The Colt-Adams Affair, 1841

Notes on a murder

Harold Schechter
A stack of old issues of The Yale Review. Courtesy Pentagram
Courtesy Pentagram

At around nine A.M. on Saturday, September 18, 1841, a thirty-four-year-old carter named Richard Barstow was driving his wagon down lower Manhattan. It was a raw, drizzly morning. Barstow had just come in sight of City Hall when he spotted a man–hatless, in shirtsleeves–beckoning to him from the doorway of an office building at the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway. As Barstow pulled his dray-horse to a halt, the man hurried over.

“Are you busy?” he asked. He was a slender man of approximately Barstow’s age with thick curly hair and dark whiskers.

“Not particularly,” said Barstow. “Why?”

The man explained that he wanted to have a crate delivered to a ship docked at the foot of Maiden Lane. For a fee of two shillings and sixpence Barstow agreed. Backing his wagon up to the building, he dismounted and, with the shirt-sleeved fellow leading the way, stepped into the dimly lit entranceway. There at the bottom of the staircase sat a big pine crate addressed to someone named Gross in New Orleans. After wrestling the dirt-encrusted box into the wagon, Barstow and his employer proceeded down Broadway and to the end of Maiden Lane where a steamer, the Kalamazoo, was moored at the wharf.

The crate was unloaded, lugged on board, and grappled into the cargo hold. By then the rain was lashing down. Though the ship was scheduled to leave for New Orleans later that day, the storm made it likely that her departure would be delayed for at least several hours. The foul weather lasted a week. The following Saturday, September 25, the Kalamazoo was still at berth.

Early that morning the first mate, descending into the hold, was assaulted by a smell that made him gag. He immediately informed the captain. The stench was traced to the dirty pine crate, which was hoisted onto the upper deck and pried open.

Crammed inside was a putrefying male corpse, wrapped in a piece of canvas awning and sprinkled with sawdust and salt. The head was badly mangled and the body stripped of its clothing, as though to conceal the victim’s identity. The killer, however, had overlooked a small but critical clue–a gold ring on the little finger of the victim’s left hand.

Thanks to the telltale ring–and a distinctive scar on the naked left leg–the corpse was quickly identified as that of thirty-year-old Samuel Adams, proprietor of a printing shop at the corner of Ann and Gold Streets. One week earlier, Adams had left his place of business in mid-afternoon and was never seen again. His disappearance had been widely publicized in the city’s press. Now–after locating Richard Barstow and learning where he had picked up the crate–authorities, led by Mayor Robert Hunter Morris himself, proceeded to the granite building at the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway.

Inside, they were approached by a gentleman named Asa Wheeler, a bookkeeping instructor with rooms on the second floor. Wheeler informed them that, on the afternoon of Friday, September 17–the day of Adams’ disappearance–he had heard strange noises issuing from the office next door to his own. He compared the sounds to the “clashing of swords,” followed by a heavy thud, “as if you had hold of a man and suddenly threw him down.” Over the next few hours, the sounds coming from his neighbor’s room grew increasingly suspicious: cloth being torn and repeatedly dipped into water; the scrubbing of floorboards; the sawing of wood, followed by a distinct hammering “as of someone nailing together a box.” The neighbor’s name, Wheeler told police, was John C. Colt.

Before his arrival in Manhattan in 1839, the thirty-year-old Colt had led a swashbuckling life. After a stint in the U. S. Marines, he had plied the trade of riverboat gambler up and down the Ohio and Mississippi valleys. During a stay in Cincinnati, he had conducted a highly public affair with the octoroon mistress of a wealthy planter, who challenged him to a duel. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, Colt had caught the first steamboat east. In subsequent years, he had acquired a beautiful Norwegian mistress (who ended up a suicide) and been arrested for burglary after getting drunk and breaking into the office of his employer.

For all his shortcomings, however, Colt was a charming and highly intelligent man, a self-taught accountant who had opened a thriving bookkeeping school and published a standard textbook on the subject, The Science of Double Entry Bookkeeping, Simplified, Arranged, and Methodized. Colt’s success had allowed him to rent handsome quarters in a fashionable district of the city. Not that he had completely abandoned his rakish ways. At the time of Samuel Adams’ disappearance, Colt had installed a new mistress in his fancy apartment: a young–and very pregnant–beauty named Caroline.

