Common section

Part One

FRAIL BLOOD

1

The neighborhood of his birth would later become known as Asylum Hill, after the Connecticut Asylum for the Education and Instruction of Deaf 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 in Puritan tradition—though, in fact, it derived from the original owners of the land: the descendants of Captain Richard Lord, one of the early heroes of the colony.1 In succeeding decades, various luminaries—among them Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe—would make their home on Lord’s Hill, drawn by the tranquil charm of this rural district of Hartford. The infant born in a farmhouse there on July 19, 1814, would himself grow up to be one of the century’s most eminent figures, a man whose name would become synonymous with the nation’s burgeoning industrial might: Samuel Colt.

He came by his enterprising spirit honestly. His maternal grandfather, Major John Caldwell, was one of Hartford’s leading citizens: first president of its bank, first commander of its volunteer horse guard, a founder of the deaf asylum, and one of the commissioners responsible for building the statehouse in 1796. He was also the richest man in town, a shipbuilder and canny businessman who—like many another God-fearing New England merchant—made a fortune in the West Indies trade, shipping produce, livestock, and lumber to the Caribbean slave plantations in exchange for molasses, tobacco, and rum.2

To his other grandfather, Lieutenant Benjamin Colt, Samuel owed some of the mechanical aptitude that would make him one of the world’s great inventors. Admired throughout the Connecticut Valley for his handiwork, Benjamin had been a blacksmith of unusual skill and ingenuity who owned a wider variety of tools than any metalworker in the region. History would credit him as manufacturer of the first scythe in America.3

The children of these two worthies, Christopher Colt and Sarah Caldwell (“Sally” to her family and friends), had met in Hartford in 1803, when—according to one possibly apocryphal account—the strapping six-footer had stopped the runaway buggy in which the young woman was trapped.4 An attraction immediately developed between the pair, both in their early twenties at the time. Despite his many virtues, however—his manly bearing, indefatigable energy, and striving ambition—Christopher Colt did not appear 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 background of his own, tracing his lineage to Sir John Coult, an English peer in Oliver Cromwell’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 under him, shattered his sword, and still led his troops to victory. Knighted for his heroism, Coult adopted a coat of arms emblematic of his exploits: a shield with three charging steeds above the family motto, Vincit qui patitur—“He conquers who endures.”5

At the time of his meeting with Sarah, however, Christopher—a recent arrival from his native Massachusetts who had left home to seek his fortune in Hartford—was in dire financial straits. Indeed, the members of 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’s personal 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 commercial speculation—Christopher Colt had accumulated a sizable fortune of his own. In April 1805, with the blessing of his mentor in Hartford’s booming mercantile trade, he and Sarah were wed.

Their first child, Margaret, was born a year later. Seven more followed at regular intervals. Of this substantial brood, two would die in childhood, two others in the bloom of their youth. The survivors would comprise a judge, a textile pioneer, the legendary Colonel Colt, and a brilliant accountant responsible—in the language of nineteenth-century sensation-mongers—for the most “horrid and atrocious” murder of his day.

2

Of his three brothers, Sam was closest to the eldest, John Caldwell Colt, four years his senior.1

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, and revengeful 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 of God.”2

Other people, whose loyalty to John never wavered, described him in far more flattering terms as a rambunctious but fundamentally good-hearted boy, who reveled “in air and freedom” and would “do anything for a frolic.” “His juvenile characteristics,” insisted one acquaintance, “were a fondness for boyish sports, extreme bravery, and great generosity of character … His daring was remarkable.” Though given to all sorts of juvenile pranks, “there was nothing vicious about his sportfulness.”3

In his own published statements, John recalled himself as a headstrong youth—“rash and foolishly venturesome”—whose boldness often bordered on sheer recklessness and whose penchant for risk taking frequently put his life in danger. Besides numerous hunting and riding accidents, there were at least five separate occasions when his fearlessness nearly got him killed.

At the age of five, for example, while playing near a cider press, he lost his footing and “plunged head foremost” into the vat full of juice. Only the quick actions of a playmate, “a stout young girl” who saw him go under, saved him from drowning.

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

Another time, he was “playing tricks with” his favorite horse, which retaliated by throwing him from the saddle and delivering a near-crippling kick to his hip. And then there was his “awful encounter” with an enraged buffalo, part of “a caravan of animals” that arrived in Hartford with a traveling show. Sneaking into the creature’s pen, young John found himself face-to-face with the “shaggy-throated beast” that “forthwith plunged at me, nailing me fast against the wall between his horns.” He was rescued by the keeper’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 was playing soldier. His doting mother—whose father had fought with distinction in the Continental army—was happy to encourage her little boy’s “military mania” and supplied him with the means to “rig out a little troop of boys” with outfits and toy rifles. The centerpiece of their company was a miniature brass cannon. One day, John, with the help of a companion, loaded the little weapon with an excessive charge of powder. When John put a light to the fuse, the cannon exploded.

