How a grisly murder became a golf course: the horrifying story of Boltus Roll

February 22, 1831 — His naked, lifeless body lay by the gate in a puddle of icy water. Bound by heavy rope, he had ugly bruises visible around his throat. 

The coroner fixed the time of death at approximately one hour after midnight: “There were no mortal wounds on the deceased,” he would testify at the trial, “but his throat appeared to be so hard pressed as to convince me that he had been choked to death.”  The place: a small, modestly profitable farm and farmhouse on the mountain between the towns of Springfield and Summit, New Jersey. The man: Boltus Roll.

The PGA Championship starts on Thursday, meters from where Boltus’ grisly murder took place 185 years ago. Named Baltusrol, it’s a strange homage to a humble farmer who was the son of Dutch migrants. He raised oxen for sale and harvested apples and field crops, he lived with his wife and an illegitimate son, hardly the sort of existence to leave an indelible mark on future Major championships.

Do Rory or Dustin know the story of Boltus, or how the course came to be named after such a senseless murder?

The Murder:

“We were awaken [sic] at about midnight by a loud pounding on the door, and then the door burst open and two men came in and dragged my husband out of bed, punched and beat him, and took him out of the house,” Roll’s wife testified at the time. “They seemed to ignore me, but I could see the face of the larger man – a full face with large whiskers and light blue eyes. I watched them tie my husband and choke him and throw him on the ground, and not knowing what to do, I hid myself in the woods and wandered about until daylight. Then I went for help to a neighbor’s house.”

When she did finally return, her husband was dead, her house had been ransacked and the two killers were far from the scene. How did a modest Oxen farmer become the target for such barbarism? As with any primal American murder, the story is convoluted.

Boltus and his wife Susannah did not live alone; in fact Boltus had fathered an illegitimate son, Henry Boltus Roll, born to Mary January, a local indigent. This scandal can be validated by court records that show a fine of $39 paid to Westfield authorities for the care of his son, who would later come and live with the couple as an adolescent. His role is crucial because historical accounts blame him for spreading scuttlebutt about his father’s secret treasure, a rumour that attracted the attention of Peter Davis, 48, a terminally indebted, opium-addicted man and his accomplice, Lycidian Baldwin, 36.

“The world owed him (Davis) a living, and he was determined to have it,” a Davis confrere, later explained. “They (Boltus and Susannah) had neither chick nor child in the world. They had a thousand dollars of money.”

These whispers of hidden treasure formed the motive of this horrific home invasion, one where Davis and Baldwin sought to relieve the victims of gold coins rumoured to be secreted there. This is why Boltus and Susannah would never have seen this coming, their solitary existence in rural New Jersey abruptly interrupted by two men who roused the couple on a cold February evening.

“Are you not going to get up?” shouted a gruff voice at the door.

“No!” the farmer replied.

“And then the door burst open and two men came in and dragged my husband out of bed, punched and beat him, and took him out of the house,” his wife would later say, recounting the events.

For the next few hours, Boltus was beaten, choked, drowned and frozen in an icy puddle. The house was ransacked — mattresses knifed open, chimney bricks chiseled out, floorboards pried up, all for some non-existent treasure. The story has an eerie resemblance to the Herbert Clutter family murder, a quadruple homicide made famous by Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” that happened 130 years earlier. In both cases, the murderers were led to their victims through the spread of tragic misinformation.

Sadly for Boltus, his memory would not receive the justice it deserved. Baldwin was soon found dead in a Morristown inn — a suicide from laudanum, a solution of alcohol and morphine. Davis was taken into custody. Little did he know he was soon to become the beneficiary of  some monumental judicial injustice. A parade of witnesses ratted out Davis and his overt robbery-scheme solicitations, but Susannah Boltus, unable to identify him, proved to be his greatest lifeline. Aided by the highly capable defence lawyer, Joseph Hornblower, whose three-hour closing argument “was so eloquent that the prisoner, the jury and the audience were reduced to tears,” he was eventually acquitted of Boltus’ murder.

“The evidence though circumstantial is said to have been of the most conclusive kind,” reported the New Jersey Journal. “The jurors were admonished (by Hornblower) that it was better to suffer the guilty to escape punishment than to condemn the innocent, and it was doubtless this consideration that led to the acquittal.”

Citizens, who were so incensed by the obvious injustice, hung Davis in effigy on Market Street in Newark.  The acquitted was immediately brought up on unrelated charges for signing his brother’s name to four promissory notes. Quickly convicted, he was sentenced to 24 years, “a stern proxy punishment for having escaped hanging” and died behind bars.

Every few years we are reminded of this story, a nice testament to a unassuming Dutch farmer who met a tragic end. Who knows what convinced Louis Keller, a publisher of the New York Social Register, to name the club with a compressed version of the farmer’s name in 1895? I like to think he was operating from a sense of justice, something that ironically found expression in the antithesis of fairness, golf.