After an initial denial, Colt admitted to the authorities that he had indeed killed Samuel Adams, but claimed that he had acted in self-defense. According to his statement, Adams–who had printed Colt’s textbook–had shown up in his office, demanding immediate payment of an overdue bill for $71.15. Colt’s own calculations, however, showed that he owed only $55.85. The two began to argue. Before long they were trading blows. Adams–according to Colt’s account–shoved him against a table, then grabbed him by the necktie and “twisted it so that I could hardly breathe.” Desperately, Colt groped around for a weapon. His hand closed on an object lying on the table: a double-sided implement, half ax-blade, half hammer. Colt struck his assailant repeatedly on the head until the printer collapsed to floor and died.

Sinking into a chair, Colt remained there for a full half-hour, too dazed to think. Gradually, he became alarmed by the blood issuing from the printer’s shattered skull. There was so much that he “feared it would leak through the floor.” He managed to staunch the flow by twisting his handkerchief, tourniquet-like, around the corpse’s neck. He then took a towel and began to mop up the mess, pausing periodically to wring the gore into a pail.

It was dusk by then and Colt was at a loss what to do. He needed someone to talk to. Slipping from his office, he left the building and made his way to the City Hotel. His younger brother, Sam–in town on a business matter–was staying there. And if anyone could be counted on for sound advice in a crisis, it was Sam Colt.

As with other larger-than-life figures, various myths have accrued around Sam Colt. Born in 1814–four years after his brother John–Sam supposedly began to display his mechanical genius at an astonishingly early age. When he was only six–so the story goes–he found a discarded old horse pistol and, using parts from a gunsmith’s junk pail, restored it to working order. By fifteen, he was experimenting with explosives, blowing up a wooden raft in a Massachusetts lake with an electrified underwater mine of his own devising. A year later, in 1830, he shipped to sea on board the brig Corvo, bound for Calcutta. According legend, it was during this voyage that the sixteen-year-old Colt–observing the operation of the ship’s capstan–conceived of the invention that would bring him worldwide fame and immense fortune: a pistol with a rotating six-chamber cylinder. Back in Massachusetts, he hired a gunsmith to produce a working prototype of his revolver. By 1835, he had secured several key patents on his invention. He had also acquired something else. During a business trip to Europe, he met a poor, illiterate but strikingly beautiful sixteen-year-old named Caroline Henshaw. Within days they were married. Though she returned to the States with him, Colt quickly decided that the unlettered girl was a hindrance to his social ambitions and never openly acknowledged their union.

With the help of wealthy relatives, Sam opened his first gun-making plant in Paterson, New Jersey in 1836. His efforts to win military contracts for his invention, however, were unavailing. In 1841, he came to New York City, seeking private money to keep his business afloat. He was in the barroom of the City Hotel, drinking with several potential investors, when his older brother John, looking extremely agitated, entered in search of him.

Pulling Sam aside, John said that he needed to talk. Sam, deeply engaged in his negotiations, handed his brother his room key. “Wait for me upstairs,” he said. “I will join you in a few minutes.”

John did as he was told. But when, a half-hour later, Sam had still not appeared, he became too impatient to wait and returned to his office. He briefly entertained the thought of torching the building and allowing the evidence of his crime to be “enveloped in flame and wafted into air and ashes.” The danger of causing the death of the sleeping tenants, however, made him abandon the idea. As he sat in his chair, struggling to come up with a plan, his gaze lit on an empty box in a far corner of the room. Perhaps, he thought, he could stuff the body inside and “ship it off somewhere.”

The job proved more difficult than he anticipated. Even after stripping the corpse and trussing it up like a turkey, the knees stuck up out of the box. Colt had to “stand upon them with all my weight” before he could squeeze them inside and nail down the lid. He then addressed the box to a nonexistent “Mr. Gross” in New Orleans, disposed of the dead printer’s clothing and effects in an outdoor privy, washed his own bloodstained clothes at a public bathhouse, and went home for a few hours sleep.

The following morning–after proceeding to the East River “to ascertain the first packet bound for New Orleans”–he had returned to his office, wrestled the crate downstairs, then flagged down the cartman, Richard Barstow, and hired him to transport the makeshift coffin to the foot of Maiden Lane.

