- Historic Sites
Gunmaker To The World
Samuel Colt’s life was brief but eventful. He was an imaginative inventor and an ambitious pitchman whose legacy included scandal and success—and firearms that were revolutionary in more ways than one
June 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 4
The clouds began to break in December of 1837, when Colonel William S. Harney, struggling to subdue the Scminole Indians in the Florida Everglades, ordered one hundred guns, stating, “I am … confident that they are the only things that will finish the infernal war .” Still, (Jolt failed to win over the stubborn head of Ordnance, Colonel George Bomford, until the summer of 1840, when another trial proved his gun’s superiority and forced Bomford to give in slightly; Colt got an order for one hundred carbines at forty dollars apiece. It was a Pyrrhic victory, though, because sales were otherwise too meager to sustain the little company, and in September of 1842 its doors closed for good.
Colt wound up in debt and in controversy with his employers, whom he suspected of fiscal skulduggery. Disgusted with bureaucrats, he determined to be his own boss thereafter. To a member of the family he confided in his half-educated but colorful way:
To be a clerk or an office holder under the pay and patronage of Government, is to stagnate ambition & I hope by hevins I would rather be captain of a canal bote than have the biggest office in the gilt of the Government … however inferior in wealth I may he to the many who surround me I would not exchange lor there treasures the satisfaction 1 have in knowing I have done what lias never before been accomplished by man. … Life is a tiling to be enjoyed … it is the only certainty.
During this period Sam GnIt was also involved in a trying and frustrating family tragedy. His erratic but usually mild older brother, fohn, who was struggling to earn a living by writing a textbook on bookkeeping, had rented a small office in New York City. Then, in September of 1841, he killed his irascible printer, Samuel Adams, after the two had fought over the accuracy of the printer’s bill—their versions differed by less than twenty dollars. John (in self-defense, lie claimed) struck Adams with a hatchet, then stuffed the body into a packing case and had it delivered to a packet bound for New Orleans. A heat wave was his undoing; discovery of the decomposing corpse led to his arrest. Sam went to John’s defense, engaging Cousin Dudley and Robert Emmet as attorneys and scrounging about for funds.
The trial was the newspaper sensation of the year, for it had all the elements of melodrama: a crime of passion, a voluble defendant with friends of influence and means, an aroused populace, a lovely blackeyed blonde, and a bizarre climax.
The girl in the story was Caroline Henshaw, an unschooled young woman who gave birth to a son just before the trial opened in January of 1842. She told the court that she had met John Colt in Philadelphia in 1840, but did not live with him until she came to New York the following January. He taught her to read and write, but eschewed marriage, he said, because of his poverty. Another version had it that Caroline was of German birth, and that it was Sam, not John, who met her first. On his trip to Europe in 1835, the story went, Sam met Caroline in Scotland and brought her back to America as his wife. According to this account, Sam was so preoccupied with his inventions and was away so much that John had, out of pity, made Caroline his common-law wife. Furthermore, because of their social differences, Sam was only too glad to be rid of a partner who might impede his career, which he always placed above personal ties.
In any event, John Colt was convicted of murdering Sam Adams and was sentenced to be hanged on November 18, 1842.
As dawn broke that day, Sam Colt was the first to see John. At about eleven o’clock, Dr. Henry Anthon, rector of St. Mark’s Church, visited the prisoner, who had decided, after conferring with his brother, to make Caroline his lawful wife. John handed the minister five hundred dollars to be used for Caroline’s welfare; he had received the money from Sam—a sizable gift from a man whose factory had failed the month before. A little before noon, Caroline, worn and nervous but smartly dressed in a claret-colored coat and carrying a muff, arrived with Sam. She and John were married by Dr. Anthon. For nearly an hour she remained alone with John in his cell. Then she departed with Sam, and John was left undisturbed.
At five minutes to four the sheriff and Dr. Anthon entered the cell to escort John to the scaffold. But the prisoner lay dead on his bed, a knife with a broken handle buried in his heart. The New York Herald speculated that Colt’s relatives knew of his intention to commit suicide and that they might have smuggled the knife into his cell. The allegation was never proved —or disproved.
Colt secretly arranged for Caroline and her young son to go to Germany. He told his brother James that she “speaks and understands German and can best be cared for in the German countries. … [I have] made all the necessary arrangements and will somehow provide the needful.” At his insistence she changed her name to Miss Julia Leicester, but the boy grew up as Samuel Caldwell Colt.
Caroline and her son remained abroad, supported by Sam. Eventually she became attracted to a young Prussian officer, Baron Friedrich Von Oppen, whose father questioned her background and suspected that money, not love, was Caroline’s motive. But Colt used all his influence to insure a quiet marriage and afterward did everything possible to make the couple and fifteen-year-old Samuel happy.