When Russel Colvin had disappeared in 1812, suspicion of foul play had fallen on his brothers-in-law, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, who held Colvin in disdain. Seven years later, an uncle of the suspects, Amos Boorn, had a dream in which Colvin appeared to him and said that he had been slain. Colvin did not identify his killers in the dream but said that his remains had been put in a cellar hole on the Boorn farm. Uncle Amos said the dream was repeated three times. The cellar hole was excavated but no remains were found. Shortly afterward, a dog unearthed some large bones from beneath a nearby stump. Three local physicians examined the bones and summarily declared them human. The patience of the community snapped and action was demanded.This is when officials took Jesse Boorn into custody. They would have arrested Stephen Boorn as well, but he had moved to New York. While in custody, Jesse’s cellmate, forger Silas Merill, told authorities that Jesse had confessed to him. In return for agreeing to testify against Jesse, Merrill was released from jail. Faced with mounting evidence against him, Jesse admitted to the murder, but placed principal blame on Stephen, who legally was beyond the reach of the local authorities. However, a Vermont constable met up with Stephen, and Stephen agreed to return to Vermont with him to clear his name. After his return to Vermont, Stephen confessed as well, although he claimed to have acted in self-defense.
The local physicians then changed their minds that the found bones were human, and declared them animal. Nevertheless, the prosecution pressed ahead with its case and both of the Boorn brothers were convicted and sentenced to death. The Vermont legislature commuted Jesse’s sentence to life in prison, but denied relief to Stephen. Shortly before Stephen was to be hanged on January 28, 1820, Colvin was found living in New Jersey. On Colvin’s return to Vermont, both brothers were released.
- Edwin M. Borchard, Convicting the Innocent: Errors of Criminal Justice (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1932), chapter 3.