Gilbert Roberts was born in Fredericktown, Ohio in 1895. He lived with his wife in Stow before moving to Cuyahoga Falls where he lived for 59 years. After graduating from both Kent State University and University of Akron he served two years with the US Army. He then became superintendent, principal and teacher in the Cuyahoga Falls School system for 45 years. When he retired in 1960 he became a lay minister in the Munroe Falls Methodist Church as well as a local historian and a writer for the local paper. He was well known and had many friends from all specs of life.
Sam was one of those friends. Sam had confided in Mr. Roberts over a period of many years. He spilled his financial worries, family squabbles, and flights of imagination during his periodic visits.
One day Sam told Mr. Roberts “You know, perfesser, I can’t say much at home. The wife says I talk too much, and I guess I prove it when I do talk. At the plant when I wind up for my best yarns some bellyacher yells ‘uncork one’ and I fergit which one I was tellin’. You alwuz lissen, whether you believe or not, and I git it off my chest.”
Sam talks and Mr. Roberts listens, and when he gets his fill of Sam, he tactfully suggests that he’s going his way and would be glad to drop him off at his house.
Sam’s worst fault is a penchant for falling from the ‘water wagon’ every two or three weeks. He was never confrontational or belligerent while on a drinking binge, he would just find a few kindred spirits for company, and wisely stay away from home until the bender was over. Sam’s favorite beverage is a highly potent moonshine called “Purple Mule”.
The name is Sam’s own invention. “It’s a secret in my family”, he always said. “My pappy got it from his pappy down among the hills. In fact grand pappy was weaned on it”, Sam said with a smile. “When I came along times were tough and for me they cut it with something cheap and called the weaker stuff Barbed Wire. Yep, Purple Mule and Barbed Wire – they were my favorites; I’ll take ‘em every time.”
“But Sam”, Mr. Roberts interrupted, “do you buy that stuff over at the bars?”
“Now wait a minute, perfessor”, said Sam in a pontifical manner, “Don’t you get ideas. That stuff would knock you for two loops and a handspring. You don’t need anything to oil yer head”.
Gilbert Roberts quickly assured Sam that he was only asking for information in a purely academic sense, and Sam reproachfully assured Roberts that he could not see what an academy had to do with Purple Mule and Barbed Wire and that where he bought both “licker” and “cutter” was his business only. Roberts just nodded his head in silent agreement.
One day Sam came in to Gilbert Roberts office – cold sober, bug eyed and scared stiff. Sam always takes off his hat and enters quietly but this particular time the hat was forgotten and the sound he made was reminiscent of a buffalo herd.
“I’ve jest got to tell it, perfesser, please excuse me bustin’ in like this. If I tell anybody else they will stick me in the goofy house for sure, and that’s where the wife sez I should be anyways. I never believed in ghosts, spooks, or haunts, that’s sure, but this time I seen ‘em all!”
Out of breath Sam paused and Roberts handed him a cigar, but for the first time in their long acquaintance he ignored the gesture.
“Let’s begin at the beginning”, Roberts suggested. “Now where did all this start and what started it?”
Sam settled back, finally saw the cigar and put it in his mouth after first biting off the wrong end. With trembling hand he finally succeeded in lighting the rope and launched into a tale that would have made radio history if Sam himself had been before a microphone.
“Yesturdy, Jerry and me were ridin’ in Jerry’s jalopy. We rode round and round fer a couple hours and somehow I got out at Front and Bailey.”
“Why did you get out?” Gilbert Roberts asked his friend. “That spot is a long ways from your place. Purple Mule again, Sam?”
“Well”, he admitted ruefully, “we did have a couple of kicks, and the last one must’ve kicked me out of the old tin box. Anyway, there I was walking down to the [Bailey Road/Gaylord's Grove] bridge – you know, the one under the Pennsy [Doodlebug] bridge that goes overhead?”
“Yes, I know the place well,” Roberts said. “Get on with it, somebody hold you up?”
“No”, mournfully replied Sam. “I wish to gawd they had! A stickup man is human, but what I saw!! Grand pappy and pappy always said there warn’t ghosts and such, and up to that minute I believed ‘em. Too bad ain’t it when a feller can’t believe his pappy and grand pappy.” Out of breath again, Sam reached for another match, burned his nose with it, and finally got the stogie going again.
