The Roundtable Discussion Series

December 2018

Vermont’s Own Highwayman: History, Legend, and Early Brattleboro Publishing

Thursday, December 13 2018, 6:00pm at 118 Elliot
118 Elliot Street, Brattleboro, VT 05301

Local author and Words Project researcher Tim Weed. Credit: Dania Maxwell.

Celebrated local author Tim Weed will discuss the legend of ‘Thunderbolt’ and the unique Round Schoolhouse in Brookline at the Brattleboro Words Project’s monthly Roundtable Discussion on Thursday, December 13, 2018  from 6:00 to 7:00 pm at 118 Elliot, 118 Elliot Street across from the firehouse in Downtown Brattleboro, VT 05301. The event is free and refreshments will be served. Monthly Roundtables are a chance for the public and Project researchers to gather, swap stories and progress creating audio for the Brattleboro Words Trail.

“I was drawn to the whole legend because of the Round Schoolhouse,”  Weed, who is close to completing his extensively researched novel working title is The Confession of Michael Martin, said. “My friend Jon Jesup was renovating it and the whole story just caught my imagination.”

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 placard on the Round Schoolhouse describing the building’s history. Credit: Tim Weed.

At around the same time, a Scottish immigrant named Dr. John Wilson, a schoolteacher, designed the unique round brick schoolhouse that remains a historical landmark in Brookline, Vermont, which will be one 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 BrayAlso, an account of Dr. John Wilson, supposed to be the celebrated Captain Thunderbolt.” The booklet became a runaway national bestseller, putting Brattleboro on the map in the world of publishing and cementing Dr. Wilson’s posthumous reputation as the infamous highwayman.

The historic Round Schoolhouse in Brookline, Vermont. Credit: Tim Weed.

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.

Weed’s recent collection of stories, A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing was a finalist in the short story category for both the 2018 American Fiction Awards and the 2017International Book Awards. “Tim Weed proves himself a skilled creator of a sense of place . . . each story deposits one definitively into a geography, of mind and map,” according to The Boston Globe.

The Brattleboro Words Project is a multi-year collaboration between the Brattleboro Historical Society, the Brattleboro Literary Festival, Write Action, Brooks Memorial Library and Marlboro College backed by a National Endowment for the Humanities matching grant and support from area businesses and foundations.  The Project seeks public participation in research, writing and creating the Brattleboro Words Trail, audio linked to sites of interest in the history of words for walking, biking and driving tours of our area, a book on Brattleboro’s printing and publishing history, and other events linked to the October Brattleboro Literary Festival and throughout the year. For more information visit:  www.brattleborowordsproject.org