(Editor’s note: The following review comes from Seamus Scanlon, a librarian, professor at The City College of New York, and award-winning writer who last commented in The Rap Sheet on Arthur Nash’s photographic work, New York City Gangland.)
Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at the City University of New York’s Queen’s College. He’s also the editor of the Library of America’s True Crime: An American Anthology and the author of many popular non-fiction books, such as Deviant: The Shocking True Story of Ed Gein, the Original Psycho, Fatal: The Poisonous Life of a Female Serial Killer, and The Whole Death Catalog: A Lively Guide to the Bitter End. As you can see, Schechter has an aptitude for creating catchy titles and subtitles, potent combinations of information and humor that take a bit of the edge off his yarns’ luridness.
His latest work, last year’s Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend (Ballantine), encompasses not only the history of Colt revolvers as instruments of killing, invented by Samuel Colt, but also the murder committed in 1841 by Colt’s brother, accountant and author John C. Colt. The volume’s subtitle, Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend, encapsulates all the elements of this impressive book.
The story recounted in Killer Colt was made to measure for Schechter, who can turn what might have been dry, dusty history into dramatic storytelling. This tale has the added benefit of starring one of the high priests of American entrepreneurship, Samuel Colt, whose fascination with weaponry contributed greatly to the history and legends of America’s Wild West. Colt’s interest in developing guns of his own dated from his early teenage years, though his attention was diverted during the early 19th century toward creating “submarine explosives” to protect U.S. harbors against possible British invasion. He even held a spectacular show-and-tell in New York harbor by blowing up decommissioned ships. There were four such demonstrations in all, and each one surpassed the last in terms of tonnage destroyed.
Meanwhile, Colt’s brother John was a genius in his own professional realm: the science of accounting and double-entry book-keeping. He was a prodigious worker who had penned first-class textbooks and practical workbooks on his obscure area of interest. Couple that small renown with his family’s reputation, and its no wonder that John Colt’s killing on September 17, 1841, of a printer, Samuel Adams, to whom he owed money, became a sensation. The details of that homicide added to its notoriety: Adams was killed with a hammer at Colt’s office, in a fit of rage; Colt then stuffed the man’s corpse into one of the crates he used to send his famous textbooks, and afterward returned home to see his pregnant girlfriend, Caroline Henshaw (another shocking particular, which came to the public’s attention months after the crime). Colt did not happen to mention this murderous encounter to Henshaw, but left for work early the next morning, manhandled Adams’ crated body down the staircase of his office building, loaded it into a horse-drawn cab, and sent it off to the nearest dockyards, with instructions that it should be shipped post haste to New Orleans. Unfortunately for Colt, the steamer that was supposed to take that crate on its long journey was seriously delayed from departing due to a storm. While it languished in the ship’s hold, Adams’ decomposing body started to smell, the police were called in to investigate, and John Colt was consequently arrested.
The oscillating court case that followed, beginning in 1842, is outlined in thrilling detail in Killer Colt, as is John Colt’s surprising fate. I won’t elaborate on the nuances and revelations any further, as you’ll certainly want to buy the book to learn more.
As Schechter recalls, John Colt’s heavily reported trial fed the dark imagination of Edgar Allan Poe and outraged poet Walt Whitman. (It was also immortalized by a mention in Herman Melville’s 1853 novella, Bartleby, the Scrivener.) Samuel Colt’s dash to help his incarcerated sibling is poignant, and there’s plenty of intrigue here revolving around the gun maker’s subsequent adoption of John’s son, Sam Colt Jr. Both Colts come off in these pages as dynamic, intelligent, and driven. And though Samuel Colt’s story lacks the shocking drama of his brother’s, it still boasts plenty of fascinating components, including the fact of his near illiteracy, his showmanship and efforts at self-promotion, and his fleeting business relationship with inventor Samuel Morse (they hoped to provide early ticker-tape information to Wall Street). Samuel Colt’s courage and drive in supplying his new repeater revolvers to Americans fighting Plains Indians and Mexicans in the West cannot be doubted.
Killer Colt is Schechter’s second work of “narrative non-fiction,” following The Devil’s Gentleman: Privilege, Poison, and the Trial That Ushered in the Twentieth Century (2007), a remarkable historical record of a major crime in late-1890s Manhattan and the concomitant rise of the tabloid “yellow journalism” empires founded by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. (Given some of the antics he pulled in the course of selling newspapers and making a fortune, it’s hardly surprising that Pulitzer should have wished to make amends by using some of his money to establish the Pulitzer Prize for reporting. If you think Fox “News” is bad today, what the early tabloids did will really make you squirm!)
I first encountered Schechter when he read from his work at the Cell Theater in New York City back in 2009. For somebody who turns out such well-researched and witty books--scholarly and populist at the same time--he’s remarkably humble and self-effacing. Killer Colt, with its 50 pages of notes and Schechter’s usual aplomb at delivering a poignant story in a brilliant manner, doesn’t disappoint.