News of the postponement was slow to reach James Colt in St. Louis. Believing that the trial had proceeded as scheduled, he wrote to Sam on December 18, describing his state of “miserable suspense” as he awaited word of the outcome. “I never have doubted where the justice of this case lies,” James declared, reaffirming his faith in John’s innocence and referring to Samuel Adams’s death as “the accident.” “Of course,” he urged, “you will write me immediately after the disposal of the case and then give me explicitly and fully your views in relation to the matter.”
Receiving a prompt reply from Sam informing him of the delay, James immediately responded with a long and fervent letter, extolling Sam’s fraternal devotion and contrasting it bitterly with the callous indifference of their brother Christopher:
My Dear Brother
I cannot express the feelings of gratitude which your letter awakens in my bosom. But why should I dwell upon it. “Time the only healer when the heart hath bled” will unfold to you many years of joy and happiness which your present magnanimity will bring about … I will pledge my life on the assertion that before many years flash over your head you will look back upon your present conduct in relation to our unfortunate brother John and myself as the proudest period of your life. Would to God I could be with you. I should then be able to share with you the labor and affliction of this dark hour. But do not think that because I am two thousand miles off my thoughts do not dwell upon the heart-rending scenes which are passing around you. The distance only adds to my afflictions. I try to dissipate my thoughts but it is impossible.
But do not think either the world discovers in me this. It does not. I am perfectly calm, for I know that if there is a God in heaven we shall be rewarded for our present sufferings.
Before this reaches you, John’s case will be disposed of but it will be a month nearly before I know the result. You will of course write me immediately and let me know everything. I think the jury will disagree but I merely guess at it from the exparte testimony. If they disagree, another trial will acquit him.
Whatever may be the result of John’s trial do not, I entreat you, let it have any more effect upon your mind than possible. Your conduct during the trial and the exertions you have made and suffering you have passed through will sooner or later be made known to the public … While the public will thus sympathize with the misfortunes of John, thus will they commend the magnanimousness of your own conduct … I forbear all comment upon Christopher’s comment. The end will prove which of the two brothers acted with most honor to themselves.1
• • •
With the trial still several weeks away and John’s legal team absorbed in their preparations, Sam busied himself with his harbor defense scheme. Armed with a letter of introduction from an influential acquaintance, Major William Gibbs McNeill of the U.S. Topographical Engineers, he had traveled to Washington, DC, in early November and secured a private interview with the new secretary of the navy, Abel Upshur. After learning the specifics of the submarine battery and satisfying himself of its feasibility, Upshur agreed to advance Sam six thousand dollars for a preliminary test—considerably less than the sum Sam had previously been promised but enough for him to proceed.2
Back in Manhattan, Sam took a room in the South Tower of the New York University building on the east side of Washington Square, a massive Gothic Revival structure that, in its early years, “served as both college and lodging house. Artists, inventors, and literary figures not on the University staff, moved into the upper floors, supplementing the young institution’s slender financial resources.” It was around this time, as he turned his energies to the “procurement, insulation, and testing of the several thousand feet of rolled copper wire” necessary for his device, that Sam began collaborating with his neighbor, Samuel F. B. Morse.3
One of America’s finest painters, the fifty-year-old Morse was eking out a living as an instructor of arts and design at the nascent NYU (then known as the University of the City of New York), while working tirelessly to perfect and promote his recently patented invention, the electromagnetic telegraph. Still three years away from his triumphant demonstration in Washington, DC—when the coded message “What Hath God Wrought!” was carried across forty miles of wire strung between the old Supreme Court chamber in the U.S. Capitol and a train depot in Baltimore—Morse shared Sam Colt’s interest in developing “insulated cable that was capable of transmitting electrical current relatively undiminished for substantial distances.” In a note to his NYU neighbor, Colt offered to provide Morse with “some hints by which you may profit … before the materials for your Electro-Magnetic Telegraph are ordered.” It was the beginning of a long and mutually beneficial association between the two “pioneers of American galvanic technology.”4
On November 25, 1841, Congress approved the six-thousand-dollar appropriation for the development of Sam’s underwater defense system. At that point, Sam “moved rapidly to acquire additional financing from the private sector.”5 Investors included a number of his powerful Washington friends—among them Major McNeill and Senator Samuel L. Southard—as well as the pioneering civil engineer Major George W. Whistler, who, thanks to his artist-son’s celebrated painting, would come to be known by waggish historians as “Whistler’s Father.” There was another name, too, on the list of early investors: John C. Colt.
To defray some of the legal costs Sam had already incurred on his account, John had offered to pay his brother $125 to “be used for shares in the Submarine Battery Company.” Besides a desire to ease Sam’s financial burden, John might have had another motive for the investment. According to one well-known historian of the Colt family, John’s gesture may have been intended to show the world that he was a man of means—not so hard up that he would murder a man in a petty argument over a “picayune” debt. Or perhaps, as the same writer speculates, the investment was meant to show that John possessed a serene faith in his own innocence—“that he was confident of the future and the justice of the court.”6
Despite a lashing rain, an enormous crowd showed up at City Hall Park early on the morning of Monday, January 17, 1842, for the reopening of the Colt trial. “People of all classes and ages” thronged the pathways leading up to the building and packed every inch of the portico. When the doors opened at 9:00, the jostling horde swarmed inside. A few constables, armed with long staves, were on hand to maintain order. They made free use of their implements, “knocking about them right and left, and rapping people’s heads and shoulders, sometimes quite outrageously.” Their exertions, however, had little effect on the boisterous crowd, which shoved its way inside the courtroom, occupying every available space within two or three minutes. Shut out of the courtroom, “hundreds waited and clamored in the hallway; whilst in the park, there were also hundreds waiting to catch a sight of Colt or Mrs. Adams or any of the witnesses.”1
Among those who made it inside was twenty-two-year-old Walt Whitman, then a writer for a new penny paper, the Aurora. Though Whitman would eventually compose soaring poetry celebrating the divinity inherent in even the most degraded individual, the frenzied excitement of the crowd afforded him a glimpse of the very worst side of human nature. Five years later, remembering “the struggle he had to get in the courtroom at the trial of John C. Colt,” Whitman had still not gotten over his sense of outrage.
“There was a kind of ferocious interest felt in that case, which seemed quite disgusting,” he recalled. “There existed a feverish jealousy lest he might be only sent to prison for life and not strangled. Public malignance was aroused; and cloaking itself in the convenient garb of justice, the most inhuman spirit of revenge pervaded the bosoms of the people.”
“Wretched fellow!” wrote Whitman of Colt. “How he was hunted by an unrelenting public appetite for blood!”2
James Gordon Bennett was also in attendance, along with an artist named Forbes, who was there to sketch the prisoner for the Herald. That evening, the paper’s front page was dominated by Forbes’s portrait, rendered in woodcut. In it, John sits with an elbow on the arm of his chair, head resting on his closed hand. He is shown as a strikingly handsome man with a luxuriant head of dark, wavy hair, neatly trimmed side whiskers, finely molded features, and exceptionally large, penetrating eyes. His expression seems perfectly serene.
According to the accompanying story, John—who had been brought into the courtroom earlier that morning and sat in a corner, warming himself by the stove—was, in fact, “collected and calm.” As he awaited the opening of the trial, he chatted freely with the person seated next to him: his brother Sam, who appeared to be far more agitated than the defendant. Another of John’s supporters was present in the courtroom as well: Caroline Henshaw, who had returned from Philadelphia after giving birth to a boy and was invariably referred to in the papers as “the female who lived with Colt.”3
Shortly before 10:00 a.m., John’s counsel arrived. His cousin Dudley Selden was assisted by two other highly accomplished attorneys: Robert Emmett, son of New York State’s former attorney general and a future justice of the superior court, and James A. Morrill. The latter had achieved recent celebrity as the lawyer for Mrs. Ann Lohman—alias “Madame Restell,” the nation’s most notorious abortionist—who had been brought to trial the previous July after the death of one of her customers.4
Opposing them was District Attorney James R. Whiting and his able young assistant, James M. Smith, Jr., in later years a justice of the Court of General Sessions. Whiting, whose own distinguished career would culminate with a seat on the state supreme court, had prosecuted the Restell trial. He’d prevailed over Morrill when “the mistress of abominations” (as she was dubbed in the press) was convicted of “unlawfully, wickedly, willfully, and maliciously” inducing an abortion by means of “a piece of wire, a pair of pliers, or some unknown instrument.”5
At precisely 10:30 a.m., Judge William Kent entered the courtroom and took his place. An imposing figure, Kent was the son of the country’s most eminent jurist, the former New York State chancellor James Kent, esteemed in legal circles as the author of the monumental Commentaries on American Law, a four-volume treatise credited with “disentangling a distinctively American practice from the inherited mass of British common law.”6
After a brief delay while the judge awaited the arrival of two aldermen, the court was officially opened. By then, the other star attraction, Emeline Adams, widow of the slain victim, had arrived. A few months earlier, reporting on Mrs. Adams’s allegedly premonitory dreams of her husband’s murder, Bennett, in his most melodramatic style, had informed his readers that “her reason is a shattered wreck, and it is probable that she will soon lie peacefully beside her husband in the quiet grave.”7 Now, however—sounding somewhat piqued that she had not fulfilled his prophecy—he described her as “dressed in deep mourning” but otherwise looking “uncommonly well in health and appearance.” In fact, far from hurrying to join her husband underground, Mrs. Adams would remarry in 1850 and live to a ripe old age, dying just eight years shy of the twentieth century.8
A ripple of anticipatory excitement ran through the crowd when John was summoned to the bar. Rising promptly at the calling of his name, he “walked to the end of the table where his counsel sat with a firm, steady step, an unblanched cheek, and an eye that did not quail,” and took his place beside Selden. The audience, however, was in for a disappointment. Having braved the bad weather to be present at a dramatic spectacle, they witnessed instead a proceeding that was aborted almost as soon as it began. Ordered by the judge to call the roll of potential jurors who had been summoned to court, Clerk Henry Vandervoort rose and read out a list of forty-five names. Only nineteen men, however, had shown up.
Without bothering to conceal his displeasure at this turn of events, Judge Kent immediately announced his ruling. “The statute says that when twenty-four jurors do not answer to their names, the Court shall direct the Sheriff to summon a sufficient number from the city and county,” he declared. “Considering the circumstances of the case, which render it likely that it will be difficult to form a jury, the Court therefore orders the Sheriff to summon three hundred persons from the county at large to be in attendance here at ten o’clock on Wednesday morning.”
When Selden questioned “if that be time enough” to assemble such a large pool of potential jurors, Kent cited the precedent of Ezra White, a twenty-three-year-old hooligan tried in 1840 for stabbing a young man to death after crashing a party at a Lower East Side tavern. In that case, the sheriff had been directed to summon “two hundred jurors the next day.” Kent acknowledged that there had been “some difficulty in getting them together” in such short order. As a result, he was now granting the sheriff an additional twenty-four hours for the task.
Before adjourning until Wednesday morning, Judge Kent issued one final ruling. In light of the clamorous scene outside the courtroom that morning, he directed the sheriff “to have ten additional constables to keep order.”9
• • •
An unseasonable warmth enveloped the city on Wednesday, January 19, bringing out the curiosity seekers in even greater droves. “Very early in the day,” the Herald reported, “thousands of persons were seen wending their way to the City Hall in the hopes of obtaining admission. Never was such intense excitement exhibited.”10
A full two hours before the trial was scheduled to begin, the defendant, escorted by three police officers, arrived at court. Even at that early hour, so many people had assembled outside the chamber that Colt “had to press through the crowd gathered in the hall.” Once inside, he seated himself, as before, near the stove in the far corner of the room and “amused himself reading a newspaper.” When Sam appeared at 9:30, John—looking in “much better spirits” than “at any time since his arrest”—set aside the paper and began conversing cheerfully with his brother.
Promptly at 10:00, the proceedings got under way. With a sharp rap of his gavel, Judge Kent called for “perfect silence” in the courtroom and ordered the spectators—many of whom had risen for a better view of the defendant—to “take their seats at once.” Clerk Vandervoort was then directed to call the roll of potential jurors. No sooner had he begun, however, than Dudley Selden rose with an objection.
Owing to the feverish attentions of the penny press, Selden argued, the case had received an unprecedented degree of publicity. “The subject matter of this trial has been more extensively published than any other that has ever occurred in this country,” he claimed, “and it has entered every house and every room of the city.” As a result, finding jurors with no preconceived opinions was a particularly challenging task.
“We want to distinguish between the man who can look with kindness on his fellow man and the one whose heart is hardened and knows not mercy,” said Selden. Having been provided with the names of the three hundred potential jurors only the previous afternoon, he contended that the defendant had been deprived of a fundamental right.
“I call the attention of the court,” said Selden, “to the statute which provides that every prisoner shall be informed as to the jurors so that he shall be enabled to meet them in challenge. Is it possible in twenty-four hours to ascertain whether or not the panel has been made up of men who are enemies to the prisoner, or who have made up their minds in regard to him?” Insisting that he had no desire to cause an unnecessary delay, Selden nevertheless asked for an additional “two days’ time for scrutinizing” the list of jurors.
After hearing counterarguments from the district attorney—who again invoked the precedent of the Ezra White case and argued that the intense public excitement generated by the present crime was no “reason for the trial being thus deferred”—Judge Kent handed down his ruling. “The trial,” he announced, “must proceed.”
Vandervoort then proceeded to call the roll of names. Of the 300 men summoned, 228 answered. One by one, they came forward and were questioned: dentists and dry-goods dealers, cobblers and confectioners, booksellers and grocers, watchmakers and merchants, hardware clerks and housepainters. For twelve full hours, the examinations went on, interrupted only by a one-hour recess at 3:00. At 11:00 p.m., with 220 men having been called, just 11 jurors had been sworn. Directing them to be sequestered at the Knickerbocker Hotel on Park Row and “furnished with any refreshments they might require except spirituous liquors,” Judge Kent then adjourned until 10:00 the next morning.
In all the monotony of that exhausting day, one moment stood out for James Gordon Bennett. It happened shortly before 8:00 p.m., when the City Hall bell began to toll, “pealing an alarm of fire in the Second District.”
