Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend

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Overview

With such acclaimed works as The Devil’s Gentleman, Harold Schechter has earned renown as the dean of true-crime historians. Now, in this gripping account of driving ambition, doomed love, and brutal murder in an iconic American family, Schechter again casts his gaze into the sinister shadows of gaslit nineteenth-century New York City.

In September 1841, a grisly discovery is made aboard a merchant ship docked in lower Manhattan: Deep in the cargo hold, bound with rope and ...

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Overview

With such acclaimed works as The Devil’s Gentleman, Harold Schechter has earned renown as the dean of true-crime historians. Now, in this gripping account of driving ambition, doomed love, and brutal murder in an iconic American family, Schechter again casts his gaze into the sinister shadows of gaslit nineteenth-century New York City.

In September 1841, a grisly discovery is made aboard a merchant ship docked in lower Manhattan: Deep in the cargo hold, bound with rope and covered with savage head wounds, lies a man’s naked corpse. While a murderer has taken pains to conceal his victim’s identity, it takes little time to determine that the dead man is Samuel Adams, proprietor of a local printing firm. And in less time still, witnesses and a bloody trail of clues lead investigators to the doorstep of the enigmatic John Colt.

The scion of a prosperous Connecticut family, Colt has defied his parents’ efforts to mold him into a gentleman—preferring to flout authority and pursue excitement. Ironically, it is the ordered science of accountancy that for a time lends him respectability. But now John Colt’s ghastly crime and the subsequent sensational murder trial bring infamy to his surname—even after it becomes synonymous with his visionary younger brother’s groundbreaking invention.
 
The embodiment of American success, Sam Colt has risen from poor huckster to industrious inventor. His greatest achievement, the revolver, will bring him untold millions even as it transforms the American West. In John’s hour of need, Sam rushes to his brother’s side—perhaps because of the secret they share.

In Gilded Age New York, a city awash with treacherous schemers, lurid dime-museum curiosities, and the tawdry excesses of penny-press journalism, the Colt-Adams affair inspires tabloid headlines of startling and gruesome hyperbole, which in turn drive legions of thrill-seekers to John Colt’s trial. The dramatic legal proceedings will fire the imagination of pioneering crime writer Edgar Allan Poe and fuel the righteous outrage of journalist Walt Whitman.

Killer Colt interweaves the intriguing stories of brooding, brilliant John and imaginative, enterprising Sam—sharp-witted and fascinating brothers on vastly divergent journeys, bound by an abiding mutual devotion and a mystery they will conceal to the end. Harold Schechter has mined the darkly macabre vein of a bygone era and brought forth a mother lode of storytelling gold.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Noted historical true-crime expert Schechter (The Devil’s Gentleman) traces the divergent paths of the Colt brothers in a saga that falls short of the author’s usual high standards. Samuel Colt, born to a prosperous Connecticut family in 1814, was fascinated by weaponry from an early age and was determined to make a mark in the field. His older brother, John, drifted, until finally he settled in Manhattan as an accountant. Sam, who allegedly whittled his prototype of a revolving firearm while at sea, received foreign patents though American success was slower. But his life was shattered when, on September 24, 1841, John was arrested for the murder of Samuel Adams, whose decomposing body was found stuffed into a box in the hold of a ship bound for New Orleans. In a high-profile trial--witnesses testified that the financially pressed John bludgeoned Adams over a debt--John was convicted and sentences to hang, but in 1842 he was found in his cell with a knife in his chest. Despite the lively material and fascinating characters, Schechter fails to adequately explore the tragic irony of the situation wherein one brother revolutionizes a handheld killing machine and the other becomes a killer. 7 b&w illus. (Oct.)
Library Journal
The crime of the 19th century took place late one afternoon in New York City. At a time when murders were gruesomely reported in the newspapers, this case took precedence over all others. The reader is drawn into the early days of forensic science and detective work as the 1842 John Colt-Samuel Adams murder case is investigated and brought to trial. Period notables Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and authors Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville, both of whom wrote short stories based on certain aspects of the crime, become a part of the legacy of this notorious case. The defendant's younger brother, Samuel Colt, inventor and patent holder of the revolver later made famous by the Texas Rangers in the Mexican American War, is called as a witness. As the story unfolds and a bid for a new trial is refused by the New York Supreme Court, the reader becomes well acquainted with the criminal justice system in the days before the American Civil War. VERDICT Recommended for American history buffs with an interest in true crime stories.—Claire Franek, MSLS, Brockport, NY
Kirkus Reviews

Energetic Wild West tale about two enterprising brothers whose determination to make something of themselves came to radically different ends.

