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Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend

by Harold Schechter; Ballantine Books

Gunmaker Samuel Colt was lobbying Congress for funds for his newly invented underwater cable in 1841 when he suddenly found himself dragged into the period’s most celebrated murder trial.

The facts: Samuel’s older brother, John Caldwell Colt, was arrested in New York for the murder of a printer, Samuel Adams. Adams’ decomposing body, naked and gashed, was bound with rope and stuffed in a box in the cargo hold of a ship headed for New Orleans. These grisly circumstances alone would have guaranteed the story a brief notoriety in the scandal-obsessed penny press and even the more respectable newspapers of the day. But it got additional “legs” for two reasons. One was John Colt’s own breathtaking hubris. His defense amounted to saying, “I was insulted” by Adams’ aggressiveness in trying to collect a bill. The other was Samuel Colt’s international fame for perfecting the revolving pistol.

In Killer Colt, Harold Schechter traces the Colt family’s strange history, playing the two brothers’ lives in agile counterpoint that adds resonance and enriched historical context. Among the many ironies: John, the brother responsible for a “horrid and atrocious” murder, was known only for writing a slim and arcane book on accounting, while law-abiding Samuel’s technological advances would create new industries but cause the deaths of tens of thousands. In the heat of the trial, prosecutors even tried to argue that John had used a Colt revolver as his murder weapon, although the coroner’s report stated he wielded a hatchet.

Schechter, a literature professor proficient in fiction (including a series of mysteries featuring Edgar Allen Poe) and nonfiction (The Serial Killer Files), leads us through Colt’s trial with such precision that you can smell the cigar smoke in the courtroom. He is superb at flagging details that mark the legal process in the 1840s: On the first day of the trial, only 19 of the 45 potential jurors bothered to show up. And he makes good use of historical witnesses to paint his picture, quoting from the dyspeptically funny Charles Dickens, for instance, to describe the Egyptian-themed Halls of Justice. Killer Colt succeeds in making us care about this story now by showing why it mattered to so many people then.


Originally published in the June 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.