James Gordon Bennett didn’t invent the penny press. That distinction belongs to Benjamin Day. Before Day founded the New York Sun in 1833, urban newspapers catered largely to the mercantile and professional elites. Somber to the point of deadliness, they devoted themselves primarily to commercial news, financial affairs, and political propaganda on behalf of whatever party they were established to serve. They were also priced beyond the means of the average reader. Sold mainly by subscription, the big-city papers—the Daily Advertiser, the Courier and Enquirer, the Journal of Commerce—cost ten dollars a year. Individual issues could be purchased only at the publisher’s office for six cents a copy—this at a time when the daily wage for the typical workingman was eighty-five cents.1
Day’s innovation was to create an inexpensive paper sold on the streets, free of political partisanship, and featuring the kinds of stories that have always appealed to ordinary people. Whereas the contents of traditional dailies consisted largely of commodity prices, ship sailings, legal notices, ads for wholesalers, political editorials, and a smattering of small items about subjects like tariffs, congressional doings, and the federal banking system, Day’s penny paper devoted significant space to such titillating topics as steamboat disasters, suicides, and local crimes. The paper was a runaway success.2
It was James Gordon Bennett, however, who turned the penny press into a vehicle of unabashed sensationalism—a precursor of the “yellow” papers that would flourish in the Gilded Age and the tabloid journalism that helped define the following century. An emigrant from Scotland, Bennett subsisted briefly as a teacher in Halifax before making his way down to Boston, where he scratched out a living as a proofreader in a printing house. Three years later, he moved to New York City, where a chance encounter led to a job with the Charleston (S.C.) Courier. During the next ten years, he wrote for various newspapers, honing a brash and entertaining style that—in a pattern that would characterize his entire career—tickled the public while incensing his high-minded peers.
In 1835, after several failed ventures as a publisher, he used his last five hundred dollars to launch The New York Herald, a four-page penny paper aimed at “the great masses of the community” (as Bennett proclaimed in the inaugural issue). Expanding on Day’s crowd-pleasing formula, Bennett “fed his readers a steady diet of violence, crime, murder, suicide, seduction, and rape in both news reporting and gossip.” In its first two weeks of existence, the Herald published accounts of “three suicides, three murders, a fire that killed five persons, an accident in which a man blew off his head, descriptions of a guillotine execution in France, a riot in Philadelphia, a kangaroo hunt in Australia, and the execution of Major John André half a century earlier.”3
What turned the Herald into a phenomenon, however, was Bennett’s lip-smacking coverage of the Helen Jewett murder case. A former servant girl, born Dorcas Doyen, from Augusta, Maine, Jewett was axed to death in a stylish Manhattan brothel in the spring of 1836. Though the slaying of prostitutes was nothing new in the city—according to one historian, “twenty girls had perished in the twenty-two brothels in a single block during the preceeding three months”4—Bennett immediately recognized that the Jewett case contained elements that lifted it above the merely sordid: not only illicit sex and brutal murder but also a beautiful victim with a mysterious past and a handsome young suspect named Richard Robinson from a highly respectable old-line Connecticut family.
On the day after the discovery of Jewett’s savaged body, Bennett—under the blaring headline “Most Atrocious Murder”—devoted nearly an entire page to an account of the crime. He followed this up with a pioneering piece of investigative journalism, personally visiting the crime scene and describing the “ghastly corpse” in rapturous detail:
I could scarcely look at it for a second or two. Slowly I began to discover the lineaments of the corpse as one would the beauties of a statue of marble. It was the most remarkable sight I ever beheld—I never have, and never expect, to see such another. “My God,” exclaimed I, “how like a statue. I can scarcely conceive that form to be a corpse.” No vein was to be seen. The body looked as white—as full—as polished as the purest Parisian marble. The perfect figure—the exquisite limbs—the fine face—the full arms—the beautiful bust—all—all—surpassed in every respect the Venus de Medicis according to the casts generally given of her.5
Thanks to Bennett’s relentlessly exploitive reporting, the story became a nationwide sensation, America’s prototypical media circus. While his many critics deplored his tawdry techniques—one competitor declared that Bennett had “no more decency than a rutting pig,” while Walt Whitman described him as both a “reptile marking his path with slime” and “a midnight ghoul, preying on rottenness and repulsive filth”—the public couldn’t get enough of his product.6 By the time Robinson’s trial ended,7 the Heraldhad become the city’s leading newspaper, confirming its publisher’s view that nothing was better for business than murders of a particularly lurid stripe. “Men who have killed their wives, and committed other such everyday matters, have been condemned, executed, and are forgotten,” wrote Bennett, “but it takes a deed that has some of the sublime of horror about it to attract attention, rally eloquence, and set people crazy.”8
• • •
As Bennett recognized, it took the right mix of ingredients to render a crime irresistible to the public. New Yorkers had to wait another five years for a case as juicy as the murder of Helen Jewett.
On the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, on the Hoboken shore, lay a pastoral spot known as Elysian Fields, “a cleared place of about three or four acres, surrounded on three sides by trees and open on the other to the river.” Easily accessible by steamboat from the Barclay Street launch in lower Manhattan, this idyllic glade—as lovely, according to one contemporary observer, “as a nook of Paradise before Satan entered its gardens”—offered city dwellers a delightful refuge from the heat, stink, and congestion of the metropolis on stifling summer days.9
On the scorching afternoon of Wednesday, July 28, 1841, a young music instructor named Henry Mallin, along with his friend James Boulard, was strolling north along the grassy riverbank, having debarked at the Hoboken ferry landing shortly after 3:00 p.m. As they gazed into the rippling waters, they received what Mallin later described as an “evil shock.” There, bobbing in the river about three hundred yards from shore, was a human body. Dashing to a nearby dock, they leapt into a scull, rowed out to the body, and—after securing it with a length of rope—towed it back to land.10
The corpse was that of a drowned female who, to judge by her ghastly condition, had been decomposing in the water for several days. She was wearing a torn white cotton frock, a bright blue scarf, “light colored” shoes and gloves, and a leghorn straw bonnet. Despite her grotesque appearance—the purplish-black skin, the bloated face, the “frothy blood” leaking from her mouth—she was quickly identified as Mary Cecilia Rogers, a young woman familiar to readers of the popular press. Indeed, she was already something of a local celebrity—though her fame while alive was as nothing compared to the grim immortality that death would bestow.
• • •
Invariably described in the contemporary accounts as a young woman of enchanting appearance—a “raven-tressed” beauty possessed of a “dark smile” and a “hypnotically pleasing” figure—Mary Rogers had first come to the public’s attention several years earlier while working at a popular Broadway “tobacco emporium” owned by an enterprising young merchant named John Anderson. Though his customers represented a broad range of social types—from young clerks and “sporting gents” to luminaries like Horace Greeley, Washington Irving, and James Fenimore Cooper—they had one thing in common: They were all men. Calculating (correctly) that a pretty face behind the counter would be a boon to his business, the canny proprietor had hired the eighteen-year-old Mary in 1838 to serve less as a salesgirl than as a sexual magnet.
The strategy worked. Anderson’s profits soared as throngs of male admirers flocked to his shop to “preen and squawk before the young lady.” Dubbed the “Beautiful Cigar Girl” in the city papers (many of whose reporters were also patrons of the store), Mary became a prototype of the modern celebrity, known for being known. Her charms were extolled in newspaper articles—one of which likened her to a luminous candle set out to catch the moths “that flutter around so attractive a center”—and celebrated in doggerel verse:
She’s picked for her beauty from many a belle,
And placed near the window, Havanas to sell,
For well her employer’s aware that her face is
An advertisement certain to empty his cases.11
In 1840, two years after entering Anderson’s employ, Mary quit the shop to manage a boardinghouse leased by her sixty-year-old mother, Phebe. Located at 126 Nassau Street, in the heart of the city’s booming printing and publishing trade, the three-story redbrick building catered to a clientele of young, single workingmen. A number of them, including a cork cutter named Daniel Payne who had become romantically involved with Mary, were residing there on Sunday, July 25, 1841, when the “comely young woman”—after announcing that she was on her way to make a Sabbath visit to an aunt—left the house at around 10:00 in the morning and was never seen alive again.
• • •
Less than an hour after the drowned and disfigured body was dragged onto the shore, Hoboken coroner Dr. Richard H. Cook arrived on the scene. The results of his autopsy were of so shocking a nature that newspapers could only hint at the more lurid details. Before being dumped in the river, Mary (so Cook concluded) had been beaten, gagged, tied, and ultimately strangled to death with a strip of fabric torn from her underskirt. Even more appallingly, bruises on her “feminine region” left no doubt in the coroner’s mind that the “unfortunate girl” had been gang-raped: “brutally violated by no fewer than three assailants.”12
Because of the heat and the body’s already advanced state of decay, a temporary burial was quickly arranged. Encased in a rough pine box, Mary’s corpse was placed in a shallow grave not far from where it had been brought ashore. Two weeks later, it was disinterred and taken back to New York City for a second examination. By then her remains presented what James Gordon Bennett described as a spectacle “more horrible and humiliating to humanity” than the “most imaginative mind could conceive”:
There lay, what was but a few days back, the image of its Creator, the loveliest of his works, and the tenement of an immortal soul, now a blackened and decomposed mass of putrefaction, painfully disgusting to sight and smell. Her skin, which had been so unusually fair, was now black as that of a negro. Her eyes so sunk in her swollen face as to have the appearance of being violently forced beyond the sockets, and her mouth, which “no friendly hand had closed in death,” was distended as wide as the ligaments of the jaw would admit, and wore the appearance of a person who had died from suffocation or strangulation. The remainder of her person was alike one mass of putrefaction and corruption on which the worms were reveling at their will.13
The sheer ghoulish verve of this description is typical of Bennett’s shameless style. Trumpeting Mary’s death as “one of the most heartless and atrocious murders that was ever perpetrated in New York,” he filled his paper with graphic descriptions of the injuries inflicted on the “poor girl,” feverish speculations about the identity of her “brutal ravishers and murderers,” and outraged attacks on the local police force for its failure to make an arrest.
