Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend….Harold Schechter

Woodcut illustration appearing in a newspaper of the time depicting the gruesome discovery of Samuel Adams' body in a crate by the docks.

September 17, 1841. An argument breaks out in a second floor office of the Granite Building in New York City. A hatchet is raised and connects with the head of a man named Samuel Adams, smashing into his skull and killing him. His body is stuffed into a wooden packing crate, dragged down a flight of stairs, and is carried by horsecart to a waiting steamer bound for New Orleans. The killer returns to the office and cleans up the mess, thinking he has removed all of the evidence and gotten away scot-free.

He is wrong.

Harold Schechter’s amazing book, Killer Colt, follows the quite different lives of two brothers, John Caldwell Colt and his brother, the famous Samuel Colt, inventor of the Colt repeating pistol. Both boys were born into a well-to-do family that falls on hard times. Their mother and sisters die young, and although his father remarries, the boys are left to find their ways in the world. John hires Samuel Adams to print his famous book on bookkeeping (which goes through 42 editions!), but the two come to blows that fateful night in September over an unpaid bill. Were it not for the astute observations of Colt’s neighbor, Asa Wheeler, who witnessed Colt’s actions through the keyhole of the door, the crime may have gone undiscovered. Colt’s subsequent arrest leads to the Trial of the Century, as the jury struggles to convict him of either manslaughter based on self-defense, or premeditated murder.

Schechter’s book starts slow with the introduction of the Colt boys and their sad childhoods, but builds momentum as the crime is perpetrated and the trial begins. He suggests that this was the first American trial to be influenced by the ‘penny press’, which were smaller newspapers geared more towards average Americans. These early versions of The Enquirer splashed inflammatory and/or graphic illustrations on the front page and carried lurid stories and scathing editorials about the trial. This was unheard of at the time and caused an uproar throughout the country (and this was before photography!). Men and women lined up by the hundreds to get seats in the courtroom to watch the trial unfold. They were exposed to graphic forms of evidence (the decomposed head of the victim was brought in as evidence one day) and dramatic episodes, as Sam Colt demonstrated his patented pistol right in front of the judge’s bench as evidence to help clear his brother. Besides inflaming public opinion, these papers had a direct impact on the trial itself. The widespread dissemination of information (and misinformation) about the trial made it difficult to seat an impartial jury. It was a trial unlike any other.

This book was so refreshing to read after all the bullshit fluff of Sex on the Moon. It was impeccably researched, well written and absorbing. Schechter did such a great job of getting into the minds and hearts of both of the Colt boys, and his coverage of the media circus that the trial became was entertaining and compelling. You can certainly see where the public’s love of dramatic murder trials first began!

If you love a good courtroom drama, this is one for the books. Check it out. Book number 3 for the NonFiction Non Memoir Reading Challenge!

Grade: A

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