The Trial of John B. Robertson: Rochester’s Banker to the Living and the Dead

The Trial of John B. Robertson: Rochester’s Banker to the Living and the Dead

[1857 gold dollar. As a banker, Robertson would have handled many of these. Except where indicated, images provided by Michael Nighan]

By Michael J. Nighan

Quite a lot was happening in the Rochester area in 1857.  Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison were speaking at an anti-slavery convention in Corinthian Hall.  Susan B. Anthony was, as usual, agitating, calling for the admission of African Americans to public schools, and for co-ed classes from grade school through college. Patrick O’Rourke was on his way to West Point as a cadet.  A new Main Street bridge (still in use today) was being built across the Genesee River.  Charles Rau was opening a brewery on St. Paul Street, founding what would later become the Genesee Brewing Company.   And local banker John B. Robertson was about to be arrested, become a local hero, disappear, and end up years later disgraced and notorious.


The “Young Lion of the West.” Rochester in 1853. Reproduced in 1973 by HISTORICAL URBAN PLANS, Ithaca, New York from a lithograph in the Cornell University Library. This is number 208 of an edition limited to 500 copies. [Owned by David Kramer] From HAND GRENADES, HORSE SHOES, TAYLOR AND MONROE

The Man

In 1857 Robertson was a pillar of the Rochester establishment.  Employed as the cashier (in those days the manager of day-to-day activities, including customer interactions), at the Eagle Bank, one of the smaller of the 13 banks operating in Rochester, Robertson had his office in the large, recently erected Eagle Bank Block located at what is today the site of the Wilder Building at the southeast corner of Main Street and Exchange Blvd.

Eagle Bank listing from 1857 Rochester city directory.

Born in Saratoga County, at 46 years of age Robertson and his wife Elizabeth had lived in Rochester since the autumn of 1840.  Starting out in a shaky financial condition, after years of hard work Robertson had become prosperous enough to own a brick house on Clinton Avenue near Washington Square Park, valued at an impressive $10,000, and to employ two servants.  He had also forged some useful political contacts in the Whig and later the Republican Party, contacts which paid off when the Rochester city council put him on the municipal payroll as city comptroller, a position which made him directly responsible for the finances of the city-owned Mount Hope Cemetery.

1857 city officers appointed by city council.

And like any civic-minded citizen, he also served the community.  In his case as treasurer for Rochester’s association for juvenile reform, and as a vestryman and churchwarden at the Grace Episcopal Church (today’s St. Paul’s on East Ave.).  The future must have seemed bright for John B.  Robertson.

Then it all hit the fan.

The Accusation

In the early afternoon of September 2, 1857, into Robertson’s bank office walked Chief of Police W. D. Oviatt with a warrant for his arrest on the charge of attempting to procure the death of his wife by administering certain medicines (poisons).   No Hollywood screen writer could have concocted a tale to match what came next.

Elizabeth Mary Robertson was an invalid.  It was alleged that Robertson had sought to bribe or pressure their family physician, Dr. Joseph Biegler, to provide him with slow poisons to be used on his wife and that this could be confirmed by witnesses who the district attorney had hidden in Dr. Biegler’s office to overhear Robertson’s scheme.  In addition, it was charged that Dr. Biegler had provided Robertson with harmless drugs which he told Robertson were the medicines/poisons he had requested, and which later Robertson had administered to his wife.  Robertson was taken to the police station where he was subsequently released on $5,000 bail.

The Rochester American editorialized that, “The crime alleged to have been committed is one of great magnitude, and it will require the most convincing proofs to satisfy our citizens that Mr. Robertson is guilty.  So far, as we have heard, not the slightest shadow has passed across his fair fame until the present moment,” 

Wrote the Union and Advertiser, “It is with pain that we are compelled to make an announcement which will startle this whole community and carry sorrow and pain into a respectable family and a large circle of society… One of our hitherto esteemed and influential citizens was this day arrested upon a charge of a dreadful – a diabolical crime…Mr. Robertson is a gentleman who has stood high in this city…He is a gentleman of wealth we believe, and up to this time his character has been fair….Mrs. Robertson is a lady of excellent standing, and esteemed highly, we believe, by her acquaintances.”

And from the Rochester Daily Democrat, relating how Robertson subsequently informed his wife (who the district attorney had apparently never spoken to) of his alleged crime against her, “It was as a matter of course received by her with surprise, and entire disbelief in the truth of the accusation.”

