Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: Exploring an American Folk Legend

I’ve completed a (third) blog project that once again looks at the traditions of infamous criminals in America. The previous two projects were:

Professional Criminals of America–REVISED

Asbury’s The Gangs of New York — Annotated

In this new project I’ve gone back further in time and concentrated on two specific individuals: the highwaymen Captain Thunderbolt and Captain Lightfoot. The lore surrounding these two has more elements of myth than fact, although Michael Martin–aka “Captain Lightfoot”–was real enough. He was captured, tried, and executed in Massachusetts in 1821, leaving behind a long confession that became an instant best-seller. In that pamphlet, he detailed the story of his life and the robberies he committed with his mentor, John Doherty–aka Captain Thunderbolt–in Ireland and Scotland.

In the decades following his death, Martin’s narrative inspired embellished, fictionalized retellings of the exploits of the two highwaymen; but also generated separate hysterical accusations against two New Englanders (Richard Relhan and Dr. John Wilson) asserting that they were none other than “Captain Thunderbolt.”

In this blog project, I attempt to get to the truth of the matter by deconstructing Michael Martin’s confession; looking at how the story took on a life of its own in popular culture; analyzing the evidence against Relhan and Dr. Wilson; reviewing the long tradition of heroic Irish outlaws; and revealing the Massachusetts legends and relics about Martin. Included are a report by a professional Irish genealogist; and observations on Michael Martin’s confession in the context of Irish outlaw literature by a professor of history and philosophy at the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: Exploring an American Folk Legend

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