Ribbon-men.” Martin drew a direct line between the secret society he joined and the United Irishmen that led the Irish Rebellion of 1798. The political goals of the 1798 Rebellion were somewhat different than those of the later group that Martin joined, which at the rural level fought against tithes, onerous rents, and capricious evictions. The Ribbon-men were organized into local cells, with raiding actions led by “Captains.” Their object was to raise monies to both arm themselves and to redress the grievances of their oppressed neighbors. In Martin’s experience, younger members of the Ribbon-men were little more than petty criminals, committing robberies unsanctioned by their seniors, and keeping the spoils for their own carousing.

These Captains often adopted menacing aliases, employed to help hide their identity (though a few went by their own name.) Almost without exception, the only time their names appeared in publications (books or newspapers) was after they had been captured. A few of them are listed here:

Feb 1791: Francis alias Captain Logan, the leader of a gang of robbers, was captured by police at his lodgings in Dublin.

Aug 1795: John Magee, alias John Stout alias Captain Stout, placed on trial in Galway for recruiting locals to the cause of the Defenders (an allied group with the United Irishmen).

Mar 1799: Andrew Lee, alias Captain Whack, tried for robbery. Acquitted after a witness against him changed his testimony.

May 1805: William Carr, alias Covreen, alias Captain Carr, hanged at Castlebar for being a rebel, highwayman, and murderer. Carr killed another rebel, Captain Slash.

Feb 1810: Thomas Halloran, alias Captain Hawk, arrested at Annacotty by the High Constable of Limerick for a series of robberies.

Oct 1810: Luke Williams, alias Captain Dasher, charged with treason, robbery, and felony is lodged in the Limerick jail.

Jan 1811: Gorman, alias Captain Fearnot, arrested by the High Sheriff of Limerick and charged with robbery and felony.

Oct 1815: A threatening placard signed by Captain Fearnot, Captain Midnight, and Brigadier General Outlaw was placed on the door of Kildysart Chapel, County Clare. It threatened anyone paying tithes or (Anglican) Church taxes.

Oct 1815: Patrick Cunningham, alias Captain Midnight, committed to jail in Galway for murder, burglary, and other outrages. [Note: likely a different Captain Midnight than above.]

Jul 1818: Anthony Gallagher, aka Captain Gallagher, found guilty at Castlebar for robbery and burglary. Sentenced to death.

Aug 1820: Murtagh (Murty) Gibbons, aka Captain Thunderbolt, sentenced to transportation to Australia. [Note that “Thunderbolt” Gibbons was guilty of crimes in Galway. He does not match Michael Martin’s “Captain Thunderbolt” in name, origin, or range of operation [Gibbons was from Tiaquin, Galway; and was active after Martin indicated that John Doherty had left Ireland.]

Michael Martin – Genealogy Clues

As part of this project, a noted professional genealogist in Ireland, Paul MacCotter, was commissioned to investigate the many genealogical clues that Martin dropped in his confession. His report is listed below; but the upshot is that there is no definitive proof that John/Michael Martin was his real name, or that anything about his origins in Conahy, Kilkenny County can be confirmed.

The clues Martin gave in his confession:

–Born Connehy [sic Conahy] (7 miles from Kilkenny) on 9 APR 1795.

–Father: Joseph Martin, farmer

–Mother: Maria O’Hanlan

–Family had four sons and one daughter; John was the youngest son.

–Roman Catholic.

–At age 14 (1809), John Martin was apprenticed to his uncle, also named John Martin, at his large brewery in Kilkenny.

–At age 16 (1811), John Martin joined the United Irishmen, e.g. the “ribbonmen,” an Irish resistance secret society. Introduced by a member named Welsh, a mechanic in Connehy.

–In Spring 1812, John Martin went to Dublin where an uncle, John O’Hanlan lived and was a cloth dealer who resided at Thomas Street. His uncle spurned him, so John Martin sought out a cousin, Thomas Martin, who was head clerk at distillers Higgins, Rowe, and Higginbotham.

–While there, Martin frequented a dive called the Nine Steps. He wooed a servant girl of the Lord Mayor of Dublin, whose garden was next to the warehouse of Higgins, Rowe, and Higginbotham.

–Another uncle, Patrick Martin, who lived in the Connehy-Kilkenny area, died in 1812/13, but only left 2 shillings to John Martin.

