- Politics and Social Issues
The Body in the Shipping Crate
John C. Colt - tall, blond, and handsome - was a member of a millionaire merchant family and brother of Samuel Colt of gun-making fame.
Born in 1810 in Hartford, Connecticut, he couldn’t seem to connect with any line of work. His list of occupations is long: in and out of school, mathematics teacher, beginning surveyor, navy trainee, apprenticed to a law firm, back to university. He dabbled in fur trading and land speculation in the West.
The Call of the Accounts Book
For someone so nomadic it seems out of character to settle down to the prosaic world of bookkeeping. But this was the final occupation he chose when he opened an office in Manhattan in a building that also housed a printer named Samuel Adams.
The two men knew each other well because Adams had been printing a textbook on bookkeeping that Colt had authored. But, it seems Colt was a little tardy in paying his invoices. On September 17, 1841, Adams called at Colt’s office to collect an overdue account.
Heated words were exchanged and then bunched knuckles started flying. Adams seems to have been the better pugilist and got a strangle hold on Colt and backed him up to a wall. Colt grabbed a nearby hatchet (some accounts say it was a hammer, although nobody explains why such implements were lying about in an accounting office) and whacked Adams on the head. Several times. With predictable results.
The problem with this story is that we only have the version of the surviving combatant, the unfortunate Adams was not in a position to give his recollection.
John Colt picks up the narrative, “I then sat down, for I felt 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, then 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.”
Disposing of the Body
All murderers face the problem of getting rid of the deceased. Some try acid baths, others go for burial deep in a forest or under the floor of the coal cellar. Burning the body is sometimes resorted to but bones have a disconcerting resistance to all but the fiercest fires.
John Colt’s solution was not well thought out. He popped Samuel Adams into a shipping crate along with a large quantity of salt. He had the crate delivered to the New York docks to be carried aboard the Kalamazoo to an address in New Orleans that didn’t exist.
Because of his family connections, the trial of John Colt was a sensation. It was circulation gold for the New York press that convicted the accused of “cold-blooded murder” long before the judge charged the jury.
Colt’s lawyers said their client had acted in self defence and that his attempt to hide the crime was the result of temporary insanity. The jury found this to be a very flimsy argument and declared Colt guilty of “wilful murder.” He was sentenced to hang.
Consigned to The Tombs
Colt was locked up in the Halls of Justice and House of Detention, a place that carried the unpromising nickname of The Tombs. It was a notoriously malodorous and unsanitary prison in central Manhattan; a large pile of rock about which Charles Dickens asked “What is this dismal fronted pile of bastard Egyptian, like an enchanter’s palace in a melodrama?”
All the Comforts of Home
For most inmates, The Tombs was a dreadful place to be and a large number of its inmates left in boxes without the attentions of the hangman. Family wealth ensured John Colt’s stay in The Tombs was without the privations suffered by lower class criminals.
Charles Dana, a reporter for The Tribune, visited Colt in his quarters and described his accommodation: “In a patent extension chair he lolls smoking an aromatic Havana … He has on an elegant dressing-gown, faced with cherry-colored silk, and his feet are encased in delicately worked slippers. His food was not cooked in The Tombs, but brought in from a hotel. It consists of a variety of dishes - quail on toast, game pâtés, reed birds, fowl, vegetables, coffee, cognac. Then it is back again to his easy chair with book and cigar.”
He had a proper bed to sleep in rather than a pile of straw that was the lot of other inmates. He was allowed any number of visitors including his pregnant girlfriend Caroline Henshaw, who brought him flowers and a canary in a cage.
A couple of attempts were made to smuggle him out of the prison dressed as a woman, but they were foiled by hawk-eyed guards who probably had not received the proper remuneration for looking the other way.
Did John C. Colt Die?
As the date for Colt’s execution approached he asked for and received permission to marry his fiancée, Caroline Henshaw (below). The wedding took place on the morning of his hanging, but Colt never made it to the gallows.
A mysterious fire broke out in The Tombs and bedlam ensued.
Some prison guards fled, and a number of inmates got out with them; for a while, the whole place was in a state of confusion. But the execution must go on. A priest sent to minister to the condemned man in his last hour found him dead with a dagger plunged into his heart. No official identification was made of the corpse, and within hours, a coroner’s jury declared that Colt had committed suicide; the body was buried the same night.
Caroline Colt vanished, so cue the conspiracy theorists. Was some poor sap used as a body substitute for Colt who then slipped out of The Tombs while everybody was running around dealing with the fire?
A retired New York City policeman, George Washington Walling, wrote in his memoirs of subsequent Colt sightings: “Persons who knew Colt well are positive they have seen him since the time of his alleged suicide in both California and Texas.”
The original Tombs was built on land that had been a pond. Shortly after the massive masonry structure opened in 1838 it began sinking into the soggy ground. It was replaced by a more stable building, the City Prison, in 1902. The Manhattan House of Detention occupied the site from 1941 to 1974. Currently, the Manhattan Detention Complex is a twin-tower structure of grim demeanor.
“Tombs Prison.” Carl Sifakis, Encyclopedia of American Prisons, 2003.
“Recollections of a New York Chief of Police.” George Washington Walling, Caxton Book Concern, 1887.
“The Suicide or Escape of a Condemned Millionaire.” New York Magazine, November 14, 1988.