As Bennett intended, the case became the talk of the town, generating an unprecedented wave of public excitement. “I can call to mind no similar occurrence producing so general and so intense an effect,” one contemporary wrote. “For several weeks, in the discussion of this one absorbing theme, even the momentous political topics of the day were forgotten.”14 Besides Bennett, other enterprising spirits found ways to profit from the tragedy. Daguerreotypists peddled souvenir “likenesses” of the victim, while hack journalists turned out instant true-crime pamphlets containing full “particulars of the murder” accompanied by prurient accounts of Mary’s love life—the various “attempts at courtship and seduction brought about by her manifold charms.”15
Typical of the sites of sensational murders, Elysian Fields quickly became a ghoulish tourist attraction. Crowds of the morbidly curious flocked to the crime scene and picnicked on the very spot where Mary’s corpse had been dragged ashore. One headmistress of a Manhattan girls’ school even brought her little charges there on a field trip, under the pretext of delivering a lesson on the “wages of sin.”16
All this frenzied interest could not fail to attract the attention of the writer who regarded the death of a beautiful young woman as “the most poetical topic in the world”: Edgar Allan Poe. Living in Philadelphia at the time of the murder, Poe followed the story closely in the local press, particularly in the Saturday Evening Post, which “reprinted nearly all of James Gordon Bennett’s coverage from the Herald.”17 Besides his general fascination with the macabre, Poe reputedly had a more personal reason for taking a keen interest in the case. Four years earlier, while residing in Manhattan, he himself had supposedly been a frequent visitor to John Anderson’s tobacco emporium and was acquainted with the Beautiful Cigar Girl.18
Whatever the truth of this story, it is undeniable that Poe, who kept a close eye on the news for potential source material, quickly came to see the literary and commercial possibilities of the Mary Rogers case. Before long, he would turn it into a classic work of fiction, a sequel to his trail-blazing detective story “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” starring C. Auguste Dupin, the progenitor of Sherlock Holmes and every amateur sleuth to follow. Called “The Mystery of Marie Roget,” the story is such a thinly disguised version of the actual events that it amounts to little more than a transposition of the facts to a Parisian setting. To ensure that readers don’t miss the connection, Poe helpfully points out at the start of the tale that its details will be known to anyone familiar with “the late murder of Mary Cecilia Rogers at New York.”19
• • •
In the weeks following the murder, the police focused their attentions on one suspect after another. Daniel Payne, Mary’s fiancé at the time of her death, was rumored to have killed her in a jealous rage when she abruptly broke off their engagement. A young sailor named William Kiekuck—a former boarder at the Rogerses’ lodging house—fell under suspicion because (according to the coroner’s report) her bonnet had come undone during the murder, then was retied beneath her chin with a “sailor’s knot.” A neighbor named Joseph Morse—a philandering, wife-beating cad and a regular at Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium—was arrested in Worcester, Massachusetts, after fleeing New York in the wake of the crime. Another of Mary’s male acquaintances, one Archibald Padley, was taken to the city prison and subjected to a prolonged interrogation on evidence so slight as to be virtually nonexistent.20
In rapid succession, each of these suspects was cleared and released from custody. By the end of August—despite a one-thousand-dollar reward raised by private citizens and the promise of a pardon by Governor William Seward for any accomplice who would come forward and identify the killer—the police were no closer to a solution.
It was not until the middle of September that the public learned of a sensational development in the case. At its center was a widow named Frederica Loss, proprietor of a popular roadhouse not far from where Mary’s body had been discovered. Several weeks earlier, while out collecting sassafras bark, Mrs. Loss’s two sons, twelve and sixteen years of age, had reportedly come upon some articles of Mary Rogers’s apparel—including a silk scarf, petticoat, and handkerchief monogrammed with her initials—within a dense thicket of beech trees and briar shrubs. The little hollow within the thicket “was stamped about, and the branches were broken, and the roots bruised and mashed, all betokening that it had been the scene of a very violent struggle.”21
Mrs. Loss immediately reported the discovery to the police, though it didn’t hit the papers until Friday, September 17, when James Gordon Bennett devoted an entire page to the story, complete with a woodcut engraving of Mrs. Loss’s inn under the headline “The House Where Mary Rogers Was Last Seen Alive.” According to Bennett, the evidence at the scene confirmed his own pet theory that Mary had been murdered by a gang of “miscreants.” Giving free rein to his most lurid speculations, he declared, “It appeared … as if the unfortunate girl had been placed upon the middle of a broad stone, her head held forcibly back, and then and there horribly violated by several rowdies and ultimately strangled.”22
As it happened, on the very day that New Yorkers were poring over this harrowing story, another “awful atrocity” was taking place in their midst. Before long, it would supplant the Mary Rogers case from the papers. It would also provide Edgar Allan Poe with the raw material for another classic work of fiction—this one not a tale of mystery and detection but of sheer grotesque horror.
Despite his distinguished name, Samuel Adams was sufficiently obscure that virtually no records exist of his sadly abbreviated life. The few surviving documents show that he was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1811 and, as a boy, apprenticed in the printing establishment of Smith & Parmenter at no. 9 Market Street.
Along with such weighty tomes as the History of the General or Six Principle Baptists, in Europe and America, Smith & Parmenter published both the popular newspaper the Literary Cadet and Rhode-Island Statesman and the weekly quarto the Toilet, or, Ladies’ Cabinet of Literature. Like other publishers of the time, they also worked as job printers, offering “to execute any business in the printing line,” including “books, show-bills, cards, shop bills, lottery tickets, and blanks of every description, at the shortest notice, and in the first style.”1
In 1826 the senior partner of the firm, Samuel Jenks Smith, wed a popular poet named Sarah Louisa Hickman, author of a frequently anthologized verse, “White Roses” (“They were gathered for a bridal! / And now, now they are dying, / And young Love at the altar / Of broken faith is sighing”). Three years later, Smith and his wife left Rhode Island for Cincinnati. Sometime around 1832—the exact date is unclear—they moved to New York City, where Smith founded a weekly periodical, the Sunday Morning News.2 Whether Smith was instrumental in bringing his former apprentice to New York City is also unclear, though it is certain that, by 1836, Samuel Adams was residing in Manhattan and running his own printing business at no. 38 Gold Street with an older partner, Frederic Scatcherd.
Though they began modestly enough by producing such works as M. Purvis’s catchily titled pamphlet On the Use of Lime as Manure, Scatcherd and Adams were soon turning out a range of handsomely made books, including editions of James Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Joseph Rodman Drake’s The Culprit Fay, and Other Poems, and The Gospel Good News to Sinners by Henry James, Sr. Within two years of its founding, the firm had gained such a high reputation among the literati of New York that, upon the announcement of the forthcoming publication of William L. Stone’s Life of Joseph Brant, the critic for American Monthly Magazine could confidently assert that “as it is to be issued from the elegant press of Messrs. Scatcherd and Adams, the public may expect a beautifully printed book.”3
In 1839, however, the firm suffered a severe blow when Frederic Scatcherd died of consumption. By then Adams was wed to the former Miss Emeline Lane and was residing at no. 23 Catherine Street, a short walk from his printing shop. With the loss of his more experienced partner—and with the country in the throes of the worst financial crisis since the Panic of 1819—Adams fell on difficult times. By the summer of 1841, he was behind in his mortgage payments, owed money to his workers, and was being threatened with a lawsuit by a creditor.4
Feeling increasingly besieged, he began to take a belligerent tone with customers behind on their payments. One of these was a young merchant named Lyman Ransom. During the preceding two years, Ransom had hired Adams to do roughly $1,500 worth of jobbing work—advertising circulars, handbills, and so on. Though Ransom had never failed to pay his debts, he had fallen a bit behind and owed the printer $110 on a note due August 31, 1841. A week before then, he showed up at the Gold Street office to ask for an extension.
Adams immediately flew into a rage. After enduring several minutes of verbal abuse—during which Adams alternated between bitter accusations that “everybody was trying to cheat him” and pitiable laments that he was desperate for money “and could not pay his hands”—Ransom offered his gold watch as partial payment. A handsome piece engraved on the back with an image of the U.S. Capitol Building, it was worth $100, according to Ransom. Adams agreed to take it at a value of $85, with the balance of the unpaid bill due in cash. Several days later, the beleaguered printer attempted to sell the watch to a neighbor named Nicholas Conklin for $95.5
With his business in trouble, Adams clung to the work thrown his way by the various organizations he belonged to. Thanks to his membership in the Brick Church on Beekman Street, for example—where he and Emeline also sang in the choir—he was hired to print the Missionary Herald, the monthly publication of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Presbyterian Church.6 By joining the Apollo Association for the Promotion of Fine Arts in the United States—an organization dedicated to nurturing American artists and fostering an appreciation of their work among the general public—he was able to secure the job of printing its biannual exhibition catalogues.7
Precisely how he became acquainted with John C. Colt is another of the many mysteries surrounding Samuel Adams’s life. What we do know is that they met sometime around 1838 and that, by the summer of 1841, Colt had contracted with Adams to produce the ninth edition of The Science of Double Entry Book-Keeping.8
On the northwest corner of Broadway and Chambers Street, across from City Hall Park and less than a block away from Anderson’s Tobacco Emporium, stood an imposing edifice called, for self-explanatory reasons, the Granite Building. A full four stories high, it would later be converted into a popular hotel named the Irving House before being occupied by Delmonico’s restaurant in the decade leading up to the Civil War.
In the fall of 1841, it housed a variety of tenants, many connected to the arts. On the top floor was the gallery of the Apollo Association, where, from nine in the morning until nine at night, visitors could view works by some of the nation’s most prominent artists, among them William Dunlap, Rembrandt Peale, Asher Durand, and Thomas Sully. The sculptor Harris Kneeland kept a studio in the building, as did Edward Augustus Brackett, whose statuary display The Binding of Satan opened for public exhibition in the spring of that year. Several early daguerreotypists, including John Johnson, Alexander Simon Woolcott, and Augustus Morand, rented space in the building, as did assorted picture-frame makers and dealers in artists’ materials.
Other tenants were engaged in more prosaic pursuits. A number of stores, including a pharmacy, a bookseller, and a “fancy goods” shop, occupied the ground floor, while a phrenologist named Dr. E. Newberry conducted his quackery upstairs on the third. On the second floor was the office of a gentleman named Asa H. Wheeler, a teacher of bookkeeping and penmanship who tutored private students in his rooms.1
Wheeler, as he would later testify, had known John Colt for three years. Indeed, along with other respected figures in the field, he had supplied a written testimonial for Colt’s accounting text that was prominently featured in advertisements for the book (“I would recommend this work to such as wish to gain a knowledge of the principles of Book-keeping, and as a book of reference for the experienced”).2 In early August, Colt had come to the Granite Building to ask Wheeler about renting the smaller of his two adjoining rooms for six weeks. Wheeler was amenable to the arrangement, and the two agreed that Colt was “to pay … ten dollars at the end of four weeks, and five more at the end of six—making fifteen dollars in all.”3
Colt’s room, its lone window facing Chambers Street, was a dreary place—a solitary “uncarpeted office … of a dusty, haggard sort of appearance,” as Herman Melville later pictured it.4 Its sole furnishings were a few comfortless chairs, a plain table, a trunk, and a wooden box measuring roughly three feet long and two feet in height and width. The latter had been constructed by Colt himself, who assembled all the shipping crates for his books. A combination hatchet-hammer, the tool he employed for that purpose, lay on one corner of his table.