Somewhat miraculously, neither John nor his playmate suffered serious injury, though their eyesight was temporarily impaired. “How we escaped with our lives,” John later recalled, “is a wonder.”4

Whether Samuel Colt was present when his older brother detonated the toy is unclear. Some biographers speculate that the four-year-old boy did, in fact, witness the event, which had a powerful effect on his imagination, sparking his lifelong fascination with armaments. If so, the repercussions from that small blast would be felt, in time, throughout the world.5

•   •   •

Besides the bond they shared with each other, both boys were deeply attached to their older sisters, Margaret and Sarah Ann. Throughout his exceptionally peripatetic life, John would carry keepsake locks of their hair; while the adult Sam, after finally achieving his hard-won fame and fortune, would hang framed mementoes of his sisters in his private room at Armsmear, the baronial estate he constructed in Hartford.6

Beyond their importance to their brothers, little is known 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 simple joy in the “pleasant things” of “this beautiful world.” The same observer recalled Sarah Ann as a pretty young girl “with profuse flaxen hair, clear blue eyes, and sweet smile” who “affectionately depended” on her older sister.7 Apart from this testimony, verifiable facts about 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 and six, Margaret and Sarah Ann were enrolled in an unusually progressive private school run by their neighbor, Lydia Howard Huntley.

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

Dubbed the “Sweet Singer of Hartford,” she poured out an endless stream of popular verse, most of which consisted of cloyingly sentimental tributes to the newly deceased. Of the nearly one hundred pieces collected in her 1822 Poems, for example, more than half are mawkish elegies with titles like “The Dying Mother’s Prayer,” “Anniversary of the Death of an Aged Friend,” “Babe Bereaved of Its Mother,” “Voice from the Grave of a Sunday-School Teacher,” and “Death of a Young Lady at the Retreat for the Insane.” In an age that made a fetish of bereavement and mourning, however, it was precisely Mrs. Sigourney’s morbid preoccupations, rendered in verse and drenched in a saccharine piety, that made her so widely beloved—the country’s best-selling poet before Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.8

Though she began writing poetry at a precocious age, her earliest ambition was to keep a school. Her childhood reveries (as Sigourney writes in her autobiography) were replete with “vivid pencillings of the delight, dignity, and glory of a schoolteacher.” During her playtime, she would arrange her “dolls in various classes, instructing them not only in the scanty knowledge I had myself attained, but boldly exhorting and lecturing them on the higher moral duties.”9

She first got a chance to realize her dream in 1811, when she and a friend started a seminary for young girls in Norwich. Three years later, at the behest of her acquaintance Daniel Wadsworth—the wealthy Hartford arts patron who would go on to found the Wadsworth Atheneum—she established a new private school for the daughters of his well-to-do friends. The inaugural class was limited to fifteen pupils, a number that was eventually enlarged to twenty-five. Among the members of this “select circle of young ladies” were Margaret and Sarah Ann Colt.

In contrast to other teachers of her era—who believed that girls should be schooled solely in such “womanly arts” as needlework and watercolors—Sigourney had little use for the “ornamental branches.” Her stated pedagogical goal was the cultivation of both the intellect 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 the meaning of the sentences” so that they might make “the spirit of the author their own” and thus “more accurately interpret his style.” To assist them in developing rigorous habits of mind, she frequently quizzed them on the dates of significant world events: “In what year of the world did the ark rest upon Mount Ararat? Who was called, 1,921 years before the Christian era, to go forth alone from his people and his father’s house? Who was Queen of Assyria, and who the Judge of Israel, when Troy was destroyed, 1,184 years before Christ?”10

Sigourney also placed great emphasis on the acquisition of “clear and precise penmanship.” Each girl was given a blank book with marble-paper covers and “long foolscap pages” and required to make daily entries in their finest handwriting.

Two of these notebooks—one belonging to Margaret Colt, the other to her younger sister, Sarah—still survive.11 Margaret’s is distinguished by a bold, exuberant script and pages that are illustrated with bright floral designs. By contrast, Sarah’s notebook is written in a cramped, tightly controlled hand and is utterly devoid of decoration. To a startling extent, moreover, it consists of transcriptions of exceptionally death-haunted poems: “The Orphan,” “The Loss of Friends,” “The Grave: A Poem.” This is perhaps unsurprising, given her teacher’s own morbid inclinations. Even so, there is something unsettling about the little girl’s funereal tastes. And in view of the calamities that were about to befall the Colt family, it is hard not to read a number of her selections—“Death of an Affectionate Mother,” “The Beautiful Burial Plot,” “Consumption” (“There is sweetness in woman’s decay, / When the light of beauty is fading away”)—as sadly prophetic.

3

An epitome of the risk-taking, entrepreneurial spirit of his age, Christopher Colt had, by dint of his “innate ability, hard work … and sheer willpower,” made a swift rise to wealth and local eminence.1 A successful importer and retailer of assorted merchandise, from dry goods and glassware to cutlery and crockery, he had also opened a thriving distillery with his father-in-law. By 1818, Christopher held a number of positions in local institutions, serving, among other offices, as treasurer of the Hartford County Agricultural Society and as a trustee of the Society for Savings, the first savings bank in the state.2

One of the vice presidents of the latter was the prosperous hardware merchant Charles Sigourney. In 1819 the recently widowed Sigourney, having been introduced to Lydia Howard Huntley by their mutual friend Daniel Wadsworth, declared his feelings for her in a letter “of touching eloquence and the fairest chirography.” Though the twenty-eight-year-old poetess had, by then, resigned herself to spinsterhood—to the untroubled existence, as she put it, of “a quiet school-dame … addicted to maiden meditations”—she accepted his proposal. Retiring from teaching, she moved into her husband’s splendid hilltop home and took up the life of a prosperous housekeeper, supervising the three female servants while herself performing a variety of domestic tasks, including the keeping of the household accounts. She also served as hostess to the frequent “pleasant parties of friends … for whom it was our rule to make ice-cream and other varieties of refreshments within our own premises.”3

