Murder by Mail

On the morning of September 18th, 1841, an postman delivered a large package to the Kalamazoo hours before its anticipated departure to New Orleans. However, the journey was delayed, and the package remained there for a week. Shortly before its departure, crew reported a deathly odor was coming from the package. Upon inspection, they discovered the decomposed body of Samuel Adams, a well known printer who was reported missing a week earlier. The postman was immediately suspected. When questioned about the delivery, he identified the man who requested the box be taken as John Colt.

John Colt was an author a member of the influential Colt family, known for revolutionizing double entry bookkeeping. His brother, Samuel Colt, made a name for himself with the founding of Colt’s Manufacturing Company. When teaching in Louisville he began lecturing on ‘Italian Book Keeping”, also known as double entry book keeping. This was a practice which he helped popularize, touring the country and giving lectures on the topic. In 1837 Colt published his first book “The Italian Science of Double Entry Book Keeping”.

It did not take long for Colt to make a confession. The morning before the delivery, Samuel Adams visited Colt to collect a debt he owed him for some textbooks of his he printed. After a disagreement about the amount owed an altercation broke out between the two of them. According to Colt, Adams began to choke him. He attempted to fend him off with a nearby hammer, but Colt claimed he mistakenly grabbed a hatchet and killed Adams after striking him 5 times. The next morning, he cleaned the mess he made, placed the body in a shipping crate, and mailed it to a nonexistent address in New Orleans. He then went to Adams’ printing business asking about his whereabouts, attempting to shift suspicion away from him.


Adams’ family reported him missing shortly after his death. A neighbor of Colt told the family he heard what sounded like a scuffle followed by a loud thud on the floor. He then went and peered through his keyhole where he said he saw a man bending over something on the floor. Other witnesses claimed they saw Adams enter Colt’s apartment the day in question.

Case #15: The Book Keeping Butcher

Sealed the Crate, Sealed his Fate

The trial began September 23rd, 1842. When the press covered the New York murder mystery, they portrayed John Colt as the gambling, philandering, perjurer black sheep of the Colt family. Samuel Colt hired a team of brothers to represent his brother. Halfway through the trial the prosecutor claimed Adams was killed with a Colt firearm as the coroner discovered a round hole in the back of his skull, indicating premeditation. However, none of Colt’s neighbors reported hearing gunfire. It was later discovered the hole in the back of his head came from the nail used to seal his crate. The defense argued Colt could not have committed obstruction of justice by hiding the body because he acted out of “temporary insanity”. On January 24th Colt was found guilty of murder.

However, the defense argued the case for a new trial because the jury was “misinformed”. Colt’s lawyers recruited the doctor who performed Adams’ autopsy for a further inspection. He determined the two “grappled face to face within a foot-and-a-half of each other” and “Adams was in an erect position at the time the fatal blows were inflicted”. After visits from 36 lawyers, then New York Governor William Seward refused to pardon Colt for the murder of Samuel Adams.

Murder Mystery NYC Diaries

The morning of November 14th, 1842 was quite a busy one for Colt. He was scheduled to be executed that afternoon, but not before his wedding to Caroline Henshaw that morning. Shortly after the ceremony, a fire broke out in the prison. The charred body of Colt was found in his cell. However, it was determined his cause of death was from a self inflicted stab wound to the heart, leading to a series of many conspiracy theories, some believing the mystery behind his death was murder.

Stay tuned for our next entry in our exciting Murder Mystery NYC Diary series!

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