For Bennett, the ringing of the bell added a disturbing note to the proceedings. “This is at all times a mournful and unwelcome sound,” he observed, “but it falls with a peculiar chill upon the ear when a murderer is present and the ministers of justice assemble to pass upon life and death. Such was the case here.” Months would pass before that tolling of the fire bell took on an even more uncanny significance—not as a chilling accompaniment to the start of the trial but as a grim premonition of its terrible outcome.11
Agreat “rush of persons” tried to shove their way into the courtroom when the doors opened on Thursday morning. Thanks to the stave-wielding constables, however—who “put forth all their energies with a view to preserving order”—a degree of decorum was imposed, and “no more were admitted than could comfortably be seated.”1
Dressed in his usual garb—black pantaloons, black satin vest, dark blue half overcoat, and a black silk handkerchief tied neatly around his neck—John was brought into the courtroom shortly before 9:00 a.m. With him were his brother Sam and, for the first time, their sixty-two-year-old father, Christopher, Sr.—“a venerable, fine, benevolent-looking man” who, according to James Gordon Bennett, “appeared as if he had been crying bitterly and long.”2
The proceedings began promptly at 10:30 with the selection of the final member of the jury. No sooner had he been sworn in than several of his fellow jurors—anticipating a prolonged separation from home—asked permission to pay a visit to their families, “preparatory to the arduous and unceasing day and night work that was before them.” Colt’s counsel offering no objection, Judge Kent granted the request. The jurors departed, each accompanied by a constable who was ordered “not to lose sight” of his charge and “suffer no one to speak to him on the subject of the trial.”3
After a ninety-minute delay, the jurors returned. At a few minutes past noon, Thursday, January 20, 1842, the trial of John C. Colt commenced in earnest.
Following the reading of the indictment—charging that Colt, at the “instigation of the devil,” had made an assault with a hatchet on the person of Samuel Adams and inflicted a fatal wound on the side of his head—James Smith, the young assistant DA, rose to open the prosecution’s case.
What rendered the jurors’ job particularly difficult, Smith told them, was the intense public feeling aroused by the crime. Owing to the “unparalleled atrocity” of the murder, the case had excited an unprecedented degree of excitement in the community, as evinced by the “immense concourse which has here assembled to witness these proceedings.” Everyone appeared to have formed an opinion on the case. The jurors, however, had been selected “after strict examination” because they had declared themselves as “being entirely free of bias.” It was their responsibility to render a verdict based strictly on the facts. While they were obligated to give the prisoner the “full benefit” of any evidence that was “elicited in his favor,” they must not allow their sympathies to affect their final verdict. “You may feel them,” Smith declared, “but the jury box is not the place for their display.”
After reviewing the details of the case, Smith concluded by anticipating—and taking a preemptive swipe at—the defense’s strategy. “The prisoner’s counsel will not, I believe, pretend to deny that Mr. Adams was killed by Mr. Colt but that this did not constitute murder. They will seek to reduce the crime to manslaughter by showing that there was no premeditation in the act, but that if Colt did kill Mr. Adams, it was done under the influence of a momentary passion, excited by a state of facts which perhaps justified such a feeling. Evidence will prove, however, that Mr. Adams was a man of such habits and disposition that he could not have done anything to excite feelings of animosity in any person. The violent character of the prisoner and the contrary one of the deceased leave but little doubt that the murder was willful and premeditated.”4
• • •
Asa Wheeler was the first to take the stand. After providing a few basic personal facts—married, lived on Twentieth Street near Broadway, made his living as an instructor of bookkeeping and penmanship—he explained that he had first become acquainted with Colt in 1838, when the latter approached him about supplying an endorsement for his textbook. The two had not seen each other again until August 1841, when Colt appeared at the Granite Building to ask about renting Wheeler’s vacant second room for six weeks.
Wheeler then provided a lengthy description of the layout and furnishings of the two rooms. District Attorney Whiting, who had brought along a diagram of the second floor of the Granite Building, passed it among the jurors to help them visualize the scene.
Most of Wheeler’s testimony—which continued late into the afternoon, with a one-hour recess for dinner—consisted of a detailed account of the events of September 17, beginning with his arrival at his office at 2:30 p.m., when he had seated himself at his desk to work on a sample of “ornamental writing” to be used as an advertisement for his penmanship lessons. He described the entrance of his sixteen-year-old pupil Arzac Seignette a half hour later; the strange sound, like the “rattling or clashing of foils,” that had startled them from their work at around 3:15; his attempts to peek into Colt’s room to see what had caused the peculiar noise. Though Wheeler offered a few small, previously undisclosed details—mentioning, for example, that Sam Colt had evidently come by John’s office on the morning after the murder, looking for his brother—the story was already familiar to everyone who had followed the unfolding of the case in the newspapers.5
Dudley Selden’s cross-examination, which began in the late afternoon, seemed somewhat scattershot to most observers, though it did manage to establish one key fact. As James Smith had indicated, John’s counsel clearly intended to argue that the killing of Adams had been an act of manslaughter, the tragic climax of an altercation that had grown increasingly violent and out of control. Wheeler had made it plain, however, that he had not heard any sort of commotion from Colt’s room until the odd clashing sound that had interrupted his lesson with Seignette. Now, under questioning from Selden, he revealed that, despite the damp and chilly weather, his windows, which overlooked Broadway, had been “wide open.”
“And is there much noise from Broadway at that time of day?”
Wheeler allowed that there was. Even with the windows tightly shut, the din from outside penetrated his room. When they were raised, the noise—particularly from the omnibuses rumbling over the cobblestones—often made it hard for him to communicate with his pupils: “much incommoded me in hearing them,” as he put it.
“So it is possible that there might have been sounds coming from the room next door that you were unable to hear?” asked Selden.
Wheeler considered for a moment before replying. “Yes, persons might have talked quite loud in Colt’s room at that time of day, and me in my room never hear it.”6
• • •
Two more witnesses, Arzac Seignette and John Delnous, took the stand that day. Beyond a few minor details, they added little to Wheeler’s testimony, though Delnous did provide a moment of levity during Selden’s cross-examination. A few minutes after mentioning that he was “very nearsighted,” the young bookkeeper described how “agitated” Mr. Wheeler looked when he, Delnous, first arrived.
“But you couldn’t really see the expression on his face unless you were very close to him, isn’t that true?” asked Selden, attempting to raise doubts about Delnous’s credibility.
Delnous admitted that he had trouble “distinguishing persons” unless they were right beside him. Indeed, even at the distance Selden was standing—less than five feet away from the witness box—the bookkeeper could not “tell him from anyone else.” Then, as though to prove that, despite his visual limitations, he was still a reliable eyewitness, he added: “But I can tell a white man from a black.”
Selden did a double take. “Tell a white man from a black?”
“Yes, I can tell that you are white, not black,” Delnous solemnly declared, as guffaws burst from the spectator section.7
• • •
Just a few hours after adjournment, a nearly verbatim account of the proceedings—transcribed by James Gordon Bennett with the speed and accuracy of a professional court reporter—appeared in the late edition of the Herald. Of course, there was nothing new or surprising in the testimony; the shocking bits were still to come. Even so, Bennett found a way to provide his readers with the kind of lurid thrills they expected from him.
At a time when “large woodcut illustrations were still an expensive and time-consuming rarity in a daily newspaper,” Bennett splashed an exceptionally gruesome picture across the top of page one.8 It showed a naked male corpse arranged on a table, knees raised, limp arms bent at the elbow, the upper half of the torso propped up against a pile of cloth. What made the image particularly ghastly, however, was the monstrously disfigured face—a hideous fright mask with a caved-in brow, crushed nose, shredded cheeks, exposed jawbone, and great gaping cavity where the right eye should have been. Even today, when graphic images of bloodshed and bodily mutilation are the stuff of daily entertainment, the picture retains the power to shock. To Bennett’s contemporaries, unaccustomed to such sights, it must have seemed appallingly real.
The accompanying caption did perfect justice to the sheer horror of the image. “Samuel Adams, the Printer,” it read, “Before He Was Cut Up and Salted.”9
Bennett wasn’t the only scandalmonger eager to cash in on the public’s fascination with the Colt case. On the same day that the Herald published its picture of Samuel Adams’s mutilated corpse, another penny paper—John Dillon and John M. Moore’s New York Tattler—ran its own shocking illustration. In this one, an enraged, hatchet-wielding Colt looms over Adams, who has been thrown to the floor. With one hand, Colt clutches the front of Adams’s shirt. With the other, he prepares to deliver a deathblow to the head of his terrified victim. Beside them stands the crate that will soon hold the printer’s mutilated corpse.
Given such inflammatory publicity, it was no wonder that, as the Herald noted, “excitement over the trial” seemed to “increase with each passing day.” On Friday, January 21, the crowds around City Hall “were greater than at any previous trial in this city.”1 Notwithstanding the heroic exertions of Deputy Sheriff J. C. Westervelt and “a strong body of officers,” the hallway outside the courtroom turned into a mob scene as the crowd made a mad rush for spectator seats as soon as the doors opened.
The proceedings were delayed briefly so that the jurors, who had been sequestered for several days, could pay a short visit to their homes. A few minutes after 10:00 a.m., they returned to the courtroom “looking as refreshed as men who have enjoyed the toilet, the cheering touch of invigorating linen, and have parted in health and cheerfulness from those they love.”2
Law Octon was the first witness scheduled to testify that morning. Before he could be summoned to the stand, however, Dudley Selden rose and, in a voice that rang with indignation, launched into a fierce denunciation of the Herald and the Tattler for running their lurid woodcuts. Describing each of the offending images in detail, Selden maintained that the titillating tactics of Bennett and his ilk—their “calculated efforts to inflame public passion”—threatened the very foundations of justice. “The ordinary representations are sufficiently bad,” said Selden, “but when you come to that kind of publication that is intended to operate upon the prejudice and passion of the people, how is it possible to obtain witnesses capable of giving unbiased testimony or a jury that will fairly weigh the facts?”
Warming to his subject, Selden proceeded to make an argument that continues to be advanced to this day by critics of media violence: that continuous exposure to images of bloodshed and cruelty has a corrupting effect upon the audience, which demands progressively savage forms of entertainment to satisfy its atavistic cravings. If sensationalistic sheets like the Herald were permitted to operate unchecked, Selden warned, American civilization would inevitably revert to the barbarity of ancient Rome.
“The disease is rapidly growing,” said Selden. “Your Honor, from his extensive reading, surely remembers the incidents in early history where slight and at first disgusting exhibitions of brutal combat finally became incorporated with public taste and sentiment and the Colosseum had to be raised to gratify public passion, where the gladiator displayed his power, and death and rapine became the food of an adulterated population. The same process is going on now. What yesterday would have struck the public with a sort of unwillingness to touch, today they approve of, and in a week they seek as food on which the human mind feeds.”
Citing the statute dealing with those who “interfere with administration of justice,” Selden concluded by calling on the court to “do what it ought to do and what I believe it will do”—namely, issue warrants of arrest for James Gordon Bennett and the Tattler’s John Dillon and John M. Moore.
Judge Kent, however, was unmoved by the argument. While sharing Selden’s concern over the growing power of the penny press to shape popular opinion, he insisted that it was “not the duty of the court to grapple with such mighty questions” or to “undertake to reform the community.” As for the pictures in the Herald and the Tattler, Kent was confident that the jury had been shielded from their pernicious influence.
“In the proceedings in this case,” said the judge, “it has been the effort of the court, and I believe one which has been attended with perfect success, to keep the jury beyond the reach of all external effect. Since empanelled they have been strictly prohibited from conversing with others or of being placed in a situation where their minds could be likely to receive any outside bias.”
Just the previous day, Kent continued, “one of the jurors asked permission to read a newspaper, but I thought it my duty to deny his request, and I have reason to believe, and do believe, that the jurors have been kept perfectly safe from everything that could operate from abroad in relation to the trial.”
Concluding that “the jury has been kept pure and unaffected and can present a fair and impartial decision,” Kent denied Selden’s motion—a decision that drew effusive, if not sycophantic, praise from James Gordon Bennett. In an editorial that ran the following day, he extolled the judge for “surrounding the bench with that high-toned, moral, holy, and intellectual atmosphere that commands the admiration of society and advances the cause of civilization.”3
• • •
Proceeding with his methodical reconstruction of the case, Whiting called Law Octon, superintendent of the Granite Building and the only witness whose racial characteristics—“light yellow skin colored man”—the newspapers found it necessary to specify. Substantiating Wheeler’s account, Octon described the peculiar events of September 17 and his own firsthand observation, on the following day, of John Colt’s struggles to move the heavy pine box downstairs.
Selden’s cross-examination seemed designed to suggest that someone other than Colt might have committed the murder. He had Octon identify all the other tenants of the building, explain who had keys to the rear door, and describe the layout of the backyard. Since there was no doubt that Samuel Adams had died at Colt’s hands, this line of questioning left some observers nonplussed, especially James Gordon Bennett, who—still smarting from Selden’s attack on his integrity—derided it as “foolish and unnecessary.”4
Richard Barstow, the cartman who conveyed the pine box to the Kalamazoo, was the next to take the stand. His testimony added nothing new to the already familiar tale, though he did lighten up the proceedings with some inadvertent humor when Whiting asked how much he had been paid for the job. “The gentleman gave me two shillings and sixpence in change,” said Barstow, then added with a grumble: “I should have charged him three shillings, but I thought I’d have more trouble getting the other sixpence out of him than it was worth.” Barstow’s querulous tone—which suggested that he still felt aggrieved at having been underpaid—elicited chuckles from the spectator section and even a rare smile from Colt himself.
All traces of merriment vanished with the testimony of William Godfrey, the superintendent of carts, who had helped the authorities track down Barstow and assisted in removing the crate that contained Samuel Adams’s moldering corpse. For the first time in the trial, the morbid curiosity seekers who had flocked to the courtroom in quest of ghoulish thrills had their expectations fully satisfied.
Under close questioning by Whiting—who clearly meant to horrify the jurors with the sheer ghastliness of the crime—Godfrey recounted his descent into the bowels of the Kalamazoo; the hoisting of the box between decks; and the removal of its lid by the ship’s carpenter, who had pried it off with chisel and hammer, releasing a loathsome stench.
Inside the box, wrapped in some old awning, was “the dead body of a man,” Godfrey explained. “The face was up towards the lid of the box. There was a rope around the neck and drawn round the legs so as to draw the head between the knees.” The corpse was naked except for a shirt which was “torn halfway down” to the navel, leaving the breast exposed. There appeared to be a quantity of common table salt “scattered all over the breast,” perhaps as much as “two quarts’ worth.” Maggots squirmed among the salt.
“The breast was green, mortified,” Godfrey continued. “I’ve seen salt of beef when nearly dissolved, and this looked just like that. I could see the ribs. I’ve seen several bodies that had been mortified, and this looked like them, only a little more of a greenish cast.”
By the time Godfrey was finished, a shocked silence had descended on the courtroom. In Selden’s cross-examination, he did his best to impeach the character of the witness. Even Godfrey’s admission, however, that he had wagered on the outcome of the trial with Malachi Fallon—deputy keeper of the Tombs and a notorious “sporting man who kept fighting cocks and bred pit dogs in the prison yard”—did nothing to mitigate the impact of his testimony.5
Assistant Coroner Abner Milligan, who followed Godfrey to the stand, described the other items found inside the crate. Stuffed beneath the trussed-up corpse were various articles of the victim’s clothing: “a dress coat much cut to pieces and a black stock cut in front, smeared with blood and buckled behind.”