Even though retailer Christopher Colt, of Hartford, Conn., enjoyed wealth and prominence in the early 1800s, his sons, Samuel and John, were determined to make their own way in a raw-edged, upwardly mobile America. Samuel, with his "unquenchable mechanical curiosity," was enchanted by the working of firearms and water mines, and by age 16 had hit upon the idea of how to create his multishot pistol, which would eventually revolutionize the killing potential in the Wild West. Meanwhile, older brother John fashioned a revolutionary accounting theory into a ponderous but hugely successful textbook,The Science of Double Entry Book-Keeping, which "would go through no fewer than forty-five editions and earn its author a lasting place in the history books." Established in an office in lower Manhattan, John was dodging creditors when he received a visit on Sept. 17, 1841, from his publisher Samuel Adams, with whom he was in dispute about production delays. The two argued, a noise "like the clashing of foils" was heard by office neighbors and the next morning John was seen dragging a pine box down the staircase and into a hired cart. Soon enough the body of Adams was found in an awaiting ship's cargo, stripped, folded and salted; the death had resulted from a series of blows by a hatchet-hammer. Was it self-defense or premeditated murder? The newly minted "penny press" of the New York Heraldand others turned the story into sensational news (rendered by Edgar Allan Poe in "The Oblong Box"), which true-crime veteran Schechter (American Literature and Culture/Queen's Coll.; The Whole Death Catalog, 2009, etc.) records in lively, plentiful detail.

Possesses all the elements of lurid true crime and dark early American history.

Sam Roberts
…Schechter, a crime writer and professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, recalls a bizarre episode that inspired references by Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe and Herman Melville and now finally gets the full treatment it deserves.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780345476814
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 9/28/2010
  • Pages: 400
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, the City University of New York. He is widely celebrated for both fiction and true-crime writing, including The Devil's Gentleman and The Serial Killer Files. He lives in Brooklyn and Mattituck, Long Island, with his wife, the poet Kimiko Hahn.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

 The neighborhood of his birth would later become known as Asylum Hill, after the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction ofDeaf and Dumb Persons, the nation's first institution of its kind. In 1814,however, it was still called Lord's Hill, an apt name for a place so steeped inPuritan tradition-though, in fact, it derived from the original owners of theland: the descendants of Captain Richard Lord, one of the early heroes of thecolony. In succeeding decades, various luminaries-among them Mark Twain andHarriet Beecher Stowe-would make their home on Lord's Hill, drawn by thetranquil charm of this rural district of Hartford. The infant born in afarmhouse there on July 19, 1814, would himself grow up to be one of thecentury's most eminent figures, a man whose name would become synonymous withthe nation's burgeoning industrial might: Samuel Colt.

He came by his enterprising spirit honestly. His maternalgrandfather, Major John Caldwell, was one of Hartford's leading citizens: firstpresident of its bank, first commander of its volunteer horse guard, a founderof the deaf asylum, and one of the commissioners responsible for building thestatehouse in 1796. He was also the richest man in town, a shipbuilder andcanny businessman who-like many another God-fearing New England merchant-made afortune in the West Indies trade, shipping produce, livestock, and lumber tothe Caribbean slave plantations in exchange for molasses, tobacco, and rum.

To his other grandfather, Lieutenant Benjamin Colt, Samuelowed some of the mechanical aptitude that would make him one of the world'sgreat inventors. Admired throughout the Connecticut Valley for his handiwork,Benjamin had been a blacksmith of unusual skill and ingenuity who owned a widervariety of tools than any metalworker in the region. History would credit himas manufacturer of the first scythe in America.

 The children of these two worthies, Christopher Colt andSarah Caldwell ("Sally" to her family and friends), had met inHartford in 1803, when-according to one possibly apocryphal account-thestrapping six-footer had stopped the runaway buggy in which the young woman wastrapped. An attraction immediately developed between the pair, both in theirearly twenties at the time. Despite his many virtues, however-his manlybearing, indefatigable energy, and striving ambition-Christopher Colt did notappear to be a particularly suitable candidate for the hand of Sarah Caldwell,patrician daughter of Hartford's leading citizen.

To be sure, Christopher claimed an illustrious backgroundof his own, tracing his lineage to Sir John Coult, an English peer in OliverCromwell's day who gained everlasting renown in his country's civil wars.During one ferocious battle-so the story goes-he had three horses killed underhim, shattered his sword, and still led his troops to victory. Knighted for hisheroism, Coult adopted a coat of arms emblematic of his exploits: a shield withthree charging steeds above the family motto, Vincit qui patitur-"Heconquers who endures."

