Convicted for Murder … When There Was No Murder

Back in 1819, the technology to find and analyze DNA evidence didn’t exist. But for the Boorn brothers, it wouldn’t have made a difference; there was no DNA evidence to find.

Two Vermont brothers, Stephen and Jesse Boorn, were convicted for the murder of their brother-in-law, Richard Colvin. But Colvin’s body was never found.

There was however a penknife and a button found, both identified as Colvin’s. A barn burned down, thought by some to be an attempt to destroy proof of the crime. Bones were found under a tree, but those were revealed to be not human, but animal remains. A convicted felon serving time for forgery, testified that Jesse Boorn implicated himself — and was set free in return for his statement. The Boorn’s uncle even reported a dream he had had in which Colvin told about his murder.

Presented with this overwhelming evidence, the Boorn brothers confessed and were sentenced to die.

Facing the hangman’s noose, Stephen Boorn had a change of heart. He placed ads in local newspapers, explaining what had happened and describing his missing brother-in-law. Imagine his relief when someone responded! Colvin, it turned out, was alive and well, residing in New Jersey.

The Boorn brothers were released, becoming the first documented case of wrongful conviction in American history. Their story also served as the basis for Wilkie Collins’ 1874 story, The Dead Alive.