Captain Thunderbolt and the Round Schoolhouse: Brookline, VT
Weeks before his execution for highway robbery in 1821, in a prison cell in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a young Irishman named Michael Martin wrote a confession detailing a series of bold robberies that had taken place a few years earlier in southern Ireland. The confession, which was distributed in a widely read pamphlet, implicated the young highwayman’s mentor, a Scotsman named John Doherty, alias “Captain Thunderbolt.
A of at least 30 sites on the Brattleboro Words Trail audio tours. After a few years, Dr. Wilson gave up teaching school, became a practicing physician and owned land and a steam mill in Williamsville and Newfane. After his death in 1847, some of those who knew him came to suspect that he was none other than the “Captain Thunderbolt” who’d figured so prominently in Martin’s 1821 Confession.
There was quite a bit of argument in the months that followed concerning whether Dr. John Wilson was or was not the infamous outlaw, and the controversy drew the attention of a number of important newspapers. Brattleboro publisher, J.B. Miner, took advantage of the widespread interest in the story by reprinting Martin’s confession in booklet entitled: “The Confession of Michael Martin or Captain Lightfoot, who was hung at Cambridge, Mass., in 1821, for the Robbery of Major Bray—Also, an account of Dr. John Wilson, supposed to be the celebrated Captain Thunderbolt.” The booklet became
The episode is fascinating, both as a precursor of great American outlaw legends such as Jesse James and Billy the Kid and as an early landmark in Brattleboro publishing history. Whether or not Dr. John Wilson was “Thunderbolt” remains an open question. “While it’s generally accepted as historical fact that the round schoolhouse in Brookline was built by a former highwayman, the actual details of the story remain uncorroborated, and the truth is that we’ll probably never know,” Weed said. Dr. John Wilson is buried at the Prospect Hill Cemetery in Brattleboro
— Contributed By Tim Weed.
Producer: Reggie Martell
Research & Narration: Tim Weed