Asked what had become of these garments, Milligan explained that, along with the crate, they had been taken to the Tombs and stored in an empty cell. A few days later, the clothing was disinfected by a young apothecary named E. D. Warner, who doused them with a solution of chloride of lime and vitriol water and allowed them to dry before returning them to the box. “After two or three days,” said Milligan, “the smell became less offensive, but it’s still pretty bad now.”
Before Milligan was dismissed, District Attorney Whiting—intent on making the full horror of Colt’s deed palpable to the jury—asked that the box be brought into the courtroom and admitted as evidence.
“If the whole box is brought in,” Milligan responded, “it will make everybody sick.”
Judge Kent reflected for a moment before making his ruling. Milligan was directed to bring only the lid of the box, along with the coat and the stock. “And as they are bound to be very offensive,” Kent added, “we will have them examined the last thing. We will then adjourn immediately afterwards so the room can be ventilated.”6
On Saturday, January 22, New Yorkers learned of another “horrid murder” that had occurred in their city. This one also involved a victim named Adams: Mrs. Ann Adams of 28 Amity Lane.
On the previous evening, at around 5:50 p.m., Mrs. Adams’s husband, James, “a man of very intemperate habits and in the habit of beating and abusing his wife,” returned home drunk and began berating the servant girl, Annie Gorman, “who was setting the table for tea.” Seizing a plate and throwing it at her, Adams “said he would have her life, at the same time snatching up a large carving knife from the table.”
Just then, Mrs. Adams, who had been out in the yard hanging laundry, rushed in and, seeing her husband brandishing the knife at the terrified girl, threatened to have him arrested. With an enraged roar,
Adams sprang upon her, thrust the knife into her right breast some four inches, then gave her a second wound, driving the carving knife with great force through her corset board and the centre of her breast bone into the right ventricle of her heart. The murderer then pursued Annie Gorman, who sprang from the rear window into the yard, escaped, and ran to a neighbor’s house in Wooster Street, followed by Mrs. Adams, screaming murder and covered with blood, who, after sitting down in a chair for a few minutes, expired soon after the arrival of the physicians. A constable having been sent for, came and, arresting Mr. Adams, conducted him to the upper police office where he was locked up and fully committed by the Coroner for trial.1
Savage as it was, the slaying of Mrs. Adams made little impact on the public. Within days, the story had vanished from the news, confirming James Gordon Bennett’s observation that, when it came to selling papers, “such everyday matters” as mere wife murder could not hope to compete with a “sublime” horror like the Colt-Adams case.
• • •
As one commentator on the Colt affair has written, though the “trial began slowly and calmly,” it “soon developed into one of the rowdiest, most startling, and most bizarre the city had yet seen.”2 The turning point in that transformation took place on Saturday the twenty-second.
Before the proceedings got under way, Abner Milligan arose with a surprising announcement about the box lid he had been ordered to bring in. While the crate itself was still in the empty jail cell where it had been stored for the past few months, the lid was nowhere to be found. “I have made a thorough search for it,” said Milligan, “but it is lost.”
Grilled by Whiting, Milligan explained that “almost everyone on the debtor’s side of the prison had access to that cell.” Though the door was padlocked, he had “no doubt that there are a great many keys that fit that padlock among the police officers and watch. It is a very common lock.”
Furious over the loss of what he regarded as a key piece of evidence, Whiting summoned various employees of the Tombs, including Warden James Hyde, a turnkey named Swain, a “prison engineer” named Lummere, and Deputy Keeper Malachi Fallon. All denied knowing anything about the missing lid.
John David, a police officer, offered a possible clue as to what had become of it. While making the rounds of the Tombs several weeks earlier, David had detected “a powerful smell coming from one of the cells” and “was asked by the watchman, H. Patrick, if I’d like to see the box Mr. Adams was found in, the one that made the smell.” David had declined the offer, but his testimony suggested that at least one man with access to the lid—Watchman Patrick—understood its potential value as a curio. David’s tale lent credence to speculations that someone—if not Patrick, then another enterprising Tombs employee—had sold the lid, perhaps to the proprietor of one of the city’s dime museums, where such grisly relics of notorious crimes always proved to be a big draw.
Since the cover was gone, Whiting—still determined to present the physical evidence of Colt’s elaborate efforts at concealment—asked that the crate itself be shown to the jury. Milligan warned that even now, three months after its fetid contents had been removed, the box “was still very offensive.” Nevertheless, bowing to Whiting’s request, Judge Kent ordered the young assistant coroner to repair directly to the Tombs and “bring the item at once to court.”3
• • •
For the first three days of the trial, John Colt had displayed little emotion, observing the proceedings with a kind of aloof interest. Apart from an occasional frown or a fleeting smile, his expression remained neutral. His brother Sam, seated beside him, seemed far more anxious than the defendant himself. As for their father, Christopher, the strain of the occasion had proved too much for the sixty-two-year-old gentleman, who had fallen ill and retreated to Hartford. To the spectators and newspapermen keeping a close eye on John’s reactions, his impassive demeanor seemed the mark of a cold and even remorseless nature.
On Saturday morning, however, the court finally got to witness another side of John Colt. It occurred during the testimony of the first witness of the day, Mayor Robert Morris. Describing the visit he had paid to the boardinghouse room that Colt shared with his mistress, Morris identified the items he had found in the small locked trunk that Caroline Henshaw had shown him. In addition to some printed advertisements for John’s accounting text, a few letters and other personal documents, and the gold pocket watch owned by Samuel Adams, there was a folded piece of paper containing several locks of hair. The outside of the paper was inscribed: “Hair of Sarah Colt, my mother; Margaret Colt and Sarah Ann Colt, deceased.”
At this point, John—who had grown visibly agitated as Morris described the cherished keepsakes—“burst into tears, covered his face and wept bitterly for some time.”4
Colt’s outburst was in marked contrast to the deportment of Emeline Adams, widow of the victim. Though dressed, according to custom, in deep mourning, she evinced little emotion as she recalled her last meal with her husband, described the clothing he was wearing when he left home, and positively identified both his gold pocket watch and wedding ring. Even the sight of his “sadly torn and mutilated” coat, admitted as evidence and displayed to the jury, did nothing to shake her self-possession.
While some observers admired her calmness and composure under such trying circumstances, James Gordon Bennett remained irked by her refusal to become “a shattered wreck” and join her husband in the grave. Reporting on her testimony in the late edition of his paper, he made no effort to conceal his disapproval, deriding her performance as “cold, unfeeling and flippant.”5
It was not until Dr. C. R. Gilman began to testify that Mrs. Adams appeared to grow unsettled. Gilman, who had performed the autopsy on Samuel Adams, offered the most detailed and graphic description to date of the flyblown thing that had once been Mrs. Adams’s husband.
Along with a colleague, Dr. Richard Kissam, Gilman had been summoned to the Dead House, where he’d “found on the table the body of a man much decayed. Alongside the table was the box from which they told me the body had been taken. The body was excessively offensive and covered with worms.”
It was clear at a glance that the victim had died of massive head injuries. “The whole of the upper part of his forehead was beaten in just about where the roots of the hair would be.” Gilman judged that these wounds to the front of the skull could have “readily been made” by the implement that Whiting now displayed to the court: the hatchet-hammer found in Colt’s office. He had, however, discovered a small but striking anomaly elsewhere. On the left side of the head “just behind the ear and a little above it,” there was a “small, round, clean hole into which you could thrust a finger.” Gilman was “at a loss to see how it could have been made. I never could account for it satisfactorily to myself. I suppose the hatchet might possibly have done it, but it would be a remarkable fact if it did.”
A large nail or spike driven into the skull with a mallet might have produced it, said Gilman, but there was no evidence that anything of the sort had occurred. There was one other possibility, Gilman continued, raising an issue that would generate much controversy in the days and weeks ahead. The small, clean hole behind Adams’s left ear could have been made by a bullet.
Of course, there were problems with this theory. The noise reported by both Asa Wheeler and Arzac Seignette—the “clashing of foils”—sounded nothing like the discharge of a pistol. Moreover, no bullet had been found inside Adams’s skull, only some bone fragments floating among the putrefied mass of brain matter.
Still, considering John Colt’s close relationship to the celebrated sibling seated beside him, it certainly seemed plausible to many observers that a handgun might have been involved in the murder.6
• • •
The jurors heard from two more medical experts that day, Drs. Kissam and Archer, who corroborated Gilman’s findings and shared his belief that the finger-sized hole could not have been made by the hatchet-hammer. Whether it might have been caused by a gunshot, they were unable to say, since neither had ever seen “a skull that was pierced by a bullet.” Other witnesses included Law Octon’s wife, Mercy, who told of lending John a handsaw on the day before the murder, and the picture framer Charles J. Walker, who testified that when he had gone to Colt’s office later that day to ask him for the saw, “he told me to go to hell.”7
Before adjourning for the remainder of the weekend, Judge Kent issued his usual instructions to the jurors, reminding them that they were “to speak to no one about the trial” and go nowhere except “in the custody of officers.” When one of the jurors, Charles Delvan, “enquired if they might be permitted to spend Sunday at home instead of remaining together during that day,” Kent regretfully denied the request.
“If I were able,” said Kent, “I would have the trial proceed without intermission but the law prohibits a court being held on Sunday.” If the jurors so wished, he added, they could go to church, “but it was necessary that they do so as a body.”
District Attorney Whiting worried that permitting the jurors to attend church could be grounds for a later appeal, since they might “hear a sermon about this matter that would influence their verdict.” Kent considered this objection briefly before declaring that he would allow the jurors to attend church “if the prisoner consented.” After a brief consultation with his attorneys, Colt agreed.
There was still one last order of business to be taken care of. As a “terrible commotion” broke out among the spectators, who jumped to their feet and began jostling for a better view, Abner Milligan entered with the lidless crate, carried it to the front of the courtroom, and set it down on the floor near the jury. A “middling sized packing box of the ordinary appearance,” it consisted of two pieces of wood on each side and two on the bottom, all secured with nails whose ends protruded into the box. Inside was the bundle of canvas variously described as old sailcloth and window awning. The odor emanating from the box was, in the words of one reporter, “not gratifying to the olfactories,” though it was the sight of the object even more than its smell that caused John Colt to wince and avert his face.8
As a number of jurors pressed handkerchiefs to their noses, Milligan testified that Adams’s trussed-up body had been crammed into the center of the box. Holding up the piece of canvas, he explained that along with “some oakum,” the cloth had been stuffed into either end of the box to keep the corpse from moving around.
By the time he was done with his testimony, a number of people at the front of the courtroom, including Dudley Selden, appeared visibly queasy. Even before Milligan had finished bundling the awning back into the box, “Mr. Selden and other gentlemen in the vicinity had fled the courtroom.”9
It was no secret that John’s attorneys intended to claim that the slaying of Samuel Adams was a case of manslaughter—not a cold-blooded, premeditated murder but a killing committed in the heat of passion and provoked by the victim. Anticipating this argument, District Attorney Whiting began Monday’s session by summoning a parade of witnesses to attest to the printer’s gentle and pacific nature.
David Downs, a cobbler who made boots and shoes for the printer and his wife, described Adams as a man of “very good temper.” This impression was confirmed by several other witnesses. A bookbinder named James Fiora confessed that, though he had “blown up at” Adams on several occasions, the latter “never made any reply.” John L. Blake, an elderly clergyman who had occupied rooms directly above Adams’s shop for five or six years, described a time when he had spoken “harshly to him unintentionally. He made no reply, but I saw that his feelings were much affected and that he shed a tear.” If anything, Blake claimed, Adams was “passive and mild” to a fault. Referring to the printer’s juvenile apprentices, Blake declared that they “were frequently noisy, but he did not appear to have the necessary energy to keep them in proper discipline. He was always kind to them—perhaps too much so.”
Some of the testimony, however, suggested that Samuel Adams was not quite the model of equanimity that his staunchest defenders claimed. Under cross-examination, several of the witnesses, including the Reverend Mr. Blake, were forced to concede that they could not say how Adams would react in circumstances that might “try his temper.” Hugh Monahan, Adams’s foreman, had seen his employer “fly into a passion twice” during the preceding year, “once when a man threatened to sue him.” Most relevant of all to Colt’s situation was the testimony of a merchant named Charles Post, who suggested that, during the final months of his life when he felt under increasing financial pressure, Adams was prone to outbursts of extreme, irrational suspicion over matters of money—behavior that seemed to verge (in the terminology of a later era) on paranoia.
Post, called upon to identify Adams’s gold pocket watch, had been present when the printer accepted the timepiece as partial payment for a debt owed him by the young merchant Lyman Ransom. During cross-examination, Dudley Selden asked Post how Adams had reacted when Ransom first explained that he did not have the money to make good on his note. Had Adams “displayed temper” or used “harsh language”?
When Whiting objected to this line of questioning, Selden appealed to Judge Kent. “I do not wish to lacerate the feelings of the friends of Mr. Adams by saying anything against his character or general conduct,” Selden said in kindly tones. “I would not harrow the breasts of those attached to the unfortunate deceased whose bones have now been committed to the dust by even insinuating anything against him. Nevertheless, if we can show that he had exhibited a strong temper when endeavoring on another occasion to collect money, we have a right to do so.”
After briefly considering the matter, Kent ruled in Selden’s favor, declaring “that a man’s temper could, under these circumstances, be shown.” Selden then repeated his question to Post.
“Mr. Adams had a confab with Mr. Ransom,” the merchant answered. “He seemed to be angry because Mr. Ransom didn’t have the money to pay him. He told Mr. Ransom he believed he meant to swindle him out of his debt.”
Had Adams said anything else? Selden asked.
Post allowed that he had, then repeated Adams’s words: “ ‘Everybody is trying to cheat me.’ ”1
• • •
Before court was adjourned for the day, the mystery of the missing lid was finally solved, laying to rest the rumors that it had been sold to a dime museum, perhaps by the city watchman, H. Patrick. The answer was provided by another watchman, Benjamin Lewen, who revealed that a month or so earlier, he and a coworker named Ball had been on duty at the watchhouse during a particularly frigid evening. No coal had yet been laid up for the winter, so they went searching for “anything we could make a fire with.” Seeing the lid inside the cell—and finding the door open—they had taken it, split it into kindling, and used it to build a fire.
Ball, who took the stand next, confirmed Lewen’s story and added a detail that left no doubt that the wooden object the two men had incinerated was the lid of the infamous packing crate. “It smelled strong at first,” said Ball, “but even stronger when we put it in the fire.”2
Dr. Gilman’s testimony concerning the small, clean hole behind the corpse’s left ear had raised a possibility that the prosecution was eager to explore: that the killing of Samuel Adams was a premeditated crime committed with a pistol. Colt, in this scenario, had “planned the encounter in advance and armed himself accordingly.”1 True, neither Asa Wheeler nor his student had heard a gunshot. But the district attorney felt he could account for that anomaly.
