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THE TRIAL OF STEPHEN AND JESSE BOORN FOR THE MURDER OF RUSSEL COLVIN, BENNINGTON, VERMONT, 1819.
In the spring of 1812, there lived in the town of Manchester, Vermont, a family named Boorn, consisting of the father, Barney Boorn, his wife, two grown-up sons, Stephen and Jesse, a daughter, Sally, who had been married eighteen years to a man named Russel Colvin, and who, with her husband and two children, also lived with her father. The old people were respectable, and in comfortable circumstances, while the younger members of the family were rather wild and reckless.
The son-in-law, Colvin, was a man of weak intellect, and was at times insane, and would sometimes absent himself for days at a time without giving any account of himself, and once he was gone eight or nine months, though it is said that he corresponded with his family during the time.
In the month of May, 1812, during the absence of Mrs. Colvin, who was on a visit to a neighboring town, Colvin suddenly disappeared. No particular inquiry was made at the time, as the Boorns reported that he had gone on one of his customary journeys. Days and weeks rolled by, and months lengthened into years, and nothing was heard of the missing man. People began to make inquiries and, as is usual in such cases, rumors began to spread, and suspicions of foul play were communicated from one to another.
To add fuel to the flame, it was remembered that the young Boorns had spoken strangely of the disappearance of Colvin, though no one had taken much notice of it at the time. One of them had stated that he knew Colvin was dead, and the other, that they had put him where potatoes would not freeze, Though these were, probably, idle remarks when made, they served, greatly, to make the people believe that the Boorns
were responsible for the disappearance of Colvin. It was also known that Colvin and the Boorns had not been on good terms, and that they sometimes quarreled. In a short time. the public came to the conclusion that Colvin had been murdered, and that the Boorns were the murderers, and a hundred eyes and ears were on the alert to discover evidence of what they already believed to be true.
And evidence was not long in forthcoming. Some children at play, on or near the old Boorn place, found a hat in a mouldy, dilapidated condition, and it being recognized as the hat Colvin wore at the time of his disappearance, search at once began for the bones of the unfortunate man. About this time, Amos Boorn, uncle of Stephen and Jesse, dreamed that Russel Colvin came to his bedside and told him that he had been murdered, and to follow him and he would lead him to the spot where he was buried. This was repeated three times. The place of burial as described in the dream was an old cellar hole, about four feet square, over which a house had formerly stood, and which was used, at the time of Colvin's disappearance, as a place for burying potatoes, as was frequently done in those days, but which had afterwards been filled up.
About this time a barn on the Boorn farm was burned, and it was supposed by many that the body might have been concealed under it. Another circumstance occurred which excited much attention. A lad with a dog was walking at a short distance from Barney Boorn's, when the dog began to dig furiously under an old stump. Soon some bones were dug out, and on being examined were pronounced to be human. This was too much for the excited inhabitants. Stephen Boorn had recently removed to the State of New York, but Jesse Boorn was arrested and brought before a Justice of the Peace for examination, on the 27th day of April, 1819, nearly seven years after the supposed murder.
The examination lasted five days and was attended by a large concourse of people. The country was scoured for evidence. The old cellar-hole was reopened, and a large knife, a penknife and a button were found. The large knife and
button were identified as having belonged to Colvin. The bones found in the hollow stump were brought into court, and four physicians were called, who, after an examination, pronounced them to be the bones of a human foot, together with some toe-nails, and perhaps a thumb-nail. One of the physicians, after thinking the matter over, concluded there might, after all, be a doubt about it, and on examining a human skeleton at home was convinced that he had been mistaken, and the next day went into court and retracted his former statement. The other physicians were not satisfied, and to settle the matter sent to a neighboring town and had a leg, that had been amputated and buried, exhumed and brought into court, and, on comparing the two specimens, everyone was convinced that the bones were not human. This dampened the public ardor somewhat, and it is probable that Jesse would have been discharged but that on Saturday he made a statement that he believed Colvin had been murdered, and that his brother Stephen was the murderer; that Stephen had told him the previous winter that he (Stephen) and Colvin were hoeing when they had a quarrel and Colvin attempted to run away; that he struck him on the back part of the head with a club and fractured his skull; that he (Jesse) did not know what had become of the body, but mentioned several places where it might be found. The next Sunday the inhabitants for miles around turned out to search for the remains of Colvin. Stumps were overturned, cellar-holes examined, and the side of the mountain back of the premises carefully searched, but all to no avail; nothing resembling human remains was found.
