The macabre discovery in all of its horrifying nature was revealed because the top of the crate was unhinged and removed. The marbleized green-tinged skin of the corpse was clothed only in a shirt. The lifeless body’s neck was tightly bound to the knees with a piece of heavy line. Salt was tightly packed around the body and a portion of canvas awning was wrapped around the corpse. A black coat, a blood-soaked neck-stock and some pieces of matting and oakum were stuffed in the bottom of the hand-built crate. It was evident that the skull had been struck several times with a blunt instrument. The rotting and decaying corpse’s smell forced several of the investigating officers to withdraw from the scene to catch their breath. Chloride lime was applied to the body, which was soon transported to the Death House for further investigation by the coroner. The man, not yet identified, had been murdered.
The day prior, on the morning of September 22, 1841, Mr. Asa H. Wheeling, a bookkeeper instructor, sat down in his chair in his office on the second floor of the Granite Buildings located at the corner of Broadway and Chambers Street. As he eased back in the chair, he began reading the day’s edition of the New York Tribune. After digesting the news on the front page, he noticed a missive on the second page no more than a paragraph in length. It was regarding a chance acquaintance of his, a Mr. Samuel Adams. The article went on to describe how a local printer, a man of exemplary morals and religious fortitude, had left his office at nine o’clock the previous Friday, September 17th to go about his daily duties and had simply vanished. The family, as the small listing noted, was beyond confused and concerned as to his whereabouts. Messages of any known information were requested to be sent to his office post-haste with a point of contact and address duly noted and listed. As Mr. Wheeling made note of the peculiarity of the situation and reflected upon what to do next, the steamer Kalamazoo, located at the foot of Maiden Lane, in New York City, and scheduled to depart for New Orleans, Louisiana with her cargo holds full for delivery points in the south, remained tightly bound to the pier. Though she was to put out to sea the previous Saturday, a storm front and its associated inclement weather had delayed her reported departure time. Aboard the vessel was the missing Mr. Samuel Adams though no one at the moment knew of his unintended departure to places unknown, lest one man by the name of John C. Colt.
John C. Colt had not arranged first-class lodging aboard the outbound steamer for his business associate. An error in the final destination would ultimately cause a delay in delivery. Listed simply as R.P. Gross, to be delivered to St. Louis, via New Orleans under the care of De Gray & Company, was the only information provided to the ship’s crew regarding his business partner’s final destination. Hopefully, for Mr. Colt, there would be no delay in his business associate’s arrival. The inclement weather however had deterred the Kalamazoo’s captain and crew from setting out from New York. The weather delay would prove to be fatal for Mr. Colt.
John C. Colt, son of Christopher and Sara Colt, was born in 1810. He grew up in a stoic household in Hartford, Connecticut, later attended the Academy of the Reverend Daniel Huntington in Hadley, Massachusetts. Despite plans to attend a preparatory school for the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, young John, at his father’s prompting, instead apprenticed at the Union Manufacturing Company in Marlborough, Connecticut. A bright young man, he was thrust into various responsibilities and possible career paths but after his sister Sarah Ann’s attempted suicide, John decided to enlist in the United States Marine Corps. Stationed aboard the U.S.S. Constitution, his initial time aboard went well. After falling ill with a fever, he was relegated to desk work in Norfolk, Virginia. With the loss of a tour of duty in the Mediterranean and being served food that was not within his liking, his fondness for the Corps quickly diminished. After a failed attempt to receive a letter from his father regarding his underage status, John forged a letter in an attempt to get an early release from his military obligation. The ruse worked. John received a discharge as a private on September 30th, 1829. Wayward, footloose and proverbially fancy-free, Colt quickly slipped into a gambler’s routine aboard the various riverboats navigating the Midwest Rivers.
At some point amidst his shifty-handed card swindling and Lotharios womanizing, Colt cashed out after realizing that his academic proclivities would be his best hand. He then subsequently folded in his lecherous lifestyle and chose to move forward with a more reputable occupation. With an almost nascent knowledge and understanding of the topic, Colt decided to pen a text regarding the appropriateness of the better principles of accounting. Despite his wanton resolve to accept the responsibility of adulthood, he authored a book about accounting that was soon published with much-lauded acclaim in 1838. With the initial success of the publication, Colt established a correspondence school to assist in augmenting his textbook royalties. With attempts at other publishing ventures ending in financial setbacks, Colt resorted to providing lectures in various locales in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Boston, Massachusetts. While his lectures were well received, Colt realized that he needed to ensure that the next edition of his text on the principles of accounting would be properly bound and ready for mass consumption.
In April of 1839, Colt set his sights on New York City. He rented office space located in the Granite Buildings from Mr. Asa H. Wheeler, a bookkeeping instructor, and quickly retired to his understanding and review of accounting principles. Buttoned up in his office, Colt diligently reviewed and updated his opus as he prepared it for another printing. Samuel Adams would prove to be his printer. It was a fateful pairing of the academic and the printer. Despite Samuel Adam’s various attempts, Colt had an undue debt for the most recent printing of his text. Having decided that he had given his author enough time to address his pending restitution, Mr. Adams decided to pay a call on his irreverent and financially obligated author. The meeting would prove not to be worth the outstanding debt owed to Mr. Adams.
