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Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Age of Ghosts and Hobgoblins in Manchester

Court House, Manchester, Vermont- Photo Courtesy of Jared Benedict

When one thinks of spring, one tends to think of spring cleaning, setting the clocks back, and maybe even pulling out a couple of pairs of shorts from the bottom of the drawer. Occasionally, however, when the snow melts, and the sun begins working overtime hours, it reveals more than just chapped lawns and some misplaced squirrel food. Sometimes, just sometimes, when the spring sets in, it reveals old bones, and old mysteries.

Such was the case in Manchester, Vermont in April of 1819. That was the year Amos Boorn, a farmer in East Manchester, saw a ghost. That sighting, and the events that transpired in its wake, would lead to a most fascinating chapter in Vermont's legal history, and an enduring mystery.

Before we look too closely at this happening, we should go back a bit and explore the events which paved the way for this apparition to appear. The exact nature of those events has been a matter of great debate ever since, but the core of facts which almost everyone seems to agree upon is the following: On May 10, 1812, Russell Colvin was seen clearing rocks from a field owned by his father-in-law, Barney Boorn. He was in the company of his son Lewis and his two brother-in-laws, Stephen and Jesse Boorn. According to some later witness testimony, an argument seemed to be transpiring between Colvin and the two Boorns. Following this, Russell was not seen again in Manchester. He was thought to have wandered off during the altercation, a possibility which the residents of Manchester (those who bothered to take notice at all) found perfectly plausible, given that Colvin was considered "half-witted" by most and was known to have left town for weeks or months in the past.

It was not until seven years later that people began to seriously question this assumption. When they finally did, it was in large part due to the appearance of a ghost.

In April of 1819, Amos Boorn, who was Stephen and Jesse's uncle, told of a dream in which the ghost of Russell Colvin stood beside his bed. Colvin's shade told him that he'd been murdered and that he wanted to show him where his body was buried. He lead Amos to an old cellar hole in a field which had previously belonged to Barney Boorn. Not to be dismissed lightly, this dream occurred not once but three times in all.

Though Amos's dreams were to become one of the major catalysts for the events which followed, it had not appeared entirely out of the blue. Rather, a small handful of neighbors and relatives had grown suspicious in recent months, due to vaguely sinister comments that had been made offhand, mostly by Stephen Boorn, who had moved to Denmark, New York two years earlier but had returned for a visit. Stephen had told one acquaintance that he and Jesse had put Colvin "where potatoes would not freeze." Something similar had also been stated or implied by Nathaniel Boorn, another uncle, to Amos in the form of a death-bed confession. It was shortly after this that Amos had his ghostly dreams. So soon after, in fact, that some sources have suggested that the dreams were fabricated as a way for Amos to put forth his suspicions without overtly accusing his nephews of murder.

Whatever their nature, when word began to circulate about Amos's dreams, other Machesterites began having, as one source puts it, "strange dreams and unaccountable visions." Samuel Putnam Waldo, a lawyer from Hartford, wrote that it seemed "as if the age of ghosts and hobgoblins had revived; and that every house was haunted by the ghost of Colvin," and furthermore that this ghost "seemed to have had, if possible, a more serious effect upon the minds of the people, than that of the King of Denmark upon Hamlet."

At the point where the spectral dreams had reached critical mass, particularly in the more rural East Manchester, town officials in Manchester village began to take note, and eventually arrested Jesse Boorn on April 7, while a Court of Inquiry was convened to investigate whether or not a crime had been committed. The following day the investigators headed out to the cellar hole where Amos had been directed in his dream. Digging there produced several small objects: a coat-button, two knives (a long jackknife and a small pen knife). Some bones were found, but these proved not to be human remains. The objects were taken to Russell's wife Sarah, (who, it should be added, had already voiced an interest in having Russell declared dead, having another child, who under Vermont law was only eligible for support from the father if the mother was unmarried or widowed.), and she identified them as belonging to Russell.

