April 27, 1819 (a Tuesday)

Scales of Justice

On this date, one Jesse Boorn of Manchester, Vermont was arrested and brought before the Justice of the Peace for examination. The examination lasted from Tuesday until Saturday. Thus began America’s first known wrongful murder conviction case.

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.

Artist's depiction of the alleged murder of Russel Colvin.

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.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.