Calling upon Colt in his office, Mr. Adams requested a final payment of the unpaid balance. Colt, engaged in recalculating figures in his book, replied calmly that the printer’s accounting of the invoice was in error. The two men disagreed and the tones and volume of their voices rose into a cacophony as if clashing sabers readying for a duel. The two men rose from their seats. Adams quickly struck Colt across the mouth. Startled, Colt immediately returned in kind, striking Adams in the jaw. The two men grappled with one another and their enmeshed bodies slammed against the adjoining wall. Adams reached up and clutched at Colt’s cravat. With his death grip increasing on the swath of cloth around Colt’s neck, Colt strained to breathe. Colt reached down at a side table and grabbed what he thought was a hammer. It was actually a hatchet. Swinging at Adams’ head, the hatchet struck its intended target. Battling in and out of consciousness, Colt continued to lash into Adams’ skull with the sharpened end of the hatchet. Adams, having received a fatal blow to his cranium, finally released his grip and slumped to the floor. Staggering backward, Colt heard several sharp raps on the office door. He slowly eased over to the door and locked the keyhole. He then sat down and took stock of the situation. Blood splatter from the grievous wounds speckled the floor and walls. After a few moments of labored breathing, Adams was dead over a financial disagreement of one dollar and thirty-five cents.
Booking lectures and finalizing the newest edition of his text on double-entry accounting was no longer the focal point of Colt’s actions. While he felt that he had acted in self-defense, he did not want to alert anyone of the scuffle and subsequent death of the printer. Hurriedly, Colt had to devise a plan to remove the corpse from the office building and dispose of the body. He was living with a woman out of wedlock who was pregnant with his child. His reputation and the good name of his family were at stake. He had to dispose of the corpse and erase any suspicions. Time was of the essence. After cleaning up what he could, he quietly slipped out of the office and called upon his younger brother Samuel.
Samuel Colt, who was meeting with possible investors in his arms manufacturing ventures at the City Hotel, greeted his older brother warmly. Visibly shaken, John asked to speak with Samuel in private. Samuel, deep in both drink and conversation with potential financial support, told John to go up to his room and wait for him. After thirty minutes, John decided to leave the hotel and returned to his office. Initial thoughts to set a fire and torch the evidence was quickly dismissed as John did not want to widen the swath of death and destruction any further. As he looked around the office, he noticed some wood and packing material. Normally utilizing the wood to build crates to ship his newly printed and bound textbooks, he developed a much more morose plan for the material. As the night grew long and amidst the sawing and hammering, Colt thought that he had finally accounted for everything.
Unbeknownst to Colt, Mr. Wheeler, who had leased Colt the office space, had heard the argument, the subsequent scuffle, and what he thought was the thud of a large body dropping to the floor. Wheeler knocked on Colt’s door in an attempt to find out what had just happened. When the calls to open up fell upon deaf ears, Wheeler leaned over and peered through the lock. A pen in his hand, he eased the pen into the keyhole to maneuver the drop to the side. A ray of sunlight appeared and he could make out the center of the room. It appeared as if Colt was standing over something. He watched as Colt rolled up his sleeves. Wheeler continued to spy into the room. Wheeler saw two hats upon the table and Colt laboring over something that was out of his view. Wheeler removed his pen and exited. After attempting to find someone else in the building to assist him, he retired to his own office and kept a lookout for Colt to emerge from his office. Hours passed and finally, Wheeler retired to his home but asked that a colleague keep an eye on Colt’s office door.
The following morning, Wheeler returned to the Granite Building. At the landing was a large box marked for delivery to St. Louis. Wheeler was intrigued and spoke with his colleague that remained on watch the night prior. During the overnight, the sawing of wood and hammering of nails had been heard emanating from Colt’s office. Borrowing a key, Wheeler entered Colt’s office. Colt was not present. Wheeler noticed ink splattered on the floor and the walls. The floor also appeared to have been freshly scrubbed. Wheeler exited the room and returned to his own office. Thirty minutes later, Colt appeared and the two men struck up a conversation. Wheeler inquired as to the noises coming from his office the afternoon before. Colt retorted that Wheeler must have been wrong. He had been out of the office in the afternoon and that Wheeler must have been mistaken. The two men continued their conversation regarding bookkeeping and the matter was summarily dropped. In the interim, Colt had contracted a cartman, a Mr. Richard Barstow, to deliver the large crate to an outbound ship, later that afternoon, for New Orleans, Louisiana.