From the moment of Colt’s arrest, the case became the hottest news story in years, its “extraordinary circumstances causing intense excitement among all classes in the community” (as one contemporary account puts it). Colt’s trial in January 1842 began in a perfectly orderly fashion, but it wasn’t long before it turned into a circus. At one point –to counter charges that John had not only planned the murder but committed it with one of his brother’s newfangled weapons–Sam was called on to demonstrate his six-shooter, putting on a marksmanship show in the courtroom. Shortly thereafter, Adams’ corpse was exhumed and decapitated and the head displayed to the jury by the coroner, who sat throughout his testimony with the grisly object cradled on his lap.

Despite the best efforts of his high-powered defense team (hired by Sam, who paid them with shares in his company), John Colt was found guilty of murder. The verdict wasn’t much of a surprise. Besides the savagery of the crime, John’s scandalous living arrangements with his pregnant mistress Caroline had cast him in a deeply unfavorable light. Though his influential friends lobbied for clemency, Colt was condemned to hang. The denouement of the case would be one of the most bizarre in the annals of American criminal history.

While awaiting execution, John received permission to legitimize his relationship with Caroline, who had since given birth to a boy. On the afternoon of November 18, 1842–just before he was scheduled to go to the gallows–he and his mistress were wed in his cell in the Tombs. The ceremony was conducted by the rector of St. Marks’s Church and witnessed by Sam Colt, who looked on approvingly. Afterwards the couple was permitted an hour’s conjugal visit alone.

When the sheriff returned to fetch John at 3:55 P. M. and lead him to the scaffold, he found the condemned man lying dead in a puddle of blood, a pocketknife protruding from his chest. Almost at the same instant, the cupola of the Tombs burst into flames. Chaos broke out in the prison. The fire wasn’t extinguished until after sunset.

Though Colt’s death was ruled a suicide, many people would forever believe that the corpse found in his cell was actually a medical school cadaver smuggled into the prison during the confusion of the fire and that John himself had been spirited away by his friends, perhaps disguised in Caroline’s clothing. Sightings of Colt would be reported for years–in California, Texas, and far-flung places of the globe.

These rumors notwithstanding, there is little doubt that Colt took his own life, cheating the hangman with a knife provided by a member of his wedding party. His suicide–and the accompanying conflagration–served as a fittingly sensational climax to the case.

Or seemed to. For there was another shocking development still to come–one that would not become known for many years. Not, in fact, until John’s brother Sam–by then a bona fide American legend and one of the country’s wealthiest men–was himself dead.

Shortly after the dramatic events of November 18, 1842, John’s widow Caroline and her newborn son departed for Europe, where she took up residence in Bonn, Germany. During the next several years–until she eloped with a Prussian officer of noble birth–she was supported by regular payments from Sam Colt. In letters to acquaintances, Sam would consistently put quotation marks around the word “nephew” when referring to Caroline’s son.

There was nothing accidental about the punctuation. It was Sam’s winking way of admitting a fact that would not become public knowledge for another twenty years.

The startling truth–finally revealed after the death of the famed gun-maker–was that John’s mistress Caroline and Sam’s first wife Caroline Henshaw were the same person. Since bringing her back from Europe, Sam had managed to keep their impulsive marriage hidden from the world at large. In early 1841, eager to divest himself of a wife who could not advance his ferocious social ambitions, he had passed the docile Caroline on to his older brother, who took her as a lover, then bigamously wed her right before his own death.

In doing so, John–whose illicit relationship had worked against him at his trial—-made a real sacrifice on behalf of his brother. Freed by this bizarre semi-incestuous arrangement, Sam Colt went on to make a brilliant marriage to a socially prominent Hartford woman twelve years his junior, Elizabeth Jarvis. Twenty years later, after the death of the by-then legendary Colonel Colt, his widow would learn the scandalous truth when a handsome young man showed up in Hartford to claim his multimillion-dollar patrimony. His name, he said, was Sam Colt, Jr., and he had the documentation to prove it: the original marriage certificate of his parents, Caroline Henshaw and Samuel Colt.

Harold Schechter is the author of historical true crime books and editor of an anthology of American true crime writing published by the Library of America. His book The Mad Sculptor was a 2015 Edgar nominee. He is also the author of Hell’s Princess: The Mystery of Belle Gunness, Butcher of Men.
Originally published:
June 25, 2018


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