Though he would later deny it, Colt, like Samuel Adams, was under intense financial pressure in the fall of 1841. Proud and prickly under the best of circumstances, he had become increasingly surly in his dealings with demanding creditors. In early September, for example, a clerk named George F. Spencer arrived at Colt’s office to collect an overdue payment on behalf of his employer, a bookseller named Homer Franklin. Colt responded by hurling profanities at Spencer and threatening to “pitch him out of the window.” Around the same time, when a hotel keeper named Howard demanded settlement of an unpaid bill, Colt reportedly flaunted a scar on his arm. “Take care what you say,” he had warned, darkly intimating that he had gotten the scar “from killing a man who had once dunned him for money.”5
Asa Wheeler himself was involved in a nasty run-in with Colt over money. When Wheeler approached his tenant at the start of September and asked, in a perfectly civil tone, for his fifteen-dollar rent, Colt had exploded into such a violent temper that Wheeler was taken aback. Mild tempered by nature, Wheeler let the matter drop, feeling that “it was not worth getting wrathy about.” Once Colt had calmed down, he offered Wheeler a number of his textbooks in payment, and the two “were on familiar terms again.”6
To a great extent, Colt held Samuel Adams to blame for his financial predicament. Earnings from his textbook largely depended on the business he was able to transact at the big trade sales held periodically in New York, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, and Boston. Strictly limited to members of the industry, these were major auctions where publishers could dispose of their merchandise with maximum efficiency, and booksellers from around the country could acquire their stock at bargain prices.7
Because of production delays with the new edition of his book, Colt had already missed a recent trade sale conducted in New York City by the auction house of Bangs, Richards & Platt. That lost opportunity made it all the more urgent for him to have his books ready for an upcoming event in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, there had been problems with the binding of the book. For the previous three years, Colt had employed a binder named Ballou. Adams, however, had a business arrangement with a different binder, a fellow named Charles Wells. Though Colt was perfectly satisfied with Ballou, regarding him as “one of the finest men in the world,” he had agreed—at Adams’s urging and from “the purest feelings of charity” toward the financially strapped printer—to give the job to Wells.8
As of Thursday, September 16, however, the books—which had to be shipped off to Philadelphia at once if they were going to be part of the impending trade sale—were still not back from the bindery. Colt was determined to visit Charles Wells first thing in the morning and demand that the work be completed immediately. In the meantime, he was in a dark mood. Earlier that day, preparing to construct new shipping crates for his books, he had borrowed a handsaw from Mercy Octon, wife of the building’s superintendent. When another tenant, a picture framer named Charles Walker, knocked on his door a few hours later and asked to use the saw, Colt (as Walker later testified) “came to the door, opened it but a very little way … and told me to go to hell.”9
On Friday, September 17—the day that James Gordon Bennett broke the news about the discovery of Mary Rogers’s belongings in the thicket in Weehawken, New Jersey—John Colt paid an early morning visit to Charles Wells’s bindery at no. 56 Gold Street. Colt was relieved to learn that four hundred copies of his accounting text would be ready in time for the upcoming Philadelphia trade sale.
In the course of their conversation, Wells—whose financial affairs were closely tied to Samuel Adams’s—inquired about Colt’s outstanding printing bill. Colt assured him that the money would be forthcoming just as soon as he received the proceeds from the Philadelphia sales. After discussing a few other trivial matters, Colt departed.1
• • •
Several hours later, around noontime, Samuel Adams rose from the table where he had been dining with his wife, Emeline, and made ready to leave their home. He was dressed in a black coat and vest, a white cotton shirt, a black, high-collar neck band known as a stock—a standard item of men’s fashion during that period—and gambroon pantaloons. On the little finger of his left hand he wore a gold ring, and in his vest pocket he carried the engraved gold watch he had taken as collateral from his delinquent customer, Lyman Ransom.
His wife, as she later stated, did “not know where he intended to go when he left home.”2
Not long afterward, Mr. Adams appeared at his office, where he attended to various business matters. At some point, a clerk named John Johnson, employed at City Hall, dropped by to pick up a batch of documents that had been printed for his employer and exchanged a few words with Mr. Adams before taking his leave.
An hour or so after his departure, the shop foreman, Hugh Monahan, brought Mr. Adams the proof sheets for the October issue of the Missionary Herald. After checking them over, Adams left to deliver them to the office of the Board of Foreign Missions at the Brick Church on Beekman Street. As it happened, the City Hall clerk John Johnson, also a member of the church, was at the office too, having stopped by on a small errand. He would later identify the time of Adams’s arrival as approximately 2:00 p.m.3
• • •
Adams remained at the headquarters of the Board of Foreign Missions for less than fifteen minutes. He then proceeded to Charles Wells’s bookbinding shop, where he learned about John Colt’s earlier visit. Colt, said Wells, was “very anxious to the get books off to Philadelphia as soon as possible.”
“Go ahead and ship them,” Adams replied. “I am to get the proceeds.”
Wells did not conceal his surprise. “There must be a misunderstanding between you,” he said, explaining that Colt also “expected to receive the proceeds.”
Upon hearing this news, Adams became visibly agitated—“vexed and excited,” as Wells later described it. Exclaiming that he would “go see Colt” at once, he hurried from the office.
The time, Wells subsequently testified, was “about three o’clock.”4
• • •
Situated in the northeast corner of City Hall Park was a circular brick building called the Rotunda. It had been erected in 1817 by the artist John Vanderlyn upon his return from Paris, where—thanks to financial support from his patron, Aaron Burr—he had gone to study in the atelier of the neoclassicist François Antoine Vincent. During the first years of its existence, Vanderlyn’s imposing New York City gallery housed a number of his panoramic paintings, including Panoramic View of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles and The Battle of Waterloo, as well as his depictions of Adam and Eve in a state of semi-undress. Though the scandal created by the public display of these partially nude figures drew the predictable crowds of gawkers, Vanderlyn’s enterprise—often considered the city’s first art museum—proved a “complete financial failure.” The “unfortunate artist was forced to surrender his property to the city,” which employed it “successively as the home of the Court of Sessions, the Naturalization Office, and the Post Office.”5
Shortly after 3:00 p.m. on September 17, the City Hall clerk John Johnson, having completed an errand at the Rotunda, was emerging from the building when he spotted Samuel Adams walking briskly up Centre Street toward Broadway. Johnson had already seen and spoken to the printer twice that day, first at Adams’s shop, then at the Board of Foreign Missions office. This time Adams “took no notice” of the clerk. A look of grim determination on his face, the printer strode toward the corner of Broadway and Chambers.
“I turned and looked after him,” Johnson later said, describing the last time he ever set eyes on Samuel Adams. “He kept on.”6
Almost certainly, the noise that Asa Wheeler and his pupil heard from the neighboring room did not sound precisely as they later described it: “like the clashing of foils, as if persons were fencing.”1 Though a lethal weapon was involved, the noise was generated by the impact of blade against bone, not metal on metal.
There are good reasons why the two men might have been mistaken. Immersed in their lesson, they were not paying close attention to the goings-on next door. The intervening wall would also have distorted the sound. And though it was a cold and drizzly day, the Broadway-facing windows of Wheeler’s office had been raised, filling the room with the ceaseless clamor of the great thoroughfare and obscuring any noise from next door.
Still, while it might not have sounded exactly like the striking of swords, the sound was sufficiently jarring to startle them from their work.
“What was that?” said Wheeler, looking up from the sheet of ruled paper on which he had been inscribing a basic bookkeeping exercise for his student.
Seated beside him on the bench, Wheeler’s student—a sixteen-year-old named Arzac Seignette, who was there for his first day of lessons—replied that he had no idea.
Rising from the bench, Wheeler crossed his room and stepped into the hallway, Seignette following close behind. The time was around 3:15 p.m., Friday, September 17.
With his ear pressed to Colt’s door, Wheeler listened intently. Silence. Kneeling, he put his eye to the keyhole, but the drop was down on the inside of the door. In his right hand, he still clutched the steel pen he had been using when he and Seignette were interrupted by the strange noise. Inserting the tip of the pen into the keyhole, he slid the drop aside and peered into Colt’s room.
From his highly restricted viewpoint, he could make out “a man with his coat off bent over a person who was lying on the floor.” According to his later accounts, he watched for a full ten minutes, until the stooping figure straightened up and moved to a table “on which there were two men’s hats.”2
Quickly, Wheeler rose and—instructing Seignette to keep a close eye on Colt’s door—hurried up to the top floor, where he knocked on the door of the landlord, Charles Wood. Receiving no response, Wheeler tried the doors of several other occupants, but no one was in, “it being the dinner hour.”
As he was descending the stairs, he encountered Law Octon. An elderly African-American fellow who resided on the third floor with his wife, Mercy, Octon worked as the building superintendent and served as a deacon in the Zion Baptist Church.3 At Wheeler’s urging, Octon accompanied him to Colt’s office and—using the pen to open the drop—looked through the keyhole. Octon, however, could see nothing and, after a few fruitless minutes of peeping, returned to his apartment.
Convinced that Colt was inside, Wheeler tiptoed down the flight of stairs, then returned with a heavy tromp and rapped sharply on Colt’s door—a ploy, as he subsequently explained, “to make Colt think he had a caller and open the door.” The stratagem did not work. No one answered.
By then several more of Wheeler’s students had shown up, along with John Delnous, a twenty-six-year-old bookkeeper who was interested in renting Wheeler’s second room at the end of Colt’s tenancy. Wheeler immediately explained what had happened. At first, Delnous laughed off his suspicions. True, there had evidently been a strange commotion in Colt’s room, followed by a peculiar, prolonged silence. Still, there might be an innocent explanation. Wheeler was so convinced that something was seriously amiss, however, that when he asked Delnous to go find a police officer, the younger man agreed.
He returned to say that the “officers were all presently engaged but one of them, named Bowyer, promised to come within a half hour.”4
In those days, before the creation of a professional police department, the city was “inadequately protected” by an “archaic system” that had barely evolved since colonial times. Thirty-one constables and a hundred city marshals made up the bulk of the daytime force. At night, the policing of the city fell to a “patchwork corps” of watchmen, made up of moonlighting day laborers—stevedores, mechanics, teamsters, and the like. These part-time defenders of the public order—who patrolled the streets after dark and stood guard in sentry boxes—wore no uniforms. Besides a thirty-three-inch wooden club, their only badge of office was a distinctive leather helmet resembling a fireman’s old-fashioned headgear and varnished to the hardness of iron. While not precisely laughingstocks, these amateur lawmen were, as one early historian puts it, not held “in especial reverence or dread” by the city’s criminal element, who derisively referred to them as “Leatherheads” and made them the butt of assorted pranks. A favorite was “upsetting a watch-box with a snoring Leatherhead inside it or lassoing the sentry-box with a stout rope and dragging it along with the imprisoned occupant inside it.”5
Along with Delnous and a pair of students named Riley and Wood, Wheeler waited in his office for Bowyer’s arrival. Given the dismal state of law enforcement at that period, however, it is no surprise that Officer Bowyer never showed up.
When dusk fell, Wheeler tried again, sending the two students out into the streets in search of a policeman. They returned a short time later with a message from the neighborhood officers, who explained that they had no authority to enter Colt’s room and suggested that Wheeler continue to keep watch. Soon after, Riley and Wood left for the night. Delnous went out to refresh himself with a cup of tea, returning at around 7:30 p.m.
He and Wheeler sat together in the office until 9:00, at which point the exhausted older man took his leave. About a half hour later, Delnous, who had promised to keep vigil all night if necessary, was suddenly roused to attention by a sound from the hallway. As he would eventually describe it, he
heard someone unlock Mr. Colt’s door from the inside, come out, lock it again, and go away. The person returned in about five minutes, and in about five minutes more, I heard someone in Mr. Colt’s room tearing something resembling cotton cloth. The next sound was the rattling of water—after that, some person scrubbing the floor, continually putting his cloth in the water and rinsing it.6
Afterward, all was silence again in Colt’s room. Delnous continued to listen closely until weariness overcame him. Stretching out on the bench by Wheeler’s worktable, he promptly fell asleep.
• • •
Normally, John Colt was back at the boardinghouse room he shared with his mistress Caroline Henshaw by 10:00 p.m. On the night of September 17, however, he was later than usual. Tired of waiting up for him, the pregnant Caroline went to bed.
She woke up to see him standing at the foot of the bed, slipping on his nightshirt.
“What time is it?” she asked.
“A little after eleven,” he said.
“Why are you home so late?”
“I was with a friend from Philadelphia,” said John. “He leaves by boat tomorrow morning. I should go see him off.”
A short time later, he blew out the candle and slipped into bed. By then, Caroline had already fallen back to sleep.
