January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.
Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.
And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?
The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.
The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.
Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)
Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.
Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.
Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)
Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*
While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.
As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.
From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.
Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.
New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.
A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.
Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.
Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.
* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.
On this day..
- 1932: Jose Feliciano Ama, Izalco indigenous peasant - 2020
- 1886: The leadership of the Proletariat Party - 2019
- 1591: Agnes Sampson, North Berwick witch - 2018
- 1820: The slaves Ephraim and Sam, "awful dispensation of justice" - 2017
- 1573: Lippold ben Chluchim, scapegoat - 2016
- 1989: Teng Xingshan, butcher - 2015
- 1656: Joris Fonteyn, anatomized and painted - 2013
- 1697: John Fenwick, bitter - 2012
- 1829: William Burke, eponymous body-snatcher - 2011
- Themed Set: The Medical Gaze - 2011
- 2010: Five for the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman - 2010
- 1953: Derek Bentley, controversially - 2009
- 1853: Nicholas Saul and William Howlett, teenage New York gangsters - 2008