Saturday, August 22, 2020

The Assassination of Corlis.

Charles G. Corlis kept a bowling saloon on Broadway between Leonard and Franklin Streets in New York City. On the evening of March 20, 1843, several bowlers saw a woman wearing a veil and a straw hat, enter the saloon. They saw her leave the place with Henry Colton, owner of the Colton House hotel, a few doors away on Leonard Street. Sometime later, witnesses saw Charles Corlis talking with the unidentified woman in the doorway of the Colton House.

Around 7:00 a pistol shot rang out on Leonard Street. Witnesses saw someone running from the scene—maybe a man, maybe a woman, maybe a man dressed as a woman. Lying on the ground in front of the Colton House was Charles Corlis, with a bullet wound in the back of his head. Next to him lay a five-barrel pistol with one shot fired. Corlis was carried into the hotel where he died about three hours later.

Suspicion fell on Henry Colton for the murder of Charles Corlis. Corlis had been having an affair with Colton’s wife Hannah, and the two had planned to sail together to New Orleans, along with about $2,000 of Colton’s money. Henry Colton learned of their plans, and on March 10, he accosted Corlis on the street and tried to shoot him. The pistol misfired, and Colton was arrested for attempted murder. He was released on $5,000 bail.

Henry Colton had an alibi for the March 20 murder, but Hannah was known to be out at that time. There were two theories as to what occurred that night—either Colton had hired someone else to kill Corlis and Hannah had helped by luring Corlis out of the saloon, or Hannah had shot him herself to prove to her husband that she did not love Corlis. The police arrested both Henry and Hannah on suspicion of murder.

Both the bowling saloon and the Colton House had terrible reputations in the city—the bowling saloon was a meeting place for sporting men of all classes and the hotel was also a well-known gambling house. The murder and subsequent inquest prompted several editorials in New York newspapers. The New York Herald said, “It is very difficult to teach any community the humiliating lesson of its own rotten condition.” The paper hoped that the murder would open some eyes to the deplorable state of the city’s virtue and morality. The Herald also pointed out that the night watchmen took their posts at 8:00 and since it was dark at about 7:00, “…thieves, burglars, highway robbers, and murderers have one full hour in which they can commit their depredations with scarcely a chance of being arrested.” Regarding the possibility that Colton had hired an assassin the Evening Post said, “…if parties can be procured— hired—or engaged to commit murder for the sake of gain, to gratify the revengeful feelings or malice of another, there will be no security for life in this city." 

The coroner held an extensive inquest over the murder of Charles Corlis, including testimony from medical examiners, gun salesmen, and dozens of witnesses who heard the gunshot or saw the activity on Broadway and Leonard. Most were convinced that a woman had committed the murder, but none were able to say conclusively that the woman was Hannah Colton.

The coroner’s jury concluded that Charles Corlis had been shot by a person or persons unknown. Henry and Hannah Colton were released from custody.

Originally posted on September 14, 2019.

“The Assassination of Corlis,” New York Herald, March 26, 1843.
“Assassination of Corlis,” New York Herald, March 29, 1843.
“Attempt to Kill,” Boston Post, March 13, 1843.
“City Intelligence,” Herald, April 3, 1843.
“The Coroner's Inquest,” Boston Post, March 24, 1843.
“Dreadful Murder In Leonard--street,” Evening Post, March 21, 1843.
“Investigation into the facts of Murder of Mr. Charles G. Corlies,” New-York daily tribune, March 22, 1843.
The Murder of Mr. Corlis, The Library Company of Philadelphia
“The Murder of Corliss,” Public Ledger, March 23, 1843.


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