Murder mystery from 19th century to be turned into solo theatrical performance


MANCHESTER — On May 10, 1812, Russell Colvin went missing from his wife's family's farm in Manchester after an argument with his brothers-in-law, Stephen and Jesse Boorn.

Some say he was murdered by the Boorn brothers, even though he reportedly returned to town.

Even after the 1819 trial and the return of Colvin a month before the Boorns' execution, a small-town murder mystery remains unsolved.

This story will be the basis for a developing play created by Kirk Jackson and Oliver Wadsworth titled, "The Tarnation of Russell Colvin."

Jackson and Wadsworth are recipients of a $3,000 grant from the Vermont Arts Endowment Fund through the Vermont Community Foundation. A total of $162,025 was awarded to 26 artists in the state.

Currently, rehearsal for the solo theatrical performance based on the Manchester murder mystery takes place in the couple's living room in Shaftsbury, but several venues are being scouted out to officially host the play.

It's more about seeing the style of play being performed rather than figuring out who murdered Russell Colvin, Jackson said.

Wadsworth will portray every character in the play, with plenty of costume changes.

"We thought that form was really exciting because of this story. Everyone has a different opinion of what happened. It's unreliable narrator after unreliable narrator," Jackson said. "One guy believes all the ghost stories and the French guy says you didn't find a body."

The Boorn brothers were suspected by many because of how poorly they got along with their brother-in-law. Many thought they planned the murder and planted bones and other items in various places on the farm. There was even a barn fire and a famous ghost story/witnesses' dream involved in the trial. The many conflicting statements motivated the artists to choose this style of performance.

There are about 15 characters, all with different personalities and heritages. For example, an African American minister who served in Manchester and the surrounding communities was originally going to be the narrator, but Wadsworth realized he played such an important cultural role and that he had to be included in the story line.

Overall, each character can relate to being the 'other.' This is something the artists said educators can latch onto when incorporating such themes into school work or lectures.

"Really it is what we're built from. The sense of otherness goes in all directions and it is the fabric of what our country and our state is in particular," Jackson said.

He described the town during that period as a frontier town, referring to cowboys and Indians.

Colvin was bothered by the brothers-in-law from the moment he moved to the farm with his wife. The Boorns weren't happy to have to share their resources with Colvin and believed he would run the farm into the ground.

Colvin was known to be feeble-minded or in today's society, and as Wadsworth put it, mentally ill. He would wander off for months at a time, but in 1812 when he disappeared, months turned into several years.

Wadsworth stumbled upon a book about the mystery at the Northshire Bookstore years back and has since developed his own script about it. On Nov. 1, 2015, he did a reading of it at the store in conjunction with the Dorset Theatre Festival. The successful response is what drove the two artists to further develop their performance and apply for the grant. The deadline was in April and they found out in June. Funds will help purchase costumes, props and marketing material.

The two artists met while working on a show together and they both attended graduate school for acting, directing and playwriting. Jackson has taught at Bennington College since 2012 and focuses on solo theatre.

Wadsworth has put in much time researching the court case and compiling documents from various historical societies as well as talking to community members.

He said that some have heard of the story, but many have not.

In 10 days they'll take the piece to a friend's venue in Franklin, N.Y. to arrange music and see the performance in its entirety. The art grant requires that the work must be done between July 1 of this year and June 2017, which is the goal for the artists as well.

To see the Northshire Bookstore reading, visit

Contact Makayla-Courtney McGeeney at 802-490-6471.


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