I’ve kicked off a new (third) blog project that once again looks at the traditions of infamous criminals in America. In this case I’m going back further in time and concentrating 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 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.

At launch, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: Exploring an American Folk Legend only has a few pages and posts, but much more is to come!

2 thoughts on “Another Companion Project Launched: Thunderbolt and Lightfoot: Exploring an American Folk Legend

  1. This might interest you. It is available as a reprint. “A Genuine History of the Lives and Actions of the Most Notorious Irish Highwaymen, Tories and Rapparees, from Redmond O Hanlon, to Cahier Na Gappul, … of Manus Maconiel, … the Third Edition”


  2. That book was well-known to Irish readers of Michael Martin’s time. Martin likely grew up hearing stories of all the famous Robin Hood-like Irish highwaymen. Martin was definitely a highwayman in America in 1821. The big questions are whether he ever was one in Ireland; if he had a partner and mentor; and whether their renown was as pronounced as Martin claimed it was. Irish and British papers of that time (1815-1819) make no mention of highwaymen Lightfoot or Thunderbolt.


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