 Robertson, calling on his Republican political connections, was able to quickly assemble a powerhouse legal team comprised of three of Rochester’s leading attorneys; Henry Selden, New York’s current Lieut. Governor (1);  Alfred Ely, who two years later would be elected to Congress (2);  and John Martindale, a future New York State attorney general. (3) 

The trial was set to begin on January 12, 1858.  To help offset Robertson’s Republican defense team, Democratic district attorney Calvin Huson (4) would call on New York’s attorney general, Lyman Tremain, a Democrat just elected to office.  Robertson continued his banking and municipal activities.  And, to the probable consternation of District Attorney Huson, Robertson’s wife remained in their home.

The Fire

The Eagle Bank Block was just two years old.   Five stories of iron and brick it was considered to be one of the most imposing buildings in downtown Rochester, housing not only the bank’s headquarters but the offices and printing plants of several newspapers, two clothing stores, several insurance and finance company offices, and assorted other commercial enterprises.

Rochester Union and Advertiser, Nov. 21, 1857

In the early hours of November 21, 1857 flames were seen issuing from an open window on the Eagle Bank’s second floor rooms.  An alarm was given and several of the city’s fire departments rushed to the scene.  But the fire had taken a firm grip on the building and little could be done except to watch the block be reduced to ashes and ruin.  Death was added to the destruction when two city firemen were killed by a collapsing wall.

Location of the Eagle Bank Block (1858 map)

But the damage wasn’t limited to businesses housed in the Eagle Bank Block.  As the fire progressed it spread to the adjoining Commercial Bank Block, destroying that building as well.  To add to the loss, even as the fire was still raging, looting broke out.  In one case, a tobacco shop owner claimed to have lost shipping crates containing 30,000 to 40,000 cigars which disappeared after several men helped him drag them from the building and then helped themselves.

Wilder Building. Site of the ill-fated Eagle Bank Block

Immediately suspicions of arson began circulating throughout Rochester.  The idea that the fire might have been an accident was ruled out in many minds given the newness of the building, its brick construction and the fact that no one should have been in the building at that hour.  More than a few locals believed that the mysteriously open window where the fire was first seen was proof of an incendiary at work.   Questions as to whether the fire had been set to cover a robbery at the Eagle Bank were dismissed by the bank directors who pointed out that all cash and records were safely locked up in the vault which survived the fire.  That fact notwithstanding, although only organized in 1852, between the effects of the fire and the economic squeeze of a recession that came to be called the Panic of 1857, by 1859 the Eagle Bank would be merged out of existence.

Then, as the embers cooled, John B. Robertson step forward to announce a collateral loss. Continuing his duties as city comptroller despite his arrest, he now claimed that he had kept the financial ledgers and papers for Mount Hope Cemetery at his bank office, with the result that the records for burial plot sales, internment revenues and endowments had been destroyed in the blaze.  As a consequence, many thousands of dollars of the cemetery’s money could no longer be accounted for, the proof of its existence having literally gone up in smoke. (5)   That loss notwithstanding, within a few weeks Robertson would have an even bigger problem to deal with.

The Trial

When Robertson’s trial began in January, it was Rochester’s star attraction.  In even went “viral” in the newspapers of the day, garnering coverage in the New York Times, in national periodicals such as Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, and in papers as far west as California.

Four of the many newspapers and periodical that covered the trial. (top to bottom) Buffalo Morning Express and Buffalo Illustrated Express, Jan 18, 1858; Richmond Dispatch, Richmond, VA Sep 07, 1857; Raleigh Weekly Register, Raleigh, NC Jan 27 1858 ; (bottom) The Baltimore Sun, Sept 7, 1857

The prosecution’s chief witness, Dr. Biegler, took center stage, describing how Robertson had initially visited him at his office to ask about certain drugs which he had heard could be used to alleviate the pain caused by his wife having broken her leg.  However several of the drugs discussed were of a class which, if administered in small doses over time, would prove fatal to the patient.   Despite having warned Robertson of the danger, Biegler claimed that Robertson kept pushing for him to prescribe their use, at one point blurting out, possibly in a move to gain the doctor’s sympathy, “I want the cause of all my troubles and this hell upon earth removed from existence”.  Biegler stated the proposal “startled him”, but that he said he told Robertson he would think matters over.  Biegler then contacted the district attorney and they decided to try to obtain witnesses to Robertson’s plans by secreting several people in Biegler’s office to listen in on his future conversations. In addition, Biegler was to eventually pretend to acquiesce in Robertson’s plans by providing him the fatal drugs he requested (while only giving him placebos) to see whether he would actually administer them to his wife.