When she opened her eyes the next morning, John was already dressed and about to leave. Through the lace-curtained window, she saw that it was still dark outside. Peering at the clock that stood upon the bed table, she saw that it was not quite 5:30.
“Where are you going so early?” she asked.
“To the boat,” he said. “I might be back soon, or I might not.”
When breakfast was served downstairs several hours later, however, John had still not returned.7
• • •
In his later testimony, John Delnous could not say whether the sound he heard issuing from the neighboring room at around 6:00 in the morning of Saturday, September 18, was “the first noise I heard after I awoke, or the noise that awakened me.” He had no doubt, however, about its source.
The noise from John Colt’s office, Delnous would state, was “as of someone nailing a wooden box, which sounded as if it was full.”8
Around daybreak that Saturday, the rain began to fall.
Shortly after 8:00 a.m., Law Octon returned to the Granite Building from an early morning errand. As he approached the staircase, he looked up and saw, standing on its end at the top of the first-floor landing, a pine box measuring roughly three feet long and two feet in height and width. A moment later, John Colt emerged from his office, “laid hold of the box,” lowered it onto its side, and—with his face toward the crate and his back to Octon—began grappling it down the stairs, “placing his shoulder against the box to prevent it from going too fast.” Octon waited at the foot of the staircase until Colt made it all the way down with his burden, then headed up to begin his custodial chores for the day.1
• • •
At the same time, a young man named John B. Hasty arrived at the Granite Building. Hasty lodged at a rooming house whose proprietress, in addition to her duties as landlady, managed “the business of carving, gilding, and making picture frames.” He had come to deliver a message on her behalf to one of the artists who rented studio space in the building, a portrait painter by the name of Verbruyck.
As Hasty stepped from the street into the entranceway, he saw, as he later recalled, a man in his shirtsleeves taking a large wooden box down the first flight of stairs “with his back towards the street and supporting the box as it came downstairs.” Hasty waited until “the man had got the box downstairs and placed it on the right side of the entryway,” near a door belonging to a corner drugstore called Slocum’s. Hasty then climbed to the fourth floor and knocked on Verbruyck’s door. When no one answered, he went back downstairs, passing Law Octon—“an elderly light colored man” in Hasty’s description—who was sweeping the hallway of the second floor.
When he reached street level, Hasty saw the shirt-sleeved gentleman still standing in the entry beside the crate. Hasty “asked the man if he knew where Mr. Verbruyck was.” The man gave a brusque reply, saying “that he did not live in the building.” As Hasty made his exit, he glanced down at the box and “observed that it was marked on the outside with blue ink.”2
• • •
A few minutes later, Law Octon came downstairs again and saw the box “in the entryway of the first floor, between the banister of the stairs and the apothecary’s store.” Colt, standing there with “no coat or vest,” was searching the street through the open doorway. He seemed, Octon said afterward, “to be looking out for a cartman.”3
• • •
Long before the advent of truckers and moving vans, the job of hauling goods from one place to another in old New York was handled by professional cartmen. Members of this trade, numbering about three thousand in 1841, were licensed by the city council, which set the rates they were allowed to charge and fixed the size and shape of carts “in order to insure standard loads.”
Cartmen who specialized in household moves required spring carts and other equipment “suitable for transporting furnishings, pictures, looking-glasses and other valuables.” The ordinary “catch cartman,” however—who waited at a curbside cart-stand or roamed the streets ready “to grab the first job that was offered”—drove a more rudimentary vehicle: little more than a seatless wooden sled mounted on a pair of wagon wheels and hitched to a dray horse. Standing atop their carts in their long white frock coats, heavy black boots, and broad-brimmed hats, these hardy workingmen—“a cross between the cab driver and teamster of today”—were a common sight in nineteenth-century New York.4
At approximately 8:45 a.m. on that raw, drizzly Saturday, Richard Barstow, a thirty-four-year-old licensed cartman, was driving east on Chambers Street when he spotted a man—hatless, in shirtsleeves—beckoning to him from the doorway of the Granite Building. As Barstow pulled his dray horse to a halt, the man hurried over.
“Are you busy?” he asked. According to the cartman’s subsequent testimony, he was a slender gentleman of approximately Barstow’s age with thick curly hair and dark whiskers.
“Not particularly,” said Barstow. “Why?”
The man explained that he wanted to have a crate delivered to a ship docked at the foot of Maiden Lane. Since Barstow was headed in that direction anyway, he agreed to take it.
Another cart was already parked lengthways at the curb in front of the building. It belonged to a fellow carter named Thomas Russell, who regularly hauled paintings to and from the Granite Building for the Apollo Association. Backing his own cart in front of Russell’s horse, Barstow dismounted and followed the shirtsleeved gentleman into the Chambers Street entrance of the building.
There between the staircase and a door opening into Slocum’s pharmacy sat a big pine crate. Assisted by Russell, Barstow loaded the box—which weighed, according to his estimate, “from one hundred and fifty to two hundred pounds”—onto his cart. As he did, he noticed that the box “was directed to the care of some person at New Orleans.”
Stepping back to the doorway where the coatless gentleman had watched the proceedings in silence, Barstow asked him “to what ship I was to carry the box.” The man replied that “he did not know the name of the vessel” but would follow Barstow and point it out to him.
Stepping onto his cart, Barstow took hold of the reins and began to drive slowly toward Maiden Lane. From time to time, he glanced back over his shoulder and saw the gentleman walking behind him beneath a green umbrella.5
On the bustling wharf at the foot of Maiden Lane, where tall-masted merchant ships from every port lay at anchor, Barstow came to a halt beneath the jutting bowsprit of a New Orleans–bound packet named the Kalamazoo. All around, men “swarmed from the warehouses to the boats with cargo of all descriptions, each box, bale, and barrel identified by its fragrance—rum, leather, coffee, tea, tar, hemp, spices.”6 Barstow, as he stated a few days later, “pointed to the vessel to know if that was the one, and the gentleman nodded assent.”
Backing up his cart, Barstow took hold of the box and dropped it onto the wharf, “the same as I would a box of sugar.” The gentleman then reached into his pocket, extracted some coins, and handed them wordlessly to Barstow, who, glancing down at his palm, saw that the money amounted to two shillings and sixpence. Barstow had intended to ask for three shillings but something about the look on the gentleman’s face told the carter that haggling would be “more trouble than it was worth.” With a flick of his reins, Barstow “cleared out,” leaving the man standing beside the crate on the wharf.7
• • •
At around 9:30 a.m., just as Barstow was driving his cart away from the wharf, Asa Wheeler arrived at the Granite Building. Up in his office, he spoke to John Delnous, who had heard Colt wrestling the crate downstairs and—peering down from the first-floor landing—had seen him leave with the cartman.
Hurrying to the top floor, Wheeler rapped on the door of the landlord, Charles Wood. This time, Wood was home. Explaining what had transpired the previous day, Wheeler proposed that they search Colt’s room. Wood was reluctant to take such a drastic step, advising “that it was a very delicate subject to meddle with.” At Wheeler’s urging, however, Wood handed over his master key.
Back downstairs before Colt’s door, Wheeler listened for any sounds from within. Satisfied that Colt was still gone, he opened the lock, “stepped one foot in and looked around.” He saw at once that the packing box that normally sat in the office was missing. He also noticed that the floor looked freshly scrubbed, particularly around the area where he’d seen the kneeling figure. And there were strange marks he had never seen before—“oil and ink spilled around the base of the floor and thrown in spots on the wall.”
Stepping back into the hallway, he locked the door, returned the key to Wood, then retired to his office.8
• • •
He was seated at his worktable a half hour later when someone knocked on his door. Opening it, Wheeler found himself face-to-face with John Colt.
Colt surprised him with an unexpected question. Did Wheeler’s key fit his door? he wanted to know.
“I’m not sure,” Wheeler said. “Why?”
Colt said something about leaving his own key at home. Could he try Wheeler’s?
Wheeler handed him the key and watched as Colt crossed to his door and tried the lock.
Satisfied that the key didn’t work, Colt returned it to Wheeler, then stepped into the latter’s office and began to chat “about bookkeeping and writing.” He seemed, as Wheeler said later, “very talkative indeed”—unnaturally so for a man who was often rather standoffish. It took a while before Wheeler managed to get a word in. “Mr. Colt,” he finally asked, “what was that noise in your room yesterday?”
Colt’s expression seemed to harden for a moment before he arranged his features into a puzzled look. “You must be mistaken,” he said. “I was out all afternoon.”
“There most certainly was a noise,” Wheeler insisted. “My pupil and I both heard it, and it quite alarmed us.”
For a moment, Colt merely looked at Wheeler through narrowed eyes. Then, without another word, he turned on his heels and left the room.9
• • •
Caroline Henshaw was in the parlor of the rooming house conversing with another boarder when she saw John come through the front door and make for the stairs. A few minutes later, she excused herself and made her way up to their bedroom. The time was around 10:30 a.m.
When she stepped into the room, she saw John getting undressed. Assuming that he was changing his clothes, she took a seat by the window and stared out at the rain. When she looked back, she was startled to see John in his nightshirt, his street clothes draped over the back of a chair.
After using a washcloth to bathe his neck with liniment, he climbed into bed. No word had yet passed between them. Concerned that he might be sick—“it being unusual for him to go to bed in the day”—Caroline rose from the chair and walked to the bed.
Immediately she noticed a large black-and-blue mark on the side of his neck. She began to ask him about the strange bruise—“if it was a pinch or something of the kind”—but before she could finish her sentence, he raised one hand and pushed her away from the bed.
Retreating to the seat by the window, she busied herself with sewing, looking up from her stitchwork every now and then to glance at John. He remained in bed until dinner hour, though “he did not appear to sleep much. He seemed restless.”
For the next two or three nights, John continued to apply liniment to his neck before coming to bed—not something he normally did. And there was something else Caroline noticed too. As a general rule, John slept with the neck of his nightshirt open. Now, however, as she would eventually testify, “he slept with his nightshirt pinned up.”10
If the noise coming from John Colt’s room on Friday afternoon had struck Asa Wheeler as strange, the one he heard on Monday morning was, in its way, just as peculiar. Colt, arriving at his office at around 10:30, unlocked the door, stepped inside, and broke into song. Wheeler had never heard Colt sing before, certainly not so spiritedly. It was as though he were performing for Wheeler’s benefit—to demonstrate that he was a man without a care in the world.
Wheeler, who had come to work about an hour earlier, had been keeping an ear cocked for Colt’s arrival. Now, using a piece of bookkeeping business as a pretext, he rapped on the door separating their rooms and was instantly invited inside.
He found Colt seated at his desk, a long Havana clenched in his teeth and a phosphorus match in one hand. Would Wheeler care to join him? Colt asked, lighting the cigar.
Wheeler, who occasionally took a pinch of snuff but was not a smoker, declined.
Colt, as Wheeler would later recall, “observed that he had a very bad habit of smoking.” Indeed, he indulged to such “a great extent” that he had “begun to spit blood.” With a motion of the hand, he drew Wheeler’s attention to a spot on the wall where, Wheeler noted, “there were thirty or forty dark specks.”
After chatting for a few minutes about the matter that had ostensibly brought him there, Wheeler “referred again to the noise” he had heard the previous Friday.
“To tell you the truth, Wheeler,” Colt said somewhat sheepishly, “I upset my table, spilled my ink, and knocked down the books, making a deuced mess. I hope it didn’t disturb you.”