In the years before the development of self-contained cartridges, Colt’s revolvers operated by cap and ball. Each chamber of the revolving cylinder was loaded with a charge of gunpowder and a lead ball. A small percussion cap containing a highly combustible compound was then affixed to a nipple on the back end of each chamber. When struck by the hammer, the cap would explode, igniting the powder inside the chamber, which propelled the bullet through the gun barrel.
It was, of course, the detonated gunpowder that produced the loudest bang. What Whiting proposed to show was that a man could be killed by a pistol loaded with a cap and ball, but no gunpowder: that the percussion cap alone could “explode with sufficient force to drive a ball into a man’s head without making enough noise to be heard in the next room.”2
Dudley Selden had objected on technical grounds to the introduction of any evidence concerning a firearm. The indictment, he argued, made no mention of any weapon except a hatchet. On Tuesday morning, however, Judge Kent began by ruling in favor of the district attorney—thus opening the way for some of the most remarkable scenes ever witnessed in an American courtroom.
• • •
Recalled to the stand as the day’s first witness, Asa Wheeler confirmed that John Colt did, in fact, keep a pistol on the premises. As Wheeler recollected, on the evening of September 13, just four days before Samuel Adams’s disappearance,
Colt came into my room after school was over, and in the course of our conversation he spoke of his brother. I asked him if his brother was the inventor of the patent pistol bearing his name. He replied that he was and asked me if I had ever seen any of his pistols. I said that I had not. He said he had one in his room and would let me see it. He went and got one and returned with it to my room. It was a very elegant weapon with a beautiful pearl handle and a very ingenious way of firing with a cylinder. It had his brother’s name on it as the maker, I think. At any rate, he said it was his brother’s.
Wheeler spent about fifteen minutes examining and handling the weapon. He never saw it again, though “after the discovery of the murder” he had immediately “thought of the pistol.”
Grilled closely by Dudley Selden about the dimensions and workmanship of the gun, Wheeler acknowledged that he did “not know much about firearms—I know more about bookkeeping.” He proceeded to prove the point with a comment that elicited a prolonged outburst of laughter from the spectators. Asked about the gun’s cocking mechanism, Wheeler was at a loss to describe it. “But there was certainly a cock to that pistol,” he declared, to the general merriment of the courtroom.3
The consul general of France, a gentleman named Charles de la Forest, was next on the stand. Monsieur de la Forest testified that he had purchased two particularly fine specimens of Colt’s pocket pistols for the Prince de Joinville, who was then visiting the United States aboard the French navy frigate the Belle Poule (the ship that, sixteen months earlier, had transported Napoléon’s remains from St. Helena back to France). Eager to try out his new acquisitions, the prince had fired one of the pistols on deck.
“When merely propelled by a cap,” the consul testified, “the ball was sent one hundred fifty or one hundred sixty feet, struck a hard board, dented it, and rebounded ten or twelve feet. At a distance of twelve paces, again with a cap alone and no powder, the ball went through a book of about one hundred fifty pages and two thick covers. The noise was very trifling, like the cracking of a whip.”
An assistant alderman named Charles A. Underwood agreed with de la Forest’s characterization of the noise made by Colt’s pistol when fired with a cap only. Though Underwood had never handled one of the revolvers himself, he had often visited the Patent Arms Manufacturing Company store on Broadway and had “seen there a ball sent from a Colt’s pocket pistol, with a cap alone, the distance of twenty-five or thirty feet and half embedded in a board. I consider this Colt’s pistol the very perfection in firearms.”4
The prosecution’s final witness was James Short, the “humble, broken-down son of Erin” from the city poorhouse who had been enlisted to wash Adams’s decomposed body at the Dead House. “A miserable, nondescript-looking character, four feet high” (in the typically blunt words of James Gordon Bennett), Short recalled that there were “some bones laying loose” inside Adams’s shattered skull. One of the pieces was “about the breadth of two fingers,” the others slightly smaller. After removing and washing them, he had “given them to the doctors,” who had laid them aside on a table. Later, after the autopsy was concluded and the body placed in a coffin and taken to the cemetery, Short discovered that the skull fragments were still there, so “I wrapped them in a piece of paper and ran down to the burying ground just in time to put them in the grave.”
“That will be all, Mr. Short,” said Dudley Selden at the end of his cross-examination. “You may step down.”
“Yes, and I am glad of it,” Short said as he rose from the chair, “for it’s a very bad business, and that’s a fact.”5
• • •
A few minutes later, the prosecution having rested its case, John A. Morrill—by all accounts the most smooth-spoken of Colt’s three attorneys—stepped to the front of the courtroom to make the opening argument for the defense.
“Gentlemen of the jury,” he intoned, “it now becomes the duty of the counsel for the prisoner—their solemn duty—to enter more minutely into the examination of the evidence which has been produced against the unfortunate individual who stands before you, a young man just entering into life who has no friend around him but a brother—who is deprived by misfortune of the presence of his father. You know where his mother is, and also where are his beloved sisters.
“While you have sympathy for him, I must admit that you must also feel the loss sustained by the widow of Mr. Adams, one who has been bereaved by the loss of a tender and affectionate husband. The people ask that the laws shall be fairly administered, but while they do so, are sometimes carried away, and without thought will condemn an individual unheard. But the jury must lay aside these feelings—must lay aside feelings not only for the unfortunate prisoner but for Mrs. Adams and for public prejudice. You must take hold of the case with clear, dispassionate minds, remembering to blend with justice the attributes of mercy.”
Following this prefatory plea for impartiality—laced with a heart-tugging allusion to the defendant’s tragic family history—Morrill allowed a note of righteous indignation to enter his voice as he “complained of the new charge thrown upon them, of the life of the deceased having been taken by a pistol instead of by a hatchet, as mentioned in the indictment.” He then went on to insist that if the jurors had “any doubt whether it was murder or manslaughter or justifiable homicide,” they were legally bound to give the prisoner the benefit of the doubt.
Let us see if there is any evidence that Adams was murdered by John C. Colt. Has it been shown that there was an appointment, or even an allusion to an appointment on that day? Had Adams ever complained of Colt or has any bad feeling been shown between them? On the contrary, the best disposition existed between them, continued money transactions took place, and they were on the kindest and best of terms.
Had John C. Colt intended to murder Adams, would he do it in a room adjoining Wheeler’s, when he knew his students and himself were engaged, where persons were continually? Would it be the felon’s desire at such a time and under such circumstances, when detection was certain, to take a life? He must have been mad to do so. But thank God, we set up no insanity in this case, and the proposition shows the falsity on its face.
Having thus disposed of widespread rumors that the defense planned to mount an insanity plea, Morrill proceeded to sketch out the line of argument that he and his cocounsel intended to follow.
“In regard to the idea of premeditated murder, where is the motive? Where is the malice? Where is the bad intention of the prisoner? Some papers even went so far as to accuse the prisoner of purchasing articles for boxing up the deceased and salting him down,” Morrill said, throwing a pointed glance at James Gordon Bennett, who was seated not far from him in the area reserved for the newspapermen. “We can show that, so far from having purchased those articles in advance, he already had them in his possession.”
Indeed, said Morrill, despite the absence of an eyewitness, the defense was prepared to prove that the murder was not merely unpremeditated but justified. “No person saw Adams and Colt together except the Great God himself,” he declared. “No person saw Colt and Adams together in that room. But there are providential circumstances which will show that there never was premeditation on his part but that he was acting in a way to protect himself according to the laws of the God of Nature. We will show that the blows were such as could only have been given in self-defense.”
After addressing and dismissing several other points suggested by the prosecution—including the possibility that Colt had killed Adams for his gold pocket watch—Morrill turned to what he knew would be the critical issue for the jury: the chillingly methodical way that Colt had attempted to conceal his crime, and the ghastly treatment to which Adams’s corpse had been subjected.
“Gentlemen,” Morrill declared, looking each juror in the eye in turn. “In relation to the degrees of crime, you are to hold continually in your mind that you are bound to separate the actual homicide from the subsequent conduct of the prisoner. He might, overcome by excitement, have committed the deed and afterward found it necessary to conceal the body as Moses did the African when he had killed him—he thought it would be best to place him out of the way.
“No man under similar circumstances can tell how he would act. If he were as brave as Julius Caesar, he might say, ‘I will put him in the box, I will use stratagem, I will conceal it.’ But it is for you to weigh how the act itself was done. I will show you one act as to John C. Colt. They say in public prints that he was a hard-hearted man—everything bad and crude. But I will show that he was kind to the poor, always ready to do good, and has borne the character of one of the mildest and one of the best dispositioned men almost in this community.”
After likening John to Moses and extolling him as a model of both Christian charity and civic virtue, Morrill closed with a humble assertion of faith in the jury’s rectitude and fair-mindedness.
“Gentlemen, John C. Colt, poor and friendless, a fellow citizen, comes before you charged with a crime. He comes before you in defense of that life which is dear to all. He asks you to mete out to him justice. It is all he asks; it is all we ask. We seek but one thing—it is that he may have mercy according to law—and if he has such, we have no doubt that he will find a safe deliverance in your hand.”
With that, Morrill reseated himself, while his cocounsel Dudley Selden rose and called the prisoner’s first witness, whose testimony, in James Gordon Bennett’s estimation, would “represent one of the most remarkable features of any trial ever known.”6
Carrying a pair of slender wooden cases, the witness, Samuel Colt, stepped to the front of the courtroom. Asked to identify himself, he replied that, in addition to being the defendant’s brother, he was “the inventor of Colt’s patent firearms” and was “perfectly acquainted with their construction.” At Selden’s request, he then proceeded with what the papers described as “a series of experiments touching the power of pistols with caps alone.”
Opening the larger of the two cases, he removed a five-shot revolver with an eight-inch barrel and began to load it. Holding it up for the jury to see, he drove a ball into each chamber, then put the percussion caps in place. As he performed this procedure, he explained that the bullets were standard musket balls of the kind “used for government service” and the caps were “the strongest that can be got.” He used no gunpowder.
Holding the gun in his right hand, Sam placed his left by the end of the barrel and aimed at the wall near Judge Kent, “who moved his seat to be a little more out of range.” Then, “as counsel, jury, spectators, and the bar all crowded to see the result,” he snapped off the five rounds.1 Though the caps exploded with a surprisingly loud report, they produced so little force that Sam was able to catch the balls in his bare hand as they emerged from the barrel.
Next, after reloading the gun, he took aim and fired at a book that Dudley Selden had propped up on a table about twelve paces away. The bullet “made but very little impression, penetrating only nine leaves and indenting twenty-four.” Sam finished by repeating the experiments with the other gun, a short-barreled pocket pistol. The results were the same.
Before Sam was dismissed, Selden asked him if there was any validity to the theory advanced by the prosecution that a bullet from one of his revolvers, discharged only by a percussion cap, could have produced the small hole in Adams’s skull.
Sam addressed his reply directly to the jurors. “It is impossible for a ball to penetrate the head from one of these pistols if a cap alone is used,” he declared, “even if the pistol be held close to the head.”2
Sam’s testimony was corroborated by a physician named C. B. Zabriskie, who, in addition to his medical activities, worked as a sales agent for Colt’s Patent Arms and ran the company store at 155 Broadway. Claiming that he had “fired off the pistols with a cap thousands of times in order to exhibit them,” Zabriskie said that he did “not suppose, from my knowledge of the human skull, that it could be penetrated by a ball propelled only by a cap. It is impossible that the skull could have been more than bruised.”3
• • •
The lucky spectators who managed to gain entrance that day had already been treated to a remarkable sight: a solemn courtroom “converted into a shooting-gallery” by Samuel Colt himself.4 As it happened, another, even more dramatic display was still to come.
Recalled to the stand by Dudley Selden, Dr. C. R. Gilman—the witness who first suggested that the mysterious head wound was a bullet hole—made a surprising disclosure. Just hours before, on the order of the court, Samuel Adams’s cadaver had been removed from its grave and carried to a “small building inside the burial grounds,” where the head was “detached from the body” and reexamined by several of the medical experts who had already testified for the prosecution.
As Gilman explained, he and his colleagues began by inspecting “the cavity of the skull.” They had found absolutely no evidence of a bullet—“no foreign substance there whatsoever,” as Gilman put it. Next, Gilman had stuck the little finger of one hand into the disputed wound. His pinkie had “passed easily into the hole and rested at the second joint.” He could feel that the wound had “ragged edges” and “was slightly oval—one part a very trifle larger than the other.” His investigation had caused him to revise his earlier opinion. “My conclusion is changed from what it was,” he declared. “I think it improbable that the hole was made by a ball of any description.”
At the same time, he remained adamant that it was not caused by the murder weapon. “It is inconceivable to me how it is possible that such a hole could have been made by a hatchet.” Perhaps, he ventured, when Adams’s corpse was inside the crate, the skull had been punctured by a protruding nail. The shifting of the body as the box was “carried to Maiden Lane, put on board the vessel, and afterwards taken to the Dead House might have been sufficient to drive the nail through the head, and the hole might have been ground out larger and larger as the body moved around.”5
To further refute the prosecution’s theory that Adams was killed by a handgun, the defense had subpoenaed its own medical expert, the distinguished surgeon Dr. Valentine Mott, founder of the Rutgers Medical College and future president of the New York Academy of Medicine. Mott, however, had not been present either at the original autopsy or at the examination conducted earlier in the day by Dr. Gilman. The defense therefore wished “to have Mr. Adams’s skull produced in court” so that Mott could examine it before testifying, said Selden.
District Attorney Whiting raised no objection to this startling request. Coroner Archibald Archer, however, pointed out that the “body had probably been re-interred by this time.” Judge Kent immediately ordered him to repair to the cemetery, dig up the body for a second time if necessary, and return as quickly as possible with Samuel Adams’s decapitated head.
• • •
While awaiting Archer’s return, Selden called a half dozen witnesses to the stand, including several of John Colt’s business associates, who attested to his “mild” and “gentlemanly” character. It was roughly two hours later when—in the oddly matter-of-fact words of an observer—“the head of Mr. Adams was brought into the court.”6
Wrapped in newspaper, it was carried to the front of the chamber by Dr. Archer, while a great commotion arose in the spectator section and Judge Kent pounded his gavel for order. With the ghastly bundle in his lap, Archer seated himself beside the table reserved for the reporters, who were struck by the “thrillingly interesting” scene. “There Colt sat, within a few feet of it. The hand that struck the blow and the head that was still in death came nearly in contact. What must have been his feelings!”7
After a brief discussion among the lawyers, the medical experts, and Judge Kent, a decision was reached that “the head should be taken into an adjoining room and examined” by Dr. Mott and Dr. David L. Rogers, a prominent New York surgeon who had achieved earlier repute as an expert witness in the Helen Jewett affair. When the two physicians emerged less than an hour later, Rogers testified that he “was well satisfied from the examination and from comparing the hatchet with the wound that the hole was made with the sharp side of the hatchet. It fits the wound precisely.”