Christopher and Sarah Colt were among the regular guests at these gatherings. Evoking those early halcyon days of her marriage in her posthumously published autobiography, Letters of Life, Lydia Sigourney recalled the Colts as “the handsomest couple” in their neighborhood: he “a gentleman of fine form and countenance and amiable manners,” his wife “a model of dignified beauty.” Their home, opposite to the Sigourneys’ own splendid “hill-residence,” was “a spacious and pleasant mansion.”

Having ascended to the upper ranks of Hartford society, Christopher Colt was determined to give his eldest boy an education befitting the son of a gentleman. Accordingly, in 1819, nine-year-old John was sent to Hopkins Academy in his father’s hometown, Hadley, Massachusetts.

Housed in a fine three-story brick building erected in 1817 at the then substantial cost of nearly five thousand dollars, the school featured two classrooms on the ground floor and, on the second, five additional rooms “used for recitations and to contain scientific apparatus and the beginning of a library.” The third floor consisted entirely of a spacious gallery known as Academy Hall. There, on a stage raised four feet above the floor, “embryo orators spouted poetry and read compositions at the afternoon rhetorical exercises, debates were held on abstruse subjects, exhibitions were given, lecturers spoke words of wisdom, and diplomas were awarded to those who had attained ‘ripeness and dexterity’ in all sorts of learning.” Tuition at the academy—which, under the preceptorship of the Reverend Daniel Huntington, placed heavy emphasis on the knowledge of Latin and Greek—was three dollars per quarter, plus an additional dollar and a half a week for board, “including room rent and washing.”4

Besides a sound education, John’s parents evidently hoped that their unruly son would derive other benefits from his time at Hopkins Academy. The former pastor of the Congregational Church in North Bridgewater, the Reverend Mr. Huntington was reputed to be a strict disciplinarian who brooked no frivolity in his charges. Surely a course of study under this “grave master” would help tame John’s “volatile spirit.” Their hopes were quickly dashed.

Bridling at the constraints of an institution that, according to its bylaws, demanded complete “subjection” to its “authority and government,” John devoted himself largely to troublemaking. The threat of public “degradation”—the prescribed punishment for misbehavior—only seemed to incite him to even more flagrant acts of rebelliousness.5 He became, in the words of an early biographer, “the ringleader of all mischief.” Utterly indifferent to the study of dead languages, John sought to excel not in his schoolwork but “at swimming, skating, horseracing, hunting, and fishing.”6

After one year, his father withdrew him from the academy. Besides the evident futility of subjecting the boy to a classical education, another consideration entered into the decision. Even the modest expense of less than eighty dollars per annum had suddenly become prohibitive for Christopher Colt.7 Like millions of his countrymen, he had suffered a precipitous reversal of fortune.

•   •   •

In the immediate aftermath of the War of 1812, the United States experienced a period of unprecedented economic expansion, a heady era of booming commerce, soaring land values, and rampant speculation. Five years after the end of hostilities, however, the economy crashed. Exactly what caused the panic of 1819—the first such crisis in the nation’s history—is still a subject of debate among scholars. Its devastating consequences, however, are beyond dispute. Banks failed, property values plunged, jobs evaporated, the ranks of paupers swelled at an alarming rate. Times were so hard that, according to one contemporary newspaper report, desperate young men turned to robbery not to profit from the loot but to get thrown into prison, where they could at least be assured of regular meals and a roof over their heads. All together, an estimated three million people—roughly one-third the population—were adversely affected.8 Among that staggering number was the family of Christopher C. Colt.

Sam Colt was only six years old when his father went bankrupt. He was playing under the piano in the front parlor when Christopher came in and informed his wife that he had “lost the bulk of his property.” Though the news had dire implications for herself, Sarah’s first thoughts were for her children. “My poor little ones!” she cried, wringing her hands as her “eyes dimmed with tears.” It was a memory that would haunt Sam for the rest of his life.9

In the midst of this family crisis, John, back home from the Hopkins Academy, was still finding ways to make trouble. Somewhere around this time—the exact date is unclear—he and a friend decided to take revenge on a neighbor who had caught them stealing apples from his orchard and had administered a severe whipping to John’s friend. The neighbor, a surly old farmer and veteran of the Continental army, owned a prize horse that he rode proudly on militia muster days. Not long after the incident in the apple orchard, John and his friend set about collecting “a vast supply” of burdock burrs. They then snuck into the animal’s pen and pelted it with the burrs until its tail and mane were hopelessly ensnarled. Unable to comb out the burrs, the farmer was forced to shear off the hair, making the horse too unsightly to ride in the next parade. That John and his friend carried their vengeance to such an extreme—“even to the persecution of an innocent horse,” as one outraged commentator wrote—inspired widespread indignation in the community.10

