The strange death of Civil War hero George Colvocoresses on a busy street in Bridgeport, Conn., reads like a Sherlock Holmes mystery – without a solution.
He was a retired U.S. Navy captain on a business trip to New York City from his home in Litchfield, Conn. He had acted strange the previous week, and some of his actions couldn’t be explained. Just as his ferry was about to leave from a Bridgeport dock, a pistol shot was heard and a policeman found Colvocoresses dying in the street.
There were so many strange aspects to his death that some thought he committed suicide. Others said it was impossible for a man of Colvocoresses’ state of mind and character to take his own life.
George Colvocoresses was born Oct. 22, 1816 in Chios, Greece. During the Greek War of Independence, the Turks massacred the Chios islanders and sold six-year-old George Colvocoresses into slavery. His father ransomed him and sent him to the United States to be educated. He was one of about 40 Greek orphans sent to the United States for adoption.
He served on the Wilkes Expedition, a four-year exploration of the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was a milestone in American science, and Colvocoresses wrote a book about it, Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition. Colvos Passage, a tidal strait in Puget Sound, was named in his honor.
As a ship commander during the Civil War, he captured a Confederate blockade runner and raided Georgia, once capturing 26 soldiers and destroying a bridge to cut off the Confederate cavalry. At the close of the war he was a commander in the Pacific. When a Spanish fleet menaced Valparaiso, Chile, Colvocoresses took action to protect American citizens and their property.
Colvocoresses retired with the rank of captain in 1867 and moved to Litchfield with his second wife. In 1872, the 60-year-old veteran took a train to Bridgeport, where he planned to take an 11:00 pm steamer to New York and meet with his insurance agent.
He had an umbrella, $8,000 in cash inside a carpet bag and a cane with a sword in it. He went to a hotel hoping to eat dinner, but the kitchen was closed and he went to a restaurant instead. Then he went back to the hotel to return a key he had mistakenly taken the previous week, stopped at a drug store to buy paper and envelopes and then headed toward the dock.
He never made it. He was found dying on busy Clinton Street.
His unbuttoned shirt was on fire where the bullet had entered his abdomen. His carpet bag was found on a wharf, cut open. A horse pistol was found across the street, and the next day a bullet, powder horn and percussion caps were found 60 feet from his body. The bullet was wrapped in a handkerchief.
The Boston Globe reported on his strange behavior the week before. He had come to Bridgeport, wandered around the dock and, during dinner at a hotel, zealously protected a satchel that a clerk said was empty. Though he had an appointment in New York the next day he hung around Bridgeport instead.
Some said he killed himself.
He had taken out eight life insurance policies worth $195,000 before his death. He was worth far less than was thought. And why else would his shirt be unbuttoned?
Others pointed out he was on good terms with his family. He was a man of sterling character and would never commit suicide. How could he have thrown his gun across the street after he shot himself? The suicide theory was just a way for the insurance companies to avoid paying out his policy.
Police incompetence didn’t help. Colocoresses’ body was taken to the police station, where his pants were stolen.
The murder of George Colvocoresses was never solved, though a Danish sailor claimed on his deathbed he had murdered the captain in an attempted robbery gone bad.
The insurance companies eventually paid out 50 cents on the dollar.
His son and great-grandson graduated from Norwich and followed distinguished military careers; his great-grandson was a pioneer in satellite mapping. His great-great granddaughter also graduated from Norwich in 2005 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.