Gazlay Family History

SearchSources: The Murder of J. W. Roby

James Wilson Roby (c.1867-1898) was shot and killed in Orange, Texas, apparently as a result of a business arrangement gone bad. His assailant,
R. W. J. Smith, was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be hanged on August 18, 1899, but on appeal his sentence was suspended, pending an examination of Smith’s sanity. Shown below is the transcription of an article in The Galveston Daily News, Wednesday August 16, 1899, that gives an account of the events leading up to the shooting, the jury’s guilty verdict, and the appeals that followed. Other sources indicate that Smith was ultimately granted a new trial in which he was ruled insane on Oct. 25, 1899. The formatting shown below varies from the original newspaper article, although the text is otherwise reproduced as accurately as possible (including spelling, capitalization and punctuation anomalies).












A Case of Misplaced Confidence—When
Fortune Appeared to Be In Sight
All Hope Vanished.



Orange, Tex., Aug. 15—Sheriff P. F. Easton was served to-day with an order from Judge F. P. West, First judicial district, directing him to suspend the execution of R. W. J. Smith, sentenced to be hanged in this county on August 18, and to bring Smith before the district court of Orange county at the October term that he may be examined as to his sanity. The order was issued upon an affidavit filed by E. A. Cheatham, Smith’s attorney, who states that he has reason to believe that Smith is of unsound mind.

R. W. J. Smith came here from McDonell’s camp near Field, La., in the spring of 1897, and after working at one of the mills for a few days decided he preferred a timber camp and returned to the trains, but in the fall of the same year he was back at the mill at work. He had not worked long when he bought an old flat boat, hired a man to put a little house on it and turned his attention to fishing. Later Herrman Nelson, a ship carpenter of this place, contracted to build some barges for Clarke & Co., the work to be done just below Beaumont. Nelson engaged Smith and his house boat to go there and board the men working on the job, using the cabin for kitchen and dining room. While feeding Nelson’s men he met up with J. W. Roby, a young man of fairly good education, fond of music, and a good talker, with a penchant for histories.

Smith was taciturn, suspecting and miserly. He was known to have worked alongside men for months without having mentioned to them a syllable relating to his past history. He had a patent on a machine for washing powdered gold from the sand that he intended to try as soon as he could get the means to build and operate it, but as the expense of building and secretly testing it would be considerable, he felt that the date for experiment was far ahead. To hasten matters it had occurred to him his small means invested in a chicken ranch would be the quickest road to a realization of the merit of the gold machine, and that California would be the ideal field in which to operate. Few knew of his plans, fewer still suspected that he had money to buy a ranch with.

Roby managed to interest Smith and to draw from him much information that those who had known him longer knew nothing of. Having discovered that Smith had some money he at once began to plan a theatrical troupe. Roby would go to New Orleans, organize a comedy company and return to Beaumont in time for the fall business of 1897. Smith was to advance money to pay Roby’s expenses while getting the troupe ready for the road, and when they started out Roby would be the star performer and Smith would take in the money at the door. The plans were so fascinating to Smith that he took kindly to Roby’s plans and at once disposed of his rotting boarding house, handed over to Roby a portion of the proceeds, and to meet his own expenses went to work at a sawmill in Beaumont.

In August 1897, Roby went to New Orleans and wrote frequent letters advising Smith of the progress being made in securing talent for special work and assuring him that they would sweep the road when they started out. One day a letter came saying he, Roby, was ready to start for Beaumont, but additional funds would be needed to pay railroad fare. Smith sent it, and waited a few days; then came a rumor of yellow fever at New Orleans quickly followed by local and, later, by state quarantine. Roby addressed Smith by wire that he had moved his company out of the city, and as soon as the quarantine would permit he would hasten to Texas; but, in the meantime, more money would be required to hold his combination together and to pay the board of so many people, and he kindly gave Smith directions how to wire it to the bank in the town at which the troupe was sojourning. Smith claims to have sent this request, though he had by that time well nigh used up his savings and so informed Roby.

Smith had no further call for money from Roby, but as soon as the quarantine was raised he learned through the mail that he had exhausted his means and was finally obliged to let the show people go.

