"...we should pass over all biographies of 'the good and the great,' while we search carefully the slight records of wretches who died in prison, in Bedlam, or upon the gallows."
~Edgar Allan Poe

Monday, June 8, 2015

How Russell Colvin Came Back From the Dead

In the early 19th century, Manchester, Vermont boasted among its inhabitants a clan by the name of Boorn. This family consisted of Barney Boorn, his wife, three adult married children, Stephen, Jesse, and Sally, as well as Barney's brother Amos. Although I mention Amos last, he proved to be the pivotal figure in our curious little story.

Sally Boorn had been married for nearly twenty years to a Russell Colvin. They had two children. Russell could not be called an entirely satisfactory husband. He was "weak in his intellects," and had a disconcerting habit of periodically disappearing for long stretches of time. Then, on May 10, 1812, he did another vanishing act...but this time, he never returned.

Weeks, months, years went by, and nothing whatsoever was heard of Russell Colvin. His wife and in-laws showed a profound lack of curiosity about his whereabouts and general welfare, so the rest of Manchester just shrugged and thought no more about the mystery.

It was not until seven years had passed that any of the townsfolk began to ask one another, "Gosh, what do you suppose ever happened to Colvin?" Gossip and speculation of an increasingly lurid character began to spread through the town.

The Boorns had only themselves to thank for the sinister rumors that began to swirl around them. It was well-known that Russell had never been a favorite among his wife's kin. One brother-in-law stated in a curiously positive way that Colvin was dead. Another was heard to blithely assert that "we have put him where potatoes will not freeze." As for Sally Boorn Colvin, she was too busy consoling herself with her extensive network of male friends to pay much heed to her absent husband's possible fate.

Given these circumstances, one can expect a few raised eyebrows.

And then Amos Boorn ("a man of unimpeachable character," so we are told) made public a dream he had. A dream he had no less than three different times. He dreamed that the ghost of Russell Colvin came to his bedside and told of being murdered. The phantom instructed Amos to follow him, so he could show the place where he had been buried, which was the cellar hole where an old house had once stood.

This site was excavated, but nothing was found but a knife, a small pen-knife, and a button. Sally Colvin declared that the knife and button had belonged to her husband. Some time after this, a boy was out walking his dog near Barney Boorn's house. The animal suddenly rushed to a tree stump and began to frenetically dig. This inspired a crowd of villagers to examine the soil around the stump for themselves. Their search was soon rewarded by a heap of bones. The greatest excitement spread through Manchester--had Russell Colvin finally been found? The find was considered sufficient reason to immediately arrest Jesse Boorn for murder. (His brother Stephen was by then living some two hundred miles away, in New York state.) It was quite a letdown when physicians ruled that the bones were of some animal.

To everyone's disappointment, the authorities decided there was nothing for it but to let Jesse go. However, before he could be released, Jesse began to talk. He confessed that when Russell had paid a clandestine visit to Manchester some time after his final disappearance, Stephen had murdered him during a quarrel.

A party of local worthies was immediately assembled to go to Stephen's new village and put him under arrest. He was taken from his home and brought back to Manchester, protesting his innocence all the way. Barney Boorn was arrested as well, but after "a severe examination" before a judge, it was decided that he had nothing to do with the killing, and he was released, "much to the indignation of the public."

No matter how often he was interrogated in his cell, Stephen continued to insist that his brother had falsely accused him. The townspeople continued to unsuccessfully search every inch of Manchester ground in the hopes of finding Russell Colvin's body.

In September 1819, after the brothers had been in custody for several months, a Grand Jury was finally held in Manchester. Colvin's seventeen-year-old son Lewis testified about a fight he had witnessed between Russell and his brothers-in-law. A Silas Merrill, Stephen's cell-mate, alleged that Boorn had confessed the murder to him. Stephen himself, after being told a confession was the only thing that would save him from the gallows, signed a statement where he admitted to having murdered Colvin. After hearing all this, as well as possibly other evidence now unknown to us, the panel declared that Stephen Boorn had murdered his brother-in-law, with Jesse Boorn acting as accessory.

When the brothers stood trial two months later, their conviction was so universally regarded as inevitable that the court had a very difficult time finding twelve men willing to declare themselves as impartial in the matter.

Amos Boorn was among the witnesses, but he was not allowed to tell of the remarkable dream that had kicked off the whole proceedings. He merely testified about the discovery of the knives and bones. A Truman Hill told how Jesse Boorn had made certain statements to him indicating Jesse's belief in his brother's guilt, and a Thomas Johnson described a fight he had witnessed between Colvin and the Boorn brothers, which was apparently the same quarrel Lewis Colvin had talked about in front of the Grand Jury. Lewis himself described seeing Stephen strike his father with a club. He, Lewis, was so frightened by the sight that he ran away. He never saw his father again. Sally Colvin told the court that four years previously, when she became pregnant, she was told that she could not "swear her child" on any man, if her husband was still alive. However, "Stephen told me I could swear the child, for Russell was dead, and he knew it...I asked Lewis where Russell was; he answered, gone to hell." Other witnesses stated that when they asked Stephen about Colvin's whereabouts, they received the same pessimistic opinion of Russell's current residence. Silas Merrill repeated his story about Stephen unburdening his soul to Merrill--a confession that supposedly implicated not just his brother, but his father as well.