Wheeler made no reply, though he thought it odd that Colt—who originally claimed not to have been in the office at all that afternoon—had so completely changed his story. A few moments later, he returned to his own room.1
Over the next few days, he and Colt encountered each other frequently in the hall and exchanged pleasantries as if everything were perfectly normal. Every morning, however, in the privacy of his office, Wheeler pored over the newspapers, looking for any item that might confirm his suspicions.
He found it on Wednesday.
• • •
In 1841 the New York Sun—now under the proprietorship of Moses Yale Beach, brother-in-law of the paper’s founder, Benjamin Day—consisted of four oversized pages, each seven columns wide and crammed with paid notices and advertisements: row after row of real estate offerings; announcements for steamboat and packet departures; reward postings for runaway apprentices, lost hogs, and stray cows; situation-wanted classifieds for dry-goods clerks, housemaids, and governesses; and ads for a vast assortment of goods and services.
On Wednesday morning, September 22, amid ads for Michaux’s Freckle Wash, Clirehugh’s Ventilating Wigs, Fisk’s Novelty Cook Stove, Glenn’s Indian Hair Oil, Levitt’s Artificial Teeth, and Dr. Quackenbush’s “fine Swedish leeches (sold wholesale or retail on favorable terms),” the following notice appeared on page two:
Any information respecting Mr. Samuel Adams, Printer, who left his place of business on Friday, September 17, about 3 o’clock, P.M. will be thankfully received by his relatives and friends at no. 23 Catherine St., or cor of Ann and Gold, who are unable to account for his sudden disappearance. From an investigation of his business, there does not appear to be an assignable cause for his absence; the only conjecture is that he has met with some violence, but when or in what manner is still a mystery. 2
No sooner had Asa Wheeler spotted this notice than he threw on his coat, hurried from the building, and bent his steps toward Catherine Street. The foul weather that had arrived on Saturday morning still held the city in its grip, and heavy rain pelted from the sky.
No. 23 Catherine Street turned out to be the abode of Samuel Adams’s father-in-law, Joseph Lane, who was not at home when Wheeler got there. Leaving word that he had important information to convey, Wheeler returned to the Granite Building. He remained in his office until early evening, but Lane never showed up.
• • •
Seated in his office that same afternoon, the bookbinder Charles Wells was so immersed in his paperwork that he did not hear the front door open. A moment later, someone laid a hand on his desk. Looking up, he saw John Colt standing there, rain dripping from the brim of his tall beaver hat.
His face wrought into a look of deep concern, Colt explained that he had just seen the newspaper notice regarding Samuel Adams. “It’s very strange,” he said. “What could have become of him?”
“I don’t know,” said Wells. “The last I saw of him, he said he was going to see you.”
Colt made no direct reply to this observation. “I hope nothing’s happened to him. He’s a fine man. Always treated me well,” he said.
The two men spoke briefly about the impending Philadelphia trade sale. Then—repeating his “hope that nothing has happened”—Colt turned and hurried out into the rain.3
• • •
The following day, the Sun carried another notice on its second page:
The Mysterious Disappearance of Mr. Samuel Adams, Printer, continues a mystery, as every pains have been taken by his friends to ascertain any cause, but hearing nothing, his friends and family would still wish that any person who might have seen him after 3 o’clock, Friday the 17th, would give notice of the same at 23 Catherine St. as it is feared that he has met with some violence.4
By then, other newspapers had picked up the story. That morning, both the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer and the New-York Weekly Tribune ran identical items:
Mr. Samuel Adams, printer, at the corner of Ann and Gold Streets, left his office on Friday last to do some business at the Office of the Missionary Herald and has not since returned or been heard of by his friends. Great concern is felt for his fate. His pecuniary affairs were not embarrassed, he had some money with him and was a man of exemplary moral and religious character. It is hardly possible that he should have gone off voluntarily, if in his right mind. Any information of him directed to Mr. J. A. Lane, no. 23 Catherine Street, or to Mr. Adams’ printing office, corner of Ann and Gold Streets, will be gratefully received by his afflicted family.
James Gordon Bennett published a very similar item in the Herald, although—with his usual flair for the sensational—he printed it under the eye-catching heading “Supposed Murder!”5
Later that day, Joseph Lane finally appeared at Asa Wheeler’s office. With him was one of the missing printer’s employees: a fellow by the name of Loud, who had brought along Samuel Adams’s most recent accounting ledger. The three men spent some time examining the records with particular attention to any transactions involving John Colt. They then went across the street to City Hall and proceeded directly to the office of the mayor, Robert Hunter Morris.
A popular and efficient administrator who was ultimately elected to three consecutive terms, Morris, by the charter and laws then in effect, was head of the city police. In the coming years, he would draft the law replacing the antiquated watchman system with a professional force. Now, after listening with mounting concern to the suspicions of Wheeler and his companions, Morris accompanied the three men to the Granite Building, where he interviewed several witnesses, including Law Octon.
Early the next morning, Friday, September 24, a messenger arrived at the home of Police Magistrate Robert Taylor with a note from Morris, summoning Taylor to City Hall at once. As soon as he arrived, Morris filled him in on the situation. The two then made their way across Broadway to the Granite Building, accompanied by a pair of police officers, A.M.C. Smith and David Waldron.
A note was tacked to Colt’s door, saying that he was out but would return soon. Posting the two officers at the foot and the head of the staircase, Morris and Taylor waited inside Wheeler’s office. A short time later, Colt arrived. As he unlocked his door, Morris stepped into the hall, introduced himself and his companion, and said that they “wished to see him inside his room.”
“We all went in and closed the door,” Morris recalled at a later date. “I then told him he was arrested on suspicion of killing Mr. Adams.”6
After being read “the affidavits on which the arrest was founded,” John was searched for weapons by Officer Waldron. He cooperated willingly, emptying his pockets and stripping off his frock coat to demonstrate that he carried neither pistol nor knife.1
In the meantime, Waldron’s fellow officer, A.M.C. Smith, was dispatched to the Broadway office of the distinguished New York chemist Dr. James R. Chilton.2 By the time Chilton arrived, Colt’s hatchet-hammer had been found beneath some sheets of old newspaper on his desk.
While Colt and the others looked on, Chilton made a careful examination of the implement. Holding it up to the light, he “observed a red stain in the eye of the hatchet, apparently blood. There was also a similar spot on the hammer end.” In addition, there were fresh ink stains on the wooden handle that appeared to have “been put on intentionally.” Inspecting the handle closely, he could see “a reddish appearance through the ink.”
Chilton then turned his attention to the rest of the room, noting the many fresh stains and ink spots on the walls and floor. After scraping some reddish-brown particles from a wall and removing a small section of floorboard with Colt’s borrowed handsaw, Chilton carried his samples—including the hatchet-hammer—back to his laboratory for chemical analysis.3
Not long after his departure, John was escorted across the street to the mayor’s office, where he asked to see his counsel—his cousin and former employer, Dudley Selden. An officer was sent to the latter’s residence but returned a short while later to say that Selden wasn’t at home. John was then taken to the Halls of Justice and locked in a holding cell—the beginning of a lengthy incarceration in the recently completed edifice whose architectural resemblance to an ancient Egyptian mausoleum had earned it the nickname “the Tombs.”
• • •
That evening, Morris and Magistrate Taylor divided up their duties. The mayor assumed responsibility for tracking down the mysterious crate that John Delnous and others had seen carted away from the Granite Building under Colt’s supervision. To that end, Morris composed a brief notice and had it conveyed to the office of the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer. The notice—which appeared on page two the following morning, wedged between a reward posting for the return of a lost Irish setter and the announcement of an upcoming concert by Signor John Nagel, “Composer and Violinist to the King of Sweden and Pupil of Paganini!”—read as follows:
The person who early on Saturday morning last, 18th, took a Box from the building on the north corner of Broadway and Chambers St. or any person who have seen a Box taken from said place at that time, will please call immediately at the Mayor’s office, in the City Hall.
—ROBT. H. MORRIS, Mayor4
In the meantime, Magistrate Taylor undertook the task of locating Colt’s lodging place. By Saturday morning, he had ascertained the address. In the company of Officer Smith, he proceeded to the boardinghouse at no. 42 Monroe Street and, upon inquiring for Mrs. Colt, was introduced to the young woman who (as Taylor later put it) “was passing for his wife.”
At the request of the two lawmen, Caroline—who had sat up all night in an increasingly frantic state, wondering what had become of John—led them upstairs to her room, where, beneath the bed, Taylor found a well-worn carpetbag containing a few oddments of clothing, nothing of any apparent significance. When he demanded to know where John kept his other possessions, Caroline “drew from a recess” a small locked trunk, which Taylor and Smith transported back to the Upper Police Office and opened in John’s presence.
Inside, along with various letters, books, and advertising cards for The Science of Double Entry Book-Keeping, they found a few mementos of John’s earlier life: his discharge papers from the Marine Corps and, lovingly preserved inside a folded piece of paper, locks of hair from his deceased mother and sisters.
There was something else, too—an item rather haphazardly wrapped in a sheet of newsprint. It would later be shown to Caroline, who would testify that she had never seen it before.
It was a gold pocket watch, handsomely engraved on its back with an image of the U.S. Capitol Building.5
Though the mayor was the official head of the city’s licensed cartmen, their day-to-day affairs were overseen by the superintendent of carts, an officer paid five hundred dollars annually to ensure, among other things, “that all carts were in good working order and complied with city regulations.”1 In 1841 that position was held by a gentleman named William Godfrey.
On Saturday morning, September 25, while Magistrate Taylor was paying his visit to Caroline, Robert Morris sent for Godfrey. By the time he arrived at City Hall, Godfrey had already seen the mayor’s notice in the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer and knew why he’d been summoned. He suggested that they seek out Thomas Russell, who—so Godfrey explained—spent much of his time at the Granite Building performing jobs for members of the Apollo Association. Perhaps he might know something about the crate.
While the mayor attended to some urgent business, Godfrey headed across Broadway, where, as expected, he found the cartman stationed outside the Granite Building. In reply to the superintendent’s queries, Russell explained that he had helped a colleague load just such a box onto a cart the previous week. Though he didn’t know the fellow’s name, he felt sure that he could recognize his horse.
With Godfrey beside him, Russell drove toward the waterfront and, before long, spotted the other cartman on Peck Slip. Godfrey immediately recognized him as Richard Barstow. After hearing the superintendent’s description of the box, Barstow said that he “recollected it clearly” and proceeded to lead Godfrey to the Kalamazoo, still docked at the foot of Maiden Lane. There Godfrey learned from the first mate, Bill Coffin, that—having been delayed because of the bad weather—the ship was set to sail that very afternoon. Hurrying back to City Hall, Godfrey conveyed the information to the mayor, who “took immediate measures to detain the ship” in port.2
• • •
Shortly before 9:00 the following morning, Sunday, September 26, Mayor Morris arrived at the Maiden Lane wharf and boarded the Kalamazoo. He was accompanied by Magistrate Taylor, officers Smith and Waldron, the cartmen Richard Barstow and Thomas Russell, their supervisor, William Godfrey, and a crew of stevedores.
Under the direction of the ship’s young second mate, Bill Blanck, the stevedores began to remove the cargo from the forward hatch. Along with other crew members of the packet, Blanck had been aware of a putrid odor emanating from below decks for several days. He had attributed the smell, however, to the effects of the poison that been scattered throughout the hold to clear the ship of vermin. Now, as the cargo was unloaded, it became increasingly clear that dead rats alone could not possibly account for the fetor.
