Thursday, November 15, 2012

A Serial Murderer in the Regiment? (Guest Blog Post!)

S. H. Calhoun Service Record - National Archives
It's what happens when you are on the internet, right? You click click there...and before you know it you have stumbled upon website or blog that quickly becomes a favorite!  That's how I came upon the excellent "Murder by Gaslight" blog and "The National Night Stick" website of Robert Wilhelm.  The sites are not for the faint of heart: they record macabre episodes of murder and mayhem in the 19th century...but they are SO interesting!  Robert is also the author of the recently published book, Murder and Mayhem in Essex County (MA) (The History Press, 2011).

Robert and I traded e-mails about our shared interests in 19th century history.  I happily invited him to do a guest blog post...he found a most interesting story about a serial murder (or was he?!) in the ranks of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry (read below!).  I'll be returning the favor by doing a guest post for "Murder by Gaslight" about some grisly Connecticut murders during the 1855 Christmas season. sure to visit Robert's sites and enjoy his post below (oh...and sleep with an eye open!).  Thanks, Robert!

Private Calhoun’s Confession
By Robert Wilhelm

Burlington Weekly Hawk Eye - Feb 25, 1862
In February 1862, Samuel H. Calhoun was a twenty-six year old private in Company A of the 2nd Kentucky Infantry.  On the fifth day of that month he was executed in Bardstown, Kentucky, for the murder of a local farmer named William Sutherland. The Burlington Daily Hawk Eye, Burlington, Iowa, reported that Calhoun had been convicted “of going without written permission, beyond the limits of his regimental camp near Bardstown, and entering the premises of one William Sutherland, a citizen whom he first enticed from his house and then wantonly shot so that he died.”

Private Robert B. Beswick, also of Company A, brought testimony against Calhoun during the court martial. He deserted shortly after the execution and would later say he left out of fear of retribution from Calhoun’s friends.

From official Union Army documents and newspaper reports we know these facts to be true. We also know that Calhoun confessed before his execution and that Colonel Lytle ordered that the confession be taken down in writing. And that is where the story gets interesting.

In 1862, a book was published in Cincinnati entitled The Life, Trial, Death and Confession of Samuel H. Calhoun by Captain J. H. Green. Later editions would be titled, A desperado in Arizona, 1858-1860: or, The life, trial, death, and confession of Samuel H. Calhoun, the soldier-murderer.  If the tale related in Captain Green’s book is true, then Samuel H. Calhoun deserves to be remembered as one of the great killers of the nineteenth century.

Calhoun confessed to murdering William Sutherland because earlier Sutherland had him arrested for killing one of his pigs. But he also confessed to an entire life of crime including dozens of murders.

Calhoun was orphaned as a baby, and at age twelve was working in a stationary store in Lynchburg, Virginia. There he met a man named Caldwell who was impressed with Calhoun’s salesmanship and hired him for his own business. Caldwell’s business involved robbery and passing counterfeit currency. They travelled to Baltimore, then to New Orleans where Calhoun was arrested for “keeping bad company.”

After being released from jail, they traveled to Alabama where Caldwell gave Calhoun a derringer for self-defense. Feeling constrained by Caldwell and unable to break free, Calhoun turned the derringer on his mentor and murdered him.

He had never felt love, confessed Calhoun, or any emotion other than revenge. But in North Carolina he met a young lady who was intent on marrying him. Her two brothers planned to force the marriage but Calhoun murdered them both with a bowie knife and then left the state.

In Arkansas he shot a man who would not give him a ride, then stole his horses. In Texas he became a scout for the Texas Rangers. While traveling with three other rangers he went to get water and saw a large band of Comanches heading toward their camp. He went back to camp and killed his three companions with the butt of a mule whip, “to save them from the cruelties of their enemies.”

Calhoun went to Arizona, then to Mexico where he watched a bullfight and cheered for the bull. Afterwards he murdered the matador. He went back and forth between Mexico and the United States and continued his killing as an Indian fighter and a highwayman. This continued until he learned the southern states had seceded from the union. In a surge of patriotism he traveled north and joined the 2nd Kentucky Regiment.

The final words of Calhoun’s confession were “I shall pass away, the moral wreck of a degenerate age. Adieu."

From the accounts of murder in Calhoun’s confession, and the attitudes he professed regarding those murders, one can only conclude that prior to joining the army, Samuel H. Calhoun was a psychopathic killer.

The most interesting aspect of Samuel Calhoun’s confession is the identity of the man who took it down. Twenty years earlier, in New York City, Jonathan Harrington Green, along with newspaper editor Horace Greely, had been a founder of the Association for the Suppression of Gambling.   Green had spent his early years as a gambler and became quite accomplished at manipulating cards. At age twenty-nine he abruptly gave up gambling and began a crusade against it, writing a series of books exposing the tricks and schemes of crooked gamblers. Green returned to his native Indiana and when the war started he became a Captain in the 35th Indiana Volunteers.

Though he based the stories in his books on information acquired during his years as a professional gambler, the details of the stories are believed to be fictitious. He also wrote a book entitled The Secret Band of Brothers, which claimed to expose a vast secret society of criminals in all walks of life, who conspired to cheat and defraud the unwary. Though purporting to be the truth, the book is completely fiction. Given Captain Green’s publishing history, it is likely that Calhoun’s confession was embellished as well.

In the end, it is fairly clear the army did not err in executing Samuel H. Calhoun. But whether or not Calhoun really was “a desperado in Arizona” is up to the reader.


Burlington Daily Hawk Eye, Burlington, IA, 25 Feb. 1861.

Fabian, Ann. Card sharps and bucket shops: gambling in nineteenth-century America. New York: Routledge, 1999. 

Green, J. H., and Samuel H. Calhoun. The life, trial, death and confession of Samuel H. Calhoun. Cincinnati: [s.n.], 1862.

National Archives. Compiled Service Records of Volunteer Union Soldiers Who Served in Organizations from the State of Kentucky.

Speed, Thos. The Union regiments of Kentucky. Louisville: Courier-journal job Print. Co., 1897.

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