At the time of his meeting with Sarah, however,Christopher-a recent arrival from his native Massachusetts who had left home toseek his fortune in Hartford-was in dire financial straits. Indeed, the membersof the city council, wary of indigent newcomers who relied on the public dole,had resolved to expel him from town.6 Impressed, however, with young Colt'spersonal qualities, Major Caldwell took the youth under his wing. Before long,thanks to his strict adherence to the Franklin-esque values of industry,frugality, and perseverance-coupled with a zeal for commercialspeculation-Christopher Colt had accumulated a sizable fortune of his own. InApril 1805, with the blessing of his mentor in Hartford's booming mercantiletrade, he and Sarah were wed.

Their first child, Margaret, was born a year later. Sevenmore followed at regular intervals. Of this substantial brood, two would die inchildhood, two others in the bloom of their youth. The survivors would comprisea judge, a textile pioneer, the legendary Colonel Colt, and a brilliantaccountant responsible-in the language of nineteenth-centurysensationmongers-for the most "horrid and atrocious" murder of hisday.

Chapter Two

 Of his three brothers, Sam was closest to the eldest,John Caldwell Colt, four years his senior.

Much later, at the height of John's notoriety,commentators would offer radically different views of his boyhood character.According to his harshest critics, he was a "willful, cunning, andrevengeful youth," ruled by "violent passions" over which he had"no great control." Bridling at parental authority, he displayed rank"insubordination from childhood upwards," refusing to submit to"the common restraints of the family, the school room, and the law ofGod."

Other people, whose loyalty to John never wavered,described him in far more flattering terms as a rambunctious but fundamentally good-heartedboy, who reveled "in air and freedom" and would "do anything fora frolic." "His juvenile characteristics," insisted oneacquaintance, "were a fondness for boyish sports, extreme bravery, andgreat generosity of character . . . His daring was remarkable." Thoughgiven to all sorts of juvenile pranks, "there was nothing vicious abouthis sportfulness."

In his own published statements, John recalled himself asa headstrong youth-"rash and foolishly venturesome"-whose boldnessoften bordered on sheer recklessness and whose penchant for risk takingfrequently put his life in danger. Besides numerous hunting and ridingaccidents, there were at least five separate occasions when his fearlessnessnearly got him killed.

 At the age of five, for example, while playing near acider press, he lost his footing and "plunged head foremost" into thevat full of juice. Only the quick actions of a playmate, "a stout younggirl" who saw him go under, saved him from drowning.

 Several winters later, he nearly drowned again, this timewhile playing on a frozen river. He was "jumping up and down on theice" when it gave way beneath his feet. "Swept by the current somesixty feet under a sheet of ice," he was carried into open water, where hemanaged to catch the limb of a fallen tree and drag himself onto the bank.

Another time, he was "playing tricks with" hisfavorite horse, which retaliated by throwing him from the saddle and deliveringa near-crippling kick to his hip. And then there was his "awfulencounter" with an enraged buffalo, part of "a caravan ofanimals" that arrived in Hartford with a traveling show. Sneaking into thecreature's pen, young John found himself face-to-face with the"shaggy-throated beast" that "forthwith plunged at me, nailingme fast against the wall between his horns." He was rescued by thekeeper's assistants, who immediately leapt at the buffalo and began to"belabor him with their clubs."

 The most memorable of all John's juvenile mishaps,however, occurred when he was eight. His favorite pastime at that age wasplaying soldier. His doting mother-whose father had fought with distinction inthe Continental army-was happy to encourage her little boy's "militarymania" and supplied him with the means to "rig out a little troop ofboys" with outfits and toy rifles. The centerpiece of their company was aminiature brass cannon. One day, John, with the help of a companion, loaded thelittle weapon with an excessive charge of powder. When John put a light to thefuse, the cannon exploded.

Somewhat miraculously, neither John nor his playmatesuffered serious injury, though their eyesight was temporarily impaired."How we escaped with our lives," John later recalled, "is awonder."

Whether Samuel Colt was present when his older brotherdetonated the toy is unclear. Some biographers speculate that the four-year-oldboy did, in fact, witness the event, which had a powerful effect on hisimagination, sparking his lifelong fascination with armaments. If so, therepercussions from that small blast would be felt, in time, throughout theworld.

 Besides the bond they shared with each other, both boyswere deeply attached to their older sisters, Margaret and Sarah Ann. Throughouthis exceptionally peripatetic life, John would carry keepsake locks of theirhair; while the adult Sam, after finally achieving his hard-won fame andfortune, would hang framed mementoes of his sisters in his private room atArmsmear, the baronial estate he constructed in Hartford.

 Beyond their importance to their brothers, little isknown about the two young women. Margaret, the firstborn of the Colt children,was described by an acquaintance as a warm and loving spirit who took simplejoy in the "pleasant things" of "this beautiful world." Thesame observer recalled Sarah Ann as a pretty young girl "with profuseflaxen hair, clear blue eyes, and sweet smile" who "affectionatelydepended" on her older sister. Apart from this testimony, verifiable factsabout the sisters are scant. One salient detail of their early lives, however,is part of the historical record. In 1814, at the respective ages of eight andsix, Margaret and Sarah Ann were enrolled in an unusually progressive privateschool run by their neighbor, Lydia Howard Huntley.

