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  1. Wealth
September 6, 2009

CSI: 17th Century New York

By Spear's

It’s almost too good to be true for a Law & Order buff like me: New York’s first recorded murder occurred only four days after sailors first arrived.

It’s almost too good to be true for a Law & Order buff like me: New York City detectives have undertaken the investigation of a murder that happened 400 years ago today, before New York was even New Amsterdam.

New York’s first recorded murder occurred only four days after Dutch and English sailors first arrived.

The victim: John Colman, an accomplished sailor on Henry Hudson’s 16-man crew.

Det. Michael J Palladino, president of the city’s detectives’ union, Det. Joseph A. Pollini, who commanded the Police Department’s cold case homicide squad and now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Det. William McNeely, a Manhattan South homicide detective, are leading the investigation with the help of a couple of historians.

What they think happened is that Colman and his crew sailed into what is now New York Harbor early September 1609 on the 85-foot-long Half Moon looking for the Northwest Passage to Asia, when they anchored somewhere between Coney Island and Sandy Hook. Then two 40-foot dugout canoes approached, one carrying 16 Indians and the other, 14. At some point Colman (the only bilingual sailor in the mostly-Dutch crew) was struck in the neck and bled to death.
 
They returned to the ship with Colman’s body at 10 a.m. on September 7th and buried him later that day either in Coney Island, Staten Island, Sandy Hook of Keansburg, New Jersey, at a spot now known as Colman’s Point, so the body has yet to be recovered for a forensic examination.

But who actually murdered John Colman? Tradition has blamed the Indians, but they could well have been the first American case of racial profiling.

The Half Moon’s crew were a notoriously violent bunch, a mixture of sociopaths and working men, who later led a mutiny against Henry Hudson. It would have been exceedingly easy for a crew member who had it in for Colman to murder him with an instrument that would make a wound like an Indian arrow’s and blame it on the Indians. Two nights later, in fact, Indians peacefully boarded the Half Moon to trade with its crew without betraying any knowledge of Colman’s murder.

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The historic murder has inspired a mural in the Hudson County Courthouse in Jersey City, as well as a poem by Thomas Frost:

“Then prone he fell within the boat,
A flinthead arrow through his throat.”

I’m willing to bet it will also inspire an episode of Law & Order, which I’ll be sure to record.

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