Friday, January 4, 2013

The Colt Family Curse

The Winchesters were not the only Gun-makers Haunted by History

On this day, January 4, 1847, American gun-maker Samuel Colt sold his first revolver pistol to the U.S. government. It would be the start of a rocky rise to fortune that would marred by tragedy and death – such tragedy that rumors abound that the family was cursed. Colt’s story is one of American ruthlessness and the creation of an efficient assembly-line production that would make his guns affordable for every American. He never saw the creation of his mass-market guns as leading to a more efficient way for people to kill one another. He also had no qualms at selling his guns to both sides in armed conflicts around the world. Some say that this lack of scruples was what led to a curse that haunted his family almost from the beginning.

Samuel Colt sold his first revolver to the U.S. government on January 4, 1847

In the midst of his rise to power, trouble plagued the family. As Colt’s fortunes rose, he and his wife took on a lavish lifestyle at Armsmear Manor in Hartford, Connecticut. But it came with a price – Colt died prematurely at the age of only 48 from gout, a disease that in those days disproportionately affected rich gluttons, his children died young and death claimed a number of members of the family. In time, many began to doubt that Colt had actually invented the revolving pistol, as he claimed.

Samuel Colt – did the scores of deaths attributed to his guns lead to a family “curse?”

But the most infamous and arguably cursed member of the Colt clan was Samuel’s brother, John C. Colt, a failed businessman and frustrated writer, who was convicted of the brutal murder and mutilation of a business associate named Samuel Adams. The gruesome crime was so heinous that it inspired Edgar Allan Poe to write "The Oblong Box." Colt was tried and sentenced to death but managed to escape the hangman by committing suicide – or did he?

On Sept. 26, 1841, a long box in the cargo hold of a ship called the Kalamazoo was cracked open, letting loose a horrid stench. What was found was a man’s corpse — dismembered, hog-tied and naked but for a blood-soaked shirt. The body was what remained of a printer named Samuel Adams. His murderer, it turned out, was John C. Colt, brother of firearms inventor Samuel Colt. His capture and trial made this murder the crime of the century, inspiring short stories by two legendary authors — “The Oblong Box,” by Edgar Allan Poe, and “Bartleby, The Scrivener,” by Herman Melville.

The authorities discovery the gruesome murder when they opened the crate at the New York docks. The crate was eventually traced back to the building where the murder occurred – and where Colt and Samuel Adams had their offices. 

The dispute between Colt and Adams arose from a disagreement over an accounting book Colt had written. Adams was his printer, and believed that Colt lied about how much he had sold the books for, thereby cheating Adams out of profit. It was eventually determined that the dispute was over a difference of $15.35. Adams went to confront Colt at his office on the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway. According to Colt, after a heated argument, Adams punched him in the face, bloodying his nose, and then slammed him against a wall, choking him with his own cravat. Colt said that he then seized a nearby hammer and struck Adams in the head, almost instantly killing him.

Colt scrambled to clean up the evidence of the crime, soaking up the blood with a towel and then looking for a place to hide the body. A box he found was too small, so he hog-tied Adams’ corpse, propped it on a chair in an upright position, lifted it over his shoulder, and, using all his weight, pushed at it until he had “forced the stiffening corpse to form the shape of the container.” He then had the box shipped to a fictional address.

When word got out that Adams had gone missing and that he was last seen entering their building, Colt’s landlord, who had heard much of this activity, alerted the authorities. After a search of Colt’s office uncovered a hatchet and odd splatters on the wall, they hunted down the box on the ship and made their grisly discovery.

Colt was quickly arrested and while he admitted the killing, he claimed self-defense, but the grisly and elaborate nature of the murder caused great doubt among the investigators. During his trial, the prosecution brought Adams’ severed head into the courtroom, where a doctor held it up for the jury to see, then, keeping it in his lap, illustrated how Colt’s hatchet fit a hole in the skull perfectly. It was a macabre but effective method and the jury found Colt guilty of “willful murder.” He was sentenced to hang.

Samuel Colt had done what he could for his brother’s defense, but it was to no avail. Even so, he refused to let him die without a struggle. The case was appealed to every court with jurisdiction in New York. The verdict was upheld. Samuel Colt spread a lot of money around the politically powerful of the city, but the murder was just too well known. No one would chance the outrage that would occur if Colt’s sentence was commuted.

In the days leading up to his scheduled hanging, there were reportedly several attempts to bust him out, including one by a friend who dressed in female clothing so that they could switch, and Colt could then walk out disguised as a woman.

With his last appeal exhausted, Colt was scheduled to die at 4:00 p.m. on November 18, 1842. He requested permission to marry his long-time lover Caroline Henshaw on the last day of his life. The warden gave permission and the bride was accompanied to Colt’s cell by Samuel Colt and Reverend Henry Anthon, who performed the ceremony. Witnesses included Sheriff Monmouth Hart and Justice Merritt, who had presided over Colt’s trial. After exchanging vows, the couple was allowed an hour of privacy. Curiously, when Caroline left the prison, they say, she was smiling. Colt requested solitude for his final hours.

The wedding ceremony of Samuel Colt and Caroline Henshaw took place in the condemned man’s cell at the New York Tombs. 

On execution day, as Colt made his way toward the gallows, the prison rang suddenly with shouts of “Fire!” Bells went off, prisoners screamed and when the hysteria subsided, Colt was found dead in his cell with a knife through his heart. It seemed that Colt had beaten the hangman by committing suicide.

Sheriff Hart, New York’s top law enforcement officer at the time, was on hand for the hanging. But upon receiving word of Colt’s death, he behaved in a curious way. He first sent for the prison doctor to pronounce Cold dead, then hastily convened a coroner’s jury to rule the cause of death as suicide. Less than three hours after the body had been found, it was carried out of the prison, taken the graveyard behind St. Marks Church and buried.

A few days later, Mrs. Caroline Henshaw Colt vanished from New York, never to be seen again. Yet her family never asked the authorities to search for her.

Was the body in the prison cell actually that of John Colt? In his 1874 memoirs, Warden Charles Sutton insisted that it was, and Reverend Anthon also stated that the body was Colt’s. But days later, it was revealed that several prisoners escaped during the fire. Was Colt among them? Rumors spread that Samuel Colt had smuggled in a corpse to place in his brother’s cell in order to help his brother escape.

Sightings and incidents in the years that followed gave credence to the stories that Colt had somehow survived his brush with execution. Even Edgar Allan Poe was part of the mystery. A few years after Colt’s death, the writer – a friend of Colt’s – allegedly received a manuscript from Texas. It was unsigned but Poe recognized the handwriting as John Colt’s. When he took the manuscript to Knickerbocker Magazine editor Lewis Clark, he was shown an identical manuscript. Clark said that he also believed the handwriting was John Colt’s.

In 1852, Colt’s friend Samuel Everett reported meeting John Colt in California’s Santa Clara Valley. Everett claimed that his old friend lived there with his wife, Caroline Henshaw.

And while such stories may be of the dubious nature of those who claimed to meet John Wilkes Booth in the years after the Lincoln assassination – and the killer’s death – they served to keep the mystery of John Colt alive and to maintain the intrigue of the Colt family curse. 

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