John Wilson (1789-1847) was a Scottish-born and educated physician who resided in Southern Vermont during the last thirty years of his life. Shortly after his death, a Brattleboro publisher, J. B. Miner, produced a pamphlet that reprinted Michael Martin’s confession and added arguments supporting the idea that Dr. Wilson had been “Captain Thunderbolt,” the highwayman mentor of Martin. This assertion was not invented by Miner, but instead had been rumored in Brattleboro for many years, before Wilson’s death; Wilson was apparently aware of this. The evidence supporting the idea was circumstantial and anecdotal, but caught the public imagination to the extent that most people came to believe it to be true. From 1847 to the present day, the majority of accounts about the highwaymen “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” accept as fact that Dr. John Wilson was Thunderbolt. The claim is also featured in tourism material produced in Vermont and the Brattleboro region, which keeps the notion alive.
A few of Wilson’s contemporary professional friends tried to dispel the idea that Wilson had a notorious criminal past, but their reasoning was drowned out by the “nervous excitement” (as Miner described it) that local residents felt in the unmasking of Wilson.
The articles listed below examine the reasons why Dr. Wilson could not have been Thunderbolt. As for the reasons why Vermonters came to believe that he was, they can be summarized:
- Dr. Wilson was said to have been the same height (6’1″) and strong proportions as Michael Martin had ascribed to John Doherty, “Captain Thunderbolt.”
- Upon his death, it was found he had profound old neck, leg and heel injuries that he tried to conceal; Martin said Thunderbolt had once been shot in the calf.
- He arrived in America about the same time that Michael Martin arrived.
- He was born in Scotland; Martin’s Thunderbolt–John Doherty–was born in Scotland.
- He did not speak about his past. He was reluctant to encounter strangers.
- He reacted with impatience if he saw a copy of Martin’s confession; or if he was asked about being Thunderbolt.
- His Brattleboro wife divorced him, claiming that he had a cruel character.
- Martin’s confession said that he last knew Doherty to be residing the the West Indies; Dr. Wilson was said to have once visited the West Indies
- Wilson designed a unique one-room round schoolhouse, that allowed anyone inside to observe the surroundings in all directions.
- Upon his death, Dr. Wilson’s effects were listed as including several firearms, including a set of English pistols.
Listed below are posts that examine the evidence against Dr. Wilson in more detail:
John Morrison’s Defense of Dr. Wilson
Dr. John Wilson’s Chronology–Conflicts with Martin’s Confession