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Guns and Murder: The Unlikely Story of Samuel and John Colt

The brothers had quite the divergent life paths.

engraving of samuel colt with one of his revolvers
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  • Engraving of Samuel Colt with a revolver, based on a lost daguerreotype.Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Samuel Colt’s name became synonymous with the firearms that he manufactured, so much so that today the name “Colt” still means “gun” to us. However, he wasn’t the only Colt whose exploits became inextricably associated with death.

Born in Hartford, Connecticut in 1814, Samuel Colt was one of seven children. He had three sisters and three brothers. One of his sisters died in childhood, another of tuberculosis at 19, and the third took her own life. His brothers fared somewhat better, as one became a textile merchant and another a lawyer. While Samuel Colt built a business empire on the manufacture of firearms, however, his third brother, John Colt, became famous as a murderer.

Samuel Colt’s business ventures were not immediately successful. His earliest attempts at manufacturing firearms and underwater mines struggled. However, in 1836, he was granted a patent for a “revolving gun,” the weapon that would become the revolver so synonymous with the settling of the western frontier. By 1847, the Texas Rangers ordered some 1,000 revolvers from Colt’s Patent Arms Manufacturing Company for use in the Mexican-American War

Though he is often credited with inventing the revolver, Colt never made such a claim himself, instead acknowledging that his own guns were built on a framework established by earlier gunsmiths, such as Elisha Collier, who had created a sort of revolving flintlock years before. Colt’s real innovations came not in the guns themselves, but in how he made, marketed, and sold them.

A pioneer in the use of interchangeable parts, Colt envisioned an assembly line manufacture of his firearms, which could be machined in pieces and then assembled by a line of workers. It wasn’t just that the Colt revolvers could be turned out quickly and efficiently, however. He also used everything from celebrity endorsements to corporate gifts to help market his guns, and the resulting fortune he made from manufacturing firearms elevated him to the level of a titan of industry and made him one of the richest men in America. One of his most famous marketing slogans was, “God created men, Col. Colt made them equal.”

At the same time that Samuel Colt’s star was rising as a manufacturer of revolvers, however, his brother John Colt was achieving notoriety of a much less promising sort. Four years older than Samuel, John had experimented with a variety of ways to make money, including gambling, but also working as a law clerk, soap manufacturer, fur trader, grocery wholesaler, and organizer of Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans. He even served a brief stint as a Marine, before forging a letter to get himself discharged.

He found his greatest success—and even some little fame—as a bookkeeper. More specifically, he was known as an authority on the subject of “double-entry bookkeeping,” a form of accounting which many of us still use today. In fact, John Colt wrote an early textbook on the subject, one which remained in print for more than a decade after his death and was issued across some 45 editions.

Could John Colt have become the Samuel Colt of bookkeeping? Perhaps not, even if things had gone differently, but as it was, his name was bound to make headlines for a very different reason. On September 17, 1841, a printer named Samuel Adams—not to be confused with the Founding Father of the same name who died in 1803—went to visit Colt to collect a debt that he was owed for some textbooks that he had printed on Colt’s behalf. The two apparently disagreed over the amount due. Later accounts would place the contested sum at a mere $1.35, not much even in 1841. The disagreement ultimately ended with Adams’ death.

According to Colt, who was arrested a few days later, he had killed Adams in self-defense after the printer began choking him with his cravat. The press at the time, however, was more likely to call it cold-blooded murder. 

Either way, John Colt slew Samuel Adams with a hatchet and proceeded to try to cover up his crime, scrubbing the blood from the floor, and stowing the body in a packing crate which he filled with salt and had sent to a ship called the Kalamazoo which was waiting at harbor. The Kalamazoo was delayed by a storm, however, and authorities were able to track the body to the ship before it sailed, finding Adams’ decaying corpse in the hold and arresting John Colt.

The trial which followed became a media circus, in no small part because of Colt’s relationship with his wealthy brother, Samuel. Indeed, Colt’s three attorneys were paid with stock in the newly formed Colt Patent Arms Manufacturing Company. Colt’s attorneys argued that this led him to having already been functionally “tried by the press” before his case ever went before a jury.

Whether or not the jury was influenced by the sensational newspaper headlines which accompanied the trial, however, they were certainly swayed by Colt’s “careless air” throughout the proceedings, during which he is said to have appeared remorseless and callous, even when describing his disposal of Adams’ body. By January 24, 1842, John Colt was convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged—but he never made it to the gallows.

On the morning of November 14, 1842, John Colt married his common-law wife, Caroline Henshaw, in a prison service witnessed by Samuel Colt. Later that day, a fire broke out in the prison and, once the blaze was put out, John Colt’s body was found in his cell, stabbed through the heart with a knife that had probably been smuggled to him by a family member during the earlier service.

Just as the trial of John Colt had made headlines, so too did his death, with many conspiracy theories circulating that Colt had not, in fact, taken his own life but instead substituted a ringer for his body in order to escape the gallows. These conspiracies were buoyed by the fact that, during his time in the prison, Colt had lived in luxury provided by his wealthy friends and family, and that there had been reports of several previous attempts to smuggle him out of jail, none of them successful.

While the name of Samuel Colt has been remembered through the years, his brother has largely been forgotten. That wasn’t always the case, however, and the John Colt murder trial was one of the most widely publicized cases in the country at the time. It, too, left its mark, albeit in less obvious places. The case is mentioned in passing in Herman Melville’s short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” and the macabre methodology by which John Colt tried to dispose of Samuel Adams’ body may have provided partial inspiration for Edgar Allan Poe’s 1844 short story “The Oblong Box.”