Nevertheless, with the bones found proving to be of animal origin, the inquiry was left with little beside some refuse from an old cellar hole. In the minds of many inhabitants of East Manchester, guilt had already been determined, largely on the basis of the spectral dreams of Amos Boorn and others. The Manchester village elite who were the legal authority in this matter were adamant that such "ghost stories" be left out of the issue entirely.

So, by Saturday, May 1, with naught but rumors and circumstantial evidence that a crime might have been committed, town officials were prepared to free Jesse Boorn when Thomas Jefferson, a farmer who claimed to have witnessed the Boorns feuding with Colvin on the day he was last seen, asked to speak with Jesse in his jail cell. What was said is unknown, but when he emerged Jesse hastily confessed that he believed Stephen may have killed Colvin. He added that he thought he had an idea "within a few rods of where Colvin was buried."

This revelation lead to a new search, which ultimately revealed nothing. Meanwhile, in another part of Manchester, a boy discovered a cache of bones in the hollow of an old stump. This generated a great deal of excitement, but once more, upon close examination these too appeared to be animal bones. However, with Jesse's statement in hand, the matter of a corpus delicti was no longer so crucial. Some men were dispatched to New York to arrest Stephen Boorn and bring him to Manchester. He came willingly enough, but protested his innocence when pressed to confess the murder
Once back in Manchester, Stephen was first placed in a separate cell; then, hoping that putting the two together would provoke a full admission, hew was moved in with Jesse. Having quite the opposite of the desired effect, Jesse promptly rescinded his earlier statement.

The rage and indignation of the people of Manchester was by this time very intense. Amos Boorn's dreams, in particular, were accepted as "confirmation strong as holy writ," according to contemporary source. Still, the town officials close to the case knew that the case against the brothers, now united, was far from perfect. What followed, then, over the course of the long summer they spent sitting in their cell, was that virtually everyone involved took a turn at badgering, cajoling, and even threatening the brothers into a full confession.

Finally, after what some sources have termed coercion, Stephen offered a confession, that he had in fact killed Colvin. In his account, however, Jesse was not even present, leading later scholars to wonder if he may just have been trying to secure the release of his brother. He later tried to retract this confession, as had Jesse with his, but by this time it was too late. The machinery of law was in motion.

The trial for murder, at least the official one, was carried out in October of 1819. The Boorns, who pleaded not guilty, were represented by Richard Skinner, along with his associate Leonard Sargeant, who later served as Lt. Governor of Vermont. All prospective jurors from Manchester and from neighboring Sunderland were dismissed, due to the intense prejudice that had developed against the Boorns (so intense, in fact, that their mother, Elizabeth Boorn, was excommunicated from the Baptist church).

The trial itself proceeded quickly, from Tuesday, October 27, to Saturday, October 31 (the date of its conclusion if of course ironic, given the supernatural undertones of the entire affair). Despite a brilliantly executed defense by Skinner and Sergeant, the Boorns were, perhaps inevitably, convicted, and sentenced to death. Skinner called the trial "an instance of those strange popular delusions, which sometimes sweep through the most intelligent and conscientious communities, subverting truth and reason and justice." The sentence seemed particularly severe, especially in Jesse's case, and is an indicator of how intense the anti-Boorn sentiment had become.

Sympathetic to their plight, his attorney's circulated a petition for clemency. At the same time, a novel idea occurred to them: what if Russell Colvin was really alive, and could be found? If the Boorns had indeed not killed him, this seemed very possible. With this in mind, they purchased advertisements in papers throughout the northeast, seeking information from anyone, along with a detailed description. It went out about two months before the brothers were due to be hanged.

As the weeks passed, it eventually made its way to New York City, where it was seen by two crucial individuals. One was Taber Chadwick, a visiting Methodist minister from New Jersey, who after mulling it over a few days, wrote to the newspaper that he believed he knew the man in question and that he was alive and well in New Jersey. The second, as fate would have it, was Manchester expatriate and New York City tavern owner by the name of James Whelpley. When he saw Chadwick's letter, he sprung into action. He found the preacher, who told him that the man he believed to be Colvin worked for his brother-in-law, William Polhemus. Whelpley hired a wagon and made haste to Polhemus's mill, in what was then Monmouth County, New Jersey. When he found Polhemus, he was told that he did have a man from Vermont working for him, who had originally given his name as Russell Colvin before changing it, and that this man was "mildly deranged" ("slow", in today's parlance). Whelpley met the man, and knew at once that this was indeed Colvin. Securing Polhemus's permission, Whelpley took Colvin by stage coach to Vermont. They arrived in Bennington on December 22, to great crowds of spectators. Though somewhat confused, Russell addressed several people he knew there by name. All in Bennington were unanimous- this was indeed the man thought dead, standing before their very eyes!