In later years, Lydia Huntley Sigourney (as she was knownfollowing her marriage) would achieve national fame as an author. Wildlyprolific, she would publish sixty-seven volumes before her death in 1865. Somewere novels, some memoirs, some histories and biographies. Her reputation,however, rested primarily on her poetry.

Dubbed the "Sweet Singer of Hartford," shepoured out an endless stream of popular verse, most of which consisted ofcloyingly sentimental tributes to the newly deceased. Of the nearly one hundredpieces collected in her 1822 Poems, for example, more than half are mawkish elegieswith titles like "The Dying Mother's Prayer," "Anniversary ofthe Death of an Aged Friend," "Babe Bereaved of Its Mother,""Voice from the Grave of a Sunday-School Teacher," and "Death ofa Young Lady at the Retreat for the Insane." In an age that made a fetishof bereavement and mourning, however, it was precisely Mrs. Sigourney's morbidpreoccupations, rendered in verse and drenched in a saccharine piety, that madeher so widely beloved-the country's best-selling poet before Henry WadsworthLongfellow.

Though she began writing poetry at a precocious age, herearliest ambition was to keep a school. Her childhood reveries (as Sigourneywrites in her autobiography) were replete with "vivid pencillings of thedelight, dignity, and glory of a schoolteacher." During her playtime, shewould arrange her "dolls in various classes, instructing them not only inthe scanty knowledge I had myself attained, but boldly exhorting and lecturingthem on the higher moral duties."

She first got a chance to realize her dream in 1811, whenshe and a friend started a seminary for young girls in Norwich. Three yearslater, at the behest of her acquaintance Daniel Wadsworth-the wealthy Hartfordarts patron who would go on to found the Wadsworth Atheneum-she established a newprivate school for the daughters of his well-to-do friends. The inaugural classwas limited to fifteen pupils, a number that was eventually enlarged totwenty-five. Among the members of this "select circle of youngladies" were Margaret and Sarah Ann Colt.

In contrast to other teachers of her era-who believedthat girls should be schooled solely in such "womanly arts" asneedlework and watercolors-Sigourney had little use for the "ornamentalbranches." Her stated pedagogical goal was the cultivation of both theintellect and "moral nature" through "rational education."To that end, she devoted each hour of the school day to one of the"simple, solid branches of culture": history, geography, rhetoric,grammar, arithmetic, orthography, and natural and moral philosophy.

To refine their diction, she had her pupils recite"select passages of poetry," devoting "much attention to themeaning of the sentences" so that they might make "the spirit of theauthor their own" and thus "more accurately interpret his style."To assist them in developing rigorous habits of mind, she frequently quizzedthem on the dates of significant world events: "In what year of the worlddid the ark rest upon Mount Ararat? Who was called, 1,921 years before theChristian era, to go forth alone from his people and his father's house? Whowas Queen of Assyria, and who the Judge of Israel, when Troy was destroyed,1,184 years before Christ?"

Sigourney also placed great emphasis on the acquisitionof "clear and precise penmanship." Each girl was given a blank bookwith marble-paper covers and "long foolscap pages" and required tomake daily entries in their finest handwriting.

 Two of these notebooks-one belonging to Margaret Colt,the other to her younger sister, Sarah-still survive. Margaret's isdistinguished by a bold, exuberant script and pages that are illustrated withbright floral designs. By contrast, Sarah's notebook is written in a cramped,tightly controlled hand and is utterly devoid of decoration. To a startlingextent, moreover, it consists of transcriptions of exceptionally death-hauntedpoems: "The Orphan," "The Loss of Friends," "TheGrave: A Poem." This is perhaps unsurprising, given her teacher's ownmorbid inclinations. Even so, there is something unsettling about the littlegirl's funereal tastes. And in view of the calamities that were about to befallthe Colt family, it is hard not to read a number of her selections-"Deathof an Affectionate Mother," "The Beautiful Burial Plot,""Consumption" ("There is sweetness in woman's decay, / When thelight of beauty is fading away")-as sadly prophetic.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 2, 2012

    Incredibly well researched

    This book achieves a standard in true crime writing that is just below In Cold Blood. The author uses a tremendous vocabulary (who knew that the noun for "fetid" is "fetor?" Or that the plural of "staff" is "staves?")
    The research is exhaustively done, and the writing has a nice flow to it. The only complaint I have is that there is so much expatiation on every tangent of every historical footnote that the book drags, and who ever thought a story of how John Colt murdered one of his vendors could be stretched out to book length? Read it for the excellent writing, but be patient with the narrative line.

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