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


The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America….Erik Larson

The Ferris Wheel, invented just for the 1893 World's Fair

February 24, 1893: The city of Chicago, IL surprisingly wins the ballot to host the 1893 World’s Fair over New York and Washington. The best and brightest of America’s architects descend on the town to plan the most awe inspiring spectacle the country, and the world, have ever seen, with the clock ticking until Opening Day. The pressure is on to outdo the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris, which introduced the amazing Eiffel Tower, and to put Chicago on the map as an up-and-coming Midwestern city. Meanwhile, a blue eyed, charming physician arrives in town with a keen interest in the young ladies who will flock unaccompanied to the fair from their boring hometowns, eager for new experiences. And a downtrodden newspaperman will delusionally envision for himself  the favor of Chicago’s mayor and a better life.

All of these stories are masterfully woven together in Erik Larson’s amazing tale, The Devil in the White City. This is the story of Daniel Burnham, visionary architect and mastermind of the Fair, who brought together some of the most famous architects of the day to build what would come to be called the White City, so named because all of the buildings were painted white (spray paint was invented at the fair just for this purpose!). Utilizing neoclassical design, these men raised one of the most awe-inspiring settings for the fair anyone could ever imagine, all in a two year time frame. They would battle time, the elements, financial panics, and each other during the building of the fair, but would somehow manage to create something unforgettable.

HH Holmes, serial killer at the Chicago World's Fair

It is also the story of HH Holmes, America’s first serial killer, who used the lure of the fair and the big city to his advantage. Women would leave their homes to come to the city for a new start, a job, or for excitement. They were taken in by the suave, good-looking Holmes, who wooed them with flattery, gifts and from what it sounds like, groping, only to end up luring them to their deaths. He built a hotel specifically designed to get these women under his roof, where he could suffocate them in sealed rooms, burn their bodies in a specially made kiln in the basement, or sell their skeletons to medical schools (who were so desperate at the time for bodies that they would raid graveyards). When finally convicted it was known that he killed 9 people for certain, although others have estimated the number could have been around 200.

And finally, it is the story of Patrick Prendergast, an Irish immigrant who for some reason felt that if he worked hard to help re-elect Chicago’s four-term mayor, Carter Harrison, that Harrison would promote him to Corporation Counsel, even though the two had never met. Prendergast’s “work” usually involved writing delusional and scary postcards to city officials. When Carter gets re-elected and no promotion is forthcoming, Prendergast doesn’t take rejection well, and instead takes matters into his own hands.

It was fascinating to read about the Fair. Thanks to this fair, we were first introduced to Cracker Jacks, zippers, the Ferris Wheel, the hamburger, dishwashers, Hershey chocolate and Pabst Blue Ribbon (okay, maybe we could have skipped the PBR!). The concept of the midway was also introduced, although the Midway at the World’s Fair definitely differs from our modern midways. The midway was then conceived as a way for fair guests to be exposed to people from different cultures, and along the midway people could see belly dancers, camels, Eskimos, an ostrich farm, and Amazonians. The fair was also lit by electric lights on every building, making it a spectacle for night as well as the daytime. People could not even bring their own cameras without paying a fee!

I liked this book just as much as Thunderstruck, maybe a bit more. The Holmes story was so deliciously creepy I could not read it at night, and like I did in Thunderstruck when I jumped over chapters about Marconi to read about Crippen, I found myself sometimes jumping ahead a bit to read about Holmes. Not that the Fair parts of the book weren’t entertaining. It was fascinating to see how such a huge event got put together in such a short time, back before telephones, the Internet or computer drafting. The Holmes sections of the story definitely had more momentum for me.

I hope you’ll check this one out. Creepy yet immensely satisfying. 2nd book for the NonFiction NonMemoir reading challenge!