–In 1816, John Martin met John Doherty, aka “Captain Thunderbolt,” in a public house about 5 miles from Connehy. Doherty was 30-40 years old, 6’1” in height. Doherty was ignorant of the secret signs used by Ribbonmen. “Captain Thunderbolt” had long been a highwayman in that part of Ireland, and recently had a bounty of 500 pounds for his head advertised. They left the public house separately and then met again at the ruins of a monastery about a mile away (4-6 miles from Connehy).

–Left Ireland from Waterford in March or April 1919 aboard brig Maria, bound for New York. Gave his name on the ship as “Michael O’Hanlan.”

–No relatives were mentioned in Martin’s will or last wishes.

It is safe to assume that Martin was familiar with central and southern Ireland, and with Dublin. His mention of the distiller “Nicholas, Rowe, and Higginbotham” refers to the malt whiskey operations of Nicholas Roe and his partner Henry Higginbotham. Nicholas Roe was related to the more famous George Roe distillers.

Paul MacCotter’s Report:

The records of the Catholic parish of Conahy begin in 1832 (baptism, marriage, burial) and so are of limited value here. A search of these on the Rootsireland database for the first thirty years or so found one marriage of a Martin couple in 1856 and no baptisms in the same period. The earliest comprehensive tax records of farmers in the civil parish of Grangemaccomb dates to 1834 and records no Martin farmers (Tithe Applotment). Grangemaccomb is approximately similar in area to the Catholic parish of Conahy.


Regarding the Dublin references, the main source here was commercial directories. Book refers to Joseph O’Hanlon of Thomas Street, Dublin, in 1812.
Wilson’s Directory of 1820 records: [No Josephs]
–John Hanlon, Oil and Fish merchant, Pill Lane, Dublin (now Chancery
Street near Thomas Street)
–John O’Hanlon, Skin and Feather merchant, Usher’s Street, Dublin
–Dublin Directory, 1803, nothing.


Book, p. 8 says ‘Nicholas, Rowe and Higginbotham’ and should clearly read
‘Nicholas Roe and Higginbotham’ in terms of distilling. Note the following:
–Pigot’s Directory, 1824, Nicholas Roe and Company, distillers, Bellvue,
Dublin
–Treble Almanack, 1804, Nicholas Roe, distiller, Marrowbone Lane, Dublin


No Martin’s brewery or distillery found in Pigot’s Directory of 1824 in Kilkenny town. There was a major brewery, Smithwicks, there, founded in 1710.


Our earliest homestead record is Griffith’s Valuation of 1850. In Conahy parish there was just one Martin homestead, of Daniel Martin, lot 1 in Ardaloo townland, farming three acres and buildings valued at 15 shillings. One earlier reference to Daniel occurs, of August of 1848, mention his house and piggery,
held at will from the landlord.


Headstone inscriptions have been digitised in two of the three local cemeteries, Grangemaccomb and Conahy. One Mrs. Mary Martin of Newtown is mentioned in 1850 in Conahy. No mentions of any Martins in the parish in the flax growers list of 1796. Same in the fragments of the 1821 census which survive.


Two newspaper databases were searched. The Findmypast.uk base and the Irish Newspaper Archive. The search period was 1790 to 1820. The main newspapers were Finn’s Leinster Journal and the Freeman’s Journal, both covering all of the country. All relevant names and terms were searched.

On page 72 of the book mention is made of Sir William Morris, landlord of Joseph Martin, Michael/John’s father. An extensive search of Grangemaccomb and its surrounding five civil parishes did not reveal any such landlord, but this was in 1850. (Coolcragheen, Rathbeagh, Aharney, Donaghmore, Kilmacar)


The surname Martin is fairly common in Kilkenny but notin the Conahy area. I have included later references to Martins in Conahy as these may retrospectively as it were indicate earlier references to the surname here around the time of the subject of this research. I think the Dublin references on balance can be linked to Martin’s account, especially the Roe distillery ones and at least one of the others.

Notes on sources used


Griffiths Valuation is a land and property tax which lists the heads of all households in rural areas
and the rates on their home and lands. It dates from 1848 to the early 1860s and was published at
different times for different counties. In the absence of 19 th century census records it is the nearest
equivalent. The Valuation comes with maps showing homestead location and area of farms. Earlier
material survives for some counties, usually dating four to five years before the published Griffiths,
and this can contain additional data, such as the measurements of homesteads and details of rents
and leases. This material is the house and tenure books of the Valuation Office, now held in the
National Archives.


