Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, the highwaymen who raised hell in New England

Michael Martin led a Robin Hood-style life, before becoming the last man to be hanged in New England for the crime of highway robbery

An illustration from the 1821 confession of Captain Lightfoot, purporting to show Michael Martin, which was published by Brattleboro and JB Miner.

An illustration from the 1821 confession of Captain Lightfoot, purporting to show Michael Martin, which was published by Brattleboro and JB Miner.

 

There’s no plaque to mark the spot. But somewhere along the banks of the Charles river in Cambridge, Massachusetts, close to where Boston’s Museum of Science stands today, the career one of Ireland’s most prolific criminals came abruptly to a halt in 1821.

His name was Michael Martin. But history remembers him as Captain Lightfoot, the last man hanged in New England for the crime of highway robbery.

Martin was born in Conahy, Co Kilkenny in 1795. At the age of 16 he was sworn into the Ribbonmen, a secret nationalist militia whose members, by his later telling, were often little more than layabouts and common criminals.

And that’s all Martin might have been were it not for a chance encounter in a tavern, aged 20, with an older man he took to be an Anglican clergyman. Martin was penniless and lying low after his latest misadventure. The clergyman plied him with alcohol and extracted information about the youngster’s criminal proclivities.

Capt Thunderbolt

The next morning, after they had sobered up, the “clergyman” revealed his true identity. He was John Doherty, aka Capt Thunderbolt, Ireland's most celebrated highwayman. Under Doherty’s tutelage, Martin soon carried out his first “dip” – intercepting an English nobleman en route home from a hunt meeting and relieving him at gunpoint of his purse and robes.

Asked if he was the notorious Capt Thunderbolt, Martin cried: “No, I am his brother, Capt Lightfoot.”

The pair were now a duo and Doherty versed his young charge in the highwayman’s code. They would steal only from the wealthy. They would be courteous to those they robbed and avoid violence at all costs. This wasn’t strictly a moral stance. Rich people tended to cough up more quickly when they knew they would get away unscathed.

Popular culture depicts highwaymen as folk heroes. And there are some Robin Hood elements to this story. In one case, Martin gifted a large sum of money to a starving family facing eviction from their home. He then lurked in the vicinity, waited for the landlord’s agent to collect his rent, and relieved him of it as he left.

But for the most part, the lives of these highwayman were grim. They were constantly on the run, sleeping in barns or outdoors. At best, the pair might get to kick up the dust in some out-of-the-way tavern for a day or two, before a Wanted poster and a suspicious glance from behind the bar sent them fleeing for the woods.

Salem brewery

In 1819, Martin and Doherty separated for the final time. The younger man boarded a ship for New York. He purchased a brewery in Salem, Massachusetts, and for a time made an honest living there. But when he found himself in debt, he soon reverted to his old ways. Once again, his self-confessed exploits, if they can be believed, seem to have been extraordinary.

Near Kingston, Ontario, he robbed a Native American chief of $65. The chief demanded the right to fight him for his money back. When Martin agreed, the chief sent up a loud war cry and Martin found himself scarpering through a pine forest with 20 young braves hot on his trail.

The law eventually caught up with him in Springfield, Massachusetts. He was convicted of the robbery of a Major Bray of Medford and executed in front of a large crowd at Lechmere Point. Before going to the gallows he dictated his life story to a local reporter, Frederick W Waldo, and the resulting story became a huge sensation after his death.

It would at least partially inspire two major Hollywood movies, 1955’s Captain Lightfoot (starring Rock Hudson, and with the action moved to Ireland) and 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges. ) Years later, it would emerge that his old friend Doherty may have lived out his days peacefully as a schoolmaster in Brattleboro, Vermont. But that’s another story for another day.

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