It was shortly after this episode that John was sent to live with an uncle, a farmer in Burlington, Vermont. While his year under the stern discipline of the Reverend Mr. Huntington had done little to improve the boy’s character, the rigors of farm work—the unceasing round of plowing and planting, mowing and hoeing, repairing fences and retrieving strays—had a beneficial effect. The refractory boy blossomed into a responsible man. On one memorable occasion, he was entrusted with a particularly challenging task. A blizzard had left the local roads buried beneath drifts seven feet high. When the storm finally subsided, a group of neighbors turned out to clear the roads. Thirteen oxen were hitched to a snow drag with two horses in the lead. Perceiving “an excellent opportunity of trying what John was made of,” his uncle assigned him the job of riding the foremost sorrel. Though the horse threw him a half dozen times while negotiating a treacherous hill, the boy remained undaunted and acquitted himself “in the best manner.” “John is made of good stuff,” his uncle reported to Christopher soon after this event. “You need not give yourself any uneasiness about him.”11

By the time this letter was sent, its recipient had already turned to a new trade: yarn and cloth manufacturing. Equipped with newfangled technology—water-powered spindles and looms—the nascent New England textile industry was spared the worst effects of the depression of 1819.12True to his family motto—“He Conquers Who Endures”—Christopher Colt took the loss of his fortune as a mere setback. A fresh opportunity awaited in the mills. To persist in the face of adversity was, as the proverb assured him, the key to success.

As it happened, his capacity to endure suffering was about to be sorely tested. Fate had another, even more devastating blow in store for him.

In May 1821, his wife delivered her eighth child, a boy christened Norman Upton Colt. By then, however, she had already suffered the first bouts of bloody coughing that signified the onset of pulmonary tuberculosis—consumption, the “white plague.” She died on June 6 at the age of forty.

The infant, sickly from the day of his delivery, survived for only a year. His burial took place on May 5, 1822—the anniversary of his birth. His passing was—predictably—commemorated in verse by Lydia Sigourney, who rarely squandered a chance to rhapsodize on the death of a newborn:

DEATH found strange beauty on that polished brow,

And dashed it out. There was a tint of rose

On cheek and lip. He touched the veins with ice,

And the rose faded. Forth from those blue eyes

There spake a wishful tenderness, a doubt

Whether to grieve or sleep, which innocence

Alone may wear. With ruthless haste he bound

The silken fringes of their curtaining lids

For ever. There had been a murmuring sound

With which the babe would claim its mother’s ear,

Charming her even to tears. The Spoiler set

The seal of silence
.

   But there beamed a smile

So fixed, so holy, from that cherub brow,

Death gazed, and left it there. He dared not steal

The signet-ring of Heaven.
13

The Grim Reaper, in this typically tear-jerking piece, may have been humbled by the holiness of the infant’s “cherub brow.” But neither Death nor his favorite female poet was done yet with the offspring of Christopher and Sarah Colt.

4

Not long before she succumbed to the white plague, Sarah Colt bestowed on her little son Samuel a cherished keepsake: a military horse pistol that her father had wielded in the Revolutionary War. That, at any rate, is one version of the story. Another is that she bought him the old firearm as a reward for learning to read. According to a third, Sam found it among the discards in a “gunsmith’s junk pile.” And some biographers claim that he got it in a trade from his younger brother Christopher, Jr., reputedly a sharp dealer even in early boyhood.1

Though these tales differ in detail, all agree that the gun was inoperative when Sam acquired it and that—in a precocious display of mechanical genius—he tinkered it back into working order with spare parts from “some generous gunmaker’s scrapbox.” One famous anecdote portrays the seven-year-old seated “under a tree in a field with the pistol taken entirely to pieces, the different parts carefully arranged around him, and which he was beginning to reconstruct. He soon, to his great delight, accomplished this feat.” Like the stories of Newton and the apple and Washington and the cherry tree, there is a hagiographic quality to this tale of little Sam Colt and his broken-down flintlock—appropriately enough for a figure who would one day be compared to the Deity Himself.2 Whether it corresponds in any way to actuality is another matter. In any event, the truth is impossible to verify.

There are some documented facts about this period in the Colt family history. Following Sarah’s death, the running of the household fell to Christopher’s widowed sister, Lucretia Colt Price, who had lived with the family for a number of years. In March 1823, she was relieved of her domestic duties when Christopher took a second wife, Olivia Sargeant, daughter of a prosperous Hartford mechanic.

Two years after this happy event, another tragedy befell the Colt family, at least as devastating as the loss of Sarah. In July 1825, Margaret, the oldest child, fell victim to the scourge that had claimed her mother. She was only nineteen at the time and just months shy of her long-planned marriage—“snatched,” as Lydia Sigourney put it, “in her bloom and in her bridal hour.”

In her inevitable tribute, Mrs. Sigourney lavishes her usual maudlin attention on the presumably poetic details of Margaret’s slow decay: her struggles “for that slight breath that held her from the tomb,” her “wasting form” like “a snow-wreath which the sun marks for his own,” her “emaciate hand” raised “in trembling prayer.” Describing the young woman’s funeral, Sigourney pictures the mourners gathered at the gravesite. There are the grieving companions of Margaret’s youth—“a train of young fair females with brows of bloom / And shining tresses.” There is her stricken fiancé, E. B. Stedman—the “pale lover,” who, “ ’ere the fading of the summer rose,” had “hoped to greet her as a bride.” And finally there are the young woman’s surviving siblings: “those who at her side were nursed / By the same mother.”3

Though precise dates are impossible to ascertain, it would appear that their sister’s funeral was one of the last times, for years to come, that the children of Christopher and Sarah Colt would all be gathered in one place. Their lives were about to undergo a major upheaval.

