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.


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."


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.


Claudia's Genealogy Blog said...

That is a truly interesting tale. That would have made a good plot for a short story let alone true event.

Donna - What's Past is Prologue said...


Wow! What a fascinating mystery to have in your family history! Who says genealogy is boring?


Janet Iles said...

What an interesting story! Thanks too for explaining why it is important to check out these stories and share them.

Jasia said...

Wow! What a tale! Uzza was certainly a colorful character, wasn't he? I can imagine the horror and embarrassment the family went through at the time. Great storytelling, Miriam! Thanks so much for participating in COG 100!

Gena Philibert Ortega said...

What a great story! Very interesting. Arsenic was widely available in the 19th century as a rat poisoning but also as a beauty aid. It was sold in tablets and marketed to women as a way to have a better complexion. You can even find them advertised in old Sears catalogs.

Thanks so much for sharing this.

Nolichucky Roots said...

He was without a doubt a complete nightmare for his family. But with the blessing of some distance you've shed light on the story and promoted some understanding. Fabulously done!

Apple said...

What a wild tale! I can see why the family would not have talked about it.

Greta Koehl said...

I see a horror story in here... Nothing like having interesting ancestors, is there?

Miriam said...

Thank you all for stopping by, reading this long tale, and leaving your kind words. I have hinted at Uzza in some past posts, and have always wanted to tell his tale in full. I'm grateful for this opportunity!

Kathleen Brandt, Professional Genealogist said...

I haven't been following the 100th Edition of the Carnival of Genealogy, but I want to vote for this one being the most interesting, intriguing and entertaining of all!

Miriam said...

Thanks, Kathleen!

Anonymous said...

Fascinating but grim! What a wonderful story you uncovered. Jo

Tracy said...

That is quite a story with an excellent title. It sums it up so well! Fabulous post, as always.

Miriam said...

Thank you for your kind words, Jo and Tracy!

Anonymous said...

While I hold no ill feelings (there would be no reason) this is a fascinating tale that took place not far from where I live. Uzzas victim was an ancestor by her first husband. In fact Uzza was the first to be convicted and hung in McKean County. My sister submitted the story to the above mentioned Painted Hills.

Miriam J. Robbins said...

Thank you, Anonymous. I did correspond with your sister after finding the transcription of the diary on the Painted Hills website. Uzza was actually the first to be hung in Pennsylvania, not just in McKean County, if I remember correctly. This whole incident traumatized the community, my family, and your family. I am still attempting to find all the children of Uzza and his first wife, whom I have now discovered was Jemima Huntly. Everyone wanted to put this incident behind them, so there is little documentation by his children of who their father was, such as on death certificates, etc.

This case was a HUGE DEAL, probably not unlike the OJ Simpson trial today. It made headlines in newspapers around the country (I've found a number of them), and the lawyers involved all became somewhat famous; their biographies all mention that they served in the Uzza Robbins trial.

Thank you for stopping by.

Tim Chase said...

Miriam I would be anonymous. Sorry for not giving my name in the prior message. Uzza definitely was a character. His shop was a quarter mile from my home Not to be outdone, another ancestor was Owen Chase of the whaling ship Essex, his book an interesting read. to the point as we both know the story well. Everyone, admitted or not has their family secrets. These don't reflect on either you or I. Yes this was huge in the local history and lore. Now it is past history.
My best regards.

Barbara Botens said...

what a fascinating tale. My great great grandfather was AI Robins born in 1824 in susquehhana valley.Have never been able to locate his father or mother. In 1840 he lived in Potter county.HE is buried in larrison cemetery in Clymer township Pa.Any help greatly appreciated

Miriam J. Robbins said...

Barbara, for some reason, your comment got buried in my emails. I'm so sorry I didn't respond sooner! Thank you for sharing, and I will look for your Al Robins while I do my research.

Barbara Botens said...

Thank you. I believe i may have found two brothers of Ai ( William and Thomas) but still no parents. Still looking some indication they may have been children of Uzza by his first wife?

Anonymous said...


Miriam J. Robbins said...

Barbara, please email me at Maybe we can figure this out!

jennifer from pittsburgh said...

What an incredible story! I am currently stuck on a Robbins ancestor, Joseph Robbins, born around 1832 in Pittsburgh. In the 1860 census he is living with his family in Pittsburgh, working as a boiler, and in the 1870 they are living in Sharon, Mercer County, still working as a boiler, but then he leaves history. In fact, it's not until 1910 that his son William Henry Robbins (b.1856) even pops up in a census again. I have no idea who Joseph's parents were, if he had siblings. Nothing. If you have any ideas where I might look to find more information, I'd greatly appreciate it!