John Colt Trial: 1842
John Colt Trial: 1842
Defendant: John C. Colt
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Dudley Selden, John Morrill, Robert Emmett
Chief Prosecutor: James Whiting
Judge: William Kent
Place: New York, New York
Date of Trial: January 19-31, 1842
Sentence: Death by hanging
SIGNIFICANCE: The murder trial of John Colt, brother of repeating arms inventor Samuel Colt, began as a missing persons case and culminated with one of nineteenth century New York's most sensational suicides.
On September 17, 1841, printer Samuel Adams went to collect a debt from John Colt, a bookkeeping teacher for whom Adams had manufactured textbooks. The printer was never seen alive again. Adams had been missing for a week when his body was found in the hold of a ship about to leave New York. His decomposing corpse had been jammed into a packing crate addressed to St. Louis via New Orleans. Colt, who denied paying a man to deliver the box to the ship, was charged with murder. For over a year, Colt's case would captivate New York with increasingly astonishing turns.
The Colt Family's Black Sheep
Colt's past was distinguished by a reputation for gambling, forgery, burglary, and notorious romantic affairs, but he was well-connected socially. His brother Samuel was the inventor of the revolving rifle and pistol, while another brother, James, was a St. Louis attorney. The Colt family's connections allowed them to hire expert lawyers. From the moment he was arrested during the search for Adams' body, however, Colt's case became a scandal. Investigators found that he was living with a pregnant woman posing as his wife, Caroline Henshaw. They also found Adams' pocketwatch hidden at Colt's home.
Colt's trial began on January 19, 1842. The prosecution's first witness was Asa Wheeler, a bookkeeping teacher whose room was next door to Colt's office. On the afternoon of September 17, Wheeler and one of his students heard a loud noise, followed by what sounded like the rattle of fencing foils and a body falling on the floor. Wheeler went next door to investigate and peered through the keyhole. He saw a man stooped over something, but the man faced away from the door. Wheeler went to find the landlord, but returned alone. By then, Colt's keyhole cover was closed and no one answered knocks upon the door. Wheeler opened Colt's door the following morning with a borrowed key and peered inside. He noted that the floor was freshly scrubbed, a large box was now missing, and there were splashes of fresh ink and oil on the walls. When Colt arrived at the building later, Wheeler asked about the noise. At first Colt denied being in the building at all, but then told Wheeler that he had upset his writing table and ink bottles.
The building's janitor recalled seeing Colt wiggle a large crate down the stairs. A cartman testified that Colt paid him to take the same box to the packet Kalamazoo. Witnesses who found Adams' body in the Kalamazoo's hold recalled opening the crate and freeing a stench so horrific that most onlookers fled to the upper decks. The box and canvas in which the body was packed were brought into court, flooding the room with a smell lessened little by the four months since the murder. Other physical evidence included Adams' watch and a small hatchet, which Colt's indictment cited as the murder weapon.
Confusion Over Murder Weapons
Halfway through the trial, the prosecution introduced a new theory that Adams might have been killed by a Colt revolver. Colt's lawyers anticipated the move and objected immediately. Defense attorney Dudley Selden read the entire indictment, which stated that Adams was killed by blows from the confiscated hatchet. If the prosecution wished to establish that firearms killed Adams, Selden argued, then prosecutor James Whiting's indictment of Colt was improperly drawn, allowing the defense no preparation for refuting the new theory. Whiting replied furiously that he had only learned over the weekend that a pistol like the one invented by Colt's brother might be the murder weapon.
Over Selden's objections, Judge William Kent allowed the prosecution to propose that the slight clashing noise described by Asa Wheeler and his student might have been made by a revolver bullet propelled by a percussion cap. The defense responded by demonstrating how feeble a bullet without a noisy charge of gunpowder would be. Gun inventor Samuel Colt was called to demonstrate one of his pistols to the jury. Colt fired the chambers of a revolver primed only with caps and caught all five bullets in his hand. When Colt emptied the weapon again at a law book, the balls only penetrated the first nine leaves, about the same number marred when Selden asked Colt to throw the bullets at the tome.
The prosecution returned to its original theory, providing more theatrics. Adams' body was disinterred and his severed skull was displayed in court, so that doctors could declare that the hole in its side had been made by a hatchet, not a bullet or packing nail. The next day's tumult was provided by the appearance of Caroline Henshaw. The young woman recalled Colt coming home with black bruises on his neck on the fateful night. Henshaw characterized Colt as a mildmannered man. Numerous witnesses echoed her depiction of Colt as eventempered, in contrast to others who recalled Adams as being irritable whenever money was involved.
A Strange "Confession"
The final courtroom commotion began when defense attorney Robert Emmett read aloud a long, detailed statement written by Colt. According to this "confession," Adams had come to Colt's office, where a dispute erupted over a bill. The two men came to blows when Adams called Colt a liar. When Adams began choking him, Colt grabbed what he thought was a hammer and hit Adams on the head. The implement turned out to be the hatchet, which inflicted a fatal wound. After cleaning up a substantial amount of blood, Colt tried to clear his mind with a walk in a nearby park. To avoid the disgrace of a public trial, he packed the corpse, disposed of his bloody clothing in a privy, and went home.
Emmett argued that the marks on Colt's neck confirmed that Adams had tried to strangle Colt. If so, this was a case of justifiable homicide, not a planned murder. Emmett added that the efficiency with which Colt had disposed of the body should not be held against him as evidence of premeditation. Prosecutors accused Colt of killing Adams in the office for the isolation it provided and questioned why an innocent man would deliberate for hours over how to dispose of a dead body. Prosecutor Whiting testily defended his handling of the indictment, denying defense implications that he was pressing the case for political gain.
In his charge, Judge Kent told the jury that both victim and prisoner were men of good character, although "excitable." The judge asked the jury to weigh evidence of a motive or premeditation. The "confession" read by Robert Emmett was hypothetical and not evidence, instructed the judge. As such, it was irrelevant to final deliberations. On January 31, thousands of people waiting outside the courthouse learned the verdict was guilty. When the New York State Supreme Court denied Colt's final appeal on September 28, Judge Kent sentenced him to hang.
At noon on November 18, 1842, the day of his scheduled execution, Colt and Caroline Henshaw were married in his cell, surrounded by Samuel Colt and a few friends. Jailers returned at 3:55 to take the condemned man to the scaffold. They found Colt's bloody corpse on his bed. One of his final visitors had apparently slipped him a pocketknife, with which he had stabbed himself in the heart. A fire broke out in the jail at the same moment the body was found. The suspicious flames fueled abundant rumors that Colt's prominent friends had been plotting his escape.
Colt's suicide was not the final chapter in the case. Many observers surmised that Caroline Henshaw had been Samuel Colt's mistress and that the son she bore was Samuel's, not John's, child. The irony that John Colt had taken in his brother's spurned pregnant mistress as an act of kindness was yet one more indication to Colt's supporters that Adams' death had been a tragic accident for which a flawed but basically good man had been condemned.
Suggestions for Further Reading
"Colt Case." New York Herald (January 28, 1842): 1.
Grant, Ellsworth J. The Colt Legacy. Providence, R.l.: Mowbray Company, 1982.
Tucher, Andie. Froth & Scum. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.