The Tithe Applotment Books are a collection of records by civil parish which record all farmers
holding more than two acres of land. These mostly date from the period 1825 to 1835, and record
acreage and land quality of farms, names of farmers, and amounts of tithe payable to the Protestant
State Church. They are another valuable census substitute.


Church records are normally older in initiation than civil registration records. Catholic records are
available on a number of websites, most of which are pay sites. The data on some of these sites have
been transcribed from the original register entries, and in others from microfilm of the originals, so
the quality varies. The value of these websites lies in their search engines, and these are again of
varying quality, from excellent to problematical. In some cases it is possible to link to the original
entry from the website and in other cases not. In these latter cases one must search the online and
unindexed photographs of the originals available on the National Library of Ireland website if one
wishes to view the originals, or visit the church and request access. Catholic records range in start
date from the late 1600s to the 1870s. The finish date for records on the websites ranges from 1880
to circa 1920. Between the various websites above approximately 95% of all 19th century and earlier
Catholic records are available online in searchable databases, most of the remainder must be
searched for manually as described above. A very small number of registers have yet to be copied.
Only around 40% of Protestant records survive from before 1878. Anglican (Episcopalian) records are
mostly housed in the Representative Church Body Library, Dublin, while the National Archives has a
microfilm collection of many of these. In many cases the surviving Anglican and Presbyterian records
are available on the same websites as the Catholic records, but this is not true in all cases.

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.

The Execution of Michael Martin

F. W. Waldo’s pamphlet of Michael Martin’s confession, as well as contemporary newspaper accounts, universally noted the acceptance and dignity which Martin exhibited as he faced the scaffold. Waldo, in fact, quoted from the December 22, 1821 account of the Columbian Centinel:

“On Thursday last, Michael Martin, was executed for highway robbery, a short distance from the jail, of Middlesex County, in Cambridge, (Lechmere Point,) directly in view from the westerly part of this town, and the State Prison in Charlestown.

“Some time before the execution, he was released from his irons, and was visited in his room by the Rev. Mr. M’Quade, of the Catholic Church. About 12 o’clock, he was put into a close carriage, in which were Sheriff Austin, the reverend gentleman, above named, and a professional gentleman of this town. The carriage was preceded, and surrounded by Deputy Sheriffs on horseback, and followed by a cart containing the criminal’s coffin. When arrived at the gallows, the prisoner ascended to the stage, on which the platform of execution was erected, without assistance and with the most placid look, cast his eyes over the immense multitude which surrounded him.

“He appeared a young man, about 27, in perfect health, dressed in a suit of black, with a white neck-cloth, and apparently, the most unaffected person on the stage, of which there were nine — the sheriff, the prisoner, the priest, the professional gentleman alluded to, two surgeons, and three deputy sheriffs. His resignation appeared unforced. While the sheriff was reading the death warrant, the prisoner was in earnest conversation with the priest, and did not appear to hear it. The warrant having been read, the sheriff announced to the assembled spectators, that the last office of religion would be performed to the unhappy man, by the clergyman then present, and beseeched them to attend with the same silence and decorum which they had attended to the reading of the warrant. The request was fully complied with; and the utmost silence was preserved while the priest and the convict, kneeling at the foot of the steps which led to the scaffold, recited the prayers of the church, suited to the occasion; Martin responding with serenity, and frequently making the sign of the cross.

“This service ended, the prisoner, the sheriff, and Mr. Train, the gaoler, ascended the scaffold. Martin surveyed the apparatus for his execution, for a moment, without any change of countenance, and then untied his neck-cloth, and appeared to assist in fixing the fatal noose to his neck, so as to occasion his death without suffering. He then took a handkerchief, and after the cap was placed over his face, and the sheriff and his deputy had descended to the stage, inquired, with a firm voice, ‘When shall I drop the handkerchief?’ The sheriff answered, ‘When you please.’ Martin slowly raised his hands thrice to his breast, as in prayer, and then threw down the handkerchief, and was instantly launched into eternity. His death appeared to be immediate, and without suffering. After hanging the usual time, his body was disposed of, as desired in his will. This was the first execution, under the law making the crime, of which Martin was convicted, capital; and the regularity and decorum with which it was conducted, must have made a deep impression on the great body of spectators which witnessed it, and inspired them with a suitable awe of the energy and majesty of the law.”