Biegler further testified that Robertson began to call him to his home to examine his wife for heart disease, sometimes every three days, sometimes once a day.  Biegler testified that he never saw symptoms of a heart problem and believed that Robertson’s plan was to secure a prescription for digitalis which, in larger doses, would kill.   Finally, in August 1857 Biegler and Robertson traveled to Auburn to consult with Biegler’s father, also a physician, who had previously treated Mrs. Robertson.

Actually, by “Auburn” I mean Auburn State Prison.  Because in a macabre twist in this case, Biegler’s father, Dr. Augustus Biegler, a homeopathic physician in Rochester, was serving a seven year sentence at that institution, having been convicted of second degree manslaughter after seducing a young girl and then causing her death by a botched abortion in Buffalo in 1856. (6)  Biegler later claimed that Robertson tried to entice him into assisting in his murder scheme, by offering to use his political connections to obtain a pardon for his father.

After returning to Rochester, Robertson again visited Biegler and in the doctor’s retelling, bared his soul about his past problems with his wife, including her inappropriate relations with a young man when they were living years earlier in Georgia, and how now, fixated on the idea that HE was being unfaithful to HER, she was regularly sending spies to keep an eye on him at his bank office and questioning what he was doing every hour he was away from home.  Biegler then quoted the following (suspiciously over-dramatic?) conversation:

Robertson: “She is the cause of all my trouble, and I want that cause removed from existence.”

Biegler: “What, Mrs. Robertson?”

Robertson: “Do you wonder?  You are surprised?  But Joseph, my life is miserable. I cannot live so.”

Biegler: “No, Mr. Robertson, I cannot serve you so. Ask anything else of me, and I will do it.  My own life rather than that of Mrs. Robertson.” 

Robertson: “You can only serve me in THIS way”. 

Protestations notwithstanding, soon after this alleged conversation Biegler began to supply Robertson with the faux poisons.  The doctor also testified that he had come to believe by this time that Robertson was in fact interested in another women and that that was the reason he wished to rid himself of his wife.

The prosecution then put on the witness stand Rochester police officer Alexander McLean (who had hidden in a closet in Biegler’s office), and Henry Searle, a prominent local architect (who hid under a sofa) to relate the conversations they had overheard between Robertson and Biegler.  Both men testified that they heard a voice which they believed belonged to Robertson, asking Biegler about ways to cause the death of Mrs. Robertson.

Opening for the defense, John Martindale, said that he would attempt to show that the real motive behind Biegler’s accusations was a conspiracy by Biegler and his father to avoid repaying a $2,500 loan from Robertson, obtained the previous year to pay for the legal costs of Augustus Biegler’s trial.   During the trial he alleged that the Bieglers believed that that if Robertson was incarcerated, he would be unable to seek repayment of the loan.  Why they may have thought this wasn’t made clear in the newspaper accounts.

To the undoubted dismay of the prosecution, the defense then brought in a surprise witness.  Mrs. Elizabeth Robertson.  The district attorney objected on the grounds that she was not a competent witness, not having been injured by her husband and indeed having no personal knowledge of the alleged conspiracy.  The Court overruled him.

On the witness stand Mrs. Robertson testified to her husband’s good character and her happy domestic relations.  As quoted in the papers, she swore that, “my relations with my husband have been in every respect of the most pleasant, affectionate, kind and happy nature.”   Concerning her husband’s discussions with Dr. Biegler about medicines, she explained that she had previously been a patient of the elder Dr. Biegler and after his incarceration, had asked her husband to obtain from his son certain medicines of the sort his father had previously prescribed which had given her much relief.   “It would be very difficult to describe the attentions of my husband to me at this time”, she added.  “They were of that tender, careful, kind, considerate nature that very few women receive.” (Author’s Note: You can just hear the district attorney grinding his teeth during this testimony!)

Mrs. Robertson’s brother took the stand and swore that, “They were the happiest couple I ever knew”. Even Robertson’s mother, who had been living with the couple, got into the act, vouching for their happy marriage.

The press reports went on to detail how witnesses were then sworn who testified that they had heard Biegler declare that Robertson had been pressuring him for repayment of the $2,500 loan but that he (Biegler), “had cords so tight around Robertson’s neck” that repayment would not be necessary.   Two final witnesses, including the president of the Eagle Bank, corroborated Robertson’s assertions that at the time of two of his alleged meetings with Biegler, he (Robertson) had in fact been elsewhere in Rochester.

