In a prior post, “Footsteps on the Stairs” I discussed some of my experiences working in a Victorian house (thought by some, including me, to be haunted) in the Asylum Hill area of Hartford, Connecticut.
I worked in another building that was even older than that Victorian. It is on Wethersfield Avenue which runs south out of the center of the City of Hartford. It is known as the Day-Taylor House, an Italianate Villa constructed in 1858 and first owned by Albert Day, a prominent business man involved in the wholesale dry goods trade and Lieutenant Governor of the State of Connecticut from 1856-57. It became the residence of Mary Borden (daughter of Gail Borden of Borden Milk) Munsill from 1879 to 1893. Mary Munsill added a three story addition to the rear of the home while she owned it; she then built a new home a little further north on Wethersfield Avenue. At that time the Italianate house was purchased by Edwin Taylor (Taylor Lumber Co.) and the Taylor family lived there until 1928. The Fraternal Order of Eagles Lodge then bought the house and used it as their club and headquarters. By the early 1970s, having suffered neglect for years, this house was in serious disrepair.
In 1974 the house was purchased by the Hartford Redevelopment Agency; it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975 and was saved.
It was wonderful working in this gorgeous historic building…we had some great parties in the ballroom sized front room on the third floor. And there were no ghosts (at least none that I detected)!
Directly across the street from this house was Armsmear, the Colt mansion. When Samuel Colt’s widow, Elizabeth, died in 1905, she left the house to the Colt Trust, and it still functions today as a home for widows and other female dependents of Episcopal clergy and other qualified gentlewomen.
In researching Samuel Caldwell Colt for this blog, I realized how little I really knew about the man and his family. What a story! What a movie it would make! Such intrigue and drama! You can certainly get an excellent overview by going to Wikipedia, as I did: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samuel_Colt
Samuel Colt was born in Hartford in 1814. His father, Christopher Colt, was a textile merchant. When Sam was six his mother, Sarah, died of tuberculosis. His father remarried two years later. Sam had three sisters: one died in childhood, another died of tuberculosis at 19 and the third committed suicide. Sam also had three brothers: James became a lawyer, Christopher went into the textile business and John had been involved in various occupations. At the age of 30, John was found guilty of killing a creditor; he supposedly committed suicide on the day he was to be executed. More on John below.
Samuel Colt was an inventor and industrialist. He was the first to successfully use the assembly line method of manufacturing. He was a master in marketing and product placement. He built his first factory in Hartford along the banks of the Connecticut River in 1848 and a larger factory called the Colt Armory in 1855.
Sam built Armsmear just up the hill from his Armory in 1856 and married Elizabeth Jarvis in June of that same year (he was 42 and she was 30 at the time of their marriage). Samuel died just six years later in January of 1862 at the age of 47 as a result of some infection, perhaps pneumonia. Colonel Colt, as he was called, was buried on the grounds of Armsmear in what was called “The Grove of Graves”. Three of Elizabeth and Sam’s children had died in infancy and were buried there. Elizabeth was pregnant when Sam died and in June of that same year she delivered a stillborn child who was also buried there. Elizabeth Colt had buried a husband and four children in a period of five years. She had one surviving child, Caldwell Hart Colt, who was born in 1858.
A well written accounting of Sam’s funeral can be found here:
Ellsworth S. Grant: http://connecticuthistory.org/sam-colts-funeral-the-day-hartford-stopped/
The map above shows the Armsmear estate. The building in which I worked is directly across the street and marked with the red dot. You can see an oval shaped area rimmed with trees toward the left of the rear of Armsmear…that, I believe, is the Grove of Graves. The large home on the same side of the street and to the left of Armsmear belonged to Sam’s brother James who held various positions within Colt’s Patent Fire-Arms Manufacturing Company, including Treasurer.
The year after Sam’s death, in 1863, Elizabeth decides to write a book about her husband. The book was privately published several years later and entitled “Armsmear: The Home, the Arm, and the Armory of Samuel Colt: a Memorial” which she had co-written with Henry Barnard. At the beginning of the book there is an ominous mention of “…the Indian sachem Nepaquash, who had his hunting-grounds, and fishery, and cornfields, as well as the burial place of his tribe hereabout”. Was, perhaps, the Indian “burial place” disturbed by the construction of Armsmear?
It is felt by some that Elizabeth wanted to shape and control the memory of Samuel Colt and this book was the beginning of her management of the reputation of her late husband. This is a poem and illustration of the “Grove of Graves” from that book:
The following year, the Colt Armory burst into flames and burned to the ground. It was suspected, but never proven, that Confederate sympathizers had torched the building (the Colt company was selling firearms to both sides during the Civil War). Elizabeth could see the building engulfed in flames from her bedroom window.
“To think that the magnificent, noble structure is in ruins…it seems so identified with the Col. It seems like burying him again…Elizabeth bears it…with calmness…When the beautiful dome fell she burst into tears”
–Rev. William Jarvis, Elizabeth Colt’s father, 1864
Elizabeth took the insurance money and rebuilt the factory. This website gives an excellent account of the “Colt: Legand and Legacy” and discusses what was happening with Elizabeth after the death of Samuel: http://www.simonpure.com/colt06.htm
In 1866 Elizabeth commissioned a monument for the Colt family plot in Cedar Hill, Hartford’s new rural cemetry. Sam and the children were moved over to Cedar Hill from the Grove of Graves.