•   •   •

If Freudian theorists are to be believed, the figure of the evil stepmother, so familiar from the Brothers Grimm, is rooted in unconscious childhood fears of maternal rejection. Less psychoanalytically inclined scholars, on the other hand, see the prevalence of wicked stepmothers as a reflection not of infantile fantasy but of historical reality. Two hundred years ago, women of procreative age died at an alarmingly high rate. Husbands frequently remarried and sired children with their new wives, who, in the natural way of things, treated the offspring of their predecessors less tenderly than their own.4

Christopher’s new wife, Olivia, was no fairy-tale ogress. But with her husband struggling to reestablish his finances, she was obliged to impose a strict new regime on the household, beginning with the discharge of the servants. Within five years of her marriage, moreover, she had given birth to three babies of her own.5

Having been raised as pampered members of the local gentry, the children of Christopher’s first marriage suddenly found themselves in radically reduced circumstances, expelled from the ranks of the social elite. Apart from the youngest, nine-year-old James, they were now expected to earn their own keep. Christopher, Jr.—who had worked up a small business running errands for the neighbors—was permitted to remain at home, adding his earnings to the household funds.6 The others were sent into the world.

Within months of Margaret’s death, her younger sister, Sarah Ann, was farmed out to relatives who, by all accounts, treated her little better than a menial.7

John, who had begun to entertain dreams of a military career, hoped to enter West Point. His new stepmother, however, made it clear that such an ambition was beyond the family’s means. Instead he was sent to work at the Union Manufacturing Company in Marlborough, Connecticut, a textile mill that produced the blue cotton stripe fabric used to clothe slaves in the Southern plantations. John so excelled at his work that, within a year, he was promoted to assistant bookkeeper, familiarizing himself with the so-called double entry system of accounting favored by New England merchants.8

As for Sam, he was indentured to a farmer in Glastonbury, Connecticut. History records few details of his departure from the family home. Most of his biographers, however, agree on one point. When he left, he took his gun.9

5

However deep the bonds of affection between them, whatever traits of character and temperament they shared, Samuel Colt and his big brother, John, differed radically in at least one crucial regard. By the time he reached adolescence, Sam had already conceived his life’s purpose and pursued it with a fierce determination for the rest of his days. Nothing would deflect him from his goal. Though he would travel widely, his wanderings were always in the service of a single ambition. His aim (to use the obvious metaphor) was as narrowly focused as the view through a marksman’s sight.

By contrast, to chronicle John Colt’s career is to chart a distinctly meandering course. Though possessed, like his younger brother, of seemingly boundless energies and a bold enterprising spirit, there was a haphazard quality to his pursuits. In search of success, he would lead a nomad’s existence, trying his hand at assorted moneymaking schemes around the country. In the original meaning of the term—“following a winding or erratic course, rambling, roving”—John Colt’s life was distinctly devious. Whether the word also applied to him in its more common sense—cunning, crooked, untrustworthy—would, in later years, be a subject of heated debate.1

•   •   •

John Colt saw Manhattan for the first time in 1826, when he accompanied his father there on a business trip. The previous fall, at a ceremony to mark the opening of the Erie Canal, Governor De Witt Clinton had prophesied that the 350-mile waterway would transform New York City into the country’s “emporium of commerce.” Less than a year later, that prediction was already coming true, as barges laden with the bounty of America’s heartland made their way to the great, booming port.2

The burgeoning metropolis—“with its domes and spires, its towers, its cupolas and steepled chimneys”—impressed the sixteen-year-old boy as a wonderland. He was particularly struck by the hum and bustle of the South Street docks, lined with merchants’ shops and warehouses and bristling with the masts, spars, and rigging of countless sailing ships and packets.3

A month and a half after he returned to his job at the Union Manufacturing Company, John vanished, only to turn up three weeks later in Albany, New York. Though the facts are sketchy, he appears to have run off to New York City before making his way northward by steamer, evidently in the vague hope of realizing his dream of entering West Point. A chance encounter with a family acquaintance at a hotel in Albany alerted his father to John’s whereabouts.

By then, Christopher Colt had moved his wife and family to a cottage in Ware, Massachusetts, where he had become the sales agent for the Hampshire Manufacturing Company, makers of cotton and woolen yarn and cloth, as well as “machinery, castings and gearings” used in the production of textiles.4 Writing to his son in Albany, Christopher urged the sixteen-year-old to return home and come work at the mill. Though John’s supply of cash was, by then, running perilously low, he refused, informing his father that he was determined to further his education.

To lure his prodigal son back home, Christopher acceded to his wishes, offering to pay for his tuition at an academy near Hartford. John promptly enrolled, pursuing his studies with a diligence that “astonished everyone.” After just one quarter, however, Christopher—apparently under pressure from his parsimonious new wife—withdrew his financial support and demanded that John “return home in the next mail stage.”

•   •   •

John’s sister, Sarah Ann, was living at home again, earning her keep by teaching at a female seminary.5 The two were now the oldest children in the Colt household—the ones with the clearest recollections of their privileged past. The memories of their indulgent mother—and of the luxuries they took for granted while she was alive—only heightened their resentment of Olivia.

