Dec 29, 2011
10:13 AM
Discover Connecticut

The Curse of the Colts?

The Curse of the Colts?

A sensational murder case, mysterious deaths, sham marriages, political cover-ups, a vast family fortune—The Devil’s Right Hand: The Tragic Story of the Colt Family Curse (Lyons Press), by best-selling crime writer and Vernon resident M. William Phelps, has all of this and more, and even better, it’s all true.

“The story rivals the Kennedys’ in many respects, and surpasses them because there was more money in the Colt family,” says Phelps, who painstakingly researched the gun-maker and his brother John. “Everyone knows the story of Sam Colt, but John Colt—what did he do? No one really knows that John Colt beheaded a guy, put him in a crate and tried to get away with it. Incredible.”

The Colt murder case made headlines at the time, and even inspired Edgar Allen Poe's short story "The Oblong Box." "What makes this story is compelling is here you have John Colt, who is really no less than a criminal," says Phelps. "He’s a hustler, and he gets into this massive amount of trouble, and he’s facing death—he killed a man. And Sam is ready to burst on the scene as being this big entrepreneur, and now he has to deal with this. Yet, you say to yourself, ‘Why is Sam so focused on protecting the Colt name and image?’ Well, one of the reasons is that John’s ‘girlfriend’ is carrying Sam’s baby. So they’re trying to protect Sam’s image from fathering an illegitimate child, really. That’s the secret. From there, it gets even more complicated and interesting for me as a researcher. All the story surrounding John’s death—the suicide, the fire in the prison—it just becomes like a Kennedy story."

Phelps also delves deeper into Sam’s possible illegitimate marriage (and son), as well as the life of his formal wife, Elizabeth Jarvis, and how she outlived her husband and all four of her children. “Elizabeth really believed that this was karma because they had become multimillionaires by selling this ‘death machine,”’ he says. “Look at what she does—giving away most of her money, building a church, going into philanthropy. She’s giving back because she feels that tug of guilt.”

The title of the book comes from a Johnny Cash song, "The Devil’s Right Hand,’ which is a euphemism for having a gun in hand. "We chose that title because it fit both John and Sam," says Phelps. "John was malicious, and there’s even a good chance that we could say that he was ‘evil.’ Full of rage, jealousy—he knew that he would never become what his brother Sam was becoming, and that burned him up inside. Although he loved his brother and they got along, it wasn’t like they were in a competition—it just burned him that he could not become the person that he knew his brother was destined to be. Sam, on the other hand, wasn’t a bad person. He never thought of things that way. Sam was a business man—the gun was just a product to him. It wasn’t like he believed that he was producing a killing machine or that he was doing it for any sort of inherent reason—moral or immoral reasons. It was a product to him, that’s what he did, it was in his blood to create things and make them into mass-marketable products."

You can also see Phelps this month on Investigation Discovery channel’s “Dark Minds,” examining unsolved murder cases with the help of an imprisoned serial killer. “What makes a person cross the line and take another human’s life?” asks Phelps. “That’s the question I’ll spend my career trying to answer.”

One of the events that has drawn Phelps to dedicate so much of his writing career to crime was the 1996 murder of his sister-in-law, who was five months pregnant at the time. "I’ve got the sense of what the ripple effect of murder does to a family," he says. "For me, I’ve seen what it did to her kids—my brother, her husband, subsequently died after that, and the kids have grown up without a mother or father, so I can relate, in a lot of ways, to crime victims."

That event only further deepened an existing interest. "It was a popular genre when I started, and it’s even more popular today, ten years later," he says. "You can’t argue with the truth. It’s a lot more compelling. I love it."

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The Curse of the Colts?

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