Grade: A

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York…Deborah Blum

Drs Alexander Gettler and Charles Norris, pioneers of forensic toxicology

I’m not known around my office for carrying around the world’s most upbeat books. While everyone else is reading lighter, fun stuff like The Help, some Janet Evanovich novel with a number in the title, or The Girl with the Whatever, I’ve got my nose stuck in books about cancer, dead bodies, and now poisons. So needless to say, no one, and I mean NO ONE, was sad to see me finish The Poisoner’s Handbook. I think I managed to freak out every single coworker and my husband by carrying this book around for a week (no wonder my husband kept wanting to eat out every night! 🙂

Had my coworkers taken a closer look at the book (the twelve word subtitle is in print so small you can barely read it up close, much less across the room), or even the book jacket, they would have realized that this is not a book about how to poison people. It’s more about the history of toxicology and forensic science, and the rise of its importance during Prohibition. Deprived of beer, wine, and hard liquor, people would turn to bootleg liquors made in someone’s backyard for their thrill. Sadly, this wasn’t the safe stuff home breweries crank out these days. It was much worse. Some of the bootleg liquors available then contained horribly toxic ingredients such as ammonia, gasoline, formaldehyde, and acetone….yet people drank it anyway.

Of course, poison wasn’t just showing up on the rocks in speakeasies. During the beginnings of the Great Depression, people apparently had no qualms killing off family members or friends if it meant getting insurance money, an inheritance, or decreasing the size of a large family to make ends meet. Back before today’s modern science, it was very hard to tell when/if someone had been poisoned intentionally, as no one had done any studies on how poisons act in the body or what physical signs different poisons might leave behind. In 1918, Drs Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler founded the very first forensics and toxicology lab in the country at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, and dedicated their careers to studying poisons and their effects on human physiology. Their findings would later help to convict criminals, pardon the innocent, and help those who became sick from different poisons.

Blum’s book devotes a chapter to many of the different poisons Norris and Gettler came across in their careers during the early 20th century. It was astounding to me that energy drinks available to everyone and some medications used to contain the radioactive element radium, which would cause people’s bones to crumble; and beauty creams used to contain thallium, which would eventually make people’s hair fall out.  I was also horrified that one of the ways the government fought against people who drank illegally during Prohibition was to further poison the alcohol that was out there, which could and did in many cases kill or sicken people.

Blum’s book was a bit choppy in places, but it picked up steam towards the end. Although the book has a chapter devoted to each poison, the story for that particular poison was rarely resolved by the end of the chapter, sometimes coming to its conclusion two or three chapters later. The book also jumped around in time quite a bit, so you had to pay attention. There was a lot about the party politics of Prohibition and the fights Norris and Gettler had to keep their lab going and gain credibility in the legal profession, which constituted the slower parts of the book for me. It was also pretty graphic in describing the effects each of the different poisons would have on their victims, and how the forensics team would chop up human tissue to use in chemical experiments to help isolate the poisons. There were also lots of animal studies where animals were intentionally poisoned and killed to help learn about the physiology of poisons in the body. This book was not for the faint of heart!

Overall an interesting read for those not too squeamish and those who like good murder mysteries. I ended the book relieved that Prohibition was repealed and that the FDA is there for us now.

This is my first book for the NonFiction NonMemoir Challenge!!! Only 24 to go!!! 🙂

Grade: B

Titanic’s Last Secrets: The Further Adventures of Shadow Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler….Brad Matsen

Divers John Chatterton and Richie Kohler

I remember all too well the night I pulled an all-nighter reading Walter Lord’s classic A Night to Remember, a chilling, moment-by-moment description of the doomed voyage and sinking of the RMS Titanic in the early morning hours of April 15, 1912. This was way before Leonardo was ‘king of the world’, and was actually before Robert Ballard discovered the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor in 1985 (I’m dating myself here). I didn’t mean to pull an all-nighter; I just could not stop reading. I was horrified and yet fascinated by the story, my heart pounding as the inevitable tragedy unfolded and so many lost their lives in the freezing waters, and angered by the stupidity and greed of the designers who did not put enough lifeboats on board for everyone to escape, feeling there was no need for safety measures on an ‘unsinkable’ ship.