They found the box three layers down, close to the bottom tier. Addressed in blue ink to “R. P. Gross, St. Louis, to care of Mr. Gray, New Orleans,” it was identified by Barstow as the one he had hauled from the Granite Building the week before. Several of the men hoisted it onto the middle deck, where the lid was knocked off. The stench that arose caused several of the men, Thomas Russell among them, to flee aloft without looking inside.
Those who remained—most pressing handkerchiefs to their noses—saw a semi-naked, grotesquely contorted male body, trussed up with rope and partly covered with a piece of window awning. The exposed flesh was greenish with decomposition and—at least according to several of the witnesses—sprinkled with salt. Maggots swarmed everywhere.
Fetching some chloride of lime, the chief mate sprinkled the disinfectant powder over the corpse. The wooden lid was nailed back on, the crate hoisted to the top deck, then lowered over the side of the ship. By then a crowd of curiosity seekers had gathered at the wharf. They watched as the crate was lifted onto Barstow’s cart and followed along as it was conveyed to the Dead House in City Hall Park.
There the lid was removed again, the corpse lifted from the box and placed on a rough wooden table. The rope was cut and the twisted body straightened out. So repulsive was its condition—so overpowering its stench—that no one could be found to wash it until a fellow named James Short, an attendant at the public alms house, agreed to do so for a fee of six dollars (the equivalent of one hundred fifty dollars in today’s money).3
By the time Short had completed the task, Dr. C. R. Gilman, physician to the city prison, and his assistant, Dr. Richard S. Kissam, had arrived at the Dead House. At around 1:00 p.m., they began their postmortem examination of the carrion remains of Samuel Adams.
• • •
Their grim work was completed about two hours later. Not long afterward, Coroner Jefferson Brown convened an inquest in the old alms house. Until late in the evening, the jurors heard testimony from a string of witnesses, including Asa Wheeler, Law Octon, John Delnous, Dr. James Chilton, Richard Barstow, Thomas Russell, Mayor Morris, and Magistrate Taylor. They also heard from the Kalamazoo’s second mate, Bill Blanck, who had been taken to the Tombs earlier in the day. There, he had identified John Colt as the “man with the swarthy face, black side whiskers, and piercing black eyes” who had left the crate at the ship.4
Far and away the most shocking testimony came from Dr. Gilman. His summation of the autopsy was rendered all the more disturbing by his tone of bland clinical detachment—particularly his insistence on referring to the savaged victim as “it.”
“It was a man rather under the middle size, stout rather than fat,” Gilman began. “It measured five-feet-nine-and-a-half inches in height. It was very considerably decayed in all its parts. I should think it had been dead seven or eight days. Its head was so much decayed that the scalp could be pushed off by the rub of a finger.”
Before the corpse was stuffed into the box, Gilman explained, it had been “tied with a rope around the knees and carried to the head. The thighs were strongly bent up and the head a little bent forward.” Gilman then offered a graphic description of the fatal injuries, all of which had been inflicted on the victim’s head:
The skull was fractured in several different places. The right side of the forehead, the socket of the eye, and a part of the cheekbone were broken in. On the left side the fracture was higher up. The brow had escaped, but above that the forehead was beaten in. The two fractures communicated on the center of the forehead, so that the whole of the forehead was beaten in, also the right eye and a part of the right cheek. On the other side of the head, directly above the ear, there was a fracture, with depression of the bone—it was not detached, it was dented in. This fracture was quite small. There was also a fracture on the left side of the head, a little behind and above the ear, in which there was a round, clean hole, as if made by a musket ball, so that you might put your finger through it. There was no fracture on the back part of the head. When I examined the cavity of the skull, I found some pieces of bone, about the size of a half dollar, beaten in and entirely loose among the pulpy mass, which was the brain. The lower jaw was also fractured.
Apart from a shirt—which had been “ripped up and was hanging like a gown from the arms”—the body was unclothed. Whoever had perpetrated the atrocity, however, had overlooked one telltale piece of evidence that Gilman had removed from the corpse and now displayed to the jurors: “a small plain ring on the little finger of the left hand.”5
The ring—along with some scraps of clothing that had been stuffed inside the crate—was identified by the final witness of the day, Emeline Adams, who was also shown the gold watch discovered in John Colt’s trunk. She confirmed that her husband possessed a watch “precisely like it—that he had gotten it for a debt very lately.” He was carrying it, she declared, “when he left home after dinner” on the day he disappeared.6
It was late in the evening when the coroner’s jury returned their verdict: “that the body was that of Mr. Samuel Adams and that, in their belief, he came to his death by blows inflicted by John C. Colt.”7
Though the Mary Rogers case was still the city’s biggest crime story in the days leading up to John Colt’s arrest, it was far from the only one. Murders, rapes, assaults—some of startling brutality—were regularly reported in the penny press.
In Hempstead, Long Island, a woman named Hall was killed by her African-American gardener, Alexander Beck, who fractured her skull with a shovel in an apparent fit of religious delirium. Another Long Island resident, a boat builder named Jesse Ryerson, had his throat cut by a journeyman worker named Smith, who dumped the victim’s body into Hempstead Bay.
A few days later—in what the Herald immediately trumpeted as “Another Mary Rogers Case”—the corpse of a “good-looking young girl about twenty years of age,” dressed “in a calico frock with purple fringes and muslin underclothes, but neither bonnet nor shoes,” was found floating in the Hudson River. Even as her body was being transported to the Dead House, the trial of eighteen-year-old William Phelps, “accused of murdering George Phelps during a robbery,” was getting under way in Brooklyn.
In Lower Manhattan, William Bolton—a twenty-year-old “soaplock” (slang for a dandyish youth who affected the style later called sideburns)—was arrested after attempting to rape “a stout, athletic Irish wench named Mary Farrell” as she entered her backyard to use the privy. Bolton, according to the Herald, “so far succeeded in his object that he seized her, laid her on the ground, and was preparing to have carnal knowledge of her when two other women extricated her from the clutches of the ravisher.”
From farther afield came reports of the hanging of sixty-five-year-old Samuel Watson of Williamston, North Carolina, who was executed for the murder of a neighbor, Mrs. Fanny Garrett. “There was a plum orchard between their residences,” reported the Herald, “and she was stooping, in the act of gathering plums, when he deliberately shot her dead, assigning as a cause that she was a witch and had conjured him.” Shortly before his death, the twice-married Watson also confessed that he had “caused the death of both his wives.”
That same week, another elderly Southerner, seventy-year-old John Davis, went on a rampage in a Greenville, South Carolina, boardinghouse when another lodger disturbed him from his sleep. Leaping from his bed, Davis “commenced an indiscriminate slaughter,” stabbing “six men with a knife, two of whom—T. J. Larder, Esq., and Mr. Samuel Brawley—were killed.”
Perhaps most shocking of all was a reported case of parricide in Bridgewater, Massachusetts, where twenty-year-old Henry Gunn brained his elderly father with a hatchet, then absconded with “money and valuables worth about $40,000,” leaving the bloody weapon in a woodpile behind the house, its blade clotted with “tufts of hair from the head of the murdered man.”1
None of these outrages, however, proved to be more than a passing diversion for readers of the sensational press. Once the Colt-Adams story broke on the morning of Monday, September 27, they were immediately forgotten.
Though multicolumn banner headlines didn’t exist in 1841, the city papers trumpeted the news as loudly as their small-print format permitted.2 Each of the dailies ran a version of the same attention-grabbing headline: “Awful Murder” (New York American), “Frightful Murder” (Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer), “Terrible Murder” (Tribune), “Another Shocking Murder” (New-York Commercial Advertiser), “Horrible Murder of Mr. Adams” (Sun), “Shocking Murder of Mr. Adams, the Printer” (Herald). The accompanying stories offered detailed accounts of the killing and the discovery of the victim’s crated remains in the hold of the packet Kalamazoo.3
The case was an instant sensation, the talk of the town—“the subject of conversation among all classes of the community,” as one newspaper put it.4 By Monday afternoon, the site of the “awful murder” had already become the city’s hottest attraction. Two floors above Colt’s office, the Apollo Association’s fine arts gallery had drawn so few visitors in the first years of its existence that, at its third annual meeting, the membership talked of shutting it down.5 Now the same public that couldn’t be lured to the Granite Building for its cultural offerings came flocking there in droves for a glimpse of the crime scene. Throughout the day, the northwest corner of Broadway and Chambers was so packed with curiosity seekers that pedestrians had to detour around the crowds.6
Even as the gawkers blocked the foot traffic on Broadway, craning their necks for a better view of Colt’s second-story window, the man himself was being escorted from his cell to the office of Police Magistrate Taylor. There, attended by Dudley Selden and two other attorneys, Robert Emmett and John A. Morrill, he was examined by Taylor, who asked him his name, age, place of birth, and occupation. Colt replied firmly to these pro forma questions, hesitating only when asked if he was married. After a brief consultation with his lawyers, he replied, “I decline answering under the advice of my counsel.”
“What have you to say to in relation to the charge against you?” asked Taylor.
“I decline answering any further questions by advice of my counsel,” Colt repeated. “But I am innocent of the charge.”
Newspapers described Colt’s appearance and behavior during this examination in dramatically different, if not completely contradictory, ways. Most agreed that he was an “exceedingly prepossessing” man: about five feet nine inches tall and “very well made,” with curly, dark brown hair and full side whiskers. Some, however, found his good looks marred by his eyes, reported to be of that “brown-colored class that cannot easily be read, and that are generally found in the faces of all scoundrels, schemers, and plotters.”7
As for his mien, several accounts emphasized Colt’s “remarkable composure,” “singular coolness,” “peculiar nonchalance”—a trait presumably in keeping with the “calculating deliberation” he had exhibited in his attempts to hide the evidence. Indeed, in the view of more than one observer, it was the callous way that Colt had gone about trying to “conceal the deed,” even more than the murder itself, that made his crime an “enormity without parallel.”8
This picture of Colt as a cold-blooded creature was reinforced by a widely printed story that the only emotion he had displayed at the examination was a flash of self-pity. “I don’t think they treat me well with regard to my meals,” he reportedly complained to Taylor before being led back to his cell. “They don’t bring my dinner on a clean plate but on one that had been used before.”9
In sharp contrast to this image of Colt as a man of “extraordinary coolness of nerve,” other accounts depicted him as profoundly distraught during his brief appearance before Magistrate Taylor. “His face was of a ghastly paleness,” wrote the reporter for the Commercial Advertiser, “his eyes deeply sunk into his head and fearfully wild in their expression. The few hours since the verdict of the inquest had been rendered had evidently been those of intense suffering, of deep mental anguish. The prisoner made a strong effort to maintain his composure, but the effort was clearly visible.” Indeed, according to the same report, Colt was in such an “overwrought frame of mind” that “every means had been taken to prevent his committing self-destruction—a result he evidently contemplates.”10
Of all the journalists in the city, James Gordon Bennett lavished the most loving attention on the Colt-Adams story, perceiving it from the start as a potential circulation booster on the order of the Helen Jewett and Mary Rogers cases. In Tuesday’s issue of the Herald, for example, he ran a full-profile woodcut portrait of Colt—a highly unusual feature at a time when the typical newspaper page consisted of row upon row of eye-straining type, unrelieved by any illustrations. He was also the only journalist to describe Samuel Adams’s burial on Monday, and to run a remarkable (if highly suspect) story about Adams’s wife, Emeline. According to Bennett (who provides no source for his believe-it-or-not anecdote),
some days before Adams was murdered, his wife dreamed that she saw him dead—murdered and stript naked and put into a box, and his clothes thrown into a privy. She awoke and burst into tears; but finding her husband asleep by the side of her, she said nothing about it. The next night, she dreamed the same thing, and next day concluded to tell her mother of it; but finally laughed it off as an idle dream. There is no doubt of the truth of these facts, and to say the least of it, it was very remarkable.11
Bennett, moreover, lost no time in exploiting the public’s prurient interest in Colt’s unsanctified relationship with Caroline Henshaw. Picking up on John’s evasive replies to questions about his marital status, other papers had referred to “the female who has been kept by him for some time.”12 Bennett alone, however—resorting to proper French at a time when the word pregnant was considered too vulgar for public utterance—added a titillating detail. Colt’s female companion, Bennett revealed, “is by him enciente and the period of her accouchement is near.”13
It was Bennett who also provided the most extensive coverage of Colt’s arraignment, which took place in the Court of Oyer and Terminer on Tuesday afternoon. Standing before the bench, Colt appeared “firm, calm, and collected” as the clerk began reading the true bill indictment, a formulaic document combining tortured legalese with a Bible-steeped view of human motivation:
The Jurors of the People of the State of New York in and for the body of the City and County of New York upon their oath present that John C. Colt late of the Third Ward of the City of New York in the County of New York aforesaid Laborer, not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the Devil on the seventeenth day of September in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and forty one with force and arms at the Ward, City and County aforesaid in and upon one Samuel Adams in the peace of God and of the said People then and there being feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought did make an assault and that the said John C. Colt with a certain hatchet of the value of six cents which he the said John C. Colt in his right hand then and there had and held, the said Samuel Adams in and upon the right side of the head of him the said Samuel Adams then and there feloniously, wilfully and of his malice aforethought did strike and cut, giving to him the said Samuel Adams then and there with the hatchet aforesaid in and upon the right side of the head of him the said Samuel Adams one mortal wound of the breadth of three inches and of the depth of six inches of which said mortal wound he the said Samuel Adams then and there died.