Whatever sense of vindication the defense team might have felt at this moment was immediately quashed by District Attorney Whiting, who—in a stroke of “prosecutorial brilliance” that would have enormous repercussions on the outcome of the trial—“asked that the head and the hatchet be shown to the jury.”8
Perceiving the potentially devastating effect of such a display, Selden instantly objected.
Judge Kent acknowledged that the proposed demonstration would undoubtedly be “painful.” Nevertheless, he ruled that, in the interests of justice, the court “must yield” to the request.
In an apologetic tone—as if regretting the need for such a drastic measure—Whiting insisted that he and his cocounsel “were only seeking the truth.” By “making desperate efforts to break down the testimony” of the prosecution’s witnesses, the defense had left him no choice. “If it could be avoided,” he said, “we would gladly agree not to have the head exhibited. But it is necessary that the jury see it.”9
Before the demonstration could take place, all the women in attendance were ordered to leave the courtroom. More than a few, indignant at their forced exclusion from the ghoulish spectacle, protested loudly as they were ushered into the hallway.10
Once the doors were closed behind them, Dr. Archer, seated with the head in his lap, removed the paper wrapping and handed the blackened thing to Dr. Rogers, who held it up for the jury. “A thrill of horror passed through the crowded chamber,” wrote one observer. “For the first time during the trial, the prisoner buried his face in his hands and groaned.”11
With the head in one hand and the murder weapon in the other, Rogers demonstrated how the corner of the hatchet “precisely fitted” the small hole over the left ear. He then showed how the hammer part of the implement conformed to the indentation on the right sight of the skull, the two joining together “fairly as a mould.” “It was,” remarked the reporter for the Sun, “an interesting but dreadful sight.”12
Dr. Mott, the last witness of the day, corroborated Rogers’s findings in unequivocal terms. “I have no doubt,” he declared, “that the hole was made with the hatchet.”13
• • •
When the trial adjourned for the night, observers agreed that Selden had succeeded in utterly refuting the prosecution’s theory. As Bennett put it, “all the humbug about the pistol wound was blown to the winds.”14 But Selden’s victory had been purchased at a heavy price. Outmaneuvered by Whiting, he had been forced to expose the jurors to a sight that couldn’t fail to appall them. For the twelve men who held John Colt’s fate in their hands, “the awful impression made by the ghastly head,” wrote one commentator, “would never be obliterated.”15
It was lucky for John that the jurors were prevented from seeing the newspapers. On Wednesday, January 26, a story appeared that cast his character in a highly unflattering light.
Headlined “Civil Verdict Against John C. Colt,” the article reported that, on the previous afternoon in the Philadelphia District Court, a judgment was rendered against him in a suit brought by the venerable Cincinnati publisher Ephraim Morgan, who was seeking to recover an unpaid debt of $576.68. Among legal experts, no one could think of a prior instance in which a defendant charged with homicide had been found liable in a separate civil lawsuit while his murder trial was in progress. As the newspapers put it, it was “a singular fact never before known.”1 It also raised serious questions about John’s financial probity at the very moment when his lawyers were struggling to portray him as a victim of circumstance—a man unjustly assailed by a desperate creditor whose own belligerence was to blame for the tragedy.
• • •
Because of the crowds that continued to flock to the trial, many members of the bar found themselves unable to secure seats. On Wednesday morning, before the day’s proceedings began, Judge Kent read aloud an anonymous letter from one of these aggrieved individuals, complaining that he and other “gentlemen of the legal profession were being excluded from the trial to make room for the common rabble.”
Taking the writer to task for such high-handed sentiments, Kent declared that he “knew of no such persons as ‘the common rabble’—the term is alien to our laws.” Because of the large number of witnesses and “others necessary to the trial,” space inside the courtroom was severely limited. Places also had to be reserved for the various reporters who were there to serve the public’s right to “learn about the proceedings.” Whatever seats remained, Kent affirmed, were available to anyone, regardless of profession or position. “The Court would be happy to accommodate the members of the bar,” he said, “but it is not possible that control can be had over the spectators so far as to compel it.”2
Of the nearly two dozen witnesses called to the stand that day, virtually all were there to testify either to Colt’s easygoing nature or Adams’s hot-tempered one. Among many others, John Howard Payne, beloved author of “Home, Sweet Home,” declared that he had “the highest opinion of Mr. Colt in every way.” By contrast, various individuals who had business dealings with Samuel Adams characterized him as “easily vexed” and “of an excitable disposition.”3
The dramatic high point of the day, however, was the testimony of a witness whose appearance had been hotly anticipated since the trial began: John’s mistress, Caroline Henshaw. If Tuesday’s session had served up enough of the macabre to satisfy the morbid tastes of Edgar Allan Poe (who, as events would prove, was closely following the case in the papers), Wednesday’s held out the prurient promise of sexual titillation. The women in attendance seemed particularly excited when Caroline’s name was called, and as she “advanced to the stand,” she “created quite a sensation among the audience.”4
Taking her seat “directly opposite the prisoner,” she threw back the veil of her bonnet, revealing a “remarkably handsome woman with dark blue eyes and round, fair, rosy cheeks.”5 Considering her highly compromised status as John’s illicit bedmate, her strikingly poised and dignified demeanor won the admiration even of those most inclined to sniff at her morals.
Much of Dudley Selden’s examination focused on John’s actions and appearance in the days following the murder. He paid particular attention to the black-and-blue mark that Caroline had observed on the side of John’s neck: clear proof, so Selden suggested, that Colt had been attacked.
Whiting countered with questions designed to raise a very different possibility: that the bruise had been caused not by an assailant but by the heavy wooden crate as John wrestled it downstairs. Mostly, however, the district attorney sought to stress John’s unsavory character by reminding the jurors of his scandalous living arrangement with Caroline.
Under Whiting’s cross, Caroline testified that she had “first become acquainted with Mr. Colt” eighteen months earlier, in August 1841, when both were residing in Philadelphia. At the time, she was boarding at the house of a widow named Stuart and met John when he came there to visit another lodger. Six months later, John “made arrangements to come to New York City.” Caroline joined him there shortly afterward. It was then, she said, that they began living together, taking a furnished room at the boardinghouse of a couple named Hart, where she “passed by the name of Mrs. Colt.” Later they moved to their present lodgings, a boardinghouse at 42 Monroe Street.
Their life together, as she described it, was one of simple domesticity. They shared a single room, so small that John’s well-worn carpetbag had to be stored beneath the bed because “we had no other place to keep it.” During the days, when John was at work, Caroline remained at home, sewing or reading or conversing in the parlor with other boarders. After supper, when John “went out of an evening,” Caroline “generally went with him.” On those rare occasions when he was out by himself, she “did not sit up for him” but went to bed around 10:00 p.m., though she “generally woke up when he came into the room.”
Beyond her admission that she “was a mother by Mr. Colt,” Caroline made no reference, of course, to their sexual relationship. Even so, her evocation of certain intimate details—of watching him undress when he returned to their room late on the evening of September 17, of seeing him slip into his nightshirt, of turning toward him “as he came into bed”—were startlingly frank in an age when such matters were rarely, if ever, discussed in public. The illicit nature of their relationship added a strong whiff of the forbidden to her account.
For all that, Caroline displayed no embarrassment as she testified. She remained dignified and unruffled, repeatedly casting a warm look at John, who “kept his eye steadily on her.” Indeed, it was Whiting who ended up flustered. At one point, apparently meaning to ask how John was dressed on the morning after the murder, the district attorney mistakenly asked if he was dressed.
“Was he dressed?” exclaimed Caroline. “He was. Do you suppose a gentleman would go into the street without clothes?”
Her spirited answer brought an appreciative laugh from the audience and a flush of chagrin to Whiting’s cheek.6
Immediately after her testimony, Selden called her former landlords, Isaac and Sarah Hart, to affirm her good character. When Whiting objected, Selden took the opportunity to insist that John would have made an honest woman of Caroline had he not suffered financial reversals during his sojourn in that city.
“The only ground why she and Mr. Colt did not form the relationship of man and wife,” said Selden, “was owing to the breaking up of his business and inability to provide an establishment, but they both look forward to the day when they can be wed.” Denying the prevailing perception of her as a fallen woman, Selden declared that “she was no prostitute except as regards him. He did wrong and she did, but adverse circumstances alone caused them to live together in the illegitimate manner they did. Still her character, in every other way, is good.”
Accounts of the trial do not say whether John showed any reaction to Selden’s backhanded defense of Caroline as a prostitute only “as regards him.” As for Caroline herself, she was not around to hear it. By then she had already left the premises—escorted from the courtroom by Samuel Colt.7
With each passing day, the crowds clamoring for entrance to the Colt trial seemed to grow bigger and rowdier. Arriving at City Hall at 8:00 a.m. on Thursday, January 27, James Gordon Bennett marveled at the droves that had already gathered, and found it “impossible to compliment Deputy Sheriff Westervelt too highly for the excellent arrangements which he has made to preserve order.” When the doors opened two hours later, the “courtroom immediately became crowded to excess.”1
The morning session offered one “very singular scene”—nothing to compare to the thrillingly gruesome display of Samuel Adams’s decomposed head but macabre enough to create a “considerable sensation” among the audience.2 Shortly before noon—following the examination of several more witnesses called to describe Adams’s peevish and short-tempered disposition—Dudley Selden produced a batch of badly stained and soiled items, including various articles of men’s clothing. They been retrieved from the outhouse behind the Granite Building, where—said Selden—they had been dumped by John Colt on the night of the murder.
John P. Brinckerhoff, superintendent of a company in the business of cleaning out privies and converting the contents (“night soil,” as it was euphemistically called) into a dried manure called “poudrette,” was summoned to the stand to describe the recovery of the evidence. In the first week of October, acting on information provided by John Colt, one of Brinckerhoff’s men, armed “with a light and a rake,” had been lowered into the privy by rope. His search through the two-foot layer of stinking muck had turned up nothing. At Selden’s insistence, however, another attempt was made on Tuesday, January 23. This time, instead of raking through the sewage by lamplight, Brinckerhoff’s men had brought it out in tubs and examined it aboveground.
“Go on and state what you discovered there,” said Selden.
Besides “some cloth and some pieces of towel,” answered Brinckerhoff, they “found a bundle.” This consisted of a large linen handkerchief with “diagonal corners” that were “tied in a hard knot.” When the knot was undone and the bundle opened, it was found to contain a hat “cut lengthwise in two pieces”; a “folded-up vest,” the color of which was difficult to determine, though “it might have been yellow”; a torn pair of gambroon pantaloons, also “neatly folded up”; a pair of suspenders that had been “taken off the pantaloons and wrapped up with them”; part of a badly torn shirt, “completely saturated with blood”; and a pair of shoes. A subsequent search through the thick mass of excrement had uncovered several other items, including “two keys, a silver pencil case, and half dollar piece.”
“Is it your belief that the bundle was down there when you first examined that place?” asked Selden.
“From the state the bundle was in and the garments being rotted,” replied Brinckerhoff, “I have no doubt that they have laid there for some months. I think the pencil case had also been there some time. Parts of it were very rusty. They must have been overlooked on the first examination.”
Shown the pencil case and keys—which, like the other items brought into court, had been thoroughly scrubbed—several of Adams’s associates identified them as articles “that he carried in his pocket.” Selden then took the unusual step of calling his own cocounsel Robert Emmett, who testified that “a day or two after his arrest, Mr. Colt told me that he had thrown the bundle into the privy; that in pulling off the pantaloons of Mr. Adams, the keys, the pencil case, and half a dollar fell out; that he, Colt, afterwards put those things into his own hat, went downstairs, and threw them down into the privy.”3
That John had disposed of evidence in the Chambers Street outhouse was the first new detail of the crime to emerge since his arrest four months earlier. But it was only a prelude to the revelations yet to come. Shortly after Emmett’s testimony, both the district attorney and the defense announced that “they were through.” Intent on wrapping up the trial before the weekend, Judge Kent directed that summations begin immediately after the afternoon recess. When the court reopened at 4:00, Emmett rose at once and delivered what would prove to be the trial’s climactic surprise.
The case now before the twelve jurors, he declared, had no “parallel in the history of jurisprudence.” Certainly, “there has never been a case in which public excitement has been so strongly directed against a prisoner.” Unfortunately, the prosecution had made every effort to exploit those violent passions by casting the crime in the ugliest possible light. Why else, demanded Emmett, did the district attorney summon witnesses to testify “that the body of Mr. Adams had been salted down in the box?” Whiting knew very well that the defendant’s “effort to conceal the body” made his offense seem particularly heinous. Surely the testimony concerning the salt “was only calculated to render Colt’s actions still more disgusting.” “The public officers,” said Emmett in indignant tones, “have done their worst against Mr. Colt, and this was driving the last nail in his reputation.”
To be sure, continued Emmett, the defense was in no way suggesting that the prisoner was an innocent man. “We do not contend anything other than that the death of Mr. Adams was caused by Mr. Colt.” Nevertheless, he insisted, Colt’s actions, “no matter how appalling in appearance,” did not constitute a case of “deliberate murder” but rather of manslaughter. The “particulars of the crime,” once fully known, “render that conclusion irresistible.” Emmett now intended to present those particulars for the first time.
Reaching to the defense table, he took hold of a sheaf of papers, held it aloft, and revealed that it was the prisoner’s handwritten confession.
“We have admitted that Colt took the life of Mr. Adams, and we now propose to tell you as far as possible how it was done,” said Emmett, sending a ripple of excitement through the audience. “As none but the God above us saw the transaction, we have the right to show the manner in which the act was done. I shall speak in the first person, giving the facts as Mr. Colt would, were he to stand up and state them to you.”4
Then, in the anticipatory hush of the courtroom, Emmett began to read the statement. His recitation would go on for several hours, and in that time, the world would learn virtually all that it would ever know about the murder of Samuel Adams by John C. Colt.
Samuel Adams called on my office, as near as I can recollect, between the hours of three and four o’clock. Whether he had any special object in view in coming at that time or not, I cannot say. When he entered my office, I was sitting at my table, as usual, and was at that time engaged in looking over a manuscript account book, as I had been engaged in this work for one or two days previous; that is, I was reading over the entries and reconsidering the arithmetical calculations belonging to the entries, etc.
“Mr. Adams seated himself in a chair near the table, and within an arm’s length of myself, so near that if we both leaned our heads forward towards each other, I have no doubt that they would have touched. I spoke of my account, which he had at my request handed to me ten or twelve days before. I stated to him that his account was wrong, and read to him at the same time the account as I had made it out on another piece of paper, and requested him to alter his account as I had it. He objected to it at first, saying I did not understand printing. He, however, altered his figures as I read them from my account.
“After he had altered his figures, and on looking it over, he said that he was right at first, and made the remark that I meant to cheat him. Word followed word till it came to blows. The words ‘you lie’ were passed, and several slight blows, until I received a blow across my mouth, which caused my nose slightly to bleed. I believe I then struck him violently with my fist. We grappled with each other at the time, and I found myself shoved to the wall, with my side and hip to the table.
