Murder of Wealthy Briggs Clark
McKean County, PA

Submitted by PHGS member, Lori Chase




My 4th great-grandmother, Wealthy Briggs Clark, was apparently the victim of the first official murder in McKean County...or at least the first one whose murderer was convicted and executed for the crime. Her granddaughter, Eliza Jane (Clark) Tripp, wrote this account in her journal (probably about 1895):

"My grandfather's name was Johnathan Clark, grandma's name Weltha Brigs Clark. Grandfather died and she married again to Ezza Robons and he pisoned her + he was hung to Smethport for it." Always on the lookout for the extraordinary, I decided to do some research . . .

The Beers "History of McKean County" [1] provided some information in the early county records - p. 114: "In January, 1850, the old court-house was considered unsafe, and court was held in the Methodist church. There the trial of Uzza Robbins was commenced, with O. J. Hamlin, Isaac Benson and N. W. Goodrich, prosecuting; S. P. Johnson, C. B. Curtis, C. W. Ellis and L. D. Wetmore, defending. Uzza Robbins was hanged August 30, 1850, and buried, but during the night the earth was removed, the murderer's head cut off, and carried to a carpenter's shop, where it was found the next day, and replaced in the grave by a committee of citizens."

The case is also mentioned in some personal recollections from the biographical sketch of William H. Taylor (p. 530): "The first murder was committed in 1845, by Uzza Robbins, two miles above Port Allegany, for which he was executed at Smethport; the third night after the burial his body was dug up and his head cut off by young Burrows." Mr. Taylor was well into his seventies when this account was published, so a few variations in dates are understandable.

A column in the Port Allegany Reporter, March 15, 1901, titled "The Lounger Just Blinks...", begins with the Crowe/Hober murder case of 1874 (wherein Mr. Crowe brained Mr. Hober with a neck-yoke taken from in front of the local hardware store), and then recounts the Robbins case:

"Twenty-five years before the Crowe-Hober case there was another peculiar tragedy here or rather near here. It was in 1849. At that time there was a house and a blacksmith shop which stood on the right hand side of the highway leading to Burtville just beyond the portion of the road known as the "dug-away" beyond the well-known Horace Coleman farm. The road then ran right along the bank where the railroad track runs now and swerved to the right just above so it ran right in front of where Dan Clark's house now stands. The old house and shop have entirely disappeared; not even a trace is noticed of their foundations. But here lived Uzza Robbins and his family. Robbins bore a bad name about here for years. Several years previous to the circumstances I am about to relate a grown-up son was taken with a fit in the old shop and died. Neighbors shook their heads and said one to another that the old man was to blame for the fit, but being afraid of Robbins little was said about it at the time, though one more nervy than the others said the old man had struck him with a blacksmith's hammer. Years later when the body of the young man was exhumed it was found the skull was fractured at the back as though it had been broken with a hammer, but it was too late for any earthly power to reach old man Robbins.

"Robbins was an old man in 1849 and apparently half dead with the asthma. One night his wife died in horrible agony and the old man was arrested for poisoning her. He was taken to Smethport and lodged in jail. [2] The trial came off in January 1850, and the court house having been condemned, the trial was held in the Methodist church there, before Judge Williston. I think A. S. Arnold was associate judge at that time. O. J. Hamlin was prosecuting attorney and was assisted by Isaac Benson. Robbins was defended by the late E. C. Curtis and L. D. Wetmore, but they couldn't save the old curse and he was sentenced to be hanged. [3] It was the first execution of the kind in McKean county and there were many who wanted to see the old man pulled away. A fairly good effort was made for leniency but to no avail. The hanging was done August 30, 1850 and was a slick job.