“Jest as I got onto the bridge”, he resumed, “a car stopped on yon side and the headlights lit up the place, all over like. On the town side of the bridge I saw a man leaning over the rail. He looked pecoolyar like. It was that warm night, you know, and no one needed an overcoat. The coat this guy had on wasn’t an overcoat.
“I figgered it out quick, it was one of them coats you see on pictures of Abraham Lincoln. Still, he looked funny. I couldn’t see his head – in fact, it looked like he didn’t have a head. ‘Couldn’t be’, I thought to myself, ‘a guy just has to have a head.’ Tough on hat factories if guys get to going without heads.
“I know what you’re going to say, perfesser, Mule still kicking. Well, mebbe it was, I didn’t feel so good, I admit. I looked again. This gent has a pole in his hands and is fishing into the water. I didn’t give it no more mind, ‘case the car moved on toward my end of the bridge and I couldn’t see old Lincoln coat.
“I didn’t see him again after the car got by and I wondered mebbe he reached too far and fell in; anyway my head was still hazy and how he got out was his business.
“I piked on out Bailey tryin’ to get me out a good excuse for the wife – you know how she is.”
Gilbert Roberts rescued Sam’s cigar from the table where it had dropped and returned it to him and provided another light. With a look of horror on his face, Sam went on with his story.
“You know that crossing where the Beef and Onion [B&O Railroad] crosses Bailey? Well, I thought I would cut down toward town again; couldn’t face the music yet; so I turned carefully to my right and plodded along the side of the tracks.
“Just then I heard the Capital Limited [train] comin’ from Akron way and I scrambled over on the bank so as not to derail it and get cut up in the bargain. When she came ’round the bend up there, all hell bent for Washington and points east, the headlights lit up the landscape like a football field at night.”
Rising to his feet, Sam had a look of terror, as he came to the climax of his experience. “Right there before me, about fifteen feet away in the glow of the lights, and pokin’ with a short stick over the ground, was that Abraham Lincoln coat man again! He was toward me this time, and, brother, HE DIDN’T HAVE NO HEAD AT ALL! Maybe he was huntin’ fer it, for all I know. The Purple Mule was gone by this time and I swear I was sober. It wasn’t like the time I told you the hoop snake story. I admit that was a lie – fact, it was one of grand pappy’s best. This is a fact and I am sure of what I saw. The train got by and no, I didn’t try and look again. I got back to Bailey, I don’t know how, and high tailed it for home and the blessin’ I had comin I didn’t get. The old lady came down with a sore throat.
“Had any Purple Mule since?”
“No, jest a couple of Barbed Wires and next week I’m stoppin’ that too. Somehow I think mebbe grand pappy’s perscription can’t be fixed properly anymore; mebbe the cuttin’ agent is bad. Either way I ain’t goin’ back there to check up what I saw! Say, perfessor, I never crossed you before, but if you say go back, my answer is NO, period.”
Sam rapidly returned to normal, having finally shared his experience and Mr. Roberts soon drove him home. On the return trip Gilbert Roberts drove the route of Front Street and gazed speculatively at the bridge.
As he looked out over the placid waters of the Cuyahoga River Mr. Roberts recalled a bit of history he read. A true scenario happened at this very bridge, and took place during the administration of Abraham Lincoln.
In 1861, two seedy men from Cleveland, James Parks and William Beatson, arrived in Cuyahoga Falls by mistake. Their destination had been Pittsburgh and they were to change trains in Hudson. Making a mistake they got off in Cuyahoga Falls and after unsuccessfully trying to hire horses at a livery they began walking. Passing by Hall’s Tavern on Front Street, they couldn’t resist and both ended up refueling their previous drunk. After being kicked from the saloon at closing time both men began walking the railroad heading for Hudson.
According to James Parks they started up the tracks but slipped and partly fell on the ties so they walked arm-in-arm until they arrived at the stone bridge where they unlocked arms and walked single file, with Beatson going first.
