New York’s Coldest Case: A Murder Trail 400 Years Old
The victim: John Colman
Not much is known about him, much less about his murder. His body was hastily buried and has never been found. A weapon was recovered, but it vanished. The only account of the crime is second-hand, pieced together from a few witnesses, some of whom might have harbored a grudge. The chief suspects were singled out because of racial profiling but were never questioned. No one was ever prosecuted.
It was on Sept. 6, 1609 — 400 years ago Sunday — when this, the first known and recorded murder in what became metropolitan New York, was committed. Colman was killed only four days after the first Dutch and English sailors had arrived.
“There’s a reason it’s still a cold case,” said Detective Michael J. Palladino, president of the city detectives’ union, mulling the scant evidence that remains today.
Some 300 people have been murdered in the city so far in 2009. Typically, half the homicides are solved in the first year and 20 percent of the rest the year after. Relatively few are solved decades after they occur, although some are. So it’s about time modern police brains were brought to bear on the murder of John Colman. Some current and former detectives gamely agreed to apply their skills to the case during interviews.
In addition to Detective Palladino, they were Joseph A. Pollini, who commanded the Police Department’s cold case homicide squad and now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and William McNeely, a Manhattan South homicide detective. A couple of historians were consulted to add context.
The facts as they are known (maybe):
Colman was an accomplished sailor, one of a handful of Englishmen in Henry Hudson’s largely Dutch crew of 16. They sailed into New York Harbor early that September on the 85-foot-long Half Moon, searching for a Northwest Passage to Asia, and anchored somewhere between Coney Island and Sandy Hook.
The only contemporary account of the murder is a journal kept by Robert Jouet, a k a Juet or Ivet), the first mate. His sole source was the four survivors of a reconnaissance mission that Colman commanded. Their version was taken at face value.
Detective Palladino saw a problem right there. “In this day and age you wouldn’t accept that as an answer,” he said. “It doesn’t seem that there was any intention to investigate.”
Sept. 6 was a Sunday. After morning prayers, Hudson dispatched Colman and four Dutch crewmen in a 16-foot-long shallop. They ranged as far as 18 miles past sweet-smelling flora to explore what may have been Kill Van Kull and Newark Bay, or even farther north.
Two 40-foot dugout canoes approached, one with 16 Indians and the other with 14. The four Dutch crewmen later said they were “set upon.” They were apparently unable to ignite a small cannon because of rain, but probably mustered enough firepower from muskets to frighten the Indians, the historians suggested.
The Indians fired arrows pointed with sharp stones. Two crewmen were wounded. Colman, whose chest may have been sheathed in armor, was struck in the neck and bled to death.
The survivors rowed for hours searching for the Half Moon. Finally, at 10 a.m. on Sept. 7, they returned to the ship with Colman’s body. He was buried later that day, either in Coney Island, Staten Island, Sandy Hook or Keansburg, N.J., at a spot that Hudson christened Colman’s Point.
The confusion about a burial site created issues for Professor Pollini. “We would have to try and find the body,” he said.
“Upon examining the body we’d find out how exactly he was killed,” Professor Pollini said. “Was it an arrow the Indians shot, or blunt force by some sort of instrument that was made to look like an Indian arrow by one of the men on the ship who didn’t like him? Two other people were injured. They would be key witnesses. We’d examine their injuries and see how they were inflicted. Everyone on the ship would have to be interviewed. Were there any disgruntled employees, any animosity toward him? Was this an opportune time to get rid of him?”
Apparently none of those questions were asked in 1609.
Circumstantial evidence suggests that the answers might have revised the record described by Jouet and embellished by historians.
The many complaints Hudson and Jouet made suggest that the Half Moon crew was a typical blend of sociopaths and working men,” said Kathleen Hulser, public historian at the New-York Historical Society.
Jouet, whom Hudson himself described as mean-tempered and whom one historian would call his “evil genius,” later led a mutiny against Hudson.
Colman had been recruited by Hudson, apparently as his second mate, after serving as a trusted boatswain on an earlier voyage. Unlike Hudson, he also spoke Dutch, although, in a letter to his wife, he contemptuously wrote of the Dutch crew: “Looking at their fat bellies, I fear they think more highly of eating than of sailing.”
The Indians were probably wary of the new arrivals, although just two days before the murder, in their first encounter with the crew, Jouet said some of them came aboard “seeming very glad of our coming.” Word might have spread of Hudson’s men’s plunder a few weeks before in Maine where, Jouet wrote, the crew dragged the Indians from their homes “and took the spoil of them, as they would have done us.” Or perhaps they had heard of the explorer Samuel de Champlain’s recent bloody encounter with Indians to the north. “It might have been retaliation, not aggression,” Ms. Hulser said.
“I’m sure they were Indians,” James Ring Adams, a senior historian at the National Museum of the American Indian, said of the perpetrators. “That leaves a question: Was this a renegade band or another tribe possibly based on Staten Island or from farther north on the river?”
Perhaps the two canoes were not a war party at all, but had approached the small boat offering help. Two nights later, according to Jouet, Indians benignly came aboard the Half Moon to trade with the crew without betraying any knowledge of Colman’s murder.
“He was English, the crew was Dutch,” said Detective McNeely. “You couldn’t rule anybody out. We’d detain everybody, including the injured sailors. You couldn’t just take the word of somebody else. They could say he was attacked by Indians. It would be easy to make that up. I don’t know if that’s racial profiling, but it’s definitely scapegoating.”
Colman’s murder inspired a poem by Thomas Frost:
Then prone he fell within the boat,
A flinthead arrow through his throat!
Also, a mural in the Hudson County, N.J., courthouse in Jersey City.
“They say a picture is worth a thousand words,” Detective Palladino said. “If we could force that picture to talk, we could crack the case.”
By SAM ROBERTS
New York Times