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John Colt Trial: 1842

Confusion Over Murder Weapons

Halfway through the trial, the prosecution introduced a new theory that Adams might have been killed by a Colt revolver. Colt's lawyers anticipated the move and objected immediately. Defense attorney Dudley Selden read the entire indictment, which stated that Adams was killed by blows from the confiscated hatchet. If the prosecution wished to establish that firearms killed Adams, Selden argued, then prosecutor James Whiting's indictment of Colt was improperly drawn, allowing the defense no preparation for refuting the new theory. Whiting replied furiously that he had only learned over the weekend that a pistol like the one invented by Colt's brother might be the murder weapon.

Over Selden's objections, Judge William Kent allowed the prosecution to propose that the slight clashing noise described by Asa Wheeler and his student might have been made by a revolver bullet propelled by a percussion cap. The defense responded by demonstrating how feeble a bullet without a noisy charge of gunpowder would be. Gun inventor Samuel Colt was called to demonstrate one of his pistols to the jury. Colt fired the chambers of a revolver primed only with caps and caught all five bullets in his hand. When Colt emptied the weapon again at a law book, the balls only penetrated the first nine leaves, about the same number marred when Selden asked Colt to throw the bullets at the tome.

The prosecution returned to its original theory, providing more theatrics. Adams' body was disinterred and his severed skull was displayed in court, so that doctors could declare that the hole in its side had been made by a hatchet, not a bullet or packing nail. The next day's tumult was provided by the appearance of Caroline Henshaw. The young woman recalled Colt coming home with black bruises on his neck on the fateful night. Henshaw characterized Colt as a mildmannered man. Numerous witnesses echoed her depiction of Colt as eventempered, in contrast to others who recalled Adams as being irritable whenever money was involved.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882John Colt Trial: 1842 - The Colt Family's Black Sheep, Confusion Over Murder Weapons, A Strange "confession"