Still bent on completing his studies, John seethed when his stepmother urged him to abandon his academic ambitions and return to his job in Marlborough. Under the family’s current straitened circumstances, she informed him, John must “dismiss his extravagant expectations” and reconcile himself to a life of “privation.” The most he could expect from his parents was a meager allowance—a “mere pittance.”

Given the state of their finances, Olivia’s extreme frugality was surely a matter of simple prudence. To John, however, her lectures “upon the necessity of not rendering himself a burden to his parents” rankled bitterly.

His anger was compounded by the plight of his older sister. Brought up in a world of wealth and “fashionable society,” Sarah Ann was now reduced to a life of extreme deprivation, “cut off from indulgences and opportunities of seeing and being seen freely granted to other young ladies, even some of inferior standing.” On the few occasions that she ventured a complaint, her stepmother would remind her of the family’s “narrow means” and insist that Sarah stop “thinking about dress and frivolous parties and so forth.” Sarah soon learned to bite back her unhappiness, sharing her feelings only with her brother, who was “cut to the very soul by what he regarded as an indignity to his only remaining sister.”

Eventually John could no longer endure the situation. Approaching E. B. Stedman—Margaret Colt’s bereaved fiancé, who had remained close to the family after her death—John unburdened himself to the young merchant and revealed his intention “to quit his father’s house and never more to be indebted to him for support.” The sympathetic Stedman responded by “placing fifty dollars in his young friend’s hands” and exclaiming, “Should you ever need assistance, let me know; and while I have a dollar, I’ll divide it with you.”

Sometime in 1827—the exact date is unknown—seventeen-year-old John Colt departed from home, becoming, as one newspaper later put it, a “voluntary exile from the parental roof.”6

His sister, Sarah Ann, would choose a different mode of escape.

6

In the agrarian past, when farming “was as much of a trade to be learned as that of cobbler, miller, or blacksmith,” it was standard practice for the sons of New England yeomen to undergo formal apprenticeships. For terms of varying duration, boys were indentured to local farmers who, in exchange for the unstinting services of their young charges, agreed to provide them with room, board, and a modicum of basic education while training them in the traditional “art of the husbandman.”1

According to the terms of one typical indenture from the 1820s, the apprentice agreed to serve his master “well and faithfully” and “his lawful commands everywhere at all times readily obey.” In addition:

He shall not waste the goods of said master, nor lend them unlawfully to any; at cards, dice or any unlawful game he shall not play; fornication he shall not commit, nor matrimony contract during said term; taverns, ale-houses or places of gaming he shall not haunt or frequent; from the service of his said master he shall not absent himself, but in all things and at all times he shall carry himself and behave as a good and faithful apprentice ought, during the whole time or term aforesaid.2

In later life, Sam Colt had little to say about his year in Glastonbury, other than to remark that “he did not find there a very gentle master and certainly was in no danger of being spoiled by over-indulgence.”3 That the eleven-year-old boy was subjected to unfamiliar rigors is not surprising. Even under the best of circumstances, farming was a grueling affair. The journal of one of Sam’s contemporaries offers a vivid glimpse of the numbing monotony that constituted early nineteenth-century farm life:

July 

28th 

I mow’d ½ the day, ½ plow’d hops. 

 

29th 

I plow’d and hoe’d hops. 

 

30th 

I sow’d some turnips. It rained. 

 

31st 

I helped Father plow with my oxen. 

August 

1st 

I was haying. 

 

2nd 

I was plowing my stubble. It rain’d. 

 

3rd 

I went and plow’d corn.4 

Even Sundays did not offer much relief from the grinding tedium. Though Sam’s master, a “robust Christian,” strictly observed the biblical prohibition against work on the Sabbath, certain indispensable chores—carrying firewood, feeding the livestock, milking the cows—were still demanded of the boy. Attendance at church, where the minister would typically deliver a sermon of several hours’ duration, was mandatory. And the “blue laws” inherited from New England’s Puritan founders still forbade any activity resembling fun. (As late as 1837, certain Connecticut towns enforced a law declaring “that no one shall run of a Sabbath day, or walk in his garden or elsewhere, except reverently to and from church.”)5

By most accounts, Sam did manage to sneak away on an occasional Sunday afternoon for a ramble in the countryside. Legend has it that he would bring his prized flintlock pistol and that, on one occasion, he yielded to temptation and discharged the gun, shattering “the taut quietude of a Puritan Sabbath.”6

He also found refuge in the pages of a book. Though Sam—as per the provisions of his indenture—was sent to a local schoolhouse to learn the three Rs, he would always be an indifferent student (as the rudimentary spelling abilities he carried into adulthood would attest). Nevertheless, he was reputedly enthralled by a volume belonging to his Glastonbury master. This was a massive Compendium of Knowledge, one of three books that constituted the entire household library (the others being the family Bible and a farmer’s almanac).