As the winter wore on Smith learned that Roby was at Orange and he came here to talk over the situation. He found his partner living here in a rented cottage and a lady whom Roby introduced to him as Mrs. Scranton, his widowed aunt. He invited Smith to stay with them, which he did. The aunt did the cooking and washing and matters appeared to be going smoothly, but Roby got sick, and earned little; house bills piled up pretty fast, Smith had steady employment and Roby borrowed from him enough to pay rent, the butcher’s bill and for groceries.

Smith was not an expert penman and got Roby to write letters to the patent office for him. One morning he wanted to send $15 to his lawyer, and as Roby was to go to the postoffice on his own business Smith handed him the money, asked him to get a postoffice order and inclose it to the proper address. Smith says the letter was sent, but that Roby failed to buy or send the postoffice order or draft, and never did offer any explanation. Later Smith went to his room one evening when he came home from work and found that his trunk had been broken into and $10 taken from it. Roby’s aunt knew nothing about the circumstances, but told Smith Roby had left town. That night Roby was seen at a saloon here, and Smith swore out a warrant, put him under arrest and at his examining trial he was required to give bond to answer at the October term, of the district court.

Smith bought a little houseboat, tied it up about five hundred yards below the Lutcher & Moore lumber company’s mill and lived on it. As soon as Roby made his bond and got out of jail he got permission to occupy a little shack that stood less than 100 yards below where Smith’s boat lay tied to the bank.

Roby had been told that Smith would kill him, and replied that but for his bond to appear at court he would leave town: he expected to be acquitted and then he would go away. Smith heard that Roby wanted to leave and told the man working with him at barge landing that he intended to shoot him in the legs so he could not get out of town.

At 6 o’clock on the evening of September 8, 1898, Roby was at the office of the Sabine export company and left his tally books for a lot of square timber he had just that day measured and picked up for that firm. As he started home two of the Berwick boys, who lived beyond his boat, overtook him and walked with him; their road led past Smith’s boat and as the three came near the land end of the gang plank Smith walked deliberately to the middle of the road, planted himself in front of Roby and at a distance of no more than twenty feet raised his gun and told Roby to “Pay back that money you stole from me.” Roby threw up his hands, told him he had no money, but begged him to spare his life. Smith fired one barrel into his unarmed victim and as he fell fired the other. Either would have caused instant death, but not satisfied, Smith walked back to his boat, put down the gun and came back with a pistol, by which time the two Berwick boys had recovered from the surprise and started to protest when John Blattenberg, a wagoner, drove up and begged Smith not to shoot again. Smith told Blattenberg to drive on or he would give him a dose of the same medicine. Blattenberg drove rapidly to the nearest telephone, told the sheriff what had happened and when that officer reached the boat Smith was sitting near a doorway with pistol in hand, looking at the corpse.

He was indicted at the October term, 1898, of the district court and his case was called November 14. He was defended by E. A. Cheatham, esq.

The jury was one of the best that has ever gone into the box in Orange county and Judge S. P. West’s charge was clear and concise.

The jury was out only twenty minutes when it was announced they were ready to report. The sheriff brought them in and the clerk read: “We, the jury, find the defendant, R. W. J. Smith, guilty of murder in the first degree and assess his punishment at death.”

The defendant turned his steel gray eyes up on his attorney and remarked, “Well, that’s hell.”

His case was carried to the court of criminal appeals where the verdict of the lower court was affirmed and the mandate returned in time for the April term, 1899, of the district court, and on Monday afternoon of May 15 Smith was brought before Judge S. P. West and was sentenced to be hanged on Friday, August 18, 1899.

When Judge West inquired of the prisoner if he had anything to say why sentence should not be passed, he rose to his feet and said, “I would like to have had time to start my chicken ranch, but if I must be hanged I want plenty of music at the hanging.” He expressed no regret, and at no stage of his imprisonment has he exhibited the slightest remorse.

He told a party here that he was born in Michigan, and when 14 years old went to Tennessee to live with an uncle. He afterward lived in Alabama, came from New Orleans to Field, La., and from there to Orange. He is about 40 years old, unmarried, and took no interest in anything that offered no personal gain to him.