"The body was buried that afternoon without very much of a funeral, and the exact place of Robbins' grave was just at the southwest corner of the barn belonging to the Baptist parsonage on Water street at Smethport, but during that night the grave was opened, the head cut off the body and carried to a building nearby where it was supposed to make some sort of examination of it. At the time of the trial and execution of Robbins there lived with and worked for J. C. King a wagon maker of Smethport, a young man by the name of Perry Barrows who was quite a student for one of his limited advantages. Among his other hobbies he had a liking for phrenology and thinking that the execution of Robbins would be a good opening for him to obtain a good skull he secretly opened the grave and removed the head of Robbins, hiding it in the shavings under his work bench in the wagon shop, intending to boil it out at the first opportunity. The next day a party of young men, friends of young Barrows, thinking that they might have some fun with Barrows come to the shop and pretending to believe that the head had been stolen, though no one knew at this time that the grave had been opened and to carry out the joke started to search the place as though expecting to find the head and sure enough they were surprised when they kicked the pile of shavings to see the head roll out across the floor. The young men were very much surprised and endeavored to keep it quiet for the sake of their friend Barrows, but failed completely, as a small boy about four or five years old and who was none other than the present Burgess of Port Allegany, was present and he quickly spread the news. And 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.

"The wagon shop was situate on the ground where Dr. Chadwick's office and store now stands in Smethport, the work bench under which the head was found stood near the spot now occupied by Dr. Chadwick's cabinet of specimens. It (the head) was taken back and buried where it belonged. It was said years after that the spirits of both old Robbins and his murdered wife used to hover about that territory where stood the old house and shop but I never saw anything there nor have I heard of any such things in recent years. However I never stop in that vicinity when passing nights."

The columnist revisited the subject the following week (March 22, 1901):

"The article in this column last week about Uzza Robbins the McKean county murder, created about as much discussion as anything that has been printed in a long time especially among the older people. There are several things that I didn't have just right though the article in general was correct. That matter about the boys calling on Barrows to look for the old man's head was partly incorrect as a party had discovered that the head was missing and as Barrows tried to buy the old man's head of the owner before he was hanged, led the party of young men to believe Barrows had stolen it. Miles Irons was the fellow who found the head, and the best part of the story is that Barrows actually dug up the head after it was buried the second time and took it away with him.

"By the way R. E. Bellows and A. N. Lillibridge of this city were two of the jurors that bound old man Robbins over to court for the murder of his wife and Alvah was one of the important witnesses, his testimony greatly helping to hang old Robbins. Mr. Bellows was in Smethport the day of the execution. They remember the case well. Robbins put arsenic in some peas while Mrs. Robbins and a daughter were away berrying. Coming home both ate of the peas but the mother ate more heartily. The daughter was very sick, but recovered. She is a nice woman and a resident of Liberty township now. Mr. Bellows removed the body of the son spoken of in the article last week and it was upon the request of the gentlemen who swore out the warrant for Robbins, that the examination was made. The skull was fractured on the right side a little above and in front of the ear."

[1] - "History of the Counties of McKean, Elk, Cameron and Potter, PA with Biographical Selections"; J. H. Beers and Co., 1890.

[2] - 1850 census, Keating Twp., lists him as a 'resident' in the county jail.

[3] - Robbins was sentenced on January 19, 1850.



Old Uzza turned up (literally) a few years after the first article was written-

The Port Allegany Reporter, October 20, 1905:

A GRUESOME FIND AT SMETHPORT - SAID TO BE BONES OF UZZA ROBBINS

Here is Something for the County Historical Society to Secure

EVEN CRIMINALS MAKE HISTORY

While John Grigsby was excavating in the rear of S. S. Fry's barn, near the corner of Water and Fulton streets, last Tuesday, he uncovered a coffin, which upon being opened, was found to contain the skeleton of a man. From information obtained of old residents of the borough, there seems to be little doubt but that the remains are those of Uzza Robbins, the first person hanged in McKean county. Robbins, who lived in Liberty township, was arrested August 7, 1849, for the murder of his wife, Weltha Robbins, it being alleged that he placed poison in her food. He was tried on a charge of murder in the first degree and convicted. He was hanged August 30, 1850, and his body buried in the old cemetery, which at that time was located on the south side of Water street between Fulton and State streets. The use of this tract as a burying ground was discontinued about forty years ago. Ezra Bard was sheriff of the county at the time of Robbins' execution. 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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