Hanging Of Nelson County's George Roberts

Authorities Executed The Wrong Man!


(Author Unknown - 1901)

In the year 1820, there lived in Nelson County two families who came to Kentucky from the South. One of them, Thomas Clark, was a successful business man. The other, George Roberts, though having an excellent reputation for honesty and uprightness, was in reduced circumstances and had a large family to support. It happened one spring that Clark had business in New Orleans and was going to take a trip to that city. He and Roberts were the best of friends, and he frequently told the latter of his business affairs, and informed Roberts of his trip to the South.

One day he boarded the stage for Louisville to take passage down the river. Nothing had been said about Roberts going, but nevertheless, just as the stage was pulling out, he appeared, satchel in hand, and climbed aboard; saying that he had concluded to make a visit to the South to see his parents.

Clark was surprised to see him, but seemed glad that he was to keep him company. After they arrived in Louisville, the friends took a room together, and early the next morning boarded the boat for the South. That night Clark and Roberts were on deck and retired to their room about ten o'clock. That was the last seen of Clark. He was not on the boat the next morning, and the most careful search failed to discover any trace of him. The boat had stopped at several small landings during the night, but the clerk and deck hands were positive that no one had gone ashore. The outside door of the room the two friends had occupied opened on the outer guards, whence a man could easily jump or be thrown into the river.

Roberts declared that they went to bed on going to their room, that he soon fell asleep, and he did not awake until daylight. One of the deck hands said he had heard a splash in the water on the side on which Mr. Clark's room opened, but hearing no cry did not attach much importance to the incident. Clark was well-known to all on the boat, and it was surmised that he carried a large sum of money. Of Roberts it was known that he knew Clark well; that he was the last person to have been with him, and he was a poor man to whom a large sum of money would be a great temptation.

Naturally, Clark's mysterious disappearance raised suspicions of foul play, and when the boat reached Natchez, Roberts was arrested. Upon being searched, a pocketbook containing a large sum of money and papers showing it to have been Clark's, was found in his pockets, confirming his guilt. He insisted that he and Clark were the best of friends; that Clark having his money in two cumbersome pocketbooks had asked him to carry one; that he had not spoken of it hoping that Clark's mysterious disappearance would be solved.

At his examining trial, the circumstances were so strong against him, notwithstanding his well-known and excellent character, that he was held over to the grand jury. A few weeks after Clark's disappearance, the body of a man was found floating in the river a short distance below the probable scene of the murder. It was badly decomposed, but relatives of Clark declared the body to be his from the description of the clothing and certain marks on the body. On this and the foregoing evidence, Roberts was indicted and was speedily arraigned for trial.

At his trial, although he protested his innocence, it was shown that he was in financial straits and hard pressed by debt; that he knew Clark was leaving Kentucky with a large sum of money; that without any previous intimation of a trip he had suddenly joined Clark; that Clark was last seen alive when he retired with Roberts, and worst of all, Clark's pocketbook was found on Roberts' person; and that several weeks after his disappearance, Clark's body had been found floating in the river. It was the theory of the prosecution that Roberts had planned the trip for the purpose of robbing Clark; that waiting until he was asleep he had choked him insensibility and thrown the body overboard; and that the reason the purse was found on his person was that he had no chance to dispose of it. Roberts had nothing to offer except his own story and his previous good character. At the close of the trial, he was sentenced to death. His wife and her friends and relatives in the South made every effort to secure a commutation of the sentence, but in vain. He was hanged, maintaining his innocence to the last. Mrs. Clark and Mrs. Roberts speedily disposed of their property in Nelson County and returned to their parents' homes in the South.

Several weeks after the execution of Roberts, Mrs. Clark received a letter from her husband. He had not been murdered, but was very much alive. His tale was remarkable, but true. One day he came to consciousness and found himself in an insane asylum in Mississippi, utterly ignorant as to how or when he came there. He was informed that he had been found wandering aimlessly about in Vicksburg in a demented condition and had been sent to the asylum. He had plenty of money, but not a scrap of paper by which he could be identified could be found. A long and serious illness followed during which he was constantly insane or delirious.

He supposed he had become suddenly insane after retiring to his room on the steamboat and sometime during the night had stepped ashore at some small landing and made his way to the city where he was taken charge of as a lunatic. But of this he had absolutely no recollection, his memory being a complete blank from the time he retired on the boat to the day consciousness returned in the asylum.

His mind was almost unbalanced again upon learning of his friend's fate. He provided most liberally for Roberts' family and had a handsome monument erected over the grave of Roberts.