In 1867, Elizabeth had an Episcopal church designed by Edward Tuckerman Potter built as a memorial to Samuel Colt and the children they had lost. The church’s architecture contains guns and gun-smithing tools (rather unusual objects for a church) sculpted in marble to commemorate Colt’s life as an arms maker. You can see this church, The Church of the Good Shephard, in the lower right corner of the map above. A photograph of the church follows.
In 1869 Elizabeth began getting involved in charitable work. She also spent time traveling with her only surviving child, her son Caldwell Hart Colt. Caldwell did not go into the family business. Instead he became a world famous yachtsman. He died, however, in 1894 at the age of 36 while sailing off the coast of Florida. I’ve read some accounts that he died of tonsillitis, I’ve read other accounts that he died of mysterious causes and the Church of the Good Shephard’s own website states that he “drowned mysteriously”. See the church’s website here: http://www.cgshartford.org/id19.html
Elizabeth brought Edward Tuckerman Potter out of retirement to build the Caldwell Colt Memorial Parish House next to the church.
In 1901, at the age of 75, Elizabeth Colt sold the factory and ended the Colt family era. She died in 1905. She had effectively managed Colt Firearms for over forty years and her accomplishments were many. As I mentioned previously, Armsmear was bequeathed to the Colt Trust and is still run today as a home for widows of Episcopal clergy. The grounds of Armsmear were left to the City of Hartford as Colt Park. She also gave over 1,000 objects to the Wadsworth Atheneum as well as $50,000 for the museum to build the Colt Memorial.
The story of Samuel Colt and his family is not an easy one to summarize. This is only a bare bones outline with much missing. There is so much more to it. What motivated the young Samuel to become an inventor and the man he had become? And Elizabeth, what drove her to control how Sam would be remembered after his death? Was she worried about his legacy?
Remember at the beginning of this post I mentioned Sam’s brother, John, who was convicted of murder? And that he supposedly committed suicide on the day he was scheduled to be executed? Keep reading….
In 1841, John Colt was accused of murdering Samuel Adams, a printer to whom he owned money. The story goes that a fight ensued between the two men and that John hit Mr. Adams in the head with an axe and killed him. In panic, he cleaned up his office, where the murder had taken place, placed the body in a trunk, and put it on a ship bound for New Orleans. Weather, however, prevented the ship from leaving port and days later a foul odor resulted in the opening of the trunk and discovering of the decomposing body of Samuel Adams. John did not deny his killing of Adams but he claimed it was self defense.
The trial of John C. Colt dragged on and on. The press had a field day as John was the brother of the wealthy and famous Samuel Colt. During the trial it was mentioned that John was living with a woman who was pregnant; her name was Caroline Henshaw. It was assumed that John was the father. However, when the child was born, Caroline named the child Samuel Colt, Jr.
John was convicted of murdering Samuel Adams. On the day of his scheduled execution, Caroline Henshaw and Samuel Colt visited John in his jail cell. Caroline and John were married there in the cell. After they left, John asked that he be left alone for a while. Just before the time of the scheduled execution his dead body was found with a dagger sticking out of his chest. Coincidentally, a fire had broken out at the prison around this same time. Presumably, John had committed suicide. However, there was speculation that the body found was not John’s and that he actually escaped and was living in California.
Subsequently, Caroline Henshaw Colt’s son’s name was changed to Samuel Caldwell Colt. Sam provided well for the boy and referred to him as his “nephew”. He actually used those quote marks around the word nephew….”nephew” (wink, wink) when he wrote of him. Sam had provided for his “nephew” in his will…an amount of $2,000,000 in today’s currency. Elizabeth contested. Samuel Caldwell Colt aka the “nephew” provided the court with a marriage license which proved that the senior Samuel Colt had married Caroline Henshaw in Scotland in 1835. He was 21 at the time and I believe she was 16; he had traveled to Europe at that time to obtain foreign patents. Sam brought Caroline back to the United States with him. The marriage, however, was kept secret. Obviously, their relationship continued as she became pregnant six years or so later. I guess brother John was taking care of her for Sam.
Caroline Henshaw Colt pretty much disappeared off the face of the map after that. It was rumored that she returned to Europe and married a count who was somehow involved in Samuel Colt’s European operations.
So the question in my mind is, if Sam and Caroline were legally married, were they ever legally divorced? If not, then she committed bigamy when she married John there in that jail cell. And, when Sam married Elizabeth all those years later, was he still a legally married man at that time? Maybe this is why Elizabeth wanted to closely manage and control how Samuel would be remembered?
Interestingly enough, the young Samuel Caldwell Colt purchased a house across the street from Armsmear. This house had been built in 1840 for James Ashmead. Ashmead and his partner, Edmund Hurlbut, were in the business of gold beating. Sam Colt’s “nephew” bought the house in 1865 and it was most likely he who added the Second Empire style tower and porte-cochere.
A book published in 1891 entitled “The Goodwins of Hartford, Connecticut, Descendants of William and Ozias Goodwin” by James Junius Goodwin and Frank Farnsworth Starr, states that:
“Mary Malvina Goodwin born July 5, 1847, married December 16, 1863. Samuel Caldwell Colt, son of Samuel Caldwell and Sarah Hancock Colt of Philadelphia, Penn. Samuel C. Colt is a farmer in Farmington, Conn.”
While they state that Samuel Caldwell Colt was the son of Samuel Caldwell Colt, they also state that the young Sam’s mother was “Sarah Hancock Colt”. Who is Sarah Hancock Colt?
I will be writing more on Hartford during its golden age in the late 1800s.