Days before their arrival, word had reached Manchester, and was met with great skepticism and even consternation. Stephen Boorn, when told the news, seemed the most shocked of all, declaring that "had Colvin made his appearance right then, it would have caused immediate death." When finally the stage coach did reach Manchester, it was greeted by a mob - nearly every man, woman and child in town had come to see this man "returned from the dead."

Colvin greeted all he knew immediately by name, and seemed confused by all the fuss. When Stephen was allowed to make his way through the crowd, Colvin stared at him, finally asking why he was in chains. "Because they say I murdered you," Stephen replied. "You never hurt me," said Colvin. "Jesse struck me with a briar once, but it did not hurt me much." Colvin stayed in town for a week, during which time nearly everyone from Manchester, as well as people from neighboring towns, stopped and spoke to him. All were convinced that, both in appearance and behavior, was the missing man. Even his wife, Sally, knew him- though he was cold and aloof at her visit, and said to have muttered "that is all over with."

For legal purposes, he was asked to undergo an official examination to definitively prove his identity. The examination, run by the state's attorney who had prosecuted the Boorns, went smoothly and without incident. According to Leonard Sargeant, Colvin "told so many little incidents that could not have been known to an imposter [sic], however well posted, that there could be no doubt in the mind of any rational person as to the identity of the man."

On December 29, Colvin left Manchester for the last time. He made final appearance in Albany, before returning to New Jersey, at which point he becomes lost to history. What may have become of him after this is totally unknown. Stephen and Jesse were, of course, released. Both sued the state for damages and lost. Stephen returned to New York and Jesse moved to Ohio. Ever since then, the case has occupied a place of interest in the legal annals, held up as a classic case of wrongful conviction due to community prejudice and superstition. But was it?

In his book The Counterfeit Man, UMASS historian Gerald McFarland makes a case for the possibility that the "Russell Colvin" which appeared in Manchester in December of 1819 was actually a paid imposter. The basis for his argument, however, seems even more circumstantial than the evidence which convicted the Boorns to begin with. It relies on a conspiracy of no less than five people, and perhaps more: Barney Boorn, their father, and potentially other Boorns to help finance it, along with James Whelpley, Taber Chadwick (a Methodist minister, remember), William Polhemus, and the impersonator himself. It would also necessitate that these conspirators locate someone who not only so closely resembled Colvin that after only seven years no one would notice, and who could be so meticulously coached that he could supply on demand virtually any information Russell could be expected to know. Finally, all this would have had to have been accomplished in about two weeks time. Personally, I find the idea that such an enterprise could be pulled off so smoothly, secretively, and in such short order, harder to swallow than the original ghost story. After all, I think Jamie Foxx deserved every ounce of his Oscar, but even I knew that he wasn't actually Ray Charles (and I'm one who is prone to credulity and to flights of pure imagination- or so they tell me). Then again, ours is a world of strange incongruities and unlikely events- I rule nothing out.

In the end, it seems, we are left with a persistent shroud of mystery over the whole affair. Was it really Russell Colvin who appeared at the last moment in Manchester? Or was it indeed all a con to save the Boorns from the gallows?

Or was it, in fact, Colvin's ghost, having now forgiven even his own death, sweeping through town for one last incredible finale?


Hard, Walter; Greene, Janet. Mischief in the Mountains: Strange Tales of Vermont and Vermonters
McFarland, Gerald. The Counterfeit Man: The true story of the Boorn-Colvin Murder Case
"Old Mystery Revived." Brookyln Daily Eagle, August 3, 1860

"Strange Murder Case." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Dec 8, 1895

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