Book Talk: Murder, He Wrote (Not by Six-Shooter)

February 14, 2011 | CUNY Matters

Murder, He Wrote (Not by Six-Shooter)

Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend

By Harold Schechter

Ballantine Books

ColtWalt Whitman’s love of bustling Broadway is famous, but the bustling docks circling lower Manhattan thrilled him too. In “City of Ships,” one of his most euphoric city poems, he exulted, “O the beautiful, sharp-bow’d steam-ships and sail-ships! …City of wharves …”

But the scene that unfolded on Sept. 26, 1841, on one of Whitman’s “proud black ships of Manhattan” was not proud at all, but grisly. The New Orleans-bound Kalamazoo, delayed a day by bad weather, was moored at the foot of Maiden Lane, just below the present South Street Seaport. From its hold had been hoisted a large wooden crate exuding a noxious stench. Inside was found a corpse trussed into a contorted lump, its skull brutally fractured. Leading this CSI was no less than the popular mayor of New York, Robert Hunter Morris.

And thereby hangs a tale. It is told with — how do I put this? — gruesome joie de vivre and skill by Harold Schechter in Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend (Ballantine). The author’s official title is professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, but professor of the worst in human nature would be more accurate.

Schechter is an aficionado of the awful. He has produced several volumes of true-crime fiction and nonfiction, all of which begin with one word, a colon, then a subtitle. Among those single words are: Bestial, Fatal, Fiend, Depraved, Deranged, Deviant. Also to his credit are The Serial Killer Files and The Whole Death Catalog, and he has coauthored The A to Z Encyclopedia of Serial Killers. Schechter was the obvious choice to edit the massive 900-page Library of America True Crime: An American Anthology that appeared in 2008. There’s gotta be a raven above his writing-chamber door.

The unfortunate victim in his latest book was quickly identified as a busy local printer named Samuel Adams, and the blood-spattered crime scene was soon discovered to be a small office in the Granite Building at the corner of Broadway and Chambers. When overwhelming circumstantial evidence led officials in short order to the renter of the office, John Colt, they marched across the park to City Hall and got Mayor Morris on the case (the NYPD wasn’t established until 1845).

Morris not only personally arrested Colt, but also printed in the Morning Courier a call for information about “a Box” removed from the Granite Building; he also supervised the retrieval of the corpse from the Kalamazoo.

Only the cause of the murder was mundane in this colorful case. Colt was an expert on accounting, and he had hired Adams to print a batch of copies of his popular book, The Science of Double Entry Book-Keeping. They quarreled over money, harsh words followed, then blows, and finally a hatchet flew into action. Colt would eventually claim he acted in self-defense and a plea of manslaughter — a plea rejected by the jury.

Besides the elaborate, if feckless, cover-up and the ruse of shipping the body south, the case got media legs because Colt was the older brother of Sam Colt, one of the most colorful entre-preneurs of the day. In 1841, however, Sam was more famous for touring the country demonstrating “laughing gas” (nitrous oxide) for paying customers and for elaborate proposals for military contracts to protect U.S. ports from naval attack with “submarine pyrotechnics.” Sam’s huge success (and stupendous wealth) would come later, when his patented six-shooter starred in the Mexican War of 1846.

Adding a special frisson: John Colt was discovered, shockingly, to be living in a nearby apartment with a pregnant woman who was not his wife. Fanning the flames of sensation, the budding “penny dreadful” press palpitated New Yorkers into fascinated obsession with the case. James Bennett, editor of the five-year-old New York Herald, opined that the Colt case was “one of the most singular trials that ever took place in this or any other country.” (The young journalist Walter Whitman did not like Bennett’s hype, calling him a “reptile making his path with slime” and a “midnight ghoul, preying on rottenness and repulsive filth.”)

Ninety witnesses testified at the trial, and Schechter follows the O.J. Simpson-like media circus and the jousting of the well-matched legal teams for the prosecution and defense with a keen taste for cliff-hanging moments, a skill clearly honed in writing his five true-crime novels.

Would the jury vote “guilty”— and for manslaughter or murder? Would it agree on capital punishment? Would the state’s chancellor (the highest judicial officer, soon to be abolished) grant a new trial? Would Gov. William Seward cave under huge pressure to pardon? And what would the thousands assembled around the gallows of the newly built Tombs (Halls of Justice) do on execution day, Nov. 18, 1842, when …? But the startling denouement that John Colt (and Schechter) come up with for that holiday-spirited but ghoulish crowd is safe with me on this page. Trust me, what really happened after his conviction you could not make up!

Several events that unfold in Killer Colt were perfectly suited for the journalistic color yellow, selling untold copies of the Sun and Herald. One was the introduction into evidence of Adams’ exhumed and severed head. Another was John marrying his “fallen woman” just hours before the scheduled execution. The Sun planned a 16-page souvenir edition for the next day.

In his last pages, Schechter reveals the recent discovery that the boy John’s wife gave birth to was not his. Hint: He was named Samuel Colt Jr.

Along the way, Schechter vividly surrounds his main course with other true-crime hors d’oeuvres of the era, like the notorious Beautiful Cigar Girl murder the same year and the notorious Walworth parricide much later, in 1873. He also has an eye for arresting minor characters like the John Colt apologist John Payne, author of the lyrics for “Home, Sweet Home;” the famous poet Lydia Sigourney, noted for her almost funny mortuary verse (dead babies a speciality); the reformer and abolitionist Lydia Child, disgusted by capital punishment; and Edgar Allan Poe, who followed the Colt case and memorialized it in his story “The Oblong Box.”

Schechter consistently performs the professorial service of connecting his tale to broader cultural contexts. The case, he points out, excited debate about the quality of John’s upbringing (his alleged “universalism” was scapegoated in church pulpits, as was his frosty relationship with his stepmother). It also was the first case to evoke elaborate efforts at what we would call spin control, the first to spawn conspiracy theories, among the first to ignite debate over capital punishment. It was among the first trials to attract female spectators at court proceedings.

The case also evoked some serious discussion of crime, punishment and the nature of criminal behavior. The fascination of true crime is putting oneself in the mind of the “perp,” and Schechter singles out for its “sophistication and acuity” one op-ed piece that made this point. It appeared in the Sun a few days after the legal dust settled. It is entitled “The Moral of the Recent Tragedy.” “Let us ask,” the author wrote, “Do we know ourselves any better than [Colt] knew himself? Do … we have the high moral energy to control the fearful volcano of human passions whose maddened fires roar and blaze within our bosom?”

Though the essay was unsigned, Schechter tells us, “scholars have since identified its author as the twenty-three-year-old Walt Whitman.”