When Russell Colvin lost his Manchester, Vermont farm and had to move his wife Sally and their six children into her parents’ house, his in-laws treated him with utter disdain. Sally’s brothers, Jesse and Stephen Boorn, resented the new mouths to feed and taunted Russell relentlessly. On May 10, 1812, after a particularly violent argument with the brothers, Russell disappeared. Months passed and rumors of foul play began to circulate in Manchester. After seven years, the rumors became accusations and the Boorn brothers were arrested, tried and convicted of killing Russell Colvin. With his hanging just weeks away, nothing could save Stephen Boorn now but Russell Colvin’s return. And what were the odds of that?
Date: May 10, 1812
Location: Manchester, Vermont
Victim: Russell Colvin
Cause of Death: Clubbed
Accused: Stephen & Jesse Boorn
The Boorn boys were wild and reckless. Stephen was described as “malicious, passionate, and when angry, blind to consequences.” Jesse tended to follow his older brother’s lead. Sally was tough, willful and disrespectful of conventions— “one of the devil’s unaccountables,” Stephen called her. She shared her husband’s wanderlust, taking off alone when the mood struck her. And she seemed to be perpetually pregnant.
Sally was out of town the morning of May 10, 1812 when Russell and their son Lewis were working in her father’s field along with Stephen and Jesse. Stephen and Russell began arguing, with Stephen angrily venting his resentment at having to share the Boorn’s meager resources with Russell and his family. The argument raged for hours, then turned violent. According to Lewis Colvin, his father hit Stephen with a stick the size of a rider’s whip. Stephen picked up a piece of tree limb and knocked Russell to the ground. When Russell tried to rise, Stephen knocked him down again. Lewis ran away in fear when he saw his father lying motionless,
What happened next is uncertain. Russell disappeared, and at least at first, those who knew him believed that he had simply wandered off again. But he had never before left without telling anyone, and he had never been gone longer than nine months. As months turned into years, suspicion of foul play began to grow.
Sally continued her own wanderings and after one trip in 1815 she came home pregnant. Under Vermont law, an unwed mother could “swear the child” – name the father and compel him to provide child support. But Sally could not swear her child because, in the eyes of the law, her husband was still alive. Sally later testified that when she told this to her brothers, Stephen said that she could go ahead and swear the child, for Russell was dead and he knew it. Another time Lewis asked what had become of his father and Jesse replied that they had “put him where potatoes wouldn’t freeze” – referring to a root cellar dug below the frost line for storing vegetables. In spring of 1815 some children found Russell Colvin’s slouch hat. His sister commented that Russell would never go about without his hat.
The cellar was dug up revealing a coat button and a jackknife which were both identified by Sally as belonging to Russell. Beyond this, the court had very little evidence to hold Jesse. They pressured him to confess but he would not. Finally, a neighbor, Thomas Johnson, who had witnessed the argument on May 10, 1812, spoke with Jesse alone. Jesse came out of the meeting ready to talk. He said he believed that his brother Stephen had killed Russell and he could tell them, “within a few rods,” where the body was buried. This set off a frantic search that resulted in the discovery of a few charred bone fragments and a toenail near an old tree stump.
A posse was sent to Denmark, New York and Stephen was brought back to Manchester and was charged with murder. Meanwhile in Manchester’s jail, Jesse told the whole story to his cellmate, Silas Merrill. He said that Stephen had clubbed Russell Colvin to the ground during an argument. They buried the body in the cellar hole, then a few years later dug up the remains and reburied them under a nearby sheep barn. When the barn burned down they moved the charred remains again, to the tree stump. Merrill related this story to the authorities and was set free.
Jesse had tried to save his own life by placing the blame on Stephen who he believed was safe in New York. When he learned that Stephen had been arrested, he recanted saying the confession had been false. The State’s Attorney ignored the recantation. With more witnesses coming forward to swear they had heard Stephen and Jesse threaten Russell’s life he felt he had a solid case against the Boorns.
Now in custody, Stephen Boorn also confessed, but claimed that he acted in self-defense. This claim was largely dismissed since, from the precise language and emphasis on mitigation of the crime, the confession was believed to have been written by Stephen’s attorney. The Boorn brothers would be tried for murder.