First Wrongful Conviction

Artist's depiction of the alleged murder of Russell Colvin in 1812 in Manchester, VT.

Artist's depiction of the alleged murder of Russell Colvin in 1812 in Manchester, VT.

Jesse Boorn and Stephen Boorn

When Russell Colvin disappeared from Manchester, Vermont, in 1812, suspicion of foul play understandably fell upon his brothers-in-law, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, who had worked with him on their father's farm. The Boorn brothers had made no secret of their disdain for their sister's spouse. In fact, they had complained often that Colvin, a habitué of the local public house, was sloughing off on the job and freeloading off the family.

Despite the widespread suspicion that the Boorns had slain Colvin, nothing happened in the case until seven years later when Amos Boorn, an uncle of the suspects, claimed that Colvin had appeared at his bedside during a recurring dream. The ghost confirmed, just as had been widely assumed, that he had been slain. He did not identify his killers, but did say that his remains had been put into an old cellar hole in a potato field on the Boorn farm.

In light of the dream, the cellar hole was excavated. In it were found pieces of broken crockery, a button, a penknife, and a jackknife - but no human remains. Russell Colvin's wife, Sally Boorn Colvin, sister of the suspects, promptly identified the items as having been her husband's.

However, she had a motive to say that, whether true or not. It was in her interest to have Russell proven dead because - more than a gestation period after his disappearance - she had given birth to a child. Because the law presumed a child born to a married woman to have been fathered by her lawful husband, Sally was ineligible for support from the child's actual father. For her to collect, Russell needed to be dead. Moreover, Sally may not have realized, when she identified the items, that furthering her interest in collecting support would be so potentially detrimental to her brothers' interest in remaining alive and free.

Soon after the excavation of the cellar hole, a mysterious fire destroyed the sheep barn on the Boorn place, giving rise to rumors that the fire was somehow related to the crime. Then, a few days after that, from beneath a nearby stump, a dog unearthed several bone fragments, which three area physicians pronounced human. Now the rumor mill began confabulating a plausible sequence of events: The brothers initially had buried Colvin in the cellar hole, but for an unknown reason moved the remains a couple of years later, burying them in the barn, only to be moved a second time recently, again for an unknown reason, to the location where the dog found them. Under this scenario, the killers had torched the barn to destroy evidence of the murder. Based on this speculation, Jesse Boorn was arrested and a warrant issued for the arrest of Stephen Boorn, who recently had moved to New York.

In jail, Jesse shared a cell with a forger, Silas Merrill, who promptly began cooperating with the authorities. Merrill claimed that Jesse had confessed after a visit from his father, Barney Boorn. According to Merrill, Jesse confided that Stephen clubbed Colvin to the ground during an argument. Barney Boorn happened along and, seeing that Colvin was still alive, cut his throat with Stephen's pen knife. The three then buried Colvin in an old cellar hole, but two or three years later inexplicably dug up the remains and buried them in the barn. After fire destroyed the barn, they again moved Colvin's bones, this time burying them near the stump, precisely where the dog found them. In the manner of modern jailhouse snitches, Merrill agreed to testify against the brothers in exchange for his immediate release. State's Attorney Calvin Sheldon accepted the deal, and Merrill was set free.

Facing a likely death sentence, Jesse took a desperate step no doubt calculated to save his life: He confessed, minimizing his own culpability and exculpating his father, who never would be charged in the case. Jesse's confession conveniently placed the blame principally on Stephen, whom Jesse may have assumed to be safely beyond the reach of Vermont authorities. But when a constable from Manchester called on him in New York, Stephen voluntarily returned, vowing to clear his name, whereupon Jesse recanted, contending that he had falsely confessed in a misguided effort to save his and his father's lives.

No mind was paid to the recantation. In fact, if anything, it strengthened State's Attorney Sheldon's resolve to seek the death penalty. In the ensuing days, witnesses came forward to recall, seven years after the fact, that they had heard the Boorn brothers threaten to kill Colvin. Other witnesses belatedly recalled that, after Colvin's disappearance, the Boorns had said things suggesting they knew he was dead.

In the face of the increasingly damning evidence, Stephen suddenly took the same desperate step that had so disastrously backfired on Jesse: Stephen, too, confessed, but insisted that he had acted in self defense - a contention that, if believed, could mitigate against his hanging.

Before trial, the largest of the bones that the dog had found was compared with an actual human leg bone that had been preserved after an amputation in a nearby county. The bones were so obviously dissimilar that the physicians who previously had been certain that the ones found on the Boorn farm were human changed their minds, agreeing now that the bones were of animal origin. By this time, however, the physicians' earlier unfounded opinion had done its damage. But for the bones, Jesse and Stephen would not have been arrested, Merrill would have been denied the opportunity to implicate them, and the brothers would not have made the incriminating statements that veritably sealed their fate at trial.