“At this time he had his hand in my neck handkerchief, twisting it so that I could scarcely breathe, and at the same time pressing me hard upon the wall and table. There was a hammer upon the table which I then immediately seized hold of, and instantly struck him over the head. At this time, I think, his hat was nearly in my face, and his face, I should think, was downwards. I do not think he saw me seize the hammer. The seizing of the hammer and the blow was instantaneous. I think this blow knocked his hat off, but will not be positive. At the time I only remember his twisting my neck handkerchief so tight that it seemed to me as though I lost all power of reason. Still I thought I was striking away with the hammer. Whether he attempted to get the hammer from me or not I cannot say. I do not think he did.
“The first sense of thought was, it seemed, that his hand or something brushed from my neck downwards. I cannot say that I had any sense or reflection till I heard a knock at the door. Yet there is a faint idea still remains that I shoved him off from me, so that he fell over; but of this I cannot say. When I heard the knock at the door, I was instantly startled, and am fully conscious of going and turning the key so as to lock it. I then sat down, for I felt very weak and sick.
“After sitting a few minutes and seeing so much blood, I think I went and looked at poor Adams, who breathed quite loud for several minutes, threw his arms out and was silent. I recollect at this time taking him by the hand, which seemed lifeless, and a horrid thrill came over me that I had killed him.
“About this time some noise startled me. I felt agitated or frightened, and I think I went to the door to see if I had fastened it, and took the key out and turned down the slide. I think I stood for a minute or two, listening to hear if the affray had caused any alarm. I believe I then took a seat near the window. It was a cold, damp day, and the window had been closed all day, except six or eight inches at the top, which I let down when I first went to the office and which remained down all the time I occupied it. I remained in the same seat, I should think, for at least half an hour without moving, unless it was to draw the curtains of the window close while they were within reach. My custom was to leave the curtains about one-third drawn from the side of the window towards Broadway.
“The blood, at the time, was spreading over the floor. There was a great quantity, and I felt alarmed lest it should leak through into the apothecary’s store. I tried to stop it by tying my handkerchief round his neck tight. This appeared to do no good. I then looked about the room for a piece of twine, and found in a box which stood in the room, after partially pulling out some awning that was in it, a piece of cord which I tied tightly round his neck after taking the handkerchief off and his stock, too, I think. It was then I discovered so much blood, and the fear of it leaking through the floor caused me to take a towel and gather with it all I could and rinse it into the pail I had in the room. The pail was, I should think, at that time about one-third full of water, and the blood filled it at least another third full. Previous to doing this, I moved the body towards the box, and pulled out part of the awning to rest it on and covered it with the remainder. I never saw his face afterwards.
“After soaking up all the blood I could, which I did as still and hastily as possible, I took my seat again near the window and began to think what was best to do. About this time someone knocked at the door, to which, of course, I paid no attention. My horrid situation remained from this time till dark, a silent space of time of still more horrid reflection. At dusk of the evening, and at the same time some omnibuses were passing, I carefully opened the door and went out as still as possible and, I thought, unheard. I crossed into the park and went down from thence to the City Hotel, my purpose being to relate the circumstance to a brother who was stopping at that house. I saw him in the front reading-room, engaged in conversation with two gentlemen. I spoke to him, a few words passed between us, and seeing that he was engaged, I altered my purpose and returned as far as the park.
“I walked up and down the park, thinking of what was best to do. Many things I thought of—among others, was going to some magistrate and relating the facts to him. The horrors of the excitement, a trial, public censure, and false and foul reports that would be raised by the many who would stand ready to make the best appear worse than the worst for the sake of a paltry pittance gained to them in the publication of perverted truths and original, false, foul, calumniating lies. All this, added to my then feelings, was more than could be borne. Besides, at the time, in addition to the blows given, there would be the mark or evidence of a rope drawn tightly round the neck, which looked too deliberate for anything like death caused in an affray. Firing the building seemed at first a happy thought, and all would be enveloped in flame and wafted into air and ashes. Then the danger of causing the death of others (as there were quite a number who slept in the building), the destruction of property, etc., caused me at once to abandon the idea. I next thought of having a suitable box made and having it leaded inside so that the blood would not run out, and moving it off somewhere and burying it. Then the delay of all this, and the great liability of being detected.
“After wandering in the park for an hour or more, I returned to my room and entered it as I had left it, as I supposed, unobserved. Wheeler’s door was open and he was talking to someone quite audibly. I went into my room, entering undetermined and not knowing what to do. After I was seated in my room, I waited silently till Wheeler’s school was out and his lights extinguished. During this suspense, it occurred to me that I might put the body in a cask or box and ship it off somewhere. I little thought at this time that the box in the room would answer; I supposed it too short and small and entirely unsafe as it was quite open.
“Wheeler’s school being out, I still heard someone in his room, and as I then thought, laid down on some benches. The noise did not appear exactly like a person going to bed. I could hear the rustling of no bed-clothes. I felt somewhat alarmed, but then the idea occurred to me that it might be the person who Wheeler stated was going to occupy the room that I then occupied as a sleeping room as soon as I gave it up, which was to be in about ten days’ time, was temporarily occupying his room for that purpose. Relieving myself by this thought, I soon lit a candle, knowing that no time was to be lost; something must be done. This was about nine o’clock, I should think.
“Having closed the shutters, I went and examined the box to see if I could not crowd the body into it. I soon saw that there was a possibility of doing so if I could bend the legs up, so that it would answer if I could keep some of the canvas around the body to absorb the blood and keep it from running out. This I was fearful of. It occurred to me, if I could bury or send this body off, the clothes which he had on would, from description, discover who it might be. It became necessary to strip and dispose of the clothes, which I speedily accomplished, by ripping up the coat-sleeve, vest, etc., which removing the clothes, the keys, money, etc., in his pockets caused a rattling, and I took them out and laid them on one side.
“I then pulled a part of the awning over the body to hide it. I then cut and tore a piece from that awning and laid it on the bottom of the box. I then cut several pieces from the awning for the purpose of lessening its bulk, supposing it was too much to crowd into the box with the body; i.e., it would not go in. I then tied as tight as I could a portion of awning about the head, having placed something like flax, which I found in the box, with the awning. I then drew a piece of this rope around the legs at the joint of the knees and tied them together. I then connected a rope to the one about the shoulder or neck and bent the knees towards the head of the body as much as I could. This brought it into a compact form.
“After several efforts, I succeeded in raising the body to a chair seat, then to the top of the box and, turning it around a little, let it into the box as easy as I could back downwards, with head raised. The head, knees, and feet were still a little out but, by reaching down to the bottom of the box and pulling the body a little toward me, I readily pushed the head in, and the feet. The knees still projected, and I had to stand upon them with all my weight before I could get them down. The awning was then all crowded in the box, excepting a piece or two which I reserved to wash the floor. There being a portion of the box, next to the feet, not quite full, I took his coat and, after pulling up a portion of that awning, crowded it partially under them and replaced the awning. The cover was at once put on the box and nailed down with four or five nails which were broken and of but little account. I then wrapped the remainder of his clothing up and carried it downstairs to the privy and threw it in, together with his keys, wallet, money, pencil case, etc. These latter things I took down in my hat and pockets, a part wrapped in paper and a part otherwise. In throwing them down, I think that must have rattled out of the paper.
“I then returned to my room, carried down the pail which contained the blood and threw it into the gutter of the street; pumped several pails of water and threw it in the same direction. The pump is nearly opposite the outer door of the building; then carried a pail of water upstairs and repeated said washing to a third pail; then rinsed the pail, returned it clean and two-thirds full of water to the room; opened the shutters as usual, drew a chair to the door, and leaned it against it on the inside as I closed it. Locked the door and went at once to the Washington Bath House in Pearl Street, near Broadway. On my way to the bath house, went by a hardware store for the purpose of getting some nails to further secure the box. The store was closed. When I got to the bath house, I think by the clock there it was eight minutes past ten. I washed out my shirt thoroughly in parts of the sleeve and bosom that were somewhat stained with blood from washing the floor. My pantaloons in the knees I also washed a little, and my neck handkerchief in spots. I then went home.
“It wanted, when I got home, about five minutes of eleven o’clock. I lit a light as usual. Caroline wished to know why I came in so late. I made no excuse, saying that I was with a friend from Philadelphia, I think, and that I should get up in the morning early to go and see him off. I went to the stand and pretended to write till she became quiet or went to sleep. I then put out the light and undressed myself, spread my shirt, etc., out to dry, and went to bed.
“In the morning, at about half past five o’clock, I got up, put my shirt and handkerchief, which was not yet quite dry, into the bottom of the clothes-basket under the bed. Always changed my shirt going to bed. In the morning put on a clean shirt and handkerchief and was nearly dressed when Caroline woke up. I said to her it was doubtful whether I should return to breakfast. Did not return.
“Went to the office, found all apparently as I had left it. Went after some nails. Got them at Wood’s store; the store was just opening. Returned to the room, nailed the box on all sides. Went down to the East River to ascertain the first packet to New Orleans. Returned to my room—marked the box. Moved it myself—but with great difficulty—to the head of the stairs. Did not dare to let it down myself. Went to look for a cartman. Saw a man passing the door as I was going out. Requested him to help me down with the box. He got it down without any assistance—preferred doing so. Paid him ten or twelve cents. Went down Chambers Street for a cartman whom I saw coming towards Broadway. Hired him to take the box to the ship, foot of Maiden Lane—went with him.
“While he was loading the box, I went to my office for a piece of paper to write a receipt on—wrote a receipt to be signed by the captain on my way down the street—did not offer the receipt to be signed but requested one, which the receiver of the box gave me. A clerk was by at the time and objected to the form of the receipt and took it and altered it—wished to know if I wanted a bill of lading. I first remarked that as there was but one box, it was not very important; however, that I would call at the office for one. Did not go for a bill of lading. Tore up the receipt before I was two squares from the ship. Returned to my office by way of Lovejoy’s Hotel in the park. Went to the eating room, called for a hot roll and coffee; could not eat. Drank two cups of coffee. Went to my office, locked the door and sat down for some time. Examined everything about the room. Wiped the wall in one hundred spots. Went home to bed.”1
Having reached the end of Colt’s confession, Emmett replaced the document on the table. He then turned again to the jurors and, on behalf of the defense, set forth the legal crux of its argument.
“What is considered manslaughter under English law amounts to justifiable homicide under ours,” he said, “and the present case comes within this class. The highest class of homicide known to our laws is premeditated design to take life.” To convict Colt of murder, “the prosecuting officer must show ‘premeditated design’ ”—prove that Colt had planned the crime in advance and lured Adams to his office with the express intent of killing him. “But there was no such thing,” Emmett declared. Far from having “contrived the meeting,” Colt had not even been “apprised of it.”
The evidence clearly showed that Mr. Adams’s death had resulted from an argument that raged out of control. “The passions of the men were aroused, and Mr. Colt, in his own defense, committed the act which took away that man’s life,” said Emmett. “From the testimony of Caroline Henshaw that she saw a mark on the neck of Mr. Colt, it is evident that a struggle took place. Mr. Adams, we have reason to believe, had his hands within Mr. Colt’s neckcloth and was twisting it in such a manner as to cause suffocation. In such a situation, where self-defense only was exercised and death ensued, the case comes clearly under the class denominated by the statute as justifiable homicide.”
Emmett went on for another ninety minutes, “reading the various laws and precedents governing the case, reviewing the evidence, and concluding with a most eloquent appeal to the jury.” By the time he sat down, he had been speaking for nearly six hours. It was shortly after 10:00 p.m. when the court was adjourned until morning.1
• • •
With no more witnesses to be examined, extra places were available in the courtroom on Friday morning. When the crowd poured in at precisely 10:00 a.m., “about twenty ladies” immediately made for the witness chairs and “occupied them as spectators.” John, looking “pale, very pale, wearied and haggard,” was led inside a few moments later.2 As soon as everyone was seated and the court called to order, Assistant DA Smith rose and addressed the jury.
He began by defending his chief against the attacks made by Emmett. “From his remarks, you would suppose that instead of being arraigned for a dreadful crime, the prisoner was a victim marked out for persecution—that the doer of one of the most brutal murders ever perpetrated was an angel of light!” The district attorney, however—that “talented and meritorious officer”—was merely doing his job “faithfully and correctly,” as always. “When duty calls him, he is ever ready to perform the arduous and often painful duties of his office. Was it not his duty to present all the facts in the case?”
To be sure, Smith continued, presenting facts that might result in a sentence of death was a “thankless task,” one that required a ruthless suppression of the “kind and benevolent emotions” with which all men are naturally endowed. “We are so constituted, such is our nature, that no matter how great may have been a man’s offenses, the moment we see him suffering, the tide of sympathy flows for him.
“Towards the prisoner,” he professed, “no one, except the brother who has stood by him throughout this case and the counsel who have so eloquently defended him, no one feels more for him than I do. My heart bleeds for him.” And yet “there are cases where we have no right to allow our sympathies to control our judgment.”
Sounding much like a modern-day law-and-order zealot—the type who decries the judicial system for mollycoddling criminals and blames the breakdown of society on “bleeding hearts”—he claimed that crime was running rampant in the city. “We scarcely take up a newspaper but we find two or three accounts of murder therein. And this grows out of that sickly sympathy manifested by courts and juries, and the almost certainty that the murderer will go clear. The jury must discard all prejudices and sympathies—the jury box is no place for such feelings. You have solely to deal with the testimony brought before you. With the consequences of your verdict upon this miserable, this wretched man, you have nothing to do. You are sworn to do justice, not mercy, and to see that justice prevails. The people expect it of you and demand it at your hands.”
Smith used the remainder of his two-and-a-half-hour summation to argue that Colt’s crime constituted willful and malicious murder, not manslaughter. While “the law makes allowance for any killing done in the heat of passion,” he declared, “this is not one of them.” Moreover, the sheer savagery of the crime, the “cruel and brutal manner in which it was done,” proved that there was implied, if not express, malice.
As to motive, Smith proposed that, unlikely as it seemed, Colt intended to rob his victim—“to possess himself of the property which Samuel Adams had in his possession at the time,” meager as it was. “I admit it is the most extraordinary case I ever heard of. But what is motive for one man would not be motive for another.”
To judge whether “such a motive as I have suggested was strong enough to make him commit the act,” it was necessary to examine “the character of Colt. If his character were extremely good, it would make a difference. Let us see the character he has displayed.
“Why, in all this trial,” exclaimed Smith, “he has shown less feeling than any man here. When the box that once contained the dead body of Adams was exhibited before us and the bloody garments held up, the prisoner alone looked on calm and unmoved as if nothing had happened, while everyone else shuddered and stood back aghast. Therefore, I consider him of a cool, deliberate, and calculating disposition. The man that could sit here so calmly and listen to this trial could just as calmly plan and quietly execute the deed.”