Later the same day, in the afternoon, the two men again struck up another conversation. Colt finally relented and apologized to Wheeler for making a ruckus the afternoon before. He had upturned his desk and had spilled ink and his books onto the floor in an accident. Wheeler was not convinced but politely thanked Colt for the explanation. Wheeler was still convinced that something nefarious had occurred. After consulting with the building’s owner, the two men decided to wait until the start of the workweek to determine if anything odd was reported in the daily newspapers. Once Wheeler saw the advertisement regarding the disappearance of Samuel Adams, he called upon the Mayor to report his suspicions of John Colt.
After explaining his suspicions, Mayor Robert H. Morris ordered officers A.M.C. Smith and Waldron to investigate. Mayor Morris, intrigued by the case, joined his men. After identifying and questioning the cartman, the officers proceeded to the ship’s pier on Maiden Lane to go aboard the steamer Kalamazoo. After consulting with the master of the ship, the officers, along with several of the crew, began looking for the box shipped by Colt. Because of the delayed shipping schedule, the officers were able to locate the box in question based on a horrid smell emanating from the bowels of the steamer. While the crew had believed the stench was from poison added to kill the rats that loved to infest the holds, they were about to find out the true source of the putrid and rancid odor. Hoisted up onto the main deck, a grisly discovery was about to be made by the investigating officers.
Based on the overwhelming evidence, that statement from the observant Wheeler and confirmation from the cartman, Barstow, that it was Colt that had paid him to deliver the corpse-laden crate, the authorities quickly arrested John Colt for the murder of Samuel Adams. Thousands thronged the streets of the courtroom to try and listen in on the case’s developments. The entire affair became a spectacle with the defendant’s lawyers arguing in vain to the judge that the public had already been soured upon Colt based on the treatment in the city’s newspaper presses. The calls for justice and a fair trial disappeared as Adams had only months earlier. The testimony of the coroner, with an indication that Adams had a hole in the back of his neck, led many to believe that Colt had shot the printer with one of his brother’s Samuel Colt’s revolvers. Samuel Colt was called to testify and demonstrate the six-shooter that bore his family’s name to show that it was impossible that one of his firearms was used. To quell the allegations, Adams’ corpse was exhumed and his head was decapitated. Paraded before the jurors by the coroner to show the hole, it was later determined that the hole had been caused by John Colt’s stuffing of the body into the wooden crate and nailing it shut. While the testimony was provided, the lifeless head of Adams rested in the coroner’s lap. The gruesome and ghastly events of the trial had almost reached a level of depravity that rivaled the horrific and lurid facts of the actual case in question.
Despite the support of his brother and family, John Colt, after a nine-day trial that ended on January 30, 1842, was found guilty of murder in the first degree. Appeals to the New York State Supreme Court fell upon deaf ears and Colt’s death sentence by the hangman’s noose was scheduled. To the very end and on the eve of the final hours of his last night alive, Colt proclaimed that any man, thrust into the same situation, would have acted as he had – in self-defense. In the months leading up to his date with death, Colt lived a very lavish lifestyle and was afforded many comforts thanks to his younger brother’s support. Despite the luxuries provided, the day of reckoning finally arrived as not even the elite can escape the inevitability of time. On November 18, 1842, John Colt welcomed Reverend Dr. Anthon, his bride-to-be Ms. Caroline Henshaw, his brother Samuel and family friend John Howard Payne into his cell. Under the authority of the reverend, John Colt married the mother of his child on the final day of his existence. A gift of five hundred dollars was provided for her and his child, a son, Samuel Colt. After thanking his brother, friend and reverend for visiting, he asked to be left alone with his wife one last time. It was roughly two hours before his scheduled meeting with his maker. Fifteen minutes before what should have been his final walk from his cell, Reverend Dr. Anthon called upon Colt. His calls to Colt went unanswered. Lying face up on his bed, the reverend saw a dagger sticking out of Colt’s chest at the site of his heart. It was evident that Colt had cheated death by the hangman’s noose by deciding to take his own life on his own terms. As the reverend went to call upon the sheriff’s for assistance, fire bells began clanging throughout the stone passageways of the Tombs. A fire had erupted in the cupola. As flames and acrid charcoal-colored smoke wafted into the November air, officers ran throughout the prison to address the fire. Little attention was paid to Colt’s suicide. Amidst the mayhem that ensued the thousands of New Yorkers who had arrived to witness Colt’s demise on the scaffold scattered as firemen and their equipment arrived to wage battle with the fiery conflagration. The sun had set by the time the flames had finally been extinguished. The fire in the belfry would prove to be the only “excitement” of the afternoon. The hangman’s noose went unused and swayed silently in the cool November breeze.
Whatever happened between the two men in the office between the hours of three and four o’clock on the afternoon of September 17th, 1841 was known only between Samuel Adams and John Colt. A qualm over a measly one dollar and thirty-five cents had sent two men to their untimely deaths. One at his own hand in a cold and dreary cell in the Tombs and another, hacked to death by a hatchet and then bound, his corpse contorted into a crate, carted to the outbound steamer Kalamazoo and lowered into the dark bowels of her cargo holds as she remained lashed to the dock at the foot of Maiden Lane in our waters.