Ask anyone nine years old or older why the Titanic sank, and most everyone’s quickie answer would be “an iceberg”. Thanks to research, deep sea submersibles, and good old science, we’re finding out now that the iceberg was only part of the reason Titanic met its demise. In 1991, research divers Richie Kohler and John Chatterton made history when they discovered the wreck of a German U-boat off the coast of New Jersey. After a friend reported some interesting and unfamiliar debris surrounding the wreck of Titanic on the ocean floor, Kohler and Chatterton teamed up again to visit the site of the sinking in the famed Russian Mir submersibles. What they found there during three dives in the Mir crafts wasn’t the “Heart of the Ocean”, but pieces of the hull and keel of the ship, never before seen or photographed. Warping and damage visualized along these keel and hull pieces were the first crucial pieces of evidence for a new (and even more horrifying) hypothesis for the ship’s sinking. Further research on land with Harland and Wolff’s (the shipyards that built Titanic and her sister ships, Olympic and Britannic) archives, as well as a visit to the wreck of Britannic, supported even more strongly the idea that not only was Titanic not “unsinkable” after all, but may in fact have been doomed from the start, with her construction flaws well-known to H&W’s builders and executives before she sailed.

Underwater picture of damage to Titanic's hull. The Chatterton/Richie expedition discovered two very large pieces of the doomed ship's hull.

Like anyone, I love a good conspiracy theory. I began this book with a pretty closed mind, thinking there was nothing new that could be gleaned from the wreck, since so many people (including even director James Cameron) have been down there in the deep sea subs taking a look at things. I was pleasantly surprised by all the new findings, and it really turned what I thought I knew about the Titanic on end. Along with Chatterton and Richie, many engineers, scientists, and historians were involved in the data analysis, and the scenario that best fit their findings were in good agreement with many of the eyewitness accounts given by survivors and crew at the Senate hearings following the disaster. Although slightly skeptical that a cover-up of that magnitude could ever have been successful, I’m not surprised by much anymore in the internet age. The book provides great photos of the people involved and of both wrecks.

We’ll never know what really took place on that awful April night, but this book gave me hope that scientists are inching ever closer to finding the real truth about one of the great mysteries of the 20th century. This book just goes to show that you can never close the book on a case like this, because as science and technology advance, more and more of the secrets of Titanic’s fatal night will be revealed. I can’t wait to see what we’ll discover in the next few years.

Grade: A-

Night….Elie Wiesel

Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and author of "Night".

In the spring of 1944, German jeeps arrived in the small town of Sighet, Romania, where Jewish teenager Elie Wiesel lived with his parents and three sisters. Within days, their comfortable lives would be changed forever. Herded like animals from one confining ghetto to the next, and then onto train cars bound for who knew where, Wiesel recounts for us the horrifyingly tragic tale of his fight to survive the journey to and imprisonment at Auschwitz/Birkenau and Buchenwald concentration camps in his short yet profound book, Night.

Wiesel tells of the terrors of the separation from his mother and sister on the train platform at Auschwitz, and the horrors of daily life in the camps, as he and his father survive on barely any food and water, watch as their friends and relatives are ‘selected’ for the crematoriums, and are worked to the bone. Saddest of all is the dehumanization of the inmates, who understandably grow increasingly detached from everything and everyone around them as a mental survival mechanism. As his time in the camps lengthens, Wiesel and his fellow inmates are no longer saddened or even surprised to see other people harmed or killed right before their eyes. They will fight each other for the smallest scraps of food, and leave behind sick and old relatives who have become burdensome. As the inmates are forced to flee to avoid the oncoming Russian liberation force, they are forced to toss dead bodies out of train cars, or march over those who have fallen in their tracks in the snow. Wiesel, who was deeply religious before the Germans came to Sighet, understandably questions the existence of a God who would let this happen to his people several times during the book.

It is hard to say that I enjoyed a book of this intense and depressing nature, but I did. Wiesel wrote clearly and sympathetically of the horrors he endured and witnessed, so that he could speak for all of those who would never get a chance to speak for themselves. It took him ten years after he was liberated to begin writhing about his experiences. How hard it must have been for him to relive those days and nights, as he was separated from his family and later watched his friends and father die.  He would also have trouble finding a publisher for the book at first, but it would be published here in the US in 1960, and eventually translated into 30 languages. Wiesel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986.

 I end with a profound quote from Night:

“For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time”.

Wiesel’s Night is unforgettable. It is a very short book, but what it lacks in length, it makes up for in the power of its message.

