Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Brutal Assault on Split Rock Road in Pelham in 1859

For many years during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Pelham was a desolate and, occasionally, dangerous place.  As in the Old West, highwaymen preyed on travelers passing through Pelham on dark and deserted roadways.  There are countless news stories of highway robberies and brutal assaults on desolate Pelham roads during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

One such attack occurred on October 6, 1859.  Mrs. Elizabeth F. Roosevelt was visiting family in Pelham and New Rochelle.  That day she climbed into her carriage and headed for Throgg's Neck to visit friends.  

At about mid-day, she proceeded along "Pelham Road" (today's Shore Road) and approached Pelham Bridge.  She overtook a young man walking along the roadway shortly before she reached the bridge.  As she approached him, she was struck by the odd way he acted.  On hearing the approach of her carriage, he turned completely around and stared at her intently until she had passed entirely.  Mrs. Roosevelt drove over the bridge, took out her purse, paid the toll, and proceeded to Throgg's Neck to visit her friends.  

Towards evening, she hopped back in her carriage for the return trip.  She passed over Pelham Bridge onto Shore Road and continued to "Prospect Hill Road" (i.e., today's Split Rock Road that once extended from Shore Road to Boston Post Road).  After proceeding only a "short distance" on that road (onto the grounds of today's Split Rock and Pelham Bay Golf Courses), she was struck with a violent blow on the right side of her forehead "which was twice repeated."  She suffered a two inch gash that cut "through to the skull" and was beaten badly.  Before she became "insensible," she realized that while her horse continued to pull the carriage, a man by the side of the vehicle had his arms raised and was attempting to get in the carriage.  

There is no account regarding how Mrs. Roosevelt escaped.  All we know is that she "remained in a state of stupor" for two weeks after the brutal beating.  During the incident, she never saw the man's face, but she believed that she recognized "from the dress and portion of the person seen" before she became insensible that her attacker was the young man she had passed on Shore Road near Pelham Bridge earlier that day.  

Police soon arrested young Charles B. Smith, a "respectable" and well-connected young man.  He was indicted for assault and battery with intent to kill or rob Mrs. Roosevelt.  He hired the best and most-connected counsel possible.  The prosecutor's office responded by retaining one of New York City's most notable criminal lawyers of the day, John Sedgwick, to assist with prosecuting the case against Charles B. Smith.

The two-day trial of the criminal case was held at the Courthouse in Bedford, New York on June 5-6, 1860 before a panel of three judges of the Court of Sessions:  Hon. William H. Robertson, County Judge, presiding; Hon. Samuel Tompkins, a Justice of Sessions; and Hon. William Miller, a Justice of Sessions.  Because the matter was considered "one of importance" and involved such sensational charges against a well-connected young man, the courthouse was packed.  Former Connecticut Governor William T. Minor, who knew the young man, was in attendance.  

Things seemed bleak for the young man.  In addition to Mrs. Roosevelt's testimony identifying him as the man she passed on Shore Road and the man she believed attacked her, the prosecution entered evidence of compromising conversations the young man had with an investigator.  Although counsel on both sides of the case tried the matter "with much tact, courtesy, and ability," the eloquent performance of J. W. Tompkins, attorney for the defendant, seems to have been exceptional.  According to one account, the "argument of Mr. Tompkins for the prisoner was unsurpassed by his former efforts at the bar, for strength, ingenuity, and eloquence."  The same account noted that the "Court House was densely crowded with spectators; and during the summing up of counsel breathless silence prevailed."

The jury soon returned its verdict of not guilty.  Charles B. Smith was freed.  No other culprit seems ever to have been identified or charged.  Elizabeth F. Roosevelt, it seems, would have no justice for the attack on her by a highwayman on a Pelham roadway.

*          *          *          *          *

Below is the text of an account of the trial of Charles B. Smith.  It is followed by a citation and link to its source.  



This Court convened at the Court House in Bedford on Tuesday, the 5th instant.  Present -- Hon. WILLIAM H. ROBERTSON, County Judge, presiding;

                                                  }  Justices of Sessions.
WILLIAM MILLER, Esq.,           }

URIAH HILL, Jr., of Cortlandt, was appointed Foreman of the Grand Jury, and JOHN C. HOLMES, Esq., of Lewisboro, Clerk.  A large number of indictments were found, as follows:  2 for murder, 2 for robbery in the first degree, 2 for burglary in the third degree, 1 for grand larceny, 1 for attempting to poison, 3 for selling liquor without license, 2 for attempting to kill, and 4 for assault and battery.

The following cases were disposed of:

The People vs. Charles B. Smith.  --  This case was one of importance.  The prisoner was indicted for an assault and battery on Mrs. Elizabeth F. Roosevelt in Pelham, with an intent to kill or rob.  Governor Minor, of Connecticut, who had been his counsel in other matters, was in attendance on the first day of the term.  The prisoner was respectably connected.  The complainant by marriage was a niece of Judge Roosevelt.  Eminent counsel of the County were employed on either side -- Sedgwick of New York, a criminal lawyer of the first order, was also retained for the prosecution.  The case was tried with much tact, courtesy, and ability.  The argument of Mr. Tompkins for the prisoner was unsurpassed by his former efforts at the bar, for strength, ingenuity, and eloquence.  Other counsel, on both sides, made masterly arguments, of which they may justly be proud.  The trial continued to two days.  The Court House was densely crowded with spectators; and during the summing up of counsel breathless silence prevailed.  

The facts disclosed upon the trial were these:  Mrs. Roosevelt had been passing the season at New Rochelle.  On the 6th of October last she visited from friends at Throgg's Neck.  As she was passing over the river road [i.e., today's Shore Road], alone in her carriage, and approaching Pelham bridge, she discovered a man walking in the same direction.  On hearing the approach of her vehicle, he turned completely around and gazed at her until she passed.  This man she pronounced to be the prisoner.  This was about mid-day.  She drove over the bridge, took out her purse, paid the toll, and proceeded to Throgg's Neck.  On her return home, towards evening, after leaving the River road and proceeding a short distance upon Prospect Hill road [i.e., today's Split Rock Road that once extended from Shore Road to Boston Post Road], she received a violent blow on the right side of her forehead, which was twice repeated.  The wound was two inches and a half in length, cutting through to the skull.  She received other injuries.  After the infliction of the blows, she saw a man standing by the side of the wagon with his arms raised, and attempting to get in the wagon.  She did not see his face, but from the dress and portion of the person seen, she had no doubt that this man was the prisoner.  The horse passed on -- she became insensible, and for two weeks remained in a state of stupor, during which period her [illegible] in danger.

The prosecution gave in evidence several conversations of the prisoner in reference to the attack, elicited by an employee of Matsell & Co., who is certainly one of the shewdest and most adroit men connected with that or any other police establishment in the country.  Other facts and circumstances were proved by the respective parties with a view of establishing the prisoner's guilt or innocence.  The Jury rendered a verdict of not guilty.  --  William H. Pemberton, District Attorney, James P. Sanders, John Sedgwick, for the People; P. L. McClellan, John S. Bates, J. W. Tompkins, for the prisoner. . . ."

Source:  COURT PROCEEDINGS. . . . COURT OF SESSIONS -- The People vs. Charles B. Smith, Eastern State Journal [White Plains, NY], Jun. 15, 1860, Vol. XVI, No. 6, p. 2, col. 4.  

Archive of the Historic Pelham Web Site.
Home Page of the Historic Pelham Blog.
Order a Copy of "Thomas Pell and the Legend of the Pell Treaty Oak."

Labels: , , , , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home