Decades later, in 1885, a letter to the editor of the Boston Globe revealed the final resting place of Martin:

The St. Augustine cemetery still exists, and Martin’s remains are presumably still there.

[Note that Martin, in his confession, said that his real given name was John, not Michael. And yet the aged woman who said she knew him as a boy said, “I remember Micky…” So did Martin go by the name Michael (Micky) ever since he was very young; or, perhaps, did this woman not really know him?]

Mike Martin, Thieving at Montreal’s Donegana Hotel

In 1885, the Montreal Gazette published an anecdote about Michael Martin’s time in Quebec (which, in his confession, was in June 1821):

There are many problems with this anecdote, the first one being the date “1825,” which was four years after Michael Martin’s execution.

The Donegana Hotel in Montreal was built in 1821 and during its first decade was not a hotel at all, but a private residence. During the late 1830 and early 1840s, it served as the official residence of the Governor-General of Canada. Later it was converted to a hotel.

The reference to “General Gordon” is a puzzle. In 1885, everyone in the world would have associated that name with British General Charles George Gordon, who died in January of that year while defending the Egyptian-held city of Khartoum from attack by the Mahdi forces of Sudan. However, he was not born until 1833. There was also a General Gordon Drummond who served as a Governor-General of Canada in the 1810s, but who had returned to England by 1821. There are no other obvious candidates for who “General Gordon” might have been.

The anecdote also conflates Martin’s visit to Montreal with the incident involving a confrontation with a Native American. In his confession, Martin says that he shot and killed an Indian during a botched highway robbery attempt on a road thrity-five miles outside of Montreal, while heading towards Kingston.

Martin did admit that he tried, unsuccessfully, to steal items while staying in Montreal.

W. R. Burnett’s Captain Lightfoot

W. R. (William Riley) Burnett (1899-1982) was a popular novelist and screenwriter of the 1930s-1970s, setting most of his stories in the underworld of American cities. His works were known for adventurous action, violence, and the featuring criminals as main protagonists. Burnett wrote (both as novels and screenplays) such classics as Little Caesar, The Asphalt Jungle, Scarface, and High Sierra. Burnett did not publicize his reasons for adapting the exploits of Captain Lightfoot and Captain Thunderbolt, but he must have been tempted to pay homage to his Irish heritage. Also, since he knew the novel was to be immediately adapted to film, he must have enjoyed the prospect of a lush, Technicolor-CinemaScope period piece–a contrast to the black and white film noir treatments of his earlier works.

Burnett only used the Irish exploits mentioned in Michael Martin’s confession as a pretext for his wholly fabricated story of a young highwayman (Michael Martin, i.e. Lightfoot) adopted as a partner by the senior criminal mastermind, Thunderbolt. In Burnett’s version, Thunderbolt has largely moved beyond highway robbery and is now the operator of a high-rolling Dublin gambling den. Martin agrees to be an aide to Thunderbolt once he learns that the proceeds of the operation are going towards Irish nationalists. Martin is also attracted by the charms of Thunderbolt’s daughter, Aga.

Burnett’s novel was well-received, but reviewers were probably aware that a movie was already in the works:

Burnett’s novel was generally well-reviewed as a light adventure story, perhaps falling short of what Burnett was quoted as saying was his attempt bring the flavor of a folk ballad to a novel. His depiction of Ireland lacked detail, and little effort was made to explore the politics of the Irish nationalists and of British rule.

Burnett was praised by some (and criticized by others) for employing criminals as his heroes; he was one of the first and best known advocates of the “anti-hero.” Captain Lightfoot fits this mold. The New York Times review of the novel ends:

“His [i.e. Captain Lightfoot’s] creator believes, however, that his story should show a moral, “but for the life of me,” he says, “I can’t make out what the moral can possibly be except the obvious and usual one: Man is born to trouble as the sparks fly upward.”

This admission, made at the same time (mid-1950s) when other aspects of popular culture (music, comic books, etc.) were under attack for their supposed immorality, helps to explain Burnett’s appeal.

Copies of Captain Lightfoot may be too old to be found in public libraries, and the work is not yet in the public domain. However, used book dealers still have many copies available, and inexpensive.