Grade: A


The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America….Timothy Egan

Wallace, ID after the Big Burn of 1910

August 20, 1910. Wallace, Idaho. An advancing wall of flame and destruction about a mile wide, traveling up to 70 miles per hour, is headed for this tiny town. The only thing standing between the fire and the town’s demise are the fledgling firefighters of the newborn US Forest Service, who are completely unprepared for a disaster of this magnitude and are armed with only buckets of water. Most of them have never even seen a forest firej, and have no idea how to fight one. Many of them are new to the United States, drawn to the Forest Service by the promise of a paycheck during economically tough times. The townspeople begin to panic as the fire closes in. Only women and children are allowed on the only train headed out of town. Men are expected to stay and help defend the town from the conflagration, yet it’s the foremost members of the town who try to sneak their way onto the train. Cinders and firebombs begin to drop onto the wood-shingled roofs of the town. Will Wallace survive?

President Theodore Roosevelt and his friend Gifford Pinchot, the first Chief of the US Forest Service.

The intense and heartbreaking story of the Great Fire of 1910 is chronicled in Timothy Egan’s book, The Big Burn. The fire was the first challenge of Teddy Roosevelt’s US Forest Service, created in 1905 to protect and conserve forest land. Roosevelt was outraged at the greediness of the lumber barons, who wanted to cut down acres of the most beautiful wilderness our country had to offer, and his answer was to protect these vast lands as national parks, where everyone could go to enjoy the beautiful views and peace of nature, while also protecting these areas from any future logging. He named his good friend and fellow conservationist, Gifford Pinchot, to the position of Chief Forester. The fledgling Forest Service was not respected by people in industry and the railroad companies. Although these lands were protected by law, Pinchot did not have enough rangers to keep an eye on all of the lands put aside (and their miniscule budget barely had enough to pay even the rangers they had), and loggers continued to sneak into some areas and cut down trees. Congressmen did not pass legislation to help support the new Forest Service, thanks to the railroad and lumber companies  putting big money in their pockets to turn a blind eye. It seemed to be a losing battle. Yet Pinchot and his “Little GPs” soldiered on the best they could.

1910 was the driest summer in recorded history to that time. Pinchot did not believe in deliberately setting controlled fires to burn off the driest areas, and he worked hard to get his rangers to squelch even the smallest fires caused by lightning strikes or a stray spark from a railroad car’s wheel on a track, thereby preventing Mother Nature from naturally maintaining the state of the forest.  Thanks to Pinchot’s misguided intentions, this resulted in acres upon acres of bone-dry wilderness, a veritable tinderbox for what was to come.

In August 1910, several wildfires spread out over Washington and Idaho were whipped into a frenzy by a Palouser, a rare hurricane force cold front rolling off the Pacific Ocean. The Palouser put wings behind the wildfire, and its high powered winds drove the fire through the dry woods like a train at high speed. It was unstoppable. Pinchot’s rangers were barely given time to run for their own lives, much less protect property and citizens, and most of the rangers would either die or quickly improvise. Ed Pulaski, one of the braver rangers, forced his men into an abandoned mineshaft and forced them all at gunpoint to lay down in the mud until the fire was over, saving all of their lives except for the two that panicked and ran back into the fire. Several immigrant rangers would have the same idea, squeezing into a small cave. They were not so lucky when a large burning tree fell, blocking the mouth of the cave and cooking them alive. The wildfire would eventually burn more than 3 million acres of protected forest in Washington, Idaho and Montana, completely destroying several towns (Wallace would survive only partly burned) and killing 85 people, many of them the brave forest fighters who tried to stop it. Luckily for people in other states, another cold front brought rain, which smothered the fire, preventing further death and destruction.

Ed Pulaski, brave Forest Ranger, outside of the mineshaft that saved him and his men during the Big Burn.

Ironically, it was the inability of the Forest Service to stop this catastrophic wildfire that ultimately brought it the attention and respect it deserved. When Congressmen toured the smoking ruins of cities and saw the charred hulks of dead horses and men, they realized the powerful destruction of fire, and how important it was to be protected in the future from similar situations. The Big Burn influenced passage of the Weeks Act in 1911, which allowed for better cooperation between the Forest Service and state authorities for fire control.

This was a really good book. I enjoyed the stories about Teddy Roosevelt wrestling everyone who came to his house, and I was angry and frustrated by the government’s inability to see the importance of protecting our natural heritage. Roosevelt and Pinchot were pioneers ahead of their time. We have them to thank for the beauties of Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. Think of them the next time you visit one of our gorgeous parks.