During the trial, in a move to discredit the prosecution’s witnesses who claimed to have overheard conversations between Biegler and Robertson, the defense staged several tests to show that it was easy for a listener to be mistaken when attempting to identify someone by voice alone, to be confused as to the exact words they thought they heard, or to be unable to accurately recollect the content of the conversations even a short time later.

The defense acknowledged that the placebo drugs provided to Robertson had of course been given to his wife since the innocent Robertson had naturally assumed that they were drugs which his doctor had prescribed to help his wife.

On January 20, 1858 the case was given to the jury.  After deliberating for three and a half hours the verdict was announced.  Not Guilty!   Despite the judge’s warning against demonstrations, according to the Rochester Democrat and American, “On this announcement, a voice in the crowd proposed three cheers, which were given, a few hisses also being heard.”   Later reports said that the jury had been 9 to 3 for acquittal when their deliberations began, but that the three members voting “guilty” had been convinced to change their minds.

Pamphlet put on sale the day after Robertson’s trial ended.

As Robertson left the courthouse, a free man, a crowd of several hundred of his fellow Rochesterians escorted him and his defense team across the street to the Reynolds Arcade where hundreds more reportedly had gathered.  Calls for “ROBERTSON!  ROBERTSON!”  to address the crowd were answered by  attorney Chauncey Perry who proclaimed, “…in the name of John B. Robertson – which we believe has been the subject of a foul and deep-laid conspiracy – allow me to return you his sincere thanks for this kind demonstration, and to add that as long as he lives you will have his esteem… and that he will maintain that high and irreproachable character which he has ever borne among the citizens of Rochester.”  The gathering ended with more calls for “ROBERTSON”’ and “three groans for Biegler”.  

The case continued to interest Rochesterians for quite some time. From “The Case of the Solicitous Spouse By Edwin Sayers,” Upstate Magazine, Dec 20, 1981

But those who believed Robertson to have been guilty were also not shy about expressing their opinions.  The next day a large group of the citizenry, lead by Newman’s band, paraded to the residence of the district attorney to regale him with a serenade.

Although vindicated by the jury, at this point John B. Robertson drops out of the Rochester record.  By mid-1858 he had been replaced as city comptroller, leaving his position as cashier at the Eagle Bank soon after.   By the 1860 census he and his wife are no longer recorded as residents of Rochester.  Rumors circulated that the Robertson’s may have moved to Canada where his wife’s father was living.

The Letter

Then, after a decade and a half of silence, John B. Robertson, albeit in absentia, once again became the focus of controversy in Rochester.

In the late winter of 1874, the Mount Hope Cemetery commissioners received a letter from the sheriff of Lincoln County, Ontario, Canada.   As reported in the March 25 Democrat and Chronicle, “The contents of this epistle could not have been more astonishing had it come from the moon and revealed some deep secret of lunar politics.”   It seems that, while unsuccessfully attempting to serve papers for an unpaid debt on John B. Robertson in St. Catherines, the sheriff and his deputies had seized a number of books belonging to the City of Rochester, materials which were determined to be some or all of the supposedly immolated Mount Hope Cemetery accounts.  While no mention was made of Robertson’s whereabouts, the implication of the article was that he’d skipped town.

Ballou’s Monthly Magazine – Dec. 15, 1855

Rochester’s newspapers greeted the disclosure with headlines such as, “SINGULAR DISCOVERY”, “STARTLING REVELATIONS”, and THE ROBERTSON FRAUDS”.

The sheriff told the commissioners that, since the city’s records were being held to satisfy a debt, he could only return them if the claim was first paid.  Negotiations were opened with the sheriff and a city council resolution authorizing representatives from Rochester to travel to Canada to obtain the records was quickly passed.

Recalling the 1857 Eagle Bank Block disaster, the Democrat and Chronicle noted that they were unaware of any official investigation having been made into the origin of the fire.   In what became a lengthy revisionist evaluation of Robertson –  the man who in 1858 had a, “high and irreproachable character” –  the paper now claimed that at the time of the fire, “John B. Robertson was then cashier of the bank and there were not wanting persons who openly alleged that he had fired the blockThe announcement made that the books of the city alleged to have been destroyed at that time are in the custody of a Canadian official will confirm the suspicions above mentioned, and John B. Robertson will be held by many to have robbed the city, set fire to the bank, and the direct cause of the death of two human beings.”   

