Continued from PART II.
Captain Lightfoot: The Last of the New England Highwaymen (1821)
Among the early annals of the American republic exists a curious pamphlet, published at Boston in 1821, entitled The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. What this little volume contains is nothing less than an account of the life of the last highwayman in New England, as dictated by the criminal himself to reporter Frederick W. Waldo of the Columbian Centinal, during the days leading up to his execution.
A highwayman (for those unfamiliar with the term) was a highway robber–a breed of criminal common during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, that was often known to adopt a polite, gentlemanly tone while accosting his victims. For this reason, highwaymen sometimes attained the status of folk heroes, especially in countries subjugated by the British (such as Ireland and Scotland), where the wealthy class and agents of the law were assumed to be in league with the colonizing powers. Martin’s account is filled with adventure, intrigue, secret societies, daring escapes, and desperate shootouts, as seen through the eyes of a character who has all the tragic failings of a man who has wasted his life in a world of crime. It is, in many ways, an early nineteenth century version of the movie Goodfellas.
Martin’s tale begins thus:
I have in the course of my short life, assumed many fictitious names. My true name is John Martin.
Martin was born in Ireland, in the parish of Connehy, near the city of Kilkenny, in 1795, to Roman Catholic parents. He was provided well for, sent to church and school, but relates that “as early as I can remember, I was more fond of diversion and play, than of learning. My temper was violent, and I chose rather to be subject to the government of my own passions, than to parental authority.” At age fourteen, Martin was apprenticed to his Uncle, a brewer, but according to Martin, his own “bad habits and vicious propensities” did little to ingratiate him with his benefactor. Eventually his Uncle punished him for some crime, and Martin returned home. According to his account,
At this time, my evil habits were partially fixed; and I began to indulge in those propensities which have eventuated in my ruin…I violated all my promises; often neglected my school, and fell into bad company.
From here it was all downhill. Martin began associating with dishonest people, adopting a debauched lifestyle–which, to maintain, he resorted to stealing from his own family. At age sixteen he was initiated into the United Irishmen, or Ribbon Men, a secret society whose object was to free Ireland from British rule. Martin relates that
The meetings were generally appointed at different places each night—sometimes near my father’s, and frequently many miles off. I would, when necessary, take one of my father’s horses from his barn, and return before day light to my chamber, by the rope. The association to which I belonged, had secret signs and secret places of meeting, which were changed every night. The time was principally employed in discussing our grievances, in drilling the use of the pike, rifle and musket; and when those of higher rank had gone, the others would carouse till next morning. Some of those who remained, would talk over the feats of villainy which they had done, or intended to commit. The perpetration of small crimes was directly contrary to the intention of the founders of the association, and in their presence nothing like robbery was ever mentioned. But many others who were desperate in their fortunes, were continually devising schemes to benefit themselves individually, and not for the common good. From such members it was, that I derived my first disposition to mischief and propensity for taking from others what I had no right to demand.
Six months later, Martin’s father discovered his involvement with the Ribbon Men. He confronted his son, beat him, and disowned him. After stealing some more money from his family, Martin traveled to Dublin, where he took up cheating at cards, and began spending time with swindlers and prostitutes. He briefly landed another job at a distillery, but was fired for bad behavior.
One night, while staying at a country inn, Martin fell into conversation with a supposed “clergyman” who would change his life forever. Seeing that Martin was short of cash, the man generously offered to pay for his food and drink for the whole evening. Martin described him as follows:
The name of this man, was John Doherty. ln the course of this conversation, I thought there was something rather mysterious in his manner, although he appeared to me quite undisguised. But he asked me many questions about my family, myself, and my manner of life, which I thought it impossible for a stranger to be acquainted with…
Doherty was very earnest, in all his inquiries, and was continually plying me with liquor. He asked me at first, if my name was not Martin—If I was the young man just returned from Dublin, and who had been obliged to run away from there. You are a wild fellow, said he, are you not? I answered, yes. You are very fond of spending money? Yes, when I can get it. You don’t much care how you come by it? No, if it doesn’t cost me much trouble. He said it was a shame that such a smart young fellow as I was, should be at any time destitute of money. He at length wormed himself into my confidence, and I told him all the history of my past life. After pumping me for some time, and finding out what sort of a disposition I had; and after we had got pretty warm with liquor, he threw off his disguise of a clergyman, but did not then tell me who he was. He talked about robberies and religion, alternately: and I was confused throughout the evening, not being able to find out what was the real character of the man…
Doherty offered to travel with Martin the next day, and continued to interview him about his life story and talents. He invited Martin to race him to test his running ability, saddled him on his horse to see how he could ride, and leap ditches and fences. Satisfied with Martin’s skills, Doherty invited him to a private dinner. After fastening all the windows and doors, he revealed to Martin his true character and profession:
He said he was a highwayman, and that he was Captain Thunderbolt. I was astonished and alarmed at this information—I had for many years heard of the daring exploits of that man; and his name had for a long time been a terror to that part of the country. He had been often advertised; and but a few days before, I had seen an advertisement offering a reward of 500 pounds for his head. I then felt a little dread at being left alone with a man of whom I had heard so many outrageous crimes, and was anxious to get out of the room. He took out two large pistols and laid them on the table, after cocking one of them, and said, “Martin you must stay with me, I cannot part from so clever a fellow as you are.” I then sat down again, and he urged me to drink more. He then recounted many of his feats; some of which were so amusing, and apparently so innocent, that I listened with great delight to him. He touched my quality exactly…I remained till near midnight, hearing him recount his adventures, and he persuading me to embark with him.