To be sure, Colt’s eyes had watered at the sight of his family mementoes: the locks of his mother’s and sisters’ hair found inside the trunk along with Samuel Adams’s pocket watch. Even there, however, Smith saw proof of Colt’s implacable nature. “If I needed evidence to prove his coldness of purpose and hardness of heart,” he asserted, “I would want nothing better than the course he has exhibited in relation to the hair of his mother. Who among you would throw such a relic in a box with his cast-off materials, placed side by side with the evidence of his guilt?
“Will the prisoner’s counsel say that, because he exhibited feeling in this one solitary instance, we are to consider him mild, gentle, and humane?” cried Smith, warming to the subject. “Why, gentlemen, let me appeal to your feelings in this matter. Let me ask you what is the last thing a man forgets? What is that which lingers longest and sweetest upon our memory? Is it not the recollections of her who gave us being and who first taught us the lessons of virtue? The name of mother is the last uttered by the pirate under the yardarm and the murderer as he mounts the scaffold! She is the last the veriest wretch forgets! We often see the lights of genius go out one by one—vice makes inroads into the mind until almost the last traces of virtue become extinct—but while life still glimmers in the socket and a ray of reason lights the mind, man clings with fondness and reverence to the memory of his mother!”
How the jurors reacted to this sentimental appeal is unknown, though “several of the ladies in the audience seemed greatly affected.”
According to Smith, the evidence left no doubt that the murder of Adams was “coolly and deliberately planned beforehand.” Why had Colt brought the awning and the nails to his office in advance “if not for such a purpose as this? Why was the saw previously borrowed from the woman in the house? And why such agitation and concealment in his mode of using it? We were told by witnesses that when they knocked at the prisoner’s door, the usual answer was ‘come in.’ But when Mr. Walker went to get the saw, Colt came to the door, opened it a short distance and said, ‘Go to hell.’ ”
Colt had also been caught out in several obvious lies, most glaringly his insistence that he had hired a man to take the box downstairs—a statement flatly contradicted by eyewitness testimony. “Why, then, didn’t the prisoner say in his ‘confession’ ”—here Smith gave the word a conspicuously sarcastic inflection—“that he took it down himself?” Because, explained Smith, if someone else did the job, then the mark on Colt’s neck could not have been caused by the crate, thus bolstering Colt’s contention that the bruise was made by Adams. “If he did hire the man,” asked Smith, “why not bring him forward as a witness?” The answer was clear: Colt had lied about the man because he was lying about the source of the bruise. He had never been attacked by Adams. The murder was an act of cold-blooded premeditation.
For every objection raised by the defense, Smith had an answer. Colt’s counsel had argued, for example, that if their client “intended murder, he would never have chosen to commit it in such a public place as the Granite Building. But I would argue that Colt chose that place precisely because of its publicity and noise and because there he would be less likely to be detected or even suspected. Adams was such a businessman that Colt could not possibly lure him out of the city. Therefore he chose to kill him in a place where the noise would prevent any scuffle or cries being heard, and he chose the noisiest time of the day to do it.”
Perhaps most damning of all was “the subsequent conduct of the prisoner. Would any of you have acted so?” asked Smith in an incredulous tone. “Would you have sat down coolly with the dead body at your feet and sit for hours deliberating how you could best conceal it, unless you had committed a cool and deliberate murder? He who could act so deliberately after the killing could as deliberately plan the murder.
“Again, on the Monday after the deed was done,” he continued, “we find him in that very room where he had committed the murder merrier than ever, and even singing. He goes to the very room where he committed this horrible act and there in singing and smoking he passes his idle hours. This shows that this man’s mind is singularly constituted—and therefore it is idle to say that because the motive for the deed is improbable, he could not have done it.”
Smith also made sure to bring up Caroline Henshaw. “We do not wish to impugn a woman’s virtue,” he solemnly proclaimed. “But once she has lost that, when she comes upon the stand, we do not think it necessary to call evidence to impeach it.”
Colt, Smith continued, represented “the only anchor that binds her to the world.” If he were to be taken from her life, she would become a permanent outcast. “Testimony from such a source requires no impeachment. Such a witness has no incentive to tell the truth but is controlled solely by her own interest and feelings. She is the mother of the prisoner’s child, and it would be strange indeed if the young mother would not come forward to testify strongly in favor of the father.
“Gentlemen,” said Smith, approaching the end of his summation, “you must take the testimony, compare it, and weigh it perfectly. As to the murder, you have to pass upon the apparent intention. You must observe in regard to the prisoner whether he was the kind of man that would be likely to commit and premeditate the deed. It has been said that Colt is a remarkably mild and quiet man. If you believe that, is it not more conclusive that the murder was coolly done and intended for plunder?”
Smith ended by reminding the jurors that “the attribute of mercy does not belong to you, nor to the court, but to a higher tribunal.” Then, with a final word of lawyerly false humility—“I will now leave the subject with those more capable than myself”—he returned to the prosecutor’s table and took his seat beside District Attorney Whiting.3
No sooner had Smith reseated himself than John’s cousin and lead attorney, Dudley Selden, rose to address the jurors. He began by promising them that his “remarks should not extend to a length unnecessarily to trespass upon their time.”1 Despite this assurance, he would end up speaking for more than five hours: two and a half before the recess and another three afterward. Long as it was, however, his performance would be widely applauded. Even James Gordon Bennett—still smarting over Selden’s earlier call for his arrest—hailed it as a feat of “thrilling eloquence.”2
Keenly aware that, for both the jury and the general public, John’s cold-blooded efforts to dispose of the body seemed even more shocking than the murder itself, Selden wasted no time in addressing the issue. While conceding that Colt may have manhandled the corpse—standing on its knees, for example, to force them down into the crate—he insisted that John’s actions “in relation to concealing the body” had “no bearing upon the decision as to the guilt or innocence of the defendant.” However callous his behavior, John had been acting out of sheer desperation.
“He was in terror of his situation,” exclaimed Selden. “There is no man but under such circumstances would have resorted to concealment rather than disclose what occurred. He determined upon the plan and set out to put it in execution. ‘Poor Adams is dead,’ said he, ‘and I shall have to meet the consequences or conceal what has been done by means within my power.’ ”
The killing itself, insisted Selden, was clearly unpremeditated. That “a sudden quarrel” had sprung up between them was “borne out by the fact that Mr. Adams left Mr. Wells’s store between two and three o’clock in an angry state of mind for the purpose of going to Colt’s room.” Once the struggle began, Colt had acted reflexively. “Adams had Colt by the throat,” Selden declared, “and there was necessity of resorting to means of defending himself. The axe lay on the table, where it would necessarily be placed in that small room. Colt seized it, and in self-defense struck the blows. It was all done in an instant’s time.”
As for the question of why Colt struck Adams repeatedly and with such savage force, Selden argued that, while the first blow may have “deprived Adams of speech,” it could actually have caused him to tighten his stranglehold—“to hold with even stronger grasp the neckcloth of Colt.” To prove that even a mortally wounded man can muster a final burst of strength, Selden cited two well-known examples: Alexander Hamilton, who had supposedly “sprung from the ground” after being shot down by Aaron Burr, and Charles Austin, the young victim in a sensational 1806 manslaughter case, who, after being shot in the head by a lawyer named Thomas O. Selfridge, had “advanced upon Selfridge and struck him some violent blows before he fell dead.”3
Selden next turned to the issue of motive. After asserting that Colt could not possibly have been seeking revenge since “he had none to gratify,” he dismissed the charge that the murder was committed “for gain.” For one thing, “had Colt been disposed to seek money in this way, he would have picked a more wealthy victim than poor Adams.” Moreover, the fact that Colt had thrown most of Adams’s possessions down the privy proved that he had not meant to rob him.
As for Adams’s pocket watch, Colt “was aware that it was an elegant one, of peculiar workmanship, and must be discovered in case he afterwards attempted to wear it. Is it likely that he would have plundered another of such an article as this, and have committed murder in order to do it?” Besides, if the watch was so precious, why hadn’t Colt gotten word to Caroline, following his arrest, “that the plunder was in his trunk and would be discovered by officers of the police, and bidden her to remove it”?
Caroline herself, Selden claimed, had been unfairly impugned by the prosecution. “The learned counsel said this morning that Caroline Henshaw’s testimony was not entitled to confidence because she was living in a state of adultery with Mr. Colt. If he means to apply that to her general conduct, he is much mistaken. I have seen those who pretended virtue guilty of vice—have seen the wife whose word was no better than the mistress. She may have been guilty on one point but is entitled to credit as regards every other. Her testimony showed that she loved the prisoner but was determined to tell the truth.”
In presenting the defense’s view of the fatal quarrel—and specifically of Samuel Adams’s role in instigating it—Selden was required to marshal all the tact at his disposal. “God forbid we should say anything against Mr. Adams, his character or his conduct,” he declared. To be sure, the prosecution had shown no such restraint in their treatment of John Colt. “He has been represented as if he had been born for blood—has been persecuted and maligned.” Still, it was not for the defense to stoop to the same level. The facts spoke for themselves.
“The present quarrel is immersed in darkness, and who commenced it is not proved,” said Selden, “but enough is shown to convey an idea of what happened. We know that Adams went to Colt’s room in a vexed mood, having expressed surprise to Mr. Wells that Mr. Colt expected the proceeds of the sale. Mr. Colt owed Samuel Adams only seventy-one dollars, but Adams contended that he was owed more. Out of that disagreement, words came up which produced blows and terminated in death. Mr. Adams had hold of Mr. Colt in a manner to prevent him crying out and caused him to use the hatchet in self-defense.”
For each of the points raised by the prosecution to incriminate Colt, Selden offered an alternative—and more convincing—explanation. Much had been made, for example, of Colt’s having borrowed the saw prior to the murder, as if that proved he had planned the crime beforehand. But “Mr. Colt was publishing a book,” said Selden. “Is it too much to suppose that he was building the box to send them off?” The prosecution had also maintained “that the mark on Colt’s neck was caused by getting the box down the stairs. But a man receives a weight on his shoulder, not on his neck—and the mark seen by Caroline Henshaw was on the jugular vein.”
In closing, Selden permitted himself a rare display of anger, upbraiding the prosecution for actions that had no other purpose than to inflame the prejudice of the jurors. “When Mr. Adams’s wife was here,” he exclaimed, “one of the officers was directed to bring up the bloody garments and shake them under her very nose. Even the grave was opened and the head severed from the trunk. The physicians said they could examine it in another room. But no—the prosecution found it necessary to place the head upon a table here in open court, so that you, gentlemen of the jury, might be influenced by the feelings observable among the spectators.”
Selden knew he had more to worry about than the feelings exhibited by the spectators inside the courtroom. Community opinion was violently inflamed against his client, and—despite the jurors’ seclusion—they were well aware of it. Every morning, as the twelve men entered City Hall, the mobs gathered outside the building had barraged them with cries for Colt’s conviction. Afraid that they might bend to such pressure, Selden now reminded the jurors that their courage must not falter. “If there is a doubt, you are bound to present a verdict of acquittal. Indeed you must give a verdict of acquittal, even if you do so at the risk of your life in passing through the crowd.
“We leave his cause with you,” concluded Selden, “requesting you to bear in mind that justice as well as mercy is a portion of the attributes of the criminal law.”4
• • •
It was already a few minutes past 7:00 p.m. when Selden returned to his seat. District Attorney Whiting was on his feet at once. Initially, said Whiting, he “supposed that he could complete his remarks in two short hours.” Selden’s argument, however, had “ranged so widely that it is now impossible to say how long it will take. If the Court will hear me through in my argument, I will proceed now. Otherwise I would ask to have an adjournment until the morning.”5
Although he had hoped to get through all three remaining summations, Kent had no choice. With a bang of the gavel, he adjourned until 10:00 the next morning, when the trial would enter its climactic day.
Touted from its opening day as the most riveting show in town—a spectacle of “unsurpassed interest”—the Colt trial had more than lived up to its billing. Now that it was nearing the end of its run, James Gordon Bennett took the opportunity to offer an appreciative look back at “this extraordinary drama.”
In a lengthy editorial published on the morning of Saturday, January 29, he enumerated the features that had made it so special, beginning with some raw statistics: three full days to “procure a jury from three hundred persons”; six days “in hearing the evidence”; ninety witnesses examined, seventy-nine for the prosecution and eleven for the defense; a day and a half “consumed by three of the counsel to sum up.” Still to come was the closing of Mr. Whiting, expected to “occupy the whole of five hours this morning till the recess. After that, Judge Kent will deliver his charge and the case will go to the jury about dusk this evening.”
What really made it memorable, however, were its many dramatic highlights. “Altogether,” gushed Bennett, “this has been one of the most singular trials that ever took place in this or any other country.” A year earlier, the city had been transfixed by another shocking murder, this one perpetrated by a New Jersey carpenter named Peter Robinson. On Thursday, December 3, 1840, Robinson had lured a creditor, a banker named Abraham Suydam, to his house in New Brunswick. After knocking Suydam out with a mallet, Robinson dragged the unconscious victim into the cellar, bound him, gagged him, and left him lying there for three days. Early Saturday morning, Robinson “went to the house, dug a grave three feet deep before his still living victim, threw him into it alive, then struck him over the head with the spade, dashing in his skull.” His trial in April 1841 had “excited a great sensation” and his subsequent hanging “was a gala event in New Brunswick.”1
The Robinson-Suydam case certainly didn’t lack for gruesome thrills. Judged purely as theater, however, Colt’s trial easily eclipsed it—“threw the Peter Robinson affair far into the shade,” as Bennett put it. “If this be not the strangest trial ever known, then we have yet to learn the fact.”2
• • •
Bennett’s main rival, Moses Beach’s New York Sun, commemorated the imminent end of the Colt trial in its own exploitive way. Prominently displayed in its Saturday edition was the following advertisement:
As soon as the Verdict of the Jury is rendered in the case of John C. Colt, we shall publish from this office the Trial Complete in pamphlet form. This pamphlet will comprise
1st—The evidence in detail as it has appeared from day to day in the Sun.
2nd—Faithful sketches and reports of the opening and summing up of Counsel on either side—which, from the well-known professional reputation of Messrs. Whiting and Selden, will doubtless present a greater forensic display than has been exhibited in this city for many years.
3rd—The charge of Judge Kent.
4th—Six Engravings, illustrative of scenes and characters which appear in the history of this dreadful tragedy.
“Bargain priced” at six cents, the sixteen-page souvenir pamphlet would make a handsome memento of the gruesome murder case and—as the advertisement noted—could “be sent to any part of the Union for newspaper postage only.”3
• • •
With the denouement of the “dreadful tragedy” so near at hand, the crowds turned out in force. “There was a perfect mob around the City Hall from morning till night,” Bennett wrote. “There were also about forty or fifty females in the court room all day,” he added, marveling at a phenomenon that would become increasingly familiar in years to come: the high percentage of women spectators found at sensational murder trials, and their lively interest in the lurid.4
Bennett’s estimate that the district attorney’s summing up “would occupy the whole of five hours” was off the mark, though not by very much. Whiting ended up speaking from 10:00 until 2:15.