The Democrat and Chronicle further reminded its readers that, after the fire, when Robertson had claimed that the Mount Hope financial records had been burned he was challenged by one of the cemetery commissioners who argued that there ought to be some $13,000 of cemetery funds on hand. Robertson denied that was the case and that in any event, there was no way to document the amount of the loss.

(Never made clear in any of the reports of Robertson’s claims is why the banks which held the city’s funds were unable to supply details on what accounts designated for Mount Hope Cemetery they held.  It seems unlikely that as city comptroller Robertson would have simply lumped the monies attributed to cemetery operations into a general account.  But I’m no auditor.)

A few days later, Rochester alderman Jim Kelly returned from St. Catherines with three account books in hand.   According to the information he’d been given by the Canadians, the books had been found in an old chest, hidden under jars containing catsup and pickles.  The entries were in Robertson’s handwriting and covered the period 1846 – 1858, the last entry being dated January 1, 1858, over a month after the records were supposedly destroyed by fire.   As reported in the Democrat and Chronicle, an audit of the books revealed that Robertson had defrauded the Mount Hope Cemetery accounts and the city in general of over $60,000 (equivalent to $1,900,000 today).   As could be expected, the recovery of the books, which contained the record of all cemetery plot sales over the 11 year period, resolved some problems but created as many more given that many plots had been sold twice.  Further confusing matters was the fact that Robertson didn’t bother to make any entries in the books during his last 6 months as comptroller.

In addition to receiving the lost ledgers, Alderman Kelly was provided with some of the details relating to Robertson’s activities in St. Catherines after leaving Rochester.    On the recommendation of his father-in-law, he’d been hired by an area railroad to manage operations.  Within two years he’d saddled the railroad with so much debt that he was fired, the railroad president reportedly calling him “the greatest scoundrel he ever knew”.  The question of what happened to Robertson and his wife after that remained unanswered.

On April 3rd, 1874, writing John B. Robertson’s moral obituary, the Democrat and Chronicle speculated on his whereabouts. “We believe he is still alive, a broken man.  It is said that he has been reduced to abject poverty…in the city of New Orleans.  A retributive justice surer than that of any human tribunal has overtaken him….It will hardly be a surprise however, to know that the man who is believed to have meditated the death of his wife by poison should prove to be a defaulter, a thief or even an incendiary…Probably Rochester never had dealing with a more polished embodiment of systemic villainy than John B. Robertson.” (7)

Imagine the REAL obituary they could have written had anyone known when and where ex-banker John B. Robertson had cashed in.


(1) In 1846 Selden, along with his brother Samuel, Hiram Sibley and Henry O’Reilly, formed what would eventually become the Western Union Telegraph Company.   Years later, after retiring from politics to return to his legal career, Selden advised Susan B. Anthony that he believed she had a constitutional right to vote.  When she did so in 1872 and was subsequently arrested, Selden acted as her defense counsel.  He died in 1885 and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.

Selden’s gravesite in Mt. Hope Cemetery. The inscription reads “Sometime Lieutenant Governor of this province and afterwards Judge of its highest court. He counted nothing human to be alien to himself and spent his life, his substance and himself in the service of his fellows” (find a grave)

(2)  While serving as a Congressman at the start of the Civil War, Ely, on July 21, 1861, like many other Washingtonians, naively drove out to get a closer look at the first major battle at Bull Run.  When the Union position collapsed, Ely was caught in the retreat and gained the dubious distinction of becoming the only member of Congress to be captured by the Confederates.  Ely was later released from captivity and returned to Rochester.  Like his co-counsel Henry Selden, Ely is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery.

(3) For whatever reason, in 1877 a disgruntled client tried to shoot Martindale in his Rochester law office.

(4) In an almost-too-strange-to-be-believed twist, Huson had accompanied his former legal adversary, Alfred Ely, to Bull Run. Huson was also captured and, already in poor health, died while a Confederate prisoner.

(5) Robertson’s records would have shown Mount Hope Cemetery to be more flush than heretofore.  In 1845, having experienced years of being stiffed for payments of burials and plots even after internments had taken place, Rochester replaced its “Bury Now, Pay Later” policy with the requirement that payments be made upfront.

(6) Not to make this any crazier, but Augustus Biegler had already served time in the state prison for arson, having burned down his house.

(7) The next day, the Democrat and Chronicle alerted its readers that the April 3rd article contained a number of misleading statements for which the newspaper apologized, and decreed not to write anymore on the subject. Many mysteries surround Robertson.

04 Apr 1874

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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