The interview was interrupted by the arrival of several British dragoons hunting Doherty. The two men arranged to reunite, however, the next day, where Doherty arrived with “a fine pair of double barrelled brass pistols, a dirk, and in his portmanteau, a large blunderbuss.” And thus it was that Doherty invited Martin to become his apprentice. Doherty justified his criminal profession by claiming to be a sort of Robin Hood, professing a doctrine akin to communism:
He said, it was his principle, to make property equal in this world. That he would get as much as he could from the rich, but would never molest the poor—He would take money from those who had more than they knew how to use, but would never take life, if he could avoid it. If there was any danger of detection, or any strong opposition, he thought himself justified in taking life.
Martin, of course, eventually broke down and agreed to partner with Doherty. In July of 1816, at twenty-one years of age, Martin became a highwayman. He described his initiation as follows:
[Doherty] initiated me into the order, by first throwing a glass of brandy in my face, and calling me Captain Lightfoot. He then presented me a double barrel brass pistol—after having drawn the charge, and loaded it again with slugs, he told me to put it in my bosom, and while I kept with him, and observed his instructions, I should never be taken or die. I obeyed most willingly, for my whole soul was with this man, and I thought he would stand a pretty good tug with old Satan himself.
From here the narrative becomes a litany of burglaries, hold-ups and shoot-outs as Martin learns the various intricacies of his new trade. Clearly the robbers took delight in stealing from the well-to-do; when a trembling servant offered up his valuables, Doherty told him, “we are not in the habit of troubling any but gentlemen.” Likewise, while robbing a lavish estate, he used comforting language to soothe the female inhabitants of the house, while terrifying them at the same time:
He told them his trade; that he wished to do nothing to them but what was gentlemanly, and would not take from them a farthing of property; but he had understood that there was valuable treasure in that house, and they must shell out. He laid his pistols on the table—asked for a glass of brandy: They gave it to him in great fright, and he used every means to prevent them from being alarmed. After some time, they went up stairs, and brought down a gold watch, a pocket book, containing bank notes, and a purse, with a quantity of specie in it. Doherty said that this was not all the treasure; he must have more. They went again, and returned with watches and jewels of their own. He said that he would rather be burnt to death, than take any thing from a woman. He told me to lock the door. We took each of us a part of the spoil, kissed the ladies, and bid them good bye. After we had mounted our horses, I threw down the key of the room where the servants were confined; and we took our course across the country, avoiding the public roads. The amount we lifted at this house was about 160 guineas.
Often the two desperadoes were forced to disguise themselves to avoid detection, and barely remained one step ahead of the “redcoats,” and other authorities. At one point, Doherty is wounded in the calf while being chased by soldiers through a field. After running more than 10 miles on foot, the two hide themselves in a wood, where Doherty collapses:
he fell down on the ground, and as I thought, was a dying man. He had sense enough after a few minutes rest, to tell me that there was a small bottle in his pocket, which he directed me to give him. He smelt of it, swallowed a few drops from it, and nibbed his head with it. He was soon revived, and directed me to take out the ball from his leg, with my penknife. “Cut as near the lead,” said he, “as you can; I can afford to lose a little blood.” It was the first time that I had ever officiated as a surgeon; but I saw he was so resolute upon the subject, that I cut it out without any fear. He bound up the wound himself, and said we must remain in that wood for some time. I cut down a quantity of bushes to make a bed for the Captain, and we remained in this situation for about twenty four hours, without meat or drink. The medicine that he carried with him, saved his life; for he had bled profusely. The next night, I left him, to go in pursuit of food…I ate very ravenously; but he abstained, although he said, he was quite hungry. “If he was at the most splendid banquet in the world,” he said ” he would neither eat nor drink. This abstinence was the shortest way of curing his wound.”
