Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The Strange Tale of Uzza Robbins; or His One Hanging, Two Murders, Three Exhumations, and Four Burials


Uzza Robbins was a blacksmith with an even blacker temper. His McKean County, Pennsylvania neighbors avoided him as much as possible, only engaging him in conversation over necessary smithy business. When he walked down the streets of Port Allegheny, even children gave him a wide berth. There were whispers throughout the community that the death of Uzza's adult son in the mid-1840s was perhaps not the result of an epileptic fit, as Uzza claimed.

Born in 1792 in either Vermont or New York, Uzza had a number of children, one of whom being my 3rd-great-grandmother, Marinda. He moved frequently, quite possibly the result of not getting along well with his neighbors: in 1820, he was residing in Chenango, Broome County, New York. In 1830, he was in Lawsville, Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. By 1840, he was in Sweden Township, Potter County, Pennsylvania. And by 1849, he had set up a blacksmith shop along what now is the Grand Army of the Republic Highway (State Highway 6) just southeast of Port Allegheny in McKean County.


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Uzza's blacksmith shop stood somewhere along this stretch of highway (not necessary at Point A)

In the summer of 1849, Uzza apparently was at odds with his second wife, Wealthy Briggs, widow of Johnathan Clark. She and her daughter went berry picking and while they were out, Uzza prepared some peas, laced with arsenic. After the women returned and ate their meal, they both fell ill. Wealthy died in terrible agony, but although the daughter was extremely ill, she recovered and was able to report the incident. Uzza was arrested on 7 August 1849 and held in the jail in Smethport, the county seat.

Since the old courthouse building was considered unsafe, court was held in the Methodist church. O.J. Hamlin, Isaac Benson, and N.W. Goodrich were the prosecutors, while S. P. Johnson, C. B. Curtis, C. W. Ellis and L. D. Wetmore, were Uzza's defense attorneys. Since it would be the first execution in McKean County, many wanted to see the old man swing. While a good effort was made for leniency, alas, it was to no avail. Uzza was convicted on 19 January 1850 and sentenced to be hung.

When the 1850 U.S. Federal Census was taken on June 1st, Uzza was enumerated with Waterman J. Davis and his wife Helen (also found as Ellen in later censuses) in Keating Township, McKean County. It's likely that Helen/Ellen was another daughter of his, for who else would take in an asthmatic bad-tempered convict sentenced to hang, except family?


At some point before Uzza's death, a young man named Perry Barrows, who was interested in phrenology, came to Uzza and offered payment for his skull after his execution. (Phrenology was a pseudoscience, popular in the early to mid-1800s, that taught that the physical size, shape, and features of a person's brain affected their personality, intelligence, and mental competence.) Needless to say, Uzza refused Barrow's offer.

On 30 August 1850, Uzza was hung in Smethport. His body was buried in a cemetery that was located on the south side of Water Street between Fulton and State Streets. The grave was located at the southwest corner of a barn which belonged to the Baptist parsonage on Water Street. During the night, the grave was opened, the head cut off the body, and was carried away for supposed examination.


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The site of the old cemetery in Smethport

The next day, someone noticed that Uzza's grave had been disturbed and his body was exhumed (again) with the result that a party of young men went looking for Barrows to see if they could recover Uzza's head. Barrows worked for J.C. King, a wagon maker in Smethport, and it was at the wagon shop that Miles Irons, one of the young men in the search party, uncovered the head buried in a pile of shavings under a work bench. And as a reporter for the Port Allegany Reporter later quipped, "Barrows having a good pair of legs walked off between the next two days and he is evidently walking yet as he has not been heard from since." Uzza's head was reunited with his body, which was buried for a third time.

Ezra Bard was sheriff at the time that Uzza had been executed, and he swore out a warrant to have Uzza's son's remains disinterred for examination. R. E. Bellows, one of the jurors in Uzza's trial, removed the body of the son. The examination revealed that the son's skull was fractured at the right temple, consistent with a blow from a heavy object, such as a blacksmith's hammer.

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On 17 October 1905, John Grigsby was excavating in the rear of S. S. Fry's barn in Smethport near the corner of Fulton and Water Streets, when he uncovered a coffin. Upon opening it, he found the skeleton of a man. There was little doubt that the remains belonged to Uzza Robbins, the first man hung for murder in McKean County 55 years earlier. The use of that particular tract of land as a cemetery had been discontinued around 1865. The Port Allegany Reporter ran an article three days later about the discovery: "After the burial of Robbins it is alleged that the body was taken up and the head severed from the trunk by the employees of medical men who wished to examine the murderer's brain, and that the head was afterward reinterred with the body. The condition of the skeleton bears out this statement, as the skull lay tilted back, at one side of the coffin, appeared to have been entirely detached from the remainder of the skeleton, which lay in the ordinary position. The coffin and bones are in remarkable good condition considering the many years they have lain in the ground. Now let the Historical Society attend to this."

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A question remains: Where was he buried the fourth time...was he reburied at the original location, or taken to the current cemetery?

It's obvious that a story like this in one's family tree would either get embellished over time, or be hidden from future generations out of shame. In this case, it was the latter. I never knew about this fascinating, gory tale of my ancestor until the day I googled Uzza Robbins' name, which I knew from his daughter Marinda's death certificate. A link to the Painted Hills Genealogical Society reconnected the truth from the past to the generations of the present. The 1850 U.S. Federal Census confirmed the story, with the label "C [for convict] Murder" on the same line as Uzza's name.

I tell this story not to dishonor my ancestor or my family, but to reveal the truth of our family history so that we can understand our past, and understand the actions of the family members that had to deal with the impact of this tragedy and service of justice. It explains why--with other tragedies taking place--my Robbins family left Pennsylvania for Michigan after the Civil War. It also clarifies why it's been so difficult untangle the Robbins family tree: to find the names of Marinda's siblings, and to determine if Marinda was related to her husband, Joseph Robbins. It also accounts for why Marinda and Joseph's second son was enumerated as Uzza Robbins in the 1850 U.S. Federal Census, but why he never used that name at any other time for the rest of his life, preferring instead to go by Joseph Benson Robbins.


Every family has One...a Black Sheep Ancestor, a Tangled Family Line, or a Complex Tale of Tragedy and Black Comedy. In my case, they came together in my 4th-great-grandfather, Uzza Robbins, who was executed by one hanging, committed two murders, was exhumed three times and buried four. He was definitely the One I thought about when Jasia challenged us to write on the theme "There's One in Every Family" for the 100th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy.
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