John Morrison’s Defense of Dr. Wilson

Shortly after J. B. Miner’s pamphlet was published that presented arguments for believing that Dr. John Wilson was the infamous former highwayman, Captain Thunderbolt, one of Wilson’s friends rallied to the defense of the late doctor’s memory. His name was John Morrison, and like Wilson he was from Scotland, and came to American about the same time. In response to the accusations against Wilson, Morrison wrote a letter to the Boston Post countering the main suspicions against Wilson. This letter was later reprinted by J. B. Miner in a broadsheet titled Thunderbolt Examiner in which Miner continued to present pro and con reasons for believing that Wilson was Thunderbolt.

This letter can be found on the website of Brattleboro, Vermont local historian Thomas St. John. St. John has an astounding wealth of material and original research on Dr. John Wilson:

Brattleboro History: Dr. John Wilson, Captain Thunderbolt

Morrison brings up several major points, which will be explored in more detail in further posts.

“Captain Thunderbolt.”

To the Editor of the Boston Post

Dear Sir:—

As you have been instrumental, unintentionally I presume, in giving publicity to what I am convinced are some very erroneous charges in relation to my late friend Dr. John Wilson, of Brattleboro, Vermont, will you therefore do me the favor, as well as an act of justice to the memory of Dr. W. and his relatives and friends who survive him, to publish the following statement; for I think you will be satisfied that Mr. W.’s conduct has been grossly misrepresented, and his character aspersed.

I became acquainted with him in 1818, after his arrival at Boston. His brother Robert was then in Boston, a respectable man and a slater. Dr. W. was in the habit of visiting at my house and store up to December, 1819, when I removed to N. York. After he removed to Newfane, Vermont, we corresponded to within a few years of his death, and never heard any thing to his discredit until a paper was sent me which contained the vile charges that have been heaped on his character since his decease.

The following extracts are from a letter from his son-in-law, Hugh Begg, dated at East Kilbride, Lanarkshire, Scotland, July 29, 1847:

“The very day that I received your letter, I saw the same story (meaning the story about Captain Thunderbolt, &c.,) in the Glasgow Herald. When I read your letter to my wife she was like to go distracted. I think this a notorious lie.—When he left Muirkirk, (his native place) to go to his brother at Boston, he was loved by every person that knew him, he was so clever. The lame leg he had was burned in the Muirkirk Iron Works, when he was a boy, and he had to go on crutches for many months. If ever he has behaved badly it must have been after he went to America, for he was well brought up. His father was a respectable, religious man. My wife is much respected, when she goes to Muirkirk, for her father’s sake.”

This much from Dr. W.’s son-in-law, as to what he has heard said about him, for he did not know him personally. Mr. Begg refers me to Mr Adam McCall, Post Master at Muirkirk, as he knew Dr. W. all his life time up to the time that he left for Boston, if I desire further information.

I am authorized by John Boyd, who is well known as the keeper of an Oyster Saloon, &c., in South street, Baltimore, to say, that he was at school with John Wilson, in Muirkirk, when they were about 8 or 9 years old, and that Wilson was then lame, and that he never, till now, heard any thing to his discredit.

I am likewise authorized, by Dr. D. G. Watson, No. 26 South 13th street, Philadelphia, to say, that they were at the College in Glasgow, from 1812 to 1815, and that Wilson was then lame and walked on the point of his toes with one of his feet, and that he has never heard any thing to his disparagement till now.

In 1820 Dr. W. came to New York, took passage for Liverpool, purchased a cargo of slates for his brother, and took them to Boston. I might enumerate more cases as regards my knowledge of Dr. W., but do not wish to be tedious, or take up more than enough of your paper to vindicate the character and rebut the slanders that have been so widely circulated, to the injury of his memory and the great grief of his relatives and friends.

I now ask, is his lameness when a child not triumphantly accounted for. Is not his whereabouts fully accounted for up to 1815? And notwithstanding, I have no minute account of where he was from 1815 to ’18, excepting that he was attending the Medical School, Lectures, &c., in Edinburg, is it fair to presume, or reasonable to suppose, that in that time he committed the crimes that are laid to his charge under the cognomen of Captain Thunderbolt? The idea is absurd and preposterous. At the time the crimes were committed, Wilson could only have been about 23 years old.

The stories that have been circulated about his desiring to be buried in his clothes, jewelry, dirks, pistols, &c., has been disproved by Mr. L. G. Mead, who took possession of Mr. Wilson’s papers, &c., after his death. If Dr. Wilson was the notorious outlaw, highwayman, &c., which he has been said to be, is it at all presumable that he would have gone to England deliberately, as he did in 1820, thereby subjecting himself to exposure and capture for his crimes, knowing that an enormous price had been set on his head by the Government of Britain?

I who knew him, and was with him when he sailed for Liverpool, do not believe he was such a fool. Neither do I believe he was a rogue, or guilty of the crimes laid to his charge, but believe that he was more honest than his calumniators. For this reason I stand forth to redeem his memory from unmerited censure and condemnation. ‘As ye would that others should do unto you,’ &c.

John Morrison.

135 Chatham street, New York; and from 1813 to 1824, of the firm of Leach & Morrison, Court Street, Boston.