After robbing a score of others, Doherty was ambushed while sleeping by a company of dragoons, and taken captive. Bound hand and foot, he was set under a careful watch. Martin waited until the moment was right, then daringly attempted to free his comerade:
I concealed myself in the rear of the stable until midnight; and then, by the assistance of my pistol, struck a light, and set fire to the stable. I then cried fire, as stoutly as I could bawl…most of the people who were guarding the Captain, came out to assist in extinguishing the flames. I watched the opportunity, and found out in what room he was confined. I went in, and there were only three soldiers left to guard him. I found them sitting quietly along side of him, their muskets placed in the corner of the room. I drew both my pistols, and swore that I would kill the first man that started. They seemed terrified, and offered no resistance. I took out my knife and cut the cords with which the Captain was bound, and gave him one of my pistols. When he was getting up, one of the soldiers got up and grasped a musket; but before he had time to cock it and present, I fired my pistol and shot him in the leg…He fell, the rest were still more alarmed, and we pushed off on foot, leaving them to mend their legs, and put out their fires, in the best manner they could.
At one point, the two become wealthy enough to set themselves up in style in Dublin. They develop an elaborate scheme to pose as gentleman and marry a wealthy widow named Lady MacBriar. The plot is almost successful, but is foiled when the frauds have a chance encounter with someone from Martin’s home town who recognizes him. Constantly on the run, the men flee to Belfast, the highlands of Scotland, and eventually Glasgow, where they “went to a house of ill-fame, where we remained four or five days, drinking and spending a great deal of money.” For a while the men masquerade as doctors, selling people fake cures and quack medicines. The two make so much money at this, that Martin considered giving up highway robbery:
I said one day, to the Captain, that I had rather go on in this way, and would never take to the highway again. He laughed at me, and said, “to be sure we can get a living in this business; but money is not worth much to us if we can’t spend it. I want to lay up enough, so that I can get into some other country, and spend it like a gentleman—Besides, I like the fun of frightening the loons, and taking from them what is of no use to them.”
After this the two hijacked a ship and returned to Ireland, where they continued to rob. Martin describes another scene in which he accosts a prominent member of the Anglo-Irish aristocracy:
The Lord Lieutenant had a large gold headed cane in his hand; and in a few minutes he sat down on a bench, on the margin of the pond…I then came out of my hiding place, went boldly up to the master, presented my large double-barrelled pistol, and demanded all the money he had about him. He looked at me for a few moments,and then said, “Did you speak to me ?” “Yes, please your honor.” “What do you want, you impudent rascal,” said he, “get out of my presence, or I will have your skin taken off.” “Please your honor,” said I, ” I must first skin your pockets; and if you offer to call for assistance, and do not give over immediately, I shall take your life.”
At one point they become so notorious, and are pursued by so many sheriffs and king’s men, that Martin and Doherty determine to set sail for America. Before they can do so, however, the two friends are split up by circumstance, and are separated for good. Martin relates:
I never saw John Doherty from this time—Since I have been in America, I received a letter from him, informing me, that he had found out my departure from Ireland for New-York, the day after the vessel sailed; that he had scoured the country for some weeks after; and being pressed very close, he had gathered up his treasures, and pushed off to one of the West India Islands, where he was comfortably settled; and under a fictitious name, transacting much business, in an honest manner. He directed to me in the name that I had agreed to take, in case of separation. It was sent to the care of the British Consul, who, advertised the letter, and I sent for it. This man had a great many good qualities; and although he was the cause of much trouble to me, yet I feel a strong affection for him; and trust that he will die a repentant and honest man.
During his trip across the Atlantic, Martin engages in a mutiny when it is discovered the Captain was planning a detour to Canada, and so the course is set for Salem, Massachusetts. In America, Martin takes up his old trade and for some time becomes the terror of New England.
Unlike in Ireland, however, Martin finds no sympathy or sanctuary among the pious American populace, and is forced to constantly change identities to avoid capture. Soon the inevitable occurs. After robbing a Major Bray, Martin is sighted by authorities in Medford, Massachusetts, who immediately begin pursuit. During the chase, Martin falls off his horse, dislocates his shoulder, and escapes through a marsh. He recounts
I got into a small cluster of woods, and did not see that any one was in pursuit. I then dropped down from fatigue and the pain in my shoulder. After resting a few minutes, I took off my suspenders and cravat, tied them together, fastened one end to a tree, and the other to my wrist, and so pulled the shoulder back to its place. Still it was very painful—I rubbed it with my stocking.
