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The Murder of Samuel Adams by John Colt, 1841

 

Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

 

On Saturday morning, September 18, 1841, an expressman appeared at the foot of Maiden Lane, New York, with a large box to be shipped to New Orleans on a vessel lying at a nearby wharf.

A few moments afterward a very refined appearing man arrived and made the final arrangements for the shipping. It was expected that the vessel would sail within a few hours, but it was delayed a week.

The day before it left, one of the crew reported to the Captain that a terrible stench was coming from the hold. An investigation was made and the odor was traced to this box. It was placed on deck and, upon being opened, the badly decomposed body of a man was found.

Some days before this discovery, the press began to give considerable publicity to the mysterious disappearance of Samuel Adams, a well-known printer, and when this body was found, relatives of the missing man were immediately sent for and they at once identified the remains as till body of Adams.

A search was then instituted for the expressman who delivered the box. He was soon located and without hesitation stated he had removed the box from an office in a building at Chambers Street and Broadway.[1]

The expressman then proceeded with the authorities to this office and identified Mr. John C. Colt, a professional bookkeeper and teacher of penmanship, as the man who ordered the box removed. Colt was also identified as the man who arranged for the shipping. He was then taken into custody and shortly afterward made a confession substantially as follows:

Adams called at my office at 4 p. m., Friday, September 17, and we had a heated argument regarding the exact amount of a trivial sum of money I owed him. The ‘lie’ was passed and we came to blows. We then grappled and as he was overpowering me, I reached for a hammer, which was on my desk, and I struck him over the head until he released his hold and fell unconscious. He expired shortly afterward.

Blood flowed in torrents from the wounds and after washing it up, I decided to notify the authorities. But when I thought of the public censure and the disgrace I would bring upon my esteemed relatives, I concluded to hide my crime by disposing of the body. My first idea was to consume it by burning the building, but when I recalled that many innocent persons slept there who might be burned to death, I abandoned that plan. I then definitely decided to ship the body to some other city on the day following.

Colt’s wealthy relatives procured the brightest legal talent to defend him, and they contended that Colt acted in self-defense. The trial lasted ten days and the jury found Colt guilty of murder in the first degree.

The case was appealed, but all in vain. The condemned man was sentenced to be langed on November 18, 1842.

For some time before the commission of this crime, Colt lived with a beautiful young woman named Caroline Henshaw, and she remained loyal to him to the end. As she and Colt both expressed the wish that they be made man and wife before he paid his penalty, the arrangements were made for the marriage, which occurred a few hours before the time set for the execution. The witnesses to the ceremony were Colt’s brother and John Howard Payne, the author of “Home, Sweet Home.”

After the ceremony was performed, Colt asked for and was granted permission to remain alone for a short time.

As the hour for the execution was drawing near, the excitement about the Tombs became intense. Shortly before the dreaded moment was at hand, a fire broke out in the prison and for the time being the execution was forgotten, as it appeared that the prison was doomed. The firemen soon got the fire under control and the authorities proceeded with all haste to prepare for the execution.

Rev. Mr. Anthon went to Colt’s cell to console him, but he had barely entered the door when he staggered back with a cry of horror, for Colt was lying dead upon his bed with a dagger in his heart.

[1] In after years this building was occupied by Delmonico’s restaurant.

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