Like other works of its kind, the volume that so fascinated young Sam Colt contained information on a dizzying range of subjects, from Greek mythology to colonial American history, from beekeeping to poultry breeding, from the proper method for making malt to the correct cure for hoof-and-mouth disease. The chapters that riveted Sam’s attention, however, were not the ones on literature or philosophy, horticulture or medicine, astronomy or phrenology. They were the sections that explained the workings of galvanic batteries and the formula for making gunpowder.7

•   •   •

His year of servitude over, Sam returned to Ware and went to work at the Hampshire mill alongside his father. Unlike his older brother Christopher, Jr.—who would go on to become a pioneer in the American silk industry—Sam had little interest in textiles per se.8 But with his unquenchable mechanical curiosity, he was continuously fascinated by the workings of the water-powered manufactory: “the clicking, whirling looms, the darting bobbins … the machines replacing what before he had known only as a winter’s evening task, spinning and weaving by the fireside.”9 In the person of William T. Smith, supervisor of the mill’s “bleeching and colouring” laboratory (in Sam’s typically heterodox spelling), he also found a kindred spirit who shared his love of chemistry and who, by most accounts, encouraged the adolescent boy’s earliest experiments with homemade explosives.10

Sam was able to pursue his interests with a more learned instructor when, after three years at the mill, he went off to nearby Amherst Academy. Founded in 1814, the school (the academic seedbed out of which Amherst College would shortly spring) was an educationally progressive institution that prided itself on, among other accomplishments, its early adoption of that state-of-the-art instructional device, the blackboard. (“It is surprising and delightful to see the interest which it kindles in even the dullest scholar,” exclaimed the author of an 1827 report prepared for the board of trustees, who foresaw the day when this pedagogical marvel would become common in the classroom. “By rousing the curiosity and holding the attention beyond all other means, it would almost completely banish that weariness which makes the schoolhouse a place hated to so many children and that listlessness and idleness which renders that time spent there so often worse than lost.”)11

In addition to its classical curriculum—ancient languages, moral philosophy, grammar, arithmetic, and so forth—the academy offered courses in subjects “just beginning to be taught in schools outside of colleges.”12 Among these was chemistry, taught at the time of Sam Colt’s attendance by a gentleman named Rufus Graves.

One of the founders of Amherst Academy, Graves was an unprepossessing fellow whose “sluggish and phlegmatic appearance” belied his prodigious energy.13 A Massachusetts native who had earned a divinity degree at Dartmouth College, he had, in the course of his exceptionally varied career, run a tannery, helped construct the first bridge over the Connecticut River, founded the Putnam Drug Company (one of the longest continuously operating businesses in early New Hampshire history), served as lieutenant colonel in the Sixteenth U.S. Infantry, and been a chemistry instructor at Dartmouth.

Insofar as Graves remains known at all today, it is among enthusiasts of the paranormal, the types who relish tales of abominable snowmen, UFOs, and other such pseudoscientific phenomena. This dubious distinction is owing to a short piece Graves published in an 1820 issue of the American Journal of Science. Titled “Account of a Gelatinous Meteor,” the article describes Graves’s observation, on the evening of August 13, 1819, of a “luminous meteor” of “a brilliant white light” that streaked through the sky over Amherst and crashed beside a nearby house. The following morning, Graves located the spot where the “fire-ball” had ostensibly fallen to earth and discovered

a circular mass of jelly about eight inches in diameter and about one in thickness of a bright buff colour with a fine nap upon it, similar to that of milled cloth. On removing this nap, a buff-coloured pulpy substance, of the consistency of soft soap, appeared, having an offensive suffocating smell, producing nausea and giddiness. After a few minutes exposure to air, the buff colour was changed into a livid colour resembling venous blood.

Graves’s supposedly sensational discovery—which has since been identified as a common species of plant called myxomycetes, or slime mold—did nothing for his ultimate scientific reputation. It did, however, earn him a place in the history of what folklorists describe as the centuries-old belief in “star jelly,” a tradition that runs from Shakespeare’s day to the 1950s cult film classic The Blob.14

Despite his credulity when it came to blood-colored jelly from outer space, Graves was esteemed as a lecturer. As a member of his class, Sam would have witnessed and participated in simple experiments designed to introduce young students to the basic principles of chemistry: combining sulphur with hydrogen, for example, to produce sulphuretted hydrogen gas, the “essence of that nauseous scent” that “is generated in all dirty sinks and other places abounding such filthy substances.” Or inserting a piece of burning candle into a glass tube filled with pure oxygen to demonstrate “the necessity for having oxygen diluted with nitrogen; for if the atmosphere were pure oxygen, all combustible substances, when once inflamed, would burn without control to the destruction of all the living beings.”15 From one of the textbooks then in use at Amherst, John White Webster’s A Manual of Chemistry, Sam also would have learned of a phenomenon that would figure importantly in his adult life: “the feelings of excitement” induced by the inhalation of nitrous oxide.16

•   •   •

John Colt’s movements in the months following his flight from the “parental roof” are impossible to trace with certainty. By late 1827, he appears to have made his way to Baltimore, where he found work as a mathematics teacher at a ladies’ seminary and (though the records on this are ambiguous) may have begun dabbling in real estate investment.17 Residing at a downtown hotel, he is said to have befriended an elderly engineer by the name of Everett, who—impressed with the young man’s “celerity at figures”—offered him a high-paying supervisory job in what was then a booming field: the canal business.