Not far after crossing the bridge Parks fell and knocked the wind out of himself and his nose began to bleed. Parks laid there for some time, hardly able to breathe. His head rang and he was dizzy. He called for Beatson but there was no answer. He started glancing around and spotted him lying just over the embankment under the railroad where the road crosses Gaylord Grove Bridge. Parks went down the embankment and felt for a pulse and finding none he then noticed Beatson’s head was smashed. This gave Parks strange feelings – mingled excitement, fear and sorrow. He had quick reflections as to what people might think. He had argued with Beatson in the presence of many people. His past record was bad; he had served seven years in the English prison for poaching and four years in a Rhode Island prison for breaking into and robbing a tomb. He just knew people would not believe his story about Beatsons fate, so he decided he must hide the body’s identity.
He first threw Beatson’s boots into the Cuyahoga River and then tore off his clothes, went through his pockets and took out everything including money and a large gardener’s pocket knife. He tore up the clothes and threw them into the river. He took the knife and by using a rock he found by the side of the road he drove it through Beatson’s neck and finally succeeded in cutting off his head. He then threw the body into the river.
Parks took off across the bridge and up the road carrying the head until he came to the Ohio-Penn canal where he threw the head in and sat down to rest. When a canal boat came along he got on and rode to Old Forge (north Akron). Parks tried to clean the blood off his clothes and when questioned about the blood spots he said he had a bad fall and had gotten a bloody nose. Eventually arriving home he told his wife he had decided to go back to England and take care of some unfinished business.
The discovery of the body occurred on the morning of April 14. Mrs. Eunice Gaylord, who lived on the north side of Bailey Road and the east end of the bridge contacted the Summit County Sheriff to tell him there was a pool of blood on the bridge roadway and the bridge rail. She reported she was home the night before when she heard noise on the bridge and looking out she saw what looked like two men tussling in the dark.
Not long after, a farmer on his way over the bridge on Bailey and near Front Street discovered a headless body in the river under the bridge. Blood covered the stone abutments of the railroad bridge gave unspoken evidence of a violent struggle that ended in tragedy. The body was identified as that of Beatson. Although a careful search was made, the head of the unfortunate Beatson was never found.
James Parks, back in Cleveland, finished up some loose ends and readied himself to leave the country. The morning of his departure he picked up the Cleveland Plain Dealer and saw a story about the alleged murder in Cuyahoga Falls which included a description of him. It read as follows:
“Five hundred dollars reward! On the night of April 13th, 1853, a man supposed to be William Beatson, a butcher, was brutally murdered near the village of Cuyahoga Falls, Summit County, Ohio. The above reward of $500 will be given for the apprehension and confinement of the murderer, in any jail of the United States or Canada, so that he may be brought to justice. The name of the murderer is unknown but circumstances strongly point to James Parks, alias Dickinson, as the man. The following is the description of the murderer: He is an Englishman about 35 years old, about five feet eight inches high, thick set, high cheek bones, giving his face a very broad appearance; brown hair, whiskers slightly sandy. He has a scar on his nose, and one or two of his front teeth are gone. When last seen he had on a dark cap, black sack coat, lightish checked vest, a new white and red woolen comforter, dark pantaloons with blood on the left leg from the knee down. Any information may be addressed to Michael Gallagher, City Marshal, Cleveland, Ohio, or to the subscriber, Dudley Seward, Sheriff of Summit County, Sheriff’s Office, Akron, Summit County, Ohio, April 16, 1853.”
Parks left Ohio City on the 18th of April and headed for England but he never made it. When he got to Buffalo, N.Y. he was picked up by the law and brought back to Akron.
On the 14th day of his trial Judge Humphreville passed judgment as follows:
James Parks, you have been indicted by the Grand Jury of this County of Summit, State of Ohio, of the murder of William Beatson. You have had a fair and impartial trial by an intelligent and unbiased jury. They have returned a verdict of guilty against you, and with that verdict the court is satisfied. You have willingly and deliberately taken the life of a fellow being and in so doing you have forfeited your own. The penalty of the law is death. The sentence of the court is therefore, that you be removed hence to the jail of this county and there safely kept until the 26th day of May, 1854, when you will be taken from thence to the place of execution where, at nine o’clock, you will be hanged by the neck until you are dead.
A week later, he was hanged for the murder and beheading of William Beatson.
Gilbert Roberts, now standing on the bridge, pondered the historic murder and sentencing. Has Beatson himself returned from time to time in search of his head? Did Sam come along on a dead hour of the night when grizzly forays are usually made and interrupt the search? Or was it the Purple Mule?
Written and compiled by Jeri Holland based off a written interview with Gilbert Roberts, local history and court transcripts.