“Adams’s severed skull was displayed in court”
Brother of the inventor of the Colt revolving rifle and pistol, John Colt was a bookkeeper who wrote a book which he published himself. On 17 September 1841 the printer of the book, Samuel Adams, went to see Colt to collect monies owed to him.
A week later, Adams’s corpse was found in a packing crate in the hold of Kalamazoo, a ship about to leave New York. The crate, addressed to Colt, was destined for St Louis via New Orleans. Colt denied any knowledge of the crate but nevertheless was charged with murder. Police also found Adams’s pocket watch hidden at Colt’s home. John was the black sheep of the Colt family. In addition to brother Samuel, whose success with weaponry was well known, another brother, James, was a lawyer in St Louis —but John was famous only for gambling, forgery, burglary and womanizing. At the time of his arrest he was living with a pregnant woman posing as his wife, Caroline Henshaw.
New York City, USA
Friday 17 September 1841
The trial of John C. Colt began on 19 January 1842 in New York before judge William Kent. The first witness was Asa Wheeler who had an office next to Colt. He said that he had heard a loud bang and then a noise that sounded like swordplay on the afternoon of Adams’s visit.
He peered through the keyhole and saw a man leaning over a box. The next day he borrowed a passkey and went inside noting that the floor was freshly scrubbed clean. When Colt arrived at work, he told Wheeler that he had knocked over his pens and ink.
A caretaker testified that he had seen Colt struggling down the stairs with a large box. A dustman said that Colt had paid him to take the box to the Kalamazoo. The packing crate and the canvas in which Adams’s body had been wrapped were brought into court as evidence. Then his corpse was disinterred and his severed skull was displayed in court, so that doctors could declare that a hatchet, not a bullet or packing nail, had made the hole in its side.
On 31 January, thousands of people waited outside the courthouse to hear the verdict, which was guilty. Colt appealed but he was turned down on 28 September and Judge Kent sentenced him to hang. Colt asked permission to marry his girlfriend and at noon on 18 November 1842, the day of his scheduled execution, Colt and Caroline Henshaw were married in his cell, attended by Samuel Colt and a few friends.
At 3.55pm the warders returned to take Colt to the gallows but found his dead body instead. One of the wedding party had passed him a knife and Colt had stabbed himself in the heart.