But the people were not satisfied. A warrant was issued, and two officers were despatched to New York to arrest Stephen Boorn. On their way back they tried to induce him to make a confession, telling him what Jesse had said, and that the facts were strong enough to convict him, but Stephen stoutly maintained his innocence, and this he did when confronted by Jesse. After Stephen was brought back, the examination was continued, but no new facts were brought out,
and they were both held to await the action of the Grand Jury in the following September where the principal witness against them was one Silas Merrill, who was confined in the jail with them, on the charge of forgery. He testified that Jesse made a confession to him in June while they were together in the jail, but whether any such confession was ever made in fact is doubtful. One thing is certain: before the sitting of the Grand Jury, Merrill had been confined in chains, while after that event his chains were taken off and he was permitted. to go about the streets. A true bill was found against both Jesse and Stephen for the murder of Colvin.
Meantime public feeling against the prisoners was intense. Almost without exception they were believed to be guilty. Many were allowed to visit them in jail, and even persons of character and influence, and officers of the law, told them that the case was clearly against them; that to confess was the best thing they could do; that if they made a confession an effort would be made to have their sentence commuted to imprisonment for life. Convinced that this was their only hope, Stephen made a written confession, taking upon himself the sole responsibility of the crime, but claiming that he and Colvin had a quarrel, and that Colvin struck him first.
Large crowds of people from Manchester and neighboring towns attended the trial, which was held in the Congregational Church, for the reason that the Court House would not accommodate the multitude, and great interest was manifested by all classes in the result, though but very few could be found who did not believe the prisoners guilty, or who would venture to say a kind word for them.
The evidence against the prisoners was entirely circumstantial and mostly unimportant, with the exception of the confessions, which were objected to by the counsel for the prisoners on the ground that they were extorted by undue influence, and that they did not corroborate each other. The objections were overruled and the confessions admitted. An effort was made on the part of the defense to weaken the effect of the confessions on the minds of the jury by introducing
testimony to show that they were subjected to a strong outside influence previous to and at the time the confessions were made.
The jury, after an hour's deliberation, brought in a verdict of guilty of murder against Jesse and Stephen Boorn, and, though both stoutly protested their innocence, the Chief Justice sentenced them to be hanged on the 28th of the next January.
The Vermont Legislature being in session at the time, a petition for a commutation of sentence was presented to it, with the result that Jesse's sentence was changed to imprisonment for life, but the sentence of Stephen was confirmed. When news of this was brought to Stephen, he suggested to one of his lawyers that Colvin be advertised for, which was done, in a local paper, though nearly everyone thought the move a very absurd one. But the notice was copied into a New York newspaper which, being read aloud in a hotel, was overheard by a guest from New Jersey, who suggested that the description was that of a man working on a farm where he lived.1 Within a few days Colvin was discovered on the New Jersey farm, brought back to Vermont and fully identified as the man for whose murder two innocent persons had been sentenced to death. Their release from prison followed.
In the Supreme Court, Bennington, Vermont, November,
1 See post p. 92.
Bibliography. *"The Trial, Confessions and Conviction of Jesse and Stephen Boorn for the Murder of Russell Colvin, and the Return of the man supposed to Have Been Murdered. By Hon. Leonard Sargeant, Ex-Lieutenant Governor of Vermont. Manchester, Vt.: Journal Book and Job Office, 1873."
*"Mystery Developed or Russel Colvin (supposed to be murdered) in full life and Stephen and Jesse Boorn (his convicted murderers)