New York: A relatively cold case

Genealogists know all about cold cases. We may spend years looking for evidence, drawing lines between the dots and, if we are really lucky, ultimately making the proper connections.

While most genealogists may not have basement shelves lined with large cartons, each representing a very cold case (just like on television).

[Note: Oh wait a minute, hmmm …. many of us do have something similar – in folders, filing cabinets and piles of papers stacked in my favorite area – the floor]

The New York Times’ Sam Roberts investigates the city’s oldest cold case – the murder of John Colman – dating from September 6, 1609, long before there was such a thing as Labor Day Weekend or DNA evidence.

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 secondhand, 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 recorded murder in what became metropolitan New York, was committed. Colman was killed only four days after the first Dutch and English sailors 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.

The Colman case now involves some modern police brains and a few historians as well. The police are Palladino, former commander of the cold case homicide squad and now a John Jay College of Criminal Justice instructor Joseph A. Pollini, and Manhattan South homicide detective William McNeely.

According to Roberts, here are the facts:

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 the first mate, Robert Juet (sometimes spelled Jouet or Ivet). His only sources were the four survivors of a reconnaissance mission that Colman had commanded, and their version was taken at face value.

Palladino said that today it wouldn’t be accepted and said it didn’t seem there was any intention to investigate. According to Tracing the Tribe’s reading of the story, the police are suspicious of the actual event and outcome.

September 6 was a Sunday and, after prayers, Hudson sent Colman and four Dutch crewmen in a 16-foot boat, that may have gone as far as 18 miles north. At some point, two 40-foot dugout canoes approached (both carrying Indians). The crew said they were “set upon,” so it may have been an attack.

The crew couldn’t light their small cannon because of rain, but historians suggested they fired muskets to frighten the Indians, who shot arrows tipped with sharp stone. Two men were wounded, Colman was hit in the neck and bled to death. The other men finally made it back to the ship the next morning. Colman was buried later that day at a place Hudson named Colman’s Point. This could have been, according to Roberts, Coney Island, Staten Island, Sandy Hook or Keansburg, NJ.

Pollini said they’d have to try to find the body and would then know how he was killed.

“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.

The answers might have added information.

The historians on the case are New York Historical Society public historian Kathleen Hulser and National Museum of the American Indian senior historian James Ring Adams.

Juet was described as mean-tempered – one historian even called it “evil genius” – and Hulser said “a typical crew was made up of sociopaths and working men.” Ethnic tensions – English vs Dutch – may have played a part as well. Adams said it might have been a case of racial profiling or scapegoating, or the Indians were possibly renegades or from another tribe.

McNeely said everyone – under today’s standards – would have been detained, including the Dutch sailors. A phrase we often hear on television news reports – “persons of interest” – seems to cover the surviving sailors.

All in all, an interesting look at a very cold case, and another one – take a reservation number! – for the time machine when it is invented.

Read the complete article at the link above.

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