Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Harold Schechter's "Killer Colt"

Harold Schechter is a professor of American literature and culture at Queens College, the City University of New York.

Among his nonfiction works are The Devil's Gentleman and the historical true-crime classics Fatal, Fiend, Deviant, Deranged, and Depraved.

Schechter also writes a critically acclaimed mystery series featuring Edgar Allan Poe, which includes The Tell-Tale Corpse, The Hum Bug, Nevermore and The Mask of Red Death.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Killer Colt: Murder, Disgrace, and the Making of an American Legend, and reported the following:
I can’t judge whether p. 99 reveals the quality of my book but it certainly gives a misleading idea of its subject. Killer Colt interweaves the stories of Samuel Colt, legendary inventor of the revolver, and his brother John Caldwell Colt, a well-known accountant and the central figure in one of the most sensational American murder cases of the nineteenth century. In September 1841, Samuel Adams, a respected printer with a shop in lower Manhattan, paid a call at the office of John Colt, who had hired Adams to produce the latest edition of a popular book-keeping textbook he had written. Adams was there to collect a debt. The two began arguing over the amount. Before long they were trading blows. The altercation ended when Colt bludgeoned Adams to death with the blade of a shingle hammer. He then stuffed the mutilated corpse into a packing crate, addressed it to a nonexistent person, and attempted to ship it off to New Orleans on a boat scheduled to leave the next morning. Unfortunately for him, a storm rolled in, preventing the ship from leaving port for a week and the horrific murder came to light. Thanks to penny-press publisher James Gordon Bennett, the much-reviled pioneer of tabloid-style journalism, the story became a newspaper sensation, displacing other notorious crimes from the front page. Among the latter was the still-unsolved murder of the “Beautiful Cigar Girl,” Mary Rogers, whose case was the basis for Edgar Allan Poe’s famous detective story “The Mystery of Marie Roget.” Page 99 of Killer Colt comes from a chapter about Bennett and deals not with Colt but with Mary Rogers. A reader opening to that page might think the book was about a completely different crime (one expertly covered in Daniel Stashower’s 1997 true-crime history, The Beautiful Cigar Girl).
Read an excerpt from Killer Colt, and learn more about the book and author at Harold Schechter's website.

Writers Read: Harold Schechter.

--Marshal Zeringue