Martin is finally arrested in Springfield, Massachusetts, where he is ambushed while sleeping. He is committed to the jail at Lechmere Point, Cambridge, for the robbery of Major Bray. And it is here that Martin’s account of his life ends.
Above: The Condemned Prisoner
As related by Waldo, Martin is put on trial and sentenced to death. Before his execution, he makes a daring escape attempt after sawing through his chains with a hidden tool. The commotion began when, on the morning of December 8th, a turnkey named Mr. Cooledge brought Martin breakfast:
Martin was then standing up, with the great coat over his shoulders, trembling very much, and rattling his chains. Cooledge sat down his breakfast on a small table near him, and was about leaving the cell, when Martin slyly pulled down a paper of tobacco, which was on the table, and then said, in a feeble voice, “Mr. Cooledge, will you please to pick up that paper of tobacco, I am so weak that I can’t stoop.” The other very kindly stooped for the purpose, and Martin at the same moment raised the chain by which his hand was confined. and struck Cooledge a most violent blow over the head, which brought him to the ground—He remained insensible for some minutes. Martin then threw off his coat, put on his hat, and pushed out of the jail. He ran with great violence against a gate, which was about ten yards from the outer door of the jail. This gate was made of thick double boards, placed transversely, and strongly nailed. It was fastened on the inside, with a large padlock, attached to a very stout clasp, and staple. Martin threw the whole force of his body against it four successive times, without success, running some distance back every time. When he came out of the jail, there was a young man in the jailyard, who immediately gave an alarm in the house.
Martin was pursued and recaptured in a cornfield near the jail. After that, a close watch was set upon him. On Thursday, December 20th, Martin was executed at Lechmere Point, Massachusetts. That morning, hours before he was to be executed, Waldo described the prisoner’s attitude and activities:
Before the hour arrived, he asked for a looking glass, and examined his face two or three times, and adjusted his clothes, and hair, as well as his pinions would permit, With perfect composure. I then asked him if the relation of his life, which he had made to me, was correct and true—He answered, most solemnly, that it was. He was led out, about twelve o’clock, and met his fate with most perfect composure and fortitude; not unmixed with a consciousness that he had met a just doom; and with a humble reliance on the mercy of God, for remission and forgiveness.
The Columbian Centinal related that, on the occasion, Martin
appeared to assist in fixing the fatal noose to his neck, so as to occasion his death without suffering. He then took a handkerchief, and after the cap was placed over his face, and the sheriff and his deputy had descended to the stage, inquired with a firm voice, “When shall I drop the handkerchief?” The sheriff answered, ” When you please.” Martin slowly raised his hands thrice to his breast, as in prayer, and then threw down the handkerchief, and was instantly launched into eternity.
And here the story of Captain Lightfoot ends.
It is not, however, the end of the whole story. In 1847, a resident of Brattleboro, Vermont, revealed that a recently deceased doctor named John Wilson was in fact John Doherty, otherwise known as Captain Thunderbolt. It seems that Doherty had come to America in 1818, determined to start a new life, and began working in the slate industry. Eventually he accumulated enough capital to commence a medical practice, and married a Miss Chamberlain. The marriage was an unhappy one, however, and Doherty does not seem to have led a happy life. When he died, it was noted that among his effects were two double-barrelled guns, two or three duelling pistols, a number of swords, powder horns, shot bags, and a walking cane with a hidden ramrod “which, by pointing the cane towards anyone, and giving it a slight jerk, would make a noise similar to the cocking of a gun.”
Although, at the time of publication, several sources doubted Dr. Wilson and Captain Thunderbolt to be the same person, most modern authorities now accept that they were.
Sources and further reading:
The Life of Michael Martin, Who Was Executed for Highway Robbery, December 20, 1821, As Given by Himself. Boston: Russell & Gardner, 1821.
Confession of Michael Martin, or Captain Lightfoot, who was hung at Cambridge, Massachusetts, in the year 1821, for the robbery of Maj. Bray. Also, an account of Dr. John Wilson, who recently died at Brattleboro, Vt., believed by many to be the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Brattleboro, Vt.: J. B. Miner, 1847.
Captain Lightfoot, the last of the New England highwaymen : a narrative of his life and adventures, with some account of the notorious Captain Thunderbolt. Topsfield, Mass. : Wayside Press, 1926.
END OF PART III. Stay tuned for Part IV, when we continue to cover more books on the list.