And so the Jurors aforesaid upon their oath aforesaid do say that he said John C. Colt, him the said Samuel Adams in the manner and form aforesaid feloniously, willfully, and of his malice aforethought did kill and murder, against the form of the statute in such case made and provided and against the peace of the People of the State of New York and their dignity.
Jamming the courtroom for the proceedings were more than two dozen of the city’s most eminent lawyers, a reflection (in Bennett’s words) of the “intense excitement that this most extraordinary and unparalleled case has occasioned, even among the legal fraternity.”14
It wasn’t just the gruesomeness of the killing, the macabre method of body disposal, or the spicy hints of illicit sex that made the case so riveting. Another tantalizing ingredient was the same one that, in future years, would help turn figures like Professor John Webster, Lizzie Borden, Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, O. J. Simpson, and others into media celebrities: namely, their social prominence. However much Bennett and his competitors differed in their initial depictions of John Colt’s demeanor, all agreed on one point: that the accused was “descended from one of the most eminent families of the state of Connecticut,” being “the grandson of the Hon. John Caldwell of Hartford and son of Christopher Colt, a respected textile manufacturer of that place.” And none failed to mention that his brother, Samuel, was the “well known inventor of Colt’s celebrated firearms.”15
From the moment he embarked on his firearms business, Sam Colt had been forced to deal with a virtually uninterrupted series of crises. His brother’s arrest for murder, however, was, by a considerable measure, the worst. And for Sam, it couldn’t have come at a less opportune time.
Since his meeting in June with Secretary of the Navy George Badger, Sam had been awaiting the passage of the naval appropriation bill with its promised allocation for the development of his harbor defense system. As late as September 5, he had received word from a Washington friend that the bill would most likely be “taken up and passed” within a matter of days. By then, Sam, brimming with confidence, had already drafted a prospectus for his Submarine Battery Company, approached a small group of investors, and sold five hundred shares at fifty dollars each.1
Less than a week after he received his friend’s encouraging news, however, Washington was shaken by a political upheaval. On September 11, Naval Secretary Badger—along with the rest of the Cabinet, excepting Secretary of State Daniel Webster—resigned in protest over President Tyler’s fiscal policies.2 Badger’s replacement, a Virginia judge named Abel P. Upshur, knew nothing of the agreement struck between his predecessor and Colt. Suddenly Sam found himself without a governmental sponsor.
It was at this very moment, when the federal funding he was counting on seemed about to fall through, that Sam returned from an out-of-town business trip to find the city abuzz with news of his brother’s arrest.
From the start, Sam was his brother’s most stalwart defender. Despite the precarious state of his own finances, he assumed responsibility for John’s legal fees, offering each of the attorneys a thousand-dollar retainer—“five hundred in cash and ten shares par value in the Submarine Battery Company.”3
At the same time, Sam never lost sight of his own business interests. Throughout John’s ordeal, he pursued his current project with the tireless drive that, to his later hagiographers, exemplified his “unconquerable spirit”—the “indomitable energy and perseverance” that, “when the dark clouds of adversity rested upon him,” allowed him to “overcome all obstacles and emerge triumphantly into the light of day.”4
Even while providing moral and material support to his brother, Sam bent his efforts “towards getting an early action by the Navy Department on his submarine battery appropriation.”5 To one influential friend in Washington, he sent a letter expressing the urgency of the situation: “Circumstances of a nature too painful to relate have rendered it of vital importance that I should raise a som [sic] of money at once,” he wrote, urging the recipient to do everything possible to expedite the bill. He also wrote directly to the new secretary of the navy, Abel Upshur, describing the harbor defense system, suggesting “that the Naval ordinance appropriation was his by right and intent,” and conveying his “hope that matters would be permitted to continue in their original course.”6
While Sam, however rattled by the crisis, remained characteristically dogged in pursuit of his goal, newspapers reported that the scandal of John’s arrest had produced a devastating effect on the family patriarch. According to a widely disseminated story, originally published in the Hartford Review, Christopher Colt, Sr., “the father of J. C. Colt, the supposed murderer of Samuel Adams,” had “become insane.” Pulling out the sentimental stops, the article described Christopher as “an aged man, whose years have been embittered by the folly of his son, and this last horrible act has ‘filled up the measure of sorrow’ which will soon lay him in his grave.”7
As affecting as it is, the story is nothing more than empty rumor, typical of an era when the penny papers did not scruple to print colorful gossip as sober fact. However distressed Christopher undoubtedly was over his eldest son’s plight, he retained his sanity and lived another nine years, dying at the respectable age of seventy. What is perhaps most striking about this article is the fact that it was reprinted as far away as Wisconsin: testimony to the fascinated interest—the “excited curiosity,” as one newspaper put it—that, by early October, the Colt-Adams case had already generated.8
• • •
It was, in fact, from his local St. Louis newspaper that another member of the clan, James Colt, learned the shocking news.
Like both John and Sam, the twenty-three-year-old James had traveled widely from an early age. At fourteen, he had left home and made his way to Washington, DC, in the hope of becoming a naval cadet. Failing to receive an appointment—and fearing that he was prone to the consumption that had claimed the lives of his mother and older sister—he proceeded south to Savannah, Georgia, where he was employed by a merchant named G. B. Lamar, a cousin of Mirabeau Lamar, future president of the Republic of Texas.
In 1835, in the company of another Lamar relation, James traveled to Velasco, Texas. There he became acquainted with Colonel James Walker Fannin—a comrade of Jim Bowie and William Travis—whose botched attempt to bring a troop of reinforcements to the Alamo would cast serious doubts on his leadership. Impressed with young Colt, Fannin offered him a position as aide-de-camp and dispatched him on a mission to New Orleans. James had just arrived in the city when news reached him that Fannin and roughly four hundred of his men, after surrendering to an overwhelming Mexican force at the Battle of Coleto, had been marched back to Goliad and executed on the order of General Antonio López de Santa Anna.
By the summer of 1836, James was back in Hartford, where he undertook the study of law. In the following years, he spent time in Philadelphia and New York City before being admitted to the bar in 1840. That fall, along with a partner named Alan Dodd, he headed west and settled in St. Louis, Missouri.9
Of the four Colt brothers, James, the youngest, seemed the most concerned about maintaining close ties with his kin. Shortly after his move to Missouri, he sent Sam a letter expressing his dismay at the rifts that had developed among the siblings. With a mixture of anger and hurt, he complained that “John has not written me a friendly letter since heaven knows when—the same has been the case with Christopher.” Sam himself came in for some chiding. “In this respect,” wrote James, “you have done your duty better but not half so well as you should.”
Invoking a story he had heard about a trio of lighthouse keepers who, out of some petty grievance, had lived together for more than seven months without ever exchanging a word, James made a heartfelt plea for familial harmony:
I think it is unfortunate that four brothers should cease to keep up intercourse with each other when they can do so with so little trouble to themselves and when it can be productive of so much pleasure as well as good. This state of things is brought about among ourselves in consequence of each and all of us having too independent minds. We have too much self-sufficiency and vain pride. We all want to be independent of each other when it is certainly most wise for us to do away with such feeling. If there should be a misunderstanding among any of us, it should be the first object of those who are not parties to bring about reconciliation. If we adopt this as a rule, it will certainly be better for all of us.10
It was not long after James dispatched this letter that accounts of the Colt-Adams affair first appeared in the St. Louis papers, which reported (inaccurately) that the victim had been murdered in a dispute over two hundred dollars. James immediately composed a letter to Sam conveying his shock and incredulity, as well as a belief in John’s blamelessness that would never waver:
St. Louis, Oct. 6, 1841
My Dear Brother:
I cannot express to you the intense agony of my feelings at this moment. I have heard of the sad catastrophe which has befallen John. Our daily newspapers are full of circumstantial evidence against him, but I cannot for a moment believe he is guilty of the charge. The first intimation I got of it was through yesterday’s evening paper. I read it and threw it down—and read it again. I cannot but conclude from what I have seen in relation to the matter that he is in difficulty.
Suppose John did the act. Did he do it for the paltry sum of two hundred dollars? No. For it would be against all the impulses of our nature or any man to hazard his life for two hundred dollars. Then if he did it, he must be deranged. This may be so. For, mark you, has not John been confined at his books for the last six months and do you not know that Sarah’s derangement was brought on in the same way? I have thought that John would be deranged, for you know that he has applied himself too closely to books and to his work. His habit is and always has been when he undertakes to do anything to do it with all the intensity of a madman. If this is the foundation for the charges against John or sufficient to name the conclusion that he did the act, he was a madman at the time he did it and this fact should be made to appear.
I cannot but hope that what I have seen in the papers is all false. Not hearing from you leads me to think it is so.11
James’s desperate hope that the newspaper accounts were unfounded was dashed the very next day when the mail brought a letter from Sam relaying the bad news. James immediately penned a reply, reiterating his belief that, if John had in fact committed the crime, he had done so in a state of “derangement” induced by mental overexertion:
I have this moment received your letter of the 27th bearing confirmation of the newspaper intelligence. My mind was prepared to receive it and I fear not the general result. If it is possible I shall come and be with you in this hour of trouble. Write me whether I had better do so or not.
