Navy Captain George Colvocoresses survived yellow fever, explored uncharted islands of the South Pacific Ocean and conducted daring raids on Southern command posts during the Civil War, only to come home to Connecticut and end up dead.
The circumstances of his death on June 3, 1872, shot on a cobblestone street in Bridgeport, are shrouded in mystery.
There's even a map diagramming the crime scene around Clinton Street that was discovered years later in the archives of the Connecticut Historical Society. It is referred to as the "murder map," although who drew it and for what purpose is unknown.
Some believed the captain was murdered. Insurance companies that held a then-astronomical $200,000 in life insurance policies on Colvocoresses claimed it was a suicide. Still others said he had hired a "body double" and faked his death only to sail off to the South Pacific to live out his life in paradise.
There were allegations of police incompetence for losing key evidence from the death scene, a deathbed confession by a sailor and lawsuits by his surviving family against insurance companies that refused to pay out premiums.
As far as his family is concerned, there was never any question the captain was murdered, according to his great-great-grandson Harry Colvocoresses.
"I think we all believed that he was murdered and the whole suicide idea was just a creative attempt by the insurance companies not to pay up," Harry Colvocoresses said in a recent interview.
Yellow Fever And Civil War
George Colvocoresses' life not only ended in violence but began in it.
As a child in Greece, he survived the Greek War of Independence only because his father negotiated safe passage to America for him and nine other boys on a ship sailing to Baltimore. Colvocoresses was 6 when he was adopted by Captain Alden Partridge of Vermont, who founded what is now Norwich University.
Colvocoresses joined the Navy when he was 16 and almost immediately was attached to the Wilkes Exploring Expedition, which was charting the South Pacific Ocean. During that four-year period, the crew surveyed more than 280 islands and created more than 180 new sea charts.
Colvocoresses was so instrumental in that voyage that a small island off the coast of Fiji was named "Colvos" in his honor.
When that expedition ended, Colvocoresses returned to his duties in the Navy, sailing off the coast of Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean. It was during one of those voyages that he contracted yellow fever and nearly died.
Bridgeport historian Michael Bielawa, who wrote a book called "Wicked Bridgeport," described the near-death in a chapter he devoted to the Colvocoresses murder.
"Colvocoresses appeared as if he had expired, and his remains were prepared for burial at sea. While the pastor performed the last rites, the American flag draped over George's body shuddered ever so slightly with his breath."
During the Civil War, Colvocoresses was commander of the USS Saratoga, which carried out several raids along the Georgia shore and captured several Rebel ships. He retired shortly after he was promoted to captain in 1867 and returned to Litchfield, where his family home still sits near the Town Green.
Colvocoresses immediately became involved in a dispute with the Navy over what he felt was money he was owed from ships he had captured. At that time, captains of Navy ships received a portion of whatever bounty was recovered from a ship that was captured.
"You could be talking $10,000 to $15,000 from a ship that they captured," Harry Colvocoresses said. "That was a tremendous amount of money that he believed he was owed."
At that same time Captain Colvocoresses started accumulating life insurance policies. According to stories in The Courant following his death, the captain had amassed $195,000 in life insurance policies from 19 different companies.
"That is an astronomical amount of money that would be the equivalent of several million dollars in insurance today," Bielawa said.
Colvocoresses was headed to New York City to meet with his insurance agent when he met his demise.
Gunshot Near The Harbor
On the morning of June 3, 1872, Colvocoresses trimmed some fruit trees in his yard before departing for Bridgeport, where he was going to take a schooner to New York City.
In addition to some stocks and bonds that he was bringing to his agent Alfred Smith, he also was reportedly was carrying as much as $8,000 in cash. As he boarded a train on the Housatonic Railroad bound for Bridgeport he had his valise, a small leather satchel and his bamboo cane, inside of which was hidden a sword.
Once in the Park City he purchased a ticket to New York aboard the ship the Bridgeport, scheduled to set sail at 11 p.m. that night.
According to newspaper accounts of that evening, Colvocoresses ate dinner at a place called Ward's, visited the Sterling House Hotel to return a key from a previous visit and then stopped at a drug store to buy two sheets of writing paper and two envelopes.
The captain asked the drug store owner for the quickest route to the dock. The shop owner, who was the last person to see Colvocoresses alive, later told police it was 10:35 p.m. when the captain walked away.
But Colvocoresses apparently did not follow the drug store owner's directions; he turned left onto Clinton Street rather than proceeding to South Street. As the whistle for the departing steamship screeched, a gunshot rang out.
