Like lots of lurid murder cases, this one involved a rotting body.
In late September 1841, a sailor on the Kalamazoo—
docked for days at Maiden Lane because rain kept it from heading to its destination, New Orleans—
noticed a rancid odor coming from a shipping crate.
When investigators opened the crate, a man’s decomposing corpse appeared. Officers knew who he was: a Gold Street printer named Samuel Adams, who had been reported missing about a week earlier.
And with the help of the car man who brought the crate to the dock and the clerk who handled the shipping paperwork, officials also knew the killer: a bookkeeper named John C. Colt, who was already being held for the crime.
Colt wasn’t just any numbers cruncher. He was the brother of Samuel Colt, of Colt revolver fame, and the scion of a prominent New England family.
Colt was socially connected, “of fine personal appearance,” wrote the New York Times, and an instant media magnate in a city already transfixed by the Mary Rodgers “Beautiful Cigar Girl” slaying.
Fittingly for a bookkeeper, Colt committed his crime during a fight about money. In his office at Broadway and Chambers Street on September 17, Adams had come to see Colt about money Colt owed him for printing Colt’s bookkeeping textbook.
The argument turned physical. After a struggle, Colt bashed Adams’ skull with a hatchet.
Colt confessed it all: how he scrubbed away bloody evidence, his plan to ship Adams’ body out of the city, and the grisly murder itself.
“I then sat down, for I felt weak and sick. After sitting a few minutes, and seeing so much blood, I think I went and looked at poor Adams, who breathed quite loud for several minutes, then threw his arms out and was silent,” he confessed, according to the website Murder by Gaslight.
“I recollect at this time taking him by the hand, which seemed lifeless, and a horrid thrill came over me, that I had killed him.”
A famous family with a gruesome death made for a sensational trial.
Despite arguing that he killed in self-defense and that temporary insanity led him to try to ship Adams’ body, Colt was convicted of murder and sentenced to death by hanging in the Tombs (right, in 1896).
Yet the story doesn’t end with a hanging. On November 18, Colt’s execution date, a fire raced through the Tombs. After the blaze was put out, Colt’s hanging was to go on. But a clergyman found him dead in his cell, a dagger in his heart.
Rumors swirled: was the fire set, and did Colt escape?
What really happened to Colt was such a topic of discussion, it’s even referenced in Bartleby the Scrivener, New York native Herman Melville’s 1853 short story about a Wall Street clerk who “would prefer not to.”
[Images: New York Sun; NYPL; Getty Images]