The news of John’s arrest and of his being a brother of mine has spread like wild fire through the city and my friends flock in to see me on the subject. But they see I am calm upon the subject and therefore fear not the consequences. I have no doubt but that an alibi can be proven and therefore no just suspicion can rest on John. But suppose this came to be done, was he not deranged? Has he not labored too hard mentally and bodily? I say again this brought on Sarah’s derangement and John has when I have been with him manifested derangement on this subject of ambitions and notoriety. Let medical men examine him on this subject. These things have undoubtedly suggested themselves to you and you being present and knowing all the circumstances can best judge as to what will be the best course of action to pursue.
Write to me every day and give me all the particulars. I will write John and Father today. Would to God I could at this moment be with you. God knows our family has had afflictions enough. I did not think we were to suffer afflictions of such a nature. But do not give way under it. There is a brighter sky ahead. If all the elements conspired together to crush me I would still war against them and nothing should conquer my energy but the grave.
Despite his seemingly heartfelt offer to hurry to Sam’s side, James, for a variety of reasons, would never make it back east during the ordeal. From his law office in St. Louis, however, he did everything possible to assist John’s cause. Not long after the news of his brother’s arrest reached him, a story appeared in a St. Louis daily that was widely reprinted in papers throughout the Northeast:
The St. Louis Pennant, on the authority of a brother of John C. Colt, residing in that city, advances the plea of insanity on behalf of the supposed murder of Mr. Adams. Mr. Colt, who is a member of the St. Louis bar, informs the Pennant that insanity is hereditary in their family and that he has no doubt that his brother was insane when he committed the dreadful act with which he stands charged. He further states that John had several times become suddenly insane, generally after a period of intense application to study or to severe mental exercise. He further cites the case of a sister who committed suicide in 1827.12
James’s willingness to trumpet such a painful personal matter as Sarah’s suicide reflects the urgency of the situation. Clearly, he was ready to do whatever it took to save his brother from the gallows. However sincerely he believed his own theory, his very public proclamation that a streak of “hereditary insanity” ran in his immediate family was a calculated move—the sowing of a seed that would culminate, so he hoped, in John’s acquittal.
While James Colt saw his brother’s homicidal outburst as a consequence of excessive mental exertion, other observers traced the crime to different sources. For some, the Colt case demonstrated the inevitable outcome of youthful insubordination—the type of tragedy that resulted when parents spared the rod in dealing with refractory children. In papers throughout the country, John was accused of having been “a passionate, cunning, and revengeful boy,” whose “whole course has been marked by self-will” and whose bitter fate “teaches a lesson that ought never to be forgotten: that parental disobedience and disregard to the laws of God in youth is most generally followed by a life of crime, ending in either a violent or disgraceful death.”1
“Let the child who will not submit to be checked and guided tremble for the end of his own career,” thundered one writer whose jeremiad was reprinted in papers throughout the country, “and let the parent tremble for the child who cannot be made to yield to just authority, and let him never dare to hope that the youth whom he cannot control will learn to control himself and curb his own wild passions!”2
In the Tribune, editor Horace Greeley used the Colt case to expound on his “most constant theme: the dangers that could destroy a young man alone in the city without a concerned family or a close-knit community to help mold his character.” Despite his many advantages—“a respected and influential family, good talents and a winning address, liberal opportunities for mental culture”—John had “inevitably slid into a ‘depth of horrid guilt and blasting infamy,’ demonstrating afresh that Crime has a vital, growing power which thrusts downward deep into the heart its mighty roots and overshadows the whole inner being with its death-distilling shade.”3
Another commentator, signing himself as “Junius,” drew a different moral from the case. Denouncing Colt as a “literary pirate” whose accounting book had been copied with minor alterations from a competing text, this anonymous writer saw John’s arrest for murder as the logical result of his ostensible penchant for plagiarism. “It is a most natural progress in crime from forgery to piracy to murder,” Junius declared. “Men seldom break out into the commission of high crimes suddenly. Conscience, that inner monitor given by the Almighty to warn men against the violation of human and divine law, must first be blunted or deafened by the smaller class of crimes and misdemeanors before the soul becomes fit for the commission of the higher crimes of robbery, rape, and murder.”4
The public’s “excited curiosity” about the Adams murder—its hunger for every juicy detail—prompted another writer to editorialize on the perils of pandering to such impulses. Sounding much like modern critics who condemn today’s tabloid entertainment for “glorifying” crime and inciting acts of copycat violence, this observer wondered
how far public curiosity should be gratified in such a case. We are disposed to enquire whether this morbid taste for the details of crime may not help to provide material for its own gratification … We do not ask for apathy or indifference to crime; its frequent recurrence in such horrid forms calls for the most vigilant interest; but not for that fascinated interest, that shuddering admiration, with which we have suffered ourselves to be drawn into sympathy with vice until we have come to look upon great wickedness as great romance.5
Colt himself was deeply concerned about the public’s “fascinated interest” in his case—though for the opposite reason. Far from inducing “shuddering admiration” and even sympathy, the intense news coverage, he felt, had so inflamed public sentiment that a fair trial might not be possible. Writing to a friend from his cell in the Tombs, he assailed the penny papers for “exciting the passions of the people to an alarming degree” and expressed his fear “that passion and not evidence will decide the case.”6
On the very day this letter was composed, James Gordon Bennett published a lengthy editorial that confirmed John’s darkest apprehensions about the press’s prejudicial treatment of his case. Under the headline “Sympathy for Criminals,” Bennett railed against the kind of people derided nowadays as “bleeding hearts,” accusing them of mollycoddling “villains” while ignoring the rights of victims. In terms that any right-wing law-and-order advocate would applaud, he also denounced the judicial system for allowing criminals to go free on mere legal technicalities:
It is called cruel nowadays to exercise a proper vigilance in the conviction of a scoundrel whether he exhibits himself in the capacity of a thief, an incendiary, or a murderer. No matter how much misery the crime may involve—no matter whether a man’s house may have been burned down, or a woman’s husband been foully murdered—the miscreant who has done the act is immediately taken into the keeping of the public mercy. “The humanity of the law” is invoked in his favor and the community is called upon to presume everything in his behalf.
It is quite time for this false philanthropy—this misdirected and most absurd sympathy—to cease. It cannot be denied that it would be very much to be lamented if an individual should chance to be hanged for a crime he had not committed; but in our opinion, it is not the lesser to be regretted that fifty villains who have been guilty of palpable and undoubted enormities should be suffered to escape punishment through some pettifogging technicality of the common law forms or the still worse fanaticism of an ill-directed popular feeling. We have no participation in that false sympathy which, in displaying itself towards the criminal, has no feelings for the victims of his iniquity.
Presenting himself as a noble guardian of the public weal, Bennett concluded his piece with what amounted to a demand for John Colt’s blood. Without mentioning either Colt or his victim by name, Bennett nevertheless made it plain that, in his considered opinion, the killing of Samuel Adams was not a case of manslaughter—as the defense clearly intended to argue—but an act of cold-blooded murder deserving of the full penalty of the law:
We refrain, as we have refrained in all similar cases, from saying aught that can prejudice public opinion upon cases still to be passed upon by Court and Jury; but we have a duty as well to the public as to individuals, and when we see that public likely to be poisoned by pernicious influences, it is proper for the press to guard the community from false opinions. As has been the case in similar instances, pains are being taken to impress upon the public a very false notion with respect to a case soon to be tried in our Courts. It is not true that the law presumes every case of killing to be a manslaughter unless an adequate motive for the commission of homicide be proved upon the accused. So far from this being the case, the law always presumes malice aforethought, express or implied in every case of homicide; and the prisoner is always bound to rebut that presumption by proof. The fact of the killing made out, the prisoner must prove the absence of malice if he would escape the penalty of murder.7
• • •
The intense public excitement stirred up by Bennett and his competitors was very much in evidence on the morning of Monday, November 1, 1841, when—after a one-month delay—John’s trial was scheduled to begin.8 By 9:00 a.m., a throng of curiosity seekers, “anxious to catch a view of the noted individual,” had gathered outside the courtroom. When the doors swung open promptly at 10:00, the crowd swarmed inside. Within two minutes, as one newspaper reported, “the large space allotted to the public was completely filled, and there was scarce standing room inside the railing.”9
A few moments later, the star attraction was led inside and seated at the end of a long table at the front of the room. For the past week, reports had circulated that John had been reduced to a physically pitiable condition by extreme “mental agonies and terrors of conscience.” Now, however, it became clear to observers that those stories, like so many others concerning John and his family, were mere rumor. Apart from his jailhouse pallor, he seemed hardly changed at all. “Certainly,” one paper reported, “his appearance was not that of a haggard conscience-stricken man.”10
In the articles that appeared the following day, most papers emphasized John’s relaxed manner and refined appearance. He seemed “more calm, less agitated than on previous occasions,” noted the Morning Courier and New-York Enquirer, and was “very genteelly dressed in black, with the air of a gentleman.”
Seated not far from Colt, however, James Gordon Bennett saw things differently. To his eyes, Colt was “evidently laboring under great mental excitement, which he strongly endeavored to suppress. The skin over his cheek bones was suffused with blood, resembling a man of a strong nervous temperament after hard drinking; and his eye, which is peculiarly deep and penetrating, and has at times a wild, savage look, was incessantly in motion.” It was only when he caught sight of his brother Samuel, who entered the courtroom a few minutes after it opened and positioned himself in the rear, that John’s “savage” expression softened and a warm smile appeared on his face.11
As it happened, the day turned into a major disappointment for the spectators. No sooner had the proceedings gotten under way than Dudley Selden moved for a postponement. The trial, he argued, could not fairly be held “in the absence of a material witness”—namely, Colt’s mistress Caroline Henshaw, who was on the brink of giving birth and had returned to Philadelphia to be with friends for “the period of her confinement.”
District Attorney James Whiting countered by wondering why Caroline’s testimony could not be submitted in writing. “Suppose this woman should die under her accouchement,” he said. “If the gentlemen deem her testimony so important to them, why object to taking it by commission at once, so as not to be deprived of that evidence which they deem to them of so much value, in case of an event which is certainly within the range of possibility?” In the end, though, Whiting dropped his objection and agreed to a postponement.
Before he sat down, Selden directed a plea for journalistic restraint to the assembled newspapermen:
This case has been more commented upon by the press than almost any other I have known, and I think very unfairly. And I would suggest whether the prisoner is not entitled to have a suspension of further remarks at least until his trial. So much fiction has been blended with some little fact that it would be difficult for any—even unbiased minds—to come to a fair and impartial opinion of the case if this course be continued. And I say to those who have done this that I trust they will see the propriety of a cessation.12
Among other “utterly untrue and unfair” stories that had been circulated by the press, Selden singled out the widespread accusation that “we intend to raise insanity as a defense in this case. Most unjustly have we been charged with getting up this fraudulent scheme of defense, as it has been called, for the purpose of defeating the ends of justice. We have never said so—and we never intended it. None of the counsel ever thought of such a thing. Indeed, no plan of defense has been decided upon, other than what the real merits of the case may justify.”
A few minutes later, with Whiting’s agreement, Judge William Kent granted Selden’s motion, and the proceedings were adjourned—much to the audible disappointment of the spectators, who would now be forced to wait another few months before the big show reopened.13
• • •
Despite Selden’s plea for fairness, Bennett and his colleagues continued to report on the case with no pretense of impartiality. In his article on the day’s events, for example, the writer for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle dispensed entirely with such standard modifiers as alleged, accused, and suspected in his references to John. “The trial of Colt, the murderer of Adams,” he declared, as though the verdict had already been rendered, “has been postponed until the next term of the Court of Oyer and Terminer, which will not be until the first Monday in December.”14