November 18: Samuel Colt’s Murderous Brother John Cheats the Hangman


Today in 1842, hours after he had married his beautiful mistress and moments before he was to be hanged for murder, gunmaker Samuel Colt’s brother John took his own life with  a six-inch-long Bowie knife in a New York City prison cell. In doing so, he cheated the “sweating, swearing mob” of  400 invited guests, and the “solid impenetrable masses of humanity” in the streets outside, of witnessing the spectacle of his hanging.

Colt, a  thirty-two-year-old bookkeeper, teacher, and the author of a widely used textbook on double-entry bookkeeping, had been convicted the preceding January for the macabre murder of printer Samuel Adams.

The Hartford born-and-raised Colt owed Adams a substantial amount of money, which Adams had gone to Colt’s New York City apartment to collect on September 17, 1841. The two men argued, and at his trial Colt testified that after Adams began choking him with his cravat, he had grabbed a hammer and begun striking back in self-defense. What Colt thought was a hammer, however, turned out to be a hatchet, and after four or five blows the mutilated and dying Adams fell to the floor senseless.

Colt made a desperate, though creative, attempt to cover up the murder. After cleaning up the blood in his apartment, he jammed Adams’ body into a large shipping crate, covered the corpse with salt, and sealed and addressed the package to a fictitious recipient in New Orleans . He then had the crate delivered as freight to a ship scheduled to depart for Louisiana the next day. Later, to further cover his tracks, Colt went to Adams’s office and asked to see the man he had killed.

Fate, and a nosy neighbor, intervened to expose Colt’s crime. The neighbor, who had heard the two men’s altercation, had peeked through a keyhole and seen someone bending over something on the floor.  Still curious, the next day – when Colt was away – he had secured a key from the landlord, entered Colt’s apartment, and found that the floor had been scrubbed and the large packing crate was gone. Police were called in, and inquiries after the shipping crate led them to the vessel Kalamazoo, whose departure had been delayed by a storm. Adams’ butchered body was found, bent and bound, inside Colt’s shipping crate. Colt was immediately arrested and charged with murder on September 23, 1841.

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The Colt murder trial – complete with beautiful mistress – was featured in the popular press for months. (THE SUN – EXTRA, New York, Jan 31, 1842)

The Colt-Adams affair – especially after it was found that Colt was living with the beautiful and pregnant Carolyn Henshaw – was sensationalized in the popular press for months. The ten-day January trial – in which Colt  pleaded not guilty by virtue of self-defense and temporary insanity but appeared completely unremorseful to the jury – produced an anything-but-surprising conviction for willful murder.

Colt’s younger brother and arms maker Samuel Colt stood by his older brother throughout the ordeal, bankrolling John’s defense team, testifying for the defense, and funding a number of fruitless appeals.  The pistol-maker was also by his brother’s side the morning of November 28, 1842, as John married his pregnant mistress Carolyn Henshaw while crowds gathered to see his execution.  (Samuel was not in the cell when John stabbed himself to death, though some writers have suggested Sam might have helped his brother acquire the hangman-cheating knife.)

For many years after John Colt’s suicide, Sam Colt provided for the baby John’s wife Carolyn carried when he died. And, in an interesting twist, at his own death in 1862, the wealthy gunmaker left little “Sam” Colt – his “nephew” and namesake – the equivalent of two million dollars in today’s money. This bequest was contested by Colt’s widow, Elizabeth Jarvis Colt, which led to a probate trial in which the beneficiary nephew produced a marriage license showing that his mother Carolyn Henshaw and Samuel Colt had been married in Scotland in 1838, years before her execution-day marriage to John Colt or Samuel Colt’s 1856 marriage to Elizabeth Jarvis.

A hanging was thwarted – and a family mystery created – today in Connecticut history.

Further Reading

Harold Schechter, “The Colt-Adams Affair, 1841,” The Yale Review

A grisly murder and a city society scion in 1841,” Ephemeral New York

The Successes and Trials of Samuel Colt,” Trips Into History