Have a drink with: John Colt
Double-entry bookkeeping and axe murder
Ask him about: packing advice
You’ve probably heard of Samuel Colt, especially with gun rights so prominently in the news. Not only was Colt one of America’s most well-known gun manufacturers, he used the eager 19th century press to transform gun ownership from a largely utilitarian act into a totem of defiant individualism. An 1860 Colt corporate advertisement in Knickerbocker magazine plainly advertised pistols, rifles, carbines and shotguns to the American public as the needful way to “afford surest protection to your family, your life and your property;” and it was around this time that an oft-repeated adage made its way into American discourse: “God made little men, and God made big men. But bless Col. Colt, he made every man equal.”
But Sam was not the only blood-soaked weirdo in his family. Samuel Colt was an enterprising businessman, if narcissistic, morally flexible and utterly unconcerned with the damage his products would do (also, he once made a living hawking nitrous oxide as a “doctor”). His older brother John Colt, though, was a riverboat gambler, admitted perjurer and forger, an accountant of some note, and a semi-public figure who earned public pooh-poohs for cohabiting with his pregnant girlfriend. Oh, and he also went on trial in 1842 for axe murder.
The story goes that in 1841, one Samuel Adams came to Colt’s place to collect on a publishing-related debt. The discussion grew heated. Colt claimed that when Adams slammed him onto a table and started choking him with his own necktie, he grabbed for the nearest solid object and swung for his opponent’s head. The nearest solid object, by the way, just happened to be a sort of two-sided hatchet that combined an axe blade with a hammer. Colt claimed self-defense; eager New York City was sure it was flat-out murder and bought newspapers by the sheaf to find out.
This all came to light after poor Adams’ body had been found, thanks to a chain of detective work and witness testimony – one neighbor saw Colt through the keyhole bent over something, and later noticed the floor looked scrubbed awfully clean. Another bystander saw Colt wrestling a rather large box down the stairs, and a cab driver said, yeah, he asked me to drive a crate to the docks, where a ship was set to leave for New Orleans. As it happens weather had delayed said ship, and the authorities found the crate onboard, and inside the bloody body of Samuel Adams, caked in salt and canvas. The corpse had been largely stripped of clothing but was still wearing a pinky ring that identified it as Adams.
The trial began in 1842, with Samuel Colt’s cousin and firearms investor Dudley Selden acting as defense counsel. Attorneys interviewed neighbors, character witnesses, and doctors who opined on the nature of the deceased’s wounds (when one mused that a particularly small wound on the side of the head may have been due to a pistol, Sam Colt conducted a live pistol demonstration in the courtroom).
And then the court ordered Adams exhumed and decapitated so his severed head could be brought into court for a good look at the damage.
Defense counsel read Colt’s confession in court to drive home his plea for a self-defense ruling, but it arguably did not help, especially when Colt vividly described not only mopping up buckets of blood and disposing of clothing in a toilet, but jumping up and down on the lid of the box to close it over the objections of the corpse’s protruding knees.
Unsurprisingly, Colt was sentenced to hang for murder. New York papers carried continuing coverage of the goings-on, from Colt’s jail-cell marriage to his partner Caroline Henshaw, to his request for a pot of hot coffee. Colt committed suicide before sentence could be carried out, stabbing himself with a folding knife smuggled into prison by one of his visitors.
At the same time as officials found Colt dead, the rooftop cupola on top of the Tombs caught fire. The blaze was due to a heating stove inside, but the conspiracy theories immediately started: was the fire a cover for an escape attempt, allowing Colt’s allies to swap in a cadaver corpse and squirrel their friend to safety?
Adding even more to this already-bananas story, there was more to Caroline Henshaw than met the eye. She was actually Sam Colt’s first wife, whom he had met and married on travels through Europe. Caroline was lovely but largely uneducated, and Colt basically ditched her when they arrived back in the U.S. so he could trade up for Elizabeth Jarvis, the well-to-do daughter of a well-to-do Connecticut family. He then pawned Caroline off on his brother. After John’s death, Sam paid for her to live in Europe and care for “John’s” son, Samuel Jr.
Some people remember Colt for other things, hard as it is to overlook axe murder: “John C. Colt should be remembered in accounting history not only as an ax murderer but the person with the first scholarly look at accounting in the U.S. – and, perhaps, the world.”
Samuel Colt died in 1862, so it’s hard to know how he’d have personally handled the bulk of the Civil War, but it’s safe to say you could count on the man for his narcissism (he got himself commissioned a Colonel in a Connecticut unit and relished being known as “Colonel Colt,” but his regiment never fought, mostly because of continuing rigamarole around politics and Colt’s insistence that his unit have certain aesthetic and arms requirements, basically like the Chippendales with guns).
Were the Colts cursed? People liked to think so, between Samuel’s early death, his brother’s axe-murder ordeal and the death of his children, the Colt family was duly cursed for their embrace of arms dealing (similar suspicions have been raised about his fellow Nutmeg State gunmakers, the Winchesters).
Harold Schechter, “The Colt-Adams Affair, 1841,” The Yale Review, June 25, 2018
John D. Lawson, ed., American State Trials (1914)