The stunning success of the Erie Canal had set off a wave of canal construction in surrounding regions, particularly in Pennsylvania, where a complex system of waterways would soon crisscross the state. The project to which John was assigned involved a three-quarter-mile stretch of the so-called North Branch Canal, designed to transport coal from the rich anthracite fields just below Wilkes-Barre to urban markets in Delaware, New York, and New Jersey.18

Arrived at a place called Longshores, about fifteen miles south of Wilkes-Barre, John found himself faced with a daunting task. “Along the river and into the water, there was to be built with stone an apron eighteen feet wide; and thereupon a wall twenty-two feet high, to constitute the first foundation of the canal. For this end, the side of the mountain had to be pulled down and many other encumbrances removed. Every species of obstacle and labor entered into the stupendous work.”

Though still a mere “stripling” of eighteen, John threw himself into the job with an efficiency and zeal that won the admiration of his far more experienced subordinates. “He was a favorite of every engineer. In less than ten days, his sheds were built, his tools all purchased and delivered, and thirty men at work; and in less than a month, a hundred. The section was universally pronounced the best managed on the line.”

After seven months—at the “very handsome salary” he was earning from his friend Mr. Everett—John was able to repay the fifty dollars he had borrowed from E. B. Stedman while retaining two hundred for himself. By then it was December 1828. “The cold had become unusually bitter,” and John’s “duties required exposure to every kind of weather, from day-break to night-fall.” Having begun to suffer from recurrent bouts of coughing—a precursor, he feared, to the disease that had already claimed his mother and older sister—John decided to leave.

Everett did his best to retain him, offering to raise his already hefty wage, but John would not be dissuaded. His success at overseeing the complex construction job had kindled his desire to acquire “such technical knowledge as might better qualify him either for an engineer or for a teacher; and he resolved to devote the sum he had earned to a winter’s study.” Repairing to Wilbraham, Massachusetts, he enrolled at the Wesleyan Academy, then under the leadership of the prominent Methodist minister Wilbur Fisk.

In a speech delivered shortly after he assumed his position in 1826, the Reverend Mr. Fisk had made plain his low opinion of the typical academic institutions of the day, which, in his stern view, were breeding grounds of sin and impiety. At other schools, he proclaimed, the student “meets the filthy conversation of the wicked and learns to blaspheme. He meets the debauchee and learns incontinency. He meets the jovial companion and indulges the social glass. He meets the caviling infidel and learns to sneer at religion. In short, he leaves school more learned but frequently more corrupted, if not wholly ruined.”

Vowing that, under his stewardship, the Wesleyan Academy would “better guard the habits and morals of scholars than they are usually guarded in our common schools,” Fisk instituted strict “arrangements for good discipline”:

For the most difficult cases they had a prison, and for the worst, the utterly incorrigible, there was a dungeon. The prison was a room furnished only with a hard bed, a single chair, and a naked table; the dungeon was a room with clean straw scattered over the floor. The fare of these prisoners was not such as to tempt them to intemperance. A brief seclusion in these cheerless rooms usually broke the resolution of the most rebellious.

When even these measures failed, there was always the recourse of a public whipping “severe enough to do its work effectively.” The Reverend Mr. Fisk generally “inflicted these whippings himself; for his sincere kindness and strict self-control made it safer not to entrust such disagreeable duties to his subordinates.”19

A few years earlier, it is likely that John himself would have done time in the dungeon or been lashed for his own good by the benevolent-hearted minister. But the intervening time had matured him, and he applied himself diligently to his studies—until disaster once again struck his family.

•   •   •

Exactly why Sarah Ann Colt chose to end her life is a matter of conjecture. One newspaper reported that she “quarreled with her step-mother, fled to the house of a neighbor, Widow May, and, at the end of two days, procured arsenic and put an end to her life.” According to another account, “The uncomplaining but high-spirited and acutely sensitive girl took a morbid view of her doom to labor and regarded it as humiliating, till at length her fortitude and her mind gave way.” Yet a third source claimed that, like her brother John, Sarah Ann was subjected to unbearable “persecution” at home but, being female, could not, as he did, “fly into the world for refuge.” Instead “she found it in the grave.” Her youngest brother, James, on the other hand, would always believe that Sarah Ann had become “deranged” from excessive immersion in her studies—from applying herself “too closely to her books.”

As a member of that ill-fated sorority that Lydia Sigourney liked to refer to as “my dead,” Sarah Ann was, of course, memorialized in the sugary verse “Sweet Singer.” The tribute, however, offers no clues as to the cause of Sarah Ann’s death. Indeed, Mrs. Sigourney avoids the mention of suicide altogether, remarking only that—by the tenth anniversary of the disbanding of her Hartford school—Sarah Ann had become a “tenant of the narrow tomb,” and comparing the young woman’s “brief span” to a sparkling “drop of morning dew” inhaled by the “noon-day sun.”20

Whatever the reasons for Sarah Ann’s suicide, she must have been in dire emotional straits to subject herself to the torments of arsenic poisoning—to the unbearable nausea and vomiting, the uncontrollable, bloody diarrhea, the muscular convulsions and excruciating cramps. She died on March 26, 1829, at the age of twenty-one.

Of all her siblings, John was most devastated by the death of the sister “around whom twined every tendril of his heart.” In despair, he “flung aside his books. His ambition was quenched. Of the future he felt reckless. The word ‘home’ filled him with bitterness.”

Forsaking his studies, he resolved to leave the country and “pass the rest of his days in some foreign land.”21

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!