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

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

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

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

by Harold Schechter


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An in-the-room account of John Colt’s scandalous nineteenth-century murder trial from “America’s principal chronicler of its greatest psychopathic killers” (Boston Review).

In this masterful account, renowned true-crime historian Harold Schechter takes you into the life and crimes of convicted murderer John Caldwell Colt, drawing parallels between John’s rise to notoriety and his brother Samuel Colt’s rise to fame as the inventor of the legendary revolver. With a killing that made headlines around the nation, John Colt became a cultural touchstone whose shocking villainy inspired and provoked such writers as Edgar Allan Poe, Walt Whitman, and Herman Melville.

Unlike his brother, John lived a nomadic existence, bouncing from one job to another. His one distinction, writing a reference accounting book, would play a part in his fall from grace. For in New York City, on September 17, 1841, John murdered printer Samuel Adams with a hatchet during a heated argument over proceeds from book sales.

A media circus ensued, galvanizing the penny press, which printed lurid headlines and gruesome woodcut illustrations. The standing-room-only trial created unforgettable moments in legal history, including such dramatic evidence as Samuel Adams’s decomposed head. The verdict and its aftermath would reverberate throughout the country and beyond, giving John Colt lasting infamy.

“[Schechter] leads us through Colt’s trial with such precision that you can smell the cigar smoke in the courtroom. . . . Killer Colt succeeds in making us care about this story now by showing why it mattered to so many people then.” —HistoryNet

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781504094269
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 04/02/2024
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: eBook
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 53,183
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Harold Schechter taught American literature for four decades and is Professor Emeritus at Queens College. His works have appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. He has written extensively on American pop culture in such books as The Bosom Serpent and Savage Pastimes, and his true-crime book The Mad Sculptor was nominated for an Edgar Award. In addition, Schechter has penned detective novels based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe and received an Edgar Award nomination for the Curiosity House series, published under the pseudonym H. C. Chester and co-written with his daughter, bestselling novelist Lauren Oliver. Schechter co-wrote with David Black the episode teleplay for Law & Order’s “Castoff.”

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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