The Colt Case 

 

The Jewett case (of 1836) was still the topic of discussion in autumn of 1841 when another murder gripped New York City. This time it involved a person of property and standing.

On September, 17th, Samuel Adams turned up missing. His wife had even taken to advertising her anguish in the city newspapers. Upon reading the ads. a teacher of bookkeeping and penmanship came forth with a story. From his office in a main business building in downtown New York he had heard some odd noises coming from a nearby office like the clash of fencing foils followed by a heavy thud. This was the office of another teacher of penmanship, John Colt. He peeked into the office and saw a man bending over something. Later he borrowed a key and went into the empty room finding a floor that had been recently scrubbed clean and that a large packing crate there earlier was missing. Another witness said he saw a man, who he identified as John Colt, struggling down the stairs with a large shipping crate. A carman came forward as well saying that a man hired him to take the crate to the wharf for shipment to New Orleans. The carman said the man hiring him was John Colt.

John Colt came from an illustrious family. One of his brothers was a famous lawyer in St. Louis. The other, Samuel, was an inventor who had struck temporarily upon hard times. Apparently an invention of his, a revolving pistol, had failed and he was about to declare bankruptcy. Of course, he did not know that within five years a group of Texans, called the Rangers, were going to purchase his invention and make him a wealthy man. John Colt, however, was an unsavory sort. In 1841, he was a thirty year old ne'er-do-well. Earlier he had lied to get into the marines then committed forgery to get out. Then he became a professional riverboat gambler at which time he had a torrid public affair with an octoroon mistress of a rich planter and had to flee the South. In New York he had been arrested for burglarizing his employers shop. At the time of Adam's disappearance Colt was living with a woman who was not his wife who was about to have a baby. Actually John, as later revelations would show, was doing his brother Samuel a favor. Apparently, the woman, Caroline Henshaw, was the abandoned wife of his brother, Samuel.

The ship for New Orleans had been delayed and the constables arrived to find a grisly sight. Inside the crate was a badly decomposed body. Only a gold ring and an unusual scar on the leg identified the remains as that of Samuel Adams.

Colt was arrested and immediately brought to trial. Colt did not deny his killing of Adams. It had been a duel, he claimed, that had gone too far. There had been this angry fight over a debt that simply had gone too far. A sort of ante bellum dream team was assembled on Colt's behalf. The fee was some stock in Samuel Colt's new company which was to begin manufacturing one of his new invention, a battery for submarines. Colt admitted to the killing but declared it to be in self defense. Adams was strangling him, he said, and Colt reached out for something with which to defend himself, it happened to be an axe. In panic, he cleaned the office and stuffed the body in the create.

The newspapers of the day did not, as they had done just six years earlier with the Jewett case, become too excited or involved. This was strange because the rivalry was in place. First, there was--as there had been in the earlier case--James Gordon Bennett and his New York Herald which tended to sensationalize. His work earlier was largely responsible for getting the killer acquitted. Second, there was Horace Greeley and his newly established New York Tribune. Greeley was approaching journalism more cautiously, trying to downplay or handle sensation more discreetly. Most New Yorkers preferred Bennett's approach. So the lines were clearly drawn for a newspaper battle but it never occurred. Instead, both Bennett and Greeley stayed aloof, in a professional way not taking sides.

The prosecution built its case on premeditated murder. It claimed that there were shots to the head from a gun which were masked over by the axe blows. Furthermore, the prosecution claimed the coverup itself was a sign of guilt. Colt's character, with emphasis upon his previous affairs and present living with a harlot, were constantly brought up to influence the jury. Colt's stoic and resigned attitude in court was also used against him; he did not appear to have any remorse.

The defense based its case on any number of alternatives: manslaughter, self defense, and possibly insanity. There was some history of mental illness in the family. Immediately they dug up the body, decapitated the corpse and presented the head to the jury. There was no evidence, as the prosecution claimed, that gunshots were in the head. Therefore, the act was spontaneous and not premeditated, the legal requirement for murder. Furthermore, the defense noted, a premeditated murder would not be done in a crowed office building in the middle of Manhattan at the middle of the day. Certainly premeditated murderers could think of a better time and place to minimize apprehension, they noted. The coverup activities were only natural for a confused man fearing the stigma that might be brought upon his family. He knew that his shady past would compel many to rush to judgement. Of course, no one at the time realized that this "harlot" was the abandoned wife of Samuel and that John was simply taking care of her until delivery.

That was the case and now the jury left to deliberate for ten hours before they returned with the verdict on the Colt affair.

 

Questions to Ponder

1. Is Colt guilt of murder?

2. Are there mitigating circumstances?

3. How will the influence and money of his brother impact the outcome?

 

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Suggested Further Reading

Andie Tucher. Froth & Scum: Truth, Beauty, Goodness, and the Ax Murder in America's First Mass Medium (19940