The case presented against the defendants was mostly based on hearsay, but it was enough to make the jury return a verdict of "guilty" against both the Boorn brothers. They were sentenced to be hanged on January 18, 1820.

However, the brothers so vigorously declared their innocence that a petition in their favor was presented to the State Legislature. This body decided to commute Jesse's sentence to life imprisonment, but they maintained that Stephen must die.

One of the Boorn defense lawyers, a Mr. Sargeant, realized that the only thing that could save his clients was a long shot. Although he realized it was asking the nearly impossible, he resolved to roll the dice and place advertisements in regional newspapers asking for information about Colvin's whereabouts.

This story, when it appeared in the "New York Evening Post," caught the eye of a New Jersey man named Taber Chadwick. He recalled that a few years previously, a stranger had appeared in his neighborhood., who said he was from Manchester, Vermont. The man appeared to be in a state of "mental derangement," but was able to give many particulars about his life. This man gave his name as "Russell Colvin."

Chadwick immediately wrote a letter to the "Post," telling all he knew about this now "completely insane" man, who was currently working on the Dover farm of Chadwick's brother-in-law, and urging that some of Colvin's relations come to the area to see if they could identify him. A James Whelpley was sent to New Jersey to interview this strange farm-hand. The man denied that he was "Russell Colvin," but admitted that he had once gone by that name. Although he claimed to never have lived in Manchester, he exhibited some familiarity with the town. He also flatly refused to go near the place.

Since persuasion proved futile in getting the man to travel to Manchester, Whelpley resolved to try a bit of trickery. He was able to talk the maybe-Colvin into going with him to New York. Then, instead of taking him on the ferry back to New Jersey, he placed the man on a boat headed for Troy. Finally, he was able to present the man to the County Court in Bennington, Vermont. It is said that upon hearing that murder victim Russell Colvin was now in their midst, "the Court broke up in the greatest confusion."

Everyone immediately recognized the stranger as Colvin. He was taken to Manchester, where he was confronted by his convicted killer, Stephen Boorn. When the newcomer noticed that Boorn was still in fetters, he asked bemusedly, "What is that for?"

"Because they say I murdered you," Boorn replied.

"You never hurt me," the man shrugged. "Jess struck me with a briar once, but it did not hurt me much."

The resurrected Colvin declined the chance to reunite with his wife. Having dutifully established to everyone's satisfaction that he was not dead, all he wanted was to return to his farm labor in New Jersey. He died there--for good this time, apparently--several years later.

The court, after scratching their collective heads a bit about how to resolve this unprecedented legal tangle, finally ordered that the Boorns be given a new trial. The State nolle prossed, and the brothers were freed. The case was officially closed.

Unofficially, of course, the story of this New England Lazarus was far from resolved, and cannot be considered satisfactorily explained to this day. If Colvin did indeed vanish from Manchester alive and well, why did Jesse Boorn say he had been murdered? Why did Stephen confess to the crime?  At the time, it was assumed that Stephen may have honestly thought he had killed Colvin in a fight, but as he gave a detailed description of secretly burying the body, that seems dubious. It is now commonly believed that, once he realized he could not prove his innocence, he confessed simply in the desperate hope of saving himself from the gallows. That is entirely possible, but, again, does not fully explain the amount of circumstantial detail he gave of Colvin's death and burial.

And what of Amos Boorn, and his tale of encountering Colvin's unhappy ghost? Did he so hate his nephews that he deliberately set out to frame them for murder? Did he sincerely believe Stephen and Jesse had killed their sister's husband? Or did Amos simply have a fanciful dream, which he chose to present as reality?

For that matter, can we be completely sure that Russell Colvin was not murdered by the Boorn brothers? Despite the fact that so many people unhesitatingly recognized the New Jersey farm hand as Colvin, a number of other observers suspected that the man was an imposter, put up by Stephen and Jesse's supporters in order to exonerate them of a crime they really did commit. Perhaps it was due to these lingering doubts that the brothers' claims for compensation were denied. Some years later, when Jesse was arrested on a charge of counterfeiting, he supposedly admitted to one of his confederates (who turned out to be an undercover U.S. Marshal,) that he and his brother really had killed Colvin, and found a "substitute" Russell to escape punishment. Jesse subsequently denied having made such a statement, and the matter does not seem to have been pursued. (However, he did serve five years for forgery.)

Gerald McFarland, author of "The Boorn Conspiracy," the most recent book about the case, was of the opinion that we will never know for sure just what truly happened to Russell Colvin. He closed his book by speculating that if Jesse did truly make his alleged confession to the marshal, perhaps he was "for once in his life, telling the truth."

1 comment:

  1. If the New Jersey Colvin was the real one, he probably thought he was well out of things in his new life. As usual with stories about 19th century New England, the best things are the names. 'Taber Chadwick' could be the hero of a new action movie.


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