Too bad John Colt didn’t use one of his brother Sam’s revolvers to kill Samuel Adams in 1841. If he had, Samuel Colt probably would have capitalized on the tremendous publicity surrounding the murder. Because Sam Colt not only made millions making guns, he was one of the first Madison Avenue ad men. Any publicity was good publicity, and Colt was an easy name to spell.
Unfortunately, John Colt had killed Samuel Adams with a hatchet. Then he had cut him up, stuffed him into an oblong box and hired a cartman to take the gruesome cargo to a ship bound for New Orleans.
It might be a story of good brother-bad brother. But the murder of Samuel Adams and its aftermath suggests the two Colt brothers were both very gifted and very flawed. They may have been married to the same woman – at the same time.
And John Colt only killed one person. Samuel Colt’s guns killed many.
John Caldwell Colt was born March 1, 1810, in Hartford, Conn. His brother Samuel arrived four years later. The boys started life with a privileged childhood and an indulgent mother who came from one of the city’s leading families.
But then their mother died and their father lost his money in the financial panic of 1819. Shunned by Hartford’s social elite, their new stepmother made the boys go to work.
John Colt was a reckless, adventurous boy who meandered through life as an adult. He chose one career then veered off to another. He had been a riverboat gambler, a drinker, a runaway, a womanizer, a thief – as well as a brilliant accountant. In 1838, he published a textbook on double-entry bookkeeping, which went into 45 printings.
He moved to Manhattan and hired a printer named Samuel Adams to print his textbook. He had an apartment in a fancy building. In May of 1841, his beautiful young mistress moved in with him. By September she was very, very pregnant.
Sam, unlike John, had a fixed purpose in life from an early age. He wanted to make guns and explosives. His father backed his early attempts to make guns, but Sam needed more financing for development. So he toured the country lecturing on the virtues of nitrous oxide, ending his talk with a fireworks show.
He saved enough money to go back to developing his gun, a revolver with a rotating cylinder. In 1835, he sailed to England to obtain a patent for it. While there he met a beautiful, illiterate 16-year-old named Caroline Henshaw. He then married the girl.
Or did he? Historians disagree. According to some, he brought her back to the United States with him, but never admitted he’d married her. Others make no mention of her marriage to Samuel Colt.
In 1836, Sam borrowed enough money, mostly from relatives, to start making guns in Paterson, N.J. However, hardly anyone bought them. Then his financing began to dry up with the Panic of 1837, one of the worst in U.S. history. Colt entertained prospects for sales and backing as if he had plenty of cash. His cousin, a principal investor, scolded him for the enormous liquor bill he’d run up.
In September 1841, Samuel Colt went to New York City looking for more investors. He was drinking in a bar at the City Hotel with a couple of prospects when his distraught brother John came looking for him.
What transpired on Sept. 17, 1841 was worthy of an Edgar Allan Poe story. In fact, Poe did modify a version into a story, The Oblong Box. And Herman Melville mentioned it in his short story, Bartleby, The Scrivener.
At 4 pm on that day, a Friday, Samuel Adams called on John Colt at his office on the corner of Chambers Street and Broadway. Adams demanded $71.15, which he said Colt owed him. Colt disagreed, saying he only owed Adams $55.85. They began to argue, and then they fought. According to Colt’s confession, Adams shoved him against the wall and twisted his neck handkerchief so that he could hardly breathe.
…[W]e came to blows. We then grappled and as he was overpowering me, I reached for a hammer, which was on my desk, and I struck him over the head until he released his hold and fell unconscious. He expired shortly afterward. Blood flowed in torrents from the wounds and after washing it up, I decided to notify the authorities.”
But then he decided against it. He didn’t want to besmirch the reputation of his family – his wealthy relatives, his brother the judge in St. Louis, his other brother the up-and-coming arms manufacturer.
He went to find his brother, staying at the City Hotel. Sam Colt, drinking in the barroom with prospective investors, told his brother to wait upstairs. But John Colt couldn’t wait more than a few minutes, so John Colt returned to his office.
Colt had a long wooden box in the corner of his office. He decided to ship the body in the box to another city. It wasn’t easy. He stripped Adams’ clothes and tied him up, but his knees stuck out. So Colt stood on top of the box until it closed and nailed it shut. He threw Adams’ clothes into a public outhouse, washed his clothes in a public bathhouse and addressed the box to a fictional Mr. Gross in New Orleans.
The next morning he hailed a cartman from the office and paid him to take the box to the Kalamazoo in the East River. The box was put aboard the steamer, but the weather turned stormy. The Kalamazoo couldn’t sail.
Unbeknownst to John Colt, his neighbor had heard a sound like foils clashing and a violent fall on the floor. The neighbor notified the landlord and the police, and he kept a close watch on John Colt. When he read in the newspaper that Samuel Adams had gone missing, he reported his suspicions to the mayor, Robert Morris. The mayor then ordered the head of the cartmen to investigate. They quickly figured out where the box had gone, and the Kalamazoo was unloaded. The cartman who took it from Colt recognized it immediately.
Morris joined police in arresting John Colt. He confessed and pleaded self-defense. Brother Sam paid for his high-priced defense with shares in the company.
During the trial, witnesses testified that the wounds on Samuel Adams head included a small round hole. They suggested John Colt killed Adams with his brother’s new invention. In one of history’s more bizarre product placements, Samuel Colt put on a marksmanship show with his revolver.
John Colt’s sinful living arrangements with his mistress didn’t help his case. The jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to hang.
Then things got really strange.
John Colt asked to make an honest woman of Caroline, who had given birth to a son named Samuel. On the day of his execution, he married Caroline in New York’s Tombs prison with Sam and John Howard Payne (who wrote Home Sweet Home) in attendance. His jailers left them alone for an hour for a conjugal visit.
As the moment for his execution approached, the Tombs roof burst into flames. Prison guards ran to put out the fire. When they returned to Colt’s cell, they found him in a pool of blood, a knife protruding from his heart. They presumed his wedding guests had slipped him the knife.
For years afterward, people claimed to have seen John Colt alive and well. They believed his friends or maybe his brother had set the fire, substituted a corpse with a knife in it and spirited him away.
New York’s police chief wrote a book claiming he’d fled to California with his wife.
And historians speculate that John Colt’s mistress Caroline was really Caroline Henshaw, Mrs. Samuel Colt.
Samuel Colt ultimately succeeded in his arms business. He struggled for another five years after his brother’s death until the Texas Ranger bought a thousand revolvers for us in the Mexican War. He built a factory in Hartford, and married the well-born Elizabeth Jarvis in 1856. They had four children, but only one made it to adulthood and then drowned at the age of 35.
All along he sent money to Caroline, who had moved to Europe with her son. Samuel Colt referred to the boy as his ‘nephew,’ always in quotation marks. As a young man, he went to work in the Colt arms factory, where Hartford knew him as Sam Colt’s favorite nephew.
The arms business prospered, and Samuel Colt become one of the richest men in the United States. However, he died from complications of gout, however, in 1862 at the age of 47. His wife, Elizabeth, gave birth to their stillborn child after he died.
In his will, Samuel Colt named his nephew as one of his heirs, bequeathing him $2 million in today’s money. Elizabeth Colt contested the will in court, and Samuel Colt produced a valid marriage certificate proving his mother had married her husband in Scotland in 1838.
This story was updated in 2023.