There were, however, serious problems with the confessions that should have cast doubt on their veracity. First, they were not corroborated by any solid facts. Second, it was unlikely that Stephen, a man of unquestionable low intelligence and little formal education, was the sole author of his confession, which was written in precise language, with an unmistakable emphasis on mitigation. Rather it appears likely, in retrospect, that Stephen was aided and abetted by counsel. His defense lawyers, Richard Skinner and Leonard Sargeant, were distinguished and learned, but they - like virtually everyone else - assumed their clients guilty.

The miscarriage of justice also would not have occurred, of course, had not the community superstitiously attributed Amos Boorn's account of his alleged dreamy visits from Colvin's ghost to divine agency. Nor would it have occurred absent jailhouse snitch Merrill's false claim, which by the time of trial had been rendered superfluous by the brothers' confessions and, thus, was not brought into evidence.

The principal evidence introduced at trial to corroborate the confessions was the testimony of purported eyewitnesses who claimed, seven years after the fact, to have seen the Boorns and Colvin arguing on the day the latter disappeared. The jury had no trouble reaching a guilty verdict, and the judges presiding the case - Vermont law then required the three members of the state supreme court to sit as a panel in any potential capital trial - sentenced both to death. The Vermont General Assembly convened a special session to consider a plea for clemency. Because Jesse appeared less culpable, his sentence was commuted to life in prison, but Stephen was denied relief.

The journalistic event that turned the tide for the Boorns was an item in the New York Evening Post of November 26, 1819, marveling that divine intervention had brought Colvin's killers to justice. The item was read aloud in the lobby of a New York hotel, where a traveler from New Jersey, Tabor Chadwick, happened to be staying. Chadwick knew a man who went by the name Russell Colvin, who often had spoken of Vermont and who had been employed for the last several years as a farmhand in Dover, New Jersey. Chadwick immediately dispatched two letters relating the foregoing, one to the Post, the other to the Manchester postmaster. The letters described Colvin as "a man of rather small stature - round forehead - [who] speaks very fast, has two scars on his head, and appears to be between 30 an 40 years of age."

Chadwick's letter to Manchester had no effect - perhaps a telling commentary on the quality of the defense that the Boorns received, for the postmaster who received the letter was none other than their junior trial counsel, Leonard Sergeant. The Post, however, published the letter on December 6, 1819. In yet another serendipitous turn of events, the letter was read by one James Whelpley, a native of Manchester now living in New York. Whelpley immediately left for Dover, where he found a living, breathing, but uncooperative Colvin, who refused to return to Vermont.

Time being of the essence - Stephen's execution was scheduled for January 28, 1820 - Whelpley reportedly enlisted a young woman to entice Colvin to accompany her to New York City. Colvin reportedly accepted the invitation, but when they arrived in the city, the woman immediately deserted him. Whelpley then told Colvin that, because British ships were offshore, they would have to take a circuitous route back to New Jersey. With this subterfuge, Whelpley coaxed Colvin onto a stagecoach bound for Manchester.

When they arrived on December 22, 1819, Colvin and Whelpley were greeted by a curious crowd, alerted to their impending arrival by a telegram from Whelpley. The crowd included several of Colvin's former neighbors, thereby establishing that rumors of his murder, as Mark Twain might have said, had been greatly exaggerated.

The exoneration of the Boorns received prominent play in newspapers throughout New England. In Vermont, the reporting was reasonably accurate, but elsewhere the facts seldom stood in the way making a good story better. One error that frequently made it into print was that the Boorns' convictions had rested primarily upon testimony by Amos Boorn concerning his spectral visits from Colvin. In fact, there had been no such testimony, for the court had excluded it based on time-honored rules of evidence.

The mistaken impression to the contrary, unfortunately, prompted editorial demands for the exclusion of superstition - based testimony - a safeguard already in place and irrelevant to Boorns' conviction. The editorials, meanwhile, were oblivious to genuine issues, such as junk science and jailhouse snitch allegations had led to false confessions and how the justice process had been polluted by widespread knowledge of Amos Boorns's alleged dream.

As a consequence of the media missing the point, moreover, commentators learned in the law focused heavily on correcting the misinformation, rather than on possible reforms that might correct what had gone wrong. The public was left with the impression that the case was nothing more than a regrettable but freakish accident in an otherwise functioning criminal justice system. As a result, there was no constituency for reform. - Rob Warden

Further Reading

Moulton, Sherman R., The Boorn Mystery/An Episode from the Judicial Annals of Vermont, Vermont Historical Society, 1937.

Spargo, John, The Return of Russell Colvin, Historical Museum and Art Gallery of Bennington, Vermont, 1945.

McFarland, Gerald M., The Counterfeit Man/The True Story of the Boorn-Colvin Murder Case by Gerald M. McFarland, University of Massachusetts Press, 1990. (As the title suggests, McFarland speculates that the man who claimed to be Colvin could have been an imposter - even though the man had returned to Manchester, had been examined in open court, and had engaged in conversation with a number of persons who had known him since birth. Aside from according undue weight to the imposter theory, however, this book is carefully researched and insightful.)