The first officer on the scene found Colvocoresses lying on the side of the road, his shirt on fire from the gunpowder. He had been shot once in the left side of the chest. The broken gun used to kill him was found about 35 feet away on the other side of Clinton Street. He had $2.70 in his pocket.
The captain's leather satchel was found the next day a few streets away, slit open, its contents, including the cash, missing.
Police described the pistol used in the shooting as a large, clumsy horse pistol of ancient French manufacture, according to Bielawa. The gun, which had been held together with some glue and twine, had broken apart during the shooting.
The captain's secret sword was found near his body, apparently damaged during some sort of struggle.
His body was taken to the police station, where someone literally stole his pants, a key piece of potential evidence lost. The gun also turned out to be useless as evidence because the police chief had someone try to put it back together.
The death of a Navy officer who was a Civil War hero garnered plenty of press attention. The New York papers focused on the Bridgeport police department's handling of the case, while The Courant wrote a long story indicating Colvocoresses had committed suicide.
A review of the case that The Courant published Aug. 5, 1872, two months after the shooting, stated in the first paragraph: "At the outset The Courant, representing itself and not any insurance interest as many papers have inferred, advanced the theory of suicide with some review of circumstances to sustain it, and later other journals have virtually accepted that theory, or at least given it a reasonable consideration."
In that story the newspaper explained away the fact the gun was found 35 feet from the captain's body by hypothesizing that it recoiled when he fired.
The paper concluded a gun that was "heavily overloaded and placed by a suicide against the elastic walls of the chest and thus fired, the recoil of such weapon as this one would be quite sufficient on the opinion of persons competent to judge to set it as far and even further from the body than was the distance in this case."
What seemed likely to have been a robbery gone bad had become a full-scale mystery. Reward posters were put up offering as much as $10,000 for information on the death.
The case even drew the attention of the great Allan Pinkerton, who ran the New York City detective agency that is now internationally known. Flabbergasted police called in Pinkerton to assist and he concluded that the captain had been murdered.
But the insurance companies stuck to the theory that Colvocoresses had killed himself, so his family had to go to court to try to get their money. As the case was about to go to trial, most of the insurance companies settled, agreeing to pay 50 percent of their policies, except for the New York Life Insurance Co., which paid in full.
The family ultimately got about half of the nearly $200,000 in insurance that George Colvocoresses had amassed.
"Some companies paid in full, others made partial payments and a few reneged,'' Harry Colvocoresses said. "You won't find anyone from our family who has ever had a good word to say about insurance companies."
The case was never solved, not that there weren't people who claimed to have killed the captain.
One of the strangest confessions was the story told in the New York papers about a Danish soldier on his deathbed at sea in 1885 who claimed that he had killed Colvocoresses after a robbery gone bad.
The sailor said as he tried to swipe the satchel from Colvocoresses, the captain struck him several times with his cane until it broke. Fearing that he was going to get stabbed by the sword that was hidden inside the cane, the sailor said he pulled a gun and shot Colvocoresses before running away.
He dropped the gun and bullets as he ran toward the dock, sliced open the bag and took out the valuables and then boarded a schooner.
The sailor was buried at sea, his story with him.
Researchers at the Connecticut Historical Society recently discovered two maps, buried in the archives, drawn on brown paper, of a series of streets near a harbor. Tasha Caswell, a curatorial assistant at the historical society, said at first museum officials couldn't figure out what the maps depicted until someone realized one of them showed the spot where Colvocoresses was killed.
One of the maps shows his prone body on the sidewalk of Clinton Street next to his cane and umbrella. At the bottom of the map are two projections of the trajectory of the bullet that felled the captain, one from the side and one from the top.
The second hand-drawn map depicts more of Bridgeport, showing the businesses Colvocoresses visited that night, the route he took and the steamboat he should have boarded.
Caswell said museum officials do not know who drew the map, where it came from or how it ended up in their possession.
Harry Colvocoresses assumes it was drawn either by an insurance investigator or someone the police hired.
The Colvocoresses family still owns the Litchfield home where the sea captain lived. Many of his possessions, including the damaged cane and satchel that he carried the night he died are in storage there.
Clinton Street no longer exists; it is buried under an underpass for I-95.
"I really thought this was going to be a clear-cut case of suicide, but I'm not so sure anymore,'' Bielawa said. "There are loose ends that just don't add up."