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John Colt Trial: 1842

A Strange "confession"

The final courtroom commotion began when defense attorney Robert Emmett read aloud a long, detailed statement written by Colt. According to this "confession," Adams had come to Colt's office, where a dispute erupted over a bill. The two men came to blows when Adams called Colt a liar. When Adams began choking him, Colt grabbed what he thought was a hammer and hit Adams on the head. The implement turned out to be the hatchet, which inflicted a fatal wound. After cleaning up a substantial amount of blood, Colt tried to clear his mind with a walk in a nearby park. To avoid the disgrace of a public trial, he packed the corpse, disposed of his bloody clothing in a privy, and went home.

Emmett argued that the marks on Colt's neck confirmed that Adams had tried to strangle Colt. If so, this was a case of justifiable homicide, not a planned murder. Emmett added that the efficiency with which Colt had disposed of the body should not be held against him as evidence of premeditation. Prosecutors accused Colt of killing Adams in the office for the isolation it provided and questioned why an innocent man would deliberate for hours over how to dispose of a dead body. Prosecutor Whiting testily defended his handling of the indictment, denying defense implications that he was pressing the case for political gain.

In his charge, Judge Kent told the jury that both victim and prisoner were men of good character, although "excitable." The judge asked the jury to weigh evidence of a motive or premeditation. The "confession" read by Robert Emmett was hypothetical and not evidence, instructed the judge. As such, it was irrelevant to final deliberations. On January 31, thousands of people waiting outside the courthouse learned the verdict was guilty. When the New York State Supreme Court denied Colt's final appeal on September 28, Judge Kent sentenced him to hang.

At noon on November 18, 1842, the day of his scheduled execution, Colt and Caroline Henshaw were married in his cell, surrounded by Samuel Colt and a few friends. Jailers returned at 3:55 to take the condemned man to the scaffold. They found Colt's bloody corpse on his bed. One of his final visitors had apparently slipped him a pocketknife, with which he had stabbed himself in the heart. A fire broke out in the jail at the same moment the body was found. The suspicious flames fueled abundant rumors that Colt's prominent friends had been plotting his escape.

Colt's suicide was not the final chapter in the case. Many observers surmised that Caroline Henshaw had been Samuel Colt's mistress and that the son she bore was Samuel's, not John's, child. The irony that John Colt had taken in his brother's spurned pregnant mistress as an act of kindness was yet one more indication to Colt's supporters that Adams' death had been a tragic accident for which a flawed but basically good man had been condemned.

Tom Smith

Suggestions for Further Reading

"Colt Case." New York Herald (January 28, 1842): 1.

Grant, Ellsworth J. The Colt Legacy. Providence, R.l.: Mowbray Company, 1982.

Tucher, Andie. Froth & Scum. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

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"