Cynthia Nau

Vermont: Recalling the adventures of the bandit Captain Thunderbolt

Brookline, Vermont—The one-room, red-brick building is circular in shape. It’s called the Round Schoolhouse and there are five windows, equally spaced apart.

Brookline, Vermont—The one-room, red-brick building is circular in shape. It’s called the Round Schoolhouse and there are five windows, equally spaced apart.

From where I stood in the middle of the room I could see the road, the fields and the woods: a 360-degree perspective. It was much the same view as Dr. John Wilson would have had in the 1820s, when he was the schoolteacher here.

The school was built to Wilson’s specifications because, he said, he wanted to keep a lookout in all directions for the infamous “Captain Thunderbolt,” the highwayman whose exploits had turned this area into a valley of fear.

The pupils didn’t know it, but the bandit was closer than they thought. When Wilson died, the undertaker took off the high cravat that he always wore around his neck. Beneath it were the scars of chains such as a convict would carry.

“Yes, Dr. John Wilson was Captain Thunderbolt,” says Cynthia Nau, the co-chair of the Brookline Historical Association. She believes he designed the building in a circle so that lawmen couldn’t take him by surprise.

The society runs the Round Schoolhouse as a museum. It’s furnished as it would have looked in the 19th century, and artifacts and photographs record the history of Brookline and the school.

According to most sources, Wilson came from Ayrshire, Scotland. In his youth he took up with a bandit called Michael Martin, from Kilkenny, Ireland, and together, as “Captain Thunderbolt” and “Lightfoot” they terrorized the Scots-English border. At one point, Thunderbolt was jailed for a time, in neck shackles.

(The names of the highwaymen may be familiar to movie-goers from the 1974 release Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, starring Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges, but the film bore no resemblance to the Vermont story.)

When things got too hot in Scotland, they pair left, first—say some accounts—for Ireland and then for America, where they apparently split up. Lightfoot was captured and hanged in Massachusetts in 1821. But the law never caught up with Thunderbolt.

Wilson, who was well educated, at various times passed himself off as a teacher, a lawyer and a doctor. After he left Brookline he started a medical practice in nearby Newfane. Some of his medical vials from that time are in Newfane’s Windham County Museum. Also in the exhibit are a daguerreotype (an early photographic method, using a metal plate) of Wilson, his cane, brass pistols and a cork false heel that he wore in his boot.

Nau explains: “When they undressed him after death they found that part of his heel had been shot away and there was a bullet wound in his calf.”

Wilson died in Brattleboro, Vermont, in 1847.He had insisted that he should not be undressed after death, but the undertaker did not know this so his secret came out.

The Round Schoolhouse—the only one in America—remained a school until 1928. After that, it had various uses, then lay vacant for a long time before being donated to the town of Brookline, which restored it.

 

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For information on travel in Vermont visit the Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing website at www.travel-vermont.com.

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