Whiting began by angrily rebutting the charges that the defense lawyers had leveled against him. Far from having “persecuted their client to death,” Whiting insisted that he had been scrupulously fair to the defendant. “Would to God I could this day look into the testimony and ask you to pronounce the prisoner guiltless. But we live in a world where justice must be administered or society is dead.”
If anyone were guilty of having “wrongfully conducted” themselves during the trial, said Whiting, it was counsel for the defense. From the very first, “they had the confession in their pocket, and yet they went through long and labored cross-examinations of witnesses who they knew from the bottom of their hearts told the truth—and then they abuse me for doing my duty in the case! Suppose they had said, when the trial commenced, ‘We admit the killing of Samuel Adams and you need not labor to prove it’—how much time would have been saved!”
Knowing how hard it is for most people to send a fellow human being to his death, Whiting, like his assistant before him, reminded the jurors that they must not think about “the consequences” of their verdict but “simply to enquire into the circumstances of the case—to pronounce whether John C. Colt took the life of Adams, and if so, under what circumstances and in what temper. We allege that this act was committed with design, and if not this, that it comes under the provision of the statute that killing under circumstances which show a disregard for human life shall be accounted murder.” Killing another human being did not in itself constitute murder, said Whiting. “It is killing with an evil mind, with a bloodthirsty heart.” And for such a crime, not only the laws of man but the laws of God demanded blood retribution. “ ‘He that smiteth a man will surely die,’ ” quoted Whiting, “ ‘and he that comes upon his neighbor with guile to slay him shall be destroyed,’ saith the Almighty.”
Proceeding with a review of the case, Whiting raised a series of questions designed to dismantle the defense’s version of events. If Adams had been so angry when he heard that Colt intended to keep the proceeds from the trade sale, why hadn’t he proceeded straight to the Granite Building to confront Colt? Why had he taken such a roundabout way? Surely “his passion, assuming he had any, would have had time to cool, as the heat of the iron from the forge of the blacksmith when exposed to the air.”
Why was the hatchet “laid carefully upon Colt’s table,” within easy reach? Even granting that “a quarrel had taken place as alleged,” wouldn’t Colt “have been more likely, unless bent upon murder, to strike with a chair?” Reviewing the fearsome injuries inflicted on Adams, Whiting insisted that—contrary to the representation of Colt as “everything mild, kind, and affectionate”—the sheer savagery of the wounds was proof of his “brutal temper.” After all, “a blow upon the arm would have answered his purpose, for it would have released the grasp. He had no right to revenge an insult—even assuming that one was given—in this terrible way.”
But in fact, Whiting declared, there was no proof at all that Colt had been assaulted. “Had the quarrel taken place as said, would the words ‘you lie’ have been made in a low voice?” asked Whiting. “Wouldn’t they have been heard by Mr. Wheeler and his pupil?” If the prisoner had really sought out his brother at the City Hotel after the murder, why hadn’t Sam Colt been called to the stand to corroborate that claim? If Adams had grabbed Colt’s neckerchief and twisted it so hard that he could hardly breathe, “where was the neckcloth? Why wasn’t it presented as evidence?” And what about the black-and-blue mark on Colt’s neck? If Adams had really been strangling Colt, significant bruises “would have been left on his throat. We hear of a trifling mark, but nothing such as would have appeared there.”
Under the pretense of sympathizing with Caroline for the harsh way that John had treated her on the night of the murder, Whiting managed once again to remind the jurors of Colt’s debauched and unfeeling character:
We hear of Caroline Henshaw going to his bedside. She asked him, as Portia did Brutus when he came from the Senate House after committing a murder, what ailed him. He pushed her away, and she dared not, after that, ask this kind friend to see the marks on his neck—she dared not speak. She approached his bed, he threw her from it. She knew she was not his wife and dared not press it. But do not blame her, do not blame that slight girl. Blame the one whose heart was such that he could seduce her and keep her in abjection. The poor unfortunate girl must go down to the grave with the stain that is upon her. Let this be a warning to women—let them not put their earthly and eternal happiness in the keeping of such a man as that!
Turning to the issue of motive, Whiting stressed that the prosecution “was not bound to prove that Colt’s motive was sufficient to induce him to kill. The law says that ‘instigation of the devil’ is a sufficient motive. It is impossible to assign definite and what we would call adequate motives for all deeds like this. If we prove there is premeditated design, that is sufficient.”
He then defined precisely “what was meant by premeditated design.” Contrary to common belief, it did not mean that the murder was planned far in advance. “All that is necessary is to show that there was time after the arm was raised to exercise reflection,” explained Whiting. “Does the law require it shall have been a long time before? No—not even a single minute if the intention is to produce death and the blow is unnecessarily produced.”
In concluding, Whiting allowed for the first time that the prisoner was stricken with remorse. His words brought tears to a number of people in the courtroom, including John himself, who leaned “on the back of his counsel’s chair, hands over his eyes, and freely wept.”
“I believe that life was taken by John C. Colt,” said Whiting solemnly. “I believe that, if by laying down his own life, he could restore that man to his family, he would gladly do it. But does that excuse him for taking the life of Adams? You have a simple duty to perform. I have endeavored faithfully to do mine. There are in this city three hundred thousand souls committed to our care, and much rests upon us. Act in a manner that you can answer to your consciences hereafter. Deal justly—but deal firmly—between the people and the prisoner.”5
• • •
Whiting’s summation was followed by an abbreviated recess. When court readjourned at 3:30 p.m., Judge Kent—pronouncing it his duty “to close the last scene of this most interesting trial”—delivered his charge to the jury.
After offering the obligatory words of praise for the “patience and good feelings” displayed by the jurors “through the vicissitudes of this protracted trial,” he turned at once to an issue raised by Dudley Selden: the possible effect that public outrage—“the excitement out of doors,” as Kent called it—might have on the verdict. While acknowledging that “public sentiment” had undoubtedly “been aroused by the murder,” he insisted that the court had “kept everything uninfluenced by contamination from without” and affirmed his faith that “perfect justice would be done” by the jurors, twelve men of “honest hearts and sound minds.”
Since “it is admitted that Samuel Adams was killed by John C. Colt,” continued Kent, “the only question is, was it murder, manslaughter, or excusable homicide?” Kent stressed, however, that a killing committed in a “cruel or brutal manner” can never be considered justifiable, whatever the provocation. Given the weapon Colt used and the nature of the injuries he inflicted, a “cruel and unusual manner may well have been attained in the case before you.” It was therefore Kent’s opinion that the jurors “could not acquit under this rule” and “must account this act either murder or manslaughter.”
What defined a killing as murder was premeditation—“if it was effected, not in hot blood or in a fracas, but with design to take the life of Adams.” As an example of malice aforethought, Kent cited the case of Edward Coleman, a “ragged Negro” who, on Saturday morning, July 28, 1838, “slipped up behind his wife as she was panhandling near Jolie’s Music Shop on Broadway at Walker Street, squeezed her head to his chest, and all but cut it off with a razor”—a “horrible deed that result from his belief in her infidelity.”6
Coleman, who became the first murderer ever executed in the Tombs yard, had plotted his killing days before committing it. As Whiting had already pointed out, however, a crime did not have to be planned long in advance to qualify as a premeditated act. “No definite time is fixed by the law,” Kent explained. “Even if the design was formed after Adams came into the room,” the jury was entitled to find Colt guilty of murder.
If, however, the jury felt that there was no premeditation involved, the crime fell under one of several classes of manslaughter. “If Colt intended only to beat Adams and ended up killing him, it is manslaughter in the first degree,” Kent said. “If he killed him in the heat of passion, it is manslaughter in the second degree. Manslaughter in the third degree is killing a human being in the heat of passion with a dangerous weapon.”
Turning to the trial, Kent maintained that there was no need to review “the great mass of evidence in regard to the killing,” since Colt’s confession had rendered so much of it moot. “The case really lies in a nutshell,” he declared. To a significant extent, the jury’s ultimate judgment would hinge on their estimation of Colt’s character. As to that, said Kent, Colt’s actions in the immediate aftermath of the killing showed him “to be an uncommon man,” possessed of “the most wonderful coolness.”
In emphasizing Colt’s ostensibly cold-blooded temperament, Kent seemed to be siding with the prosecution. For the remainder of his speech, however, he went out of his way to offer John the benefit of every doubt.
Though “the District Attorney thinks the fact that Colt borrowed the saw is important,” said Kent, he himself did not attach any great significance to it. Likewise the presence of the hatchet and the packing crate. Having been in Colt’s possession months before his troubles with Adams, they could scarcely be regarded as proof of “preparatory design.” The locale of the crime also “seemed to preclude the supposition of design.” The Granite Building “is the most frequented house in the most populous city in the Union,” Kent pointed out. “The time was near midday, and separated only by a folding door was a schoolroom filled with scholars.” Under those circumstances, said Kent, “it is difficult to suppose that there had been a premeditated design to take life.”
“In regard to the salt,” Kent went on, “I do not consider it material.” Beyond “inflaming the public mind,” the notion that Colt “used salt to preserve Adams’s body” had no bearing on the case. “It only shows Colt’s foresight in guarding against discovery”—“a talent for concealment rarely equaled in the annals of death.”
Indeed, continued Kent, the same could be said about every aspect of Colt’s efforts to dispose of the corpse. To be sure, the “conduct evinced by Colt in packing up poor Adams’s body” was shocking. But it hardly proved that he was guilty of murder.
Taking up each contested point in turn, Kent recapped the evidence in an eminently evenhanded way. As for Caroline Henshaw, Kent believed that the testimony of “that interesting young woman” was “worthy of confidence. Her manner was artless and childlike, unconscious of guile, and the impression on my mind was decidedly in her favor.”
Looking at the question of motive, Kent conceded that cold-blooded murders were sometimes committed for the flimsiest reasons. “Savages” had been known “to shoot a man just to see how he would fall from his horse.” Even so, said Kent, it was up to the jury to “think if there was any adequate motive” for the crime. Reviewing the possible causes—revenge, avarice, “the desire to protect reputation,” a simmering grudge—Kent found that none of those motives “appeared probable.”
As to “the character of the slayer and the slain,” said Kent, “the evidence is favorable to both. Adams was shown to have been amiable. Nevertheless, he was capable, as attested by several witnesses, of using language of an insulting character. As to Colt, he has also been shown to be mild and pleasing in his manner. But there is evidence to show that he, too, had his times of excitable feelings.” If the jurors were convinced that John’s extraordinary “coolness of character” proved that he was “capable of premeditation,” then they “must bring him in guilty of murder.” On the other hand, the “certainty that Adams was capable of showing temper” lent credence to the “idea that he might have come upon Colt in a feverish state of mind and a fracas occurred between them.” In that case, manslaughter was the appropriate verdict.
In bringing his charge to a close, Kent reminded the jurors that if “there is a reasonable doubt,” they must find “in favor of the prisoner. Give the lowest degree of punishment to which you feel the case belongs,” he instructed. “Consider the case fairly and mercifully, but do justice whatever may ensue. Resist everything like threats, and yield at the same time to nothing like morbid sympathy with anyone. Examine the subject and say what you believe and you will do your duty to the prisoner, your country, and your God.”7
• • •
It was nearly 6:00 p.m. when Judge Kent finished. Moments later, the jurors retired to begin their deliberations. His face blanched of color, John watched them file from the room, while—seated beside him at the defense table—Sam Colt laid a fortifying hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Throughout that frigid night, the crowd around City Hall grew larger by the hour. Knots of people huddled all about the park, debating every detail of the case and speculating on the possible outcome. Most of those gathered conversed in the solemn tones suitable to the occasion. Others, however—women as well as men—positioned themselves beneath the glowing windows of the courtroom and shouted their demand for Colt’s conviction, their “loud and menacing voices penetrating even the jury room.”1
Rumors swept through the crowd. Court officers stationed outside the jury room kept their ears to the keyhole and provided regular updates on the deliberations. After three hours, “the jury stood seven for murder, three for manslaughter, and two for excusable homicide.” An hour later, “they stood seven for murder and five for manslaughter. By 11:00 p.m., “they stood ten to two.” And there they appeared to be deadlocked.2
Judge Kent, who had gone out for dinner following the completion of his charge, returned to the courtroom around 8:00 p.m. and stayed until midnight, when he finally went home to bed. Shortly after his departure, John, overcome by exhaustion, stretched out on a bench, covered his face with his handkerchief, and fell into a fitful sleep. He was awakened around 3:00 a.m. with the news that—after nine hours of deliberation—the jurors had reached a verdict.
Kent was immediately sent for. He arrived about an hour later and immediately took his place on the bench. At approximately 4:00 a.m., Sunday, January 30, John was told to stand and face the jury.
“How say you, gentlemen?” asked the clerk.
The foreman, grim faced, replied without hesitation: “Guilty of murder.”
Observers offered strikingly different accounts of John’s reaction. According to James Gordon Bennett, he “appeared horror stricken.” Another journalist, however, reported, “The prisoner did not seem to be much affected at the rendition of this verdict.” On one point everyone agreed: that “his brother, Samuel Colt, appeared much affected, as though, upon hearing the verdict, his heart died within him.”3
John’s lawyer John Morrill ordered the jury polled, and as they gave their answers, several of the men burst into tears. Morrill, on behalf of the defense, then applied to the court for time to present their exceptions, and Judge Kent agreed to meet at 10:00 on Monday morning to hear them. After shaking hands with his lawyers and his stricken brother, John was led back to the Tombs.4
• • •
The trial was over, but for James Gordon Bennett, “the most exciting part of the drama” was still to come. “Will Colt be hung, or will a new trial be granted?” he asked breathlessly, as though the conviction were the latest chapter of a serialized cliffhanger. “Will the Governor dare to pardon him?”
Bennett was inclined to think that a pardon was unlikely. Within recent memory, the perpetrators of two of the city’s most notorious murders had escaped the noose. Despite his manifest guilt, Richard Robinson, accused of the axe murder of the prostitute Helen Jewett, had been acquitted at his trial in June 1836. Four years later, after being sentenced to death for a brutal stabbing during a tavern brawl, the young Bowery tough Ezra White had his conviction overturned on a technicality. Retried, he got off with a four-year stint in Sing Sing Prison.5
Now, Bennett believed, Colt was doomed to serve as a scapegoat. “The public have been cheated so often that Colt has to suffer for the sins of Ezra White, Robinson, and all who have escaped for the last ten years,” he editorialized on January 31. “Had the verdict not been ‘murder’ we don’t know what would the consequences have been. It is a very unjust thing. But so it is.”6