Richard “Thunderbolt” Relhan

The first person to be publicly identified as Martin’s mentor, “Captain Thuderbolt,” was a barber from Portland, Maine, named Richard Relhan. However, when Relhan initially arrived in Portland in late 1822, he used the alias “John Johnson.” The article below was reprinted in dozens of American newspapers in late summer, 1823:

From the Portland Argus, of August 12, 1823


“If thou be’st he; but O how fallen.”

A week or two ago, we mentioned the sudden departure from this town, of a fellow by the name John Johnson, who set up some five or six months, since, as a barber. He hired a horse and chaise from Mr. McKenney’s stable for a few days, and after his departure suspicions arose that it was his intention not to return. He was immediately pursued through New Hampshire and Vermont, and finally arrested near the Canada line and confined in jail at St. Albans [Vermont]. It will be recollected perhaps, that a man by the name of Martin, who was executed a few years ago at Boston, gives an account in his dying confessions of one of his accomplices in crime, who was designated by the name of “Captain Thunderbolt;” a name given him probably on account of his giant strength and daring spirit, which qualified him for a desperate leader of a hand of outlaws. After Johnson’s departure from town, a rumor soon spread, that he was no less than this same Capt. Thunderbolt; and his Herculean frame and dark visage, more especially the lightning which was seen in his piercing black eyes, rose up as ready witnesses to give credibility to the story, which was verily believed by many, and is to this day. It was even said that men whose faces had passed beneath his razor now shuddered at the thought, and women were more careful than ever on retiring at night, to see that doors and windows were all made secure. When news arrived here that Johnson was confined in St. Albans jail, Mr. McKenney started with proper authorities to bring him to this town for trial. On arriving at St. Albans, however, he was not a little surprised to learn that Johnson had been absent from there almost a week!—Johnson had told the people a very fair story, that he had hired the horse and chaise at so much per day for as long a time as he pleased; that he was a professor and lover of religion: belonged to a baptist church, and was cruelly persecuted. These arguments were sufficient for the good people of St. Albans. They wanted no further law or evidence, but took him out of jail forthwith, for trial; and as no one appeared against him, he was discharged without delay. On Mr. McKenney’s arrival at St. Albans, however, the high sheriff at that place and an attorney at law, readily offered their services to pursue Johnson and bring him back.—They accordingly departed, and found him at Montreal, Canada. He was discovered at a public house, where he spent considerable part of the afternoon, rolling nine-pins. As no one dared venture to take him, it was determined to watch him till he should retire to bed at night. Accordingly, after he had gone to his chamber, five men went up, probably with the expectation of finding this Sampson asleep that they might lay hands on him and live. But it seems he had too many cares resolving in his breast to be under the influence of “tired nature’s sweet restorer,” and at they entered his chamber he sprang from the bed, upon which he had thrown himself without undressing, rushed upon his assailants, and knocked them down one after another until he was met by an Irishman, a man of great strength, who had armed himself with a cudgel, and was very expert in the art of wielding it. He soon fetched Johnson to the floor with a heavy blow over the head, and succeeded in binding his arms, and rendered him manageable. Having some distance to go by water, Johnson was taken on board a boat and rowed off, accompanied by seven men. When they reached the place where they wore to take land carriage, and were getting out of the boat, Johnston by a prodigious effort of strength broke the cord which bound his arms, snatching a sword-cane from the hands of one of the officers, put himself in a posture of defense, threatening death to any who should approach him.  But the Irishman, on whom the hopes of the company rested, by his superior skill at cudgel play, defended himself from the thrusts of Johnson, gave him several severe bruises, broke his sword, and finally disarmed him; whereupon he was rebound, placed in the carriage, guarded again by seven men, and driven off at full speed for St. Albans. There he was placed in a strong set of irons and given up to Mr. McKinney, who conducted him to Portland. The persons who took Johnson at Montreal were all strangers to him, and it is worthy of remark that as soon as they secured him, he eagerly inquired whether they had taken him for robbing the mail! On his way from St. Albans to here, Johnson was sullen and took but very little food, and once knocked the person out of the wagon who was driving him. He arrived in this town on Tuesday last, “and occasioned no small stir amongst the people.” He was examined in the Court House, before Justice Storer, amidst a crowd of spectators, and laid under bonds of twelve hundred dollars, to appear and receive his trial at the Supreme Court in this town November next. The prisoner being unable to obtain bail, was committed.

There were several repercussions to the arrest of Johnson. First, the authorities in St. Albans, Vermont objected to the characterization that they had let let a criminal free. When Johnson was first apprehended in St. Albans, he was taken before a court that lacked any evidence of a crime. The court did detain him several days, in expectation that McKinney would arrive within that time to lodge his complaint. When McKinney did not appear within that time frame, only then was Johnson discharged. Second, authorities in Montreal rightfully objected to Johnson being kidnapped by an American posse which had no legal standing to operate in Canada. A Montreal Grand Jury and magistrates filed a petition with the Governor General of Canada to demand the United States to return Johnson. The petition failed, but still was an embarrassment to US-Canadian relations.

“John Johnson” was tried in Portland in November 1823. His defense was that the agreement to hire the wagon and team was open-ended, and only specified a daily rate, but not a limited number of days or miles from Portland. The prosecution produced several witnesses who confirmed that Johnson had told different stories to different people about why he needed the transportation and where he intended to go. On the strength of that testimony, the judge determined that Johnson had deceived McKenney, and pronounced Johnson guilty of horse theft. He was sentenced to 30 days in solitary confinement and two years of hard labor.

Only years later was “John Johnson’s” fate revealed. A May 11, 1866 edition of the Portland Daily Press recalled: “After expiating for his offense committed here, Johnson assumed his real name of Relhan, lived a virtuous life, joined the Federal Street Baptist Church in which he was an exemplary member, and was much respected in the community for the quiet and religious life which he led and which he maintained up to the day that he died.”

Further research into the genealogy of Richard Relhan (1792-1841) reveals a naturalization affidavit that he was born in St. Croix in the Caribbean (then governed by Denmark) and came to the United States in 1809, residing first in Philadelphia.

Relhan was not Captain Thunderbolt.