And only YOU can prevent forest fires.

Grade: A

Bloody Crimes: The Chase for Jefferson Davis and the Death Pageant for Lincoln’s Corpse….James Swanson

James Swanson, author of "Bloody Crimes"

James Swanson loves him some Abraham Lincoln. Not only was he born on Lincoln’s birthday (coincidence?), but he’s been collecting Lincoln memorabilia since he was ten years old. He brought his love for Lincoln to the page with his fantastic book Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer a few years back, which documented the national manhunt to track down John Wilkes Booth following the assassination of Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in 1865. In his latest book, Bloody Crimes, rather than chasing after Booth, we remain behind at Ford’s Theater to witness Lincoln’s last living moments, and also to see the unfolding of the improbable journey his corpse would take following his death on its way back to Springfield, IL, where he was to be buried.

Once Lincoln passed away in Washington, it was decided that he would be buried in Illinois, and would travel there with his dead son Willie by train. Once word of the travel plans leaked out, towns along the train route began vying for the chance for Lincoln’s body to stop in their town so that they could pay tribute to him and America could see the face of their fallen leader. What began as a direct train route soon became a meandering journey through the major towns of the North, such as New York, Philadelphia, Indianapolis, and Chicago. Elaborate parades, tributes and viewings were planned in each town he would stop in, with people standing in line for hours and in all weather just for the chance to walk by Lincoln’s body and say goodbye. People whose towns Lincoln did not stop in crowded along the tracks for a glimpse of the train as it rolled by. Signs, banners and arches, homemade or extravagant, lined the route as well. The passing of Lincoln’s corpse throughout our war-torn country brought its people together both in mourning and in determination to help their country to rise again as he had envisioned it.

What sounded great on paper presented a logistical challenge. Lincoln died on April 15, his funeral train trip did not even begin until April 21, and he was not buried until May 3 in Springfield. That’s 18 days his dead body remained above ground. Back during the Civil War, refrigeration in any form did not exist. Embalming techniques were rustic at best. And Lincoln was shot in April, so springtime with its warmer weather and rains were in full swing. The embalmers who would accompany Lincoln on his final journey were in a race against decomposition and decay, and they had the formidable task of keeping the corpse intact (and viewable) for the entire trip. They would utilize techniques such as low lighting, white makeup, and tons and tons of flowers (to mask the smell) in order to get him through the trip.

The train car on the lower left is the car Lincoln's and son Willie's bodies traveled in during their train trip to Springfield.

It wouldn’t be a Swanson book if we weren’t off chasing someone, so Swanson also tells the story of the hunt for Jefferson Davis, the ousted President of the Confederacy. It was mistakenly believed in the early hours of Lincoln’s assassination, when details about Booth’s conspiracy were just coming to light, that Davis had a hand in the dastardly deed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Following the Confederate defeat and fall of Richmond on April 2, 1865, Davis and his cabinet fled into the South, ostensibly with the millions in Confederate gold that comprised the Southern treasury. Like Booth experienced in Manhunt, not everyone in the South greeted Davis with open arms. Many were afraid to help him for fear of Union retaliation. Like Booth, Davis spent several days and nights hiding in the woods, with only a few friends to rely on, and a price on his head ($100,000 was offered for anyone who turned him in) . And like Booth, both were captured by coincidence. Davis was captured by Union troops on May 2, 1865 in Irwinsville, GA, with his family and several of his cabinet members. Although Booth was shot on sight and his conspirators hanged, Davis was jailed for two years and then released. Even though he had led the secessionist Confederacy and ordered the killing of Union soldiers, he was never tried for treason, but was symbolically released in order to help the country move on from the war and its horrors.

Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.

This was a really fascinating book, and unlike Manhunt, did not slow down towards the end. I was thrilled earlier this month to visit Gettysburg, PA, and had my picture taken with good old Abe. I have really come to respect our 16th President and the revolutionary ideas he had to rid our country of slavery and help bring our divided country together. He changed our country forever, and gave his life because of those beliefs. Swanson’s books have only improved that respect. Even cooler, Swanson also rewrote this book  for teens. Its title is Bloody Times: The Funeral for Abraham Lincoln and the Manhunt for Jefferson Davis.

Grade: A+