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A Stolen Suit and the Fickle Finger of Fate

With the recent donation of the Gallatin Roberts Collection, we received a magnificent story, as exciting and heart breaking as any Greek tragedy. Roberts was born under the shadow of a missing father and spent his entire life trying to be the trustworthy, upright man that he wished his father had been. At many of the crossroads of his life, fate stepped in to determine his direction, and his path seemed to lead ever upwards in an irreproachable life of accomplishments and public service. But in the last years of his life he was brought down by forces beyond his control, and at the age of 51 he ended his own life, abandoning his wife and children just as his father had done.

Breaking ground for the new post office, July 1929, with Mayor Gallatin Roberts front and center

Breaking ground for the new post office, July 1929, with Mayor Gallatin Roberts front and center

Usually we can only guess at the details of a person’s life, but in Roberts’ case we are fortunate to have a lengthy autobiography that he wrote in 1927, a few years before the events that led to his death. He not only describes in detail the happenings and the people of his life, but he is very open and eloquent about his feelings about his experiences. We can only begin to scratch the surface of his story in our blog, but the Gallatin Roberts Collection is taking shape online and can be viewed by clicking here and using Gallatin Roberts as a key word.

Roberts' recollections were remarkably accurate. The 1896 Asheville City Directory lists John M. Stoner, manager of The Racket Store at 30 S. Main (later Biltmore Avenue).

Roberts’ recollections were remarkably accurate. The 1896 Asheville City Directory lists John M. Stoner, manager of The Racket Store at 30 S. Main (later Biltmore Avenue).

The story above from Roberts’ autobiography illustrates the uncanny influence of fate on the course of his life. He tells how in the spring of 1895, planning to enter Weaverville College, he traveled to Asheville in his uncle’s wagon to purchase a suit of clothes. He spent his last cent on a new suit at “the old Racket Store,” left his precious package in the wagon, and came back to find it stolen. He wrote, “I was a dejected boy. I had no clothes fit to wear away from home and no money to buy any more.”

South Main Street (later Biltmore Avenue) as it looked around the time of Gallatin Roberts' fateful trip to town.

South Main Street (later Biltmore Avenue) as it looked around the time of Gallatin Roberts’ fateful trip to town.

Fortunately police caught the man who had taken Roberts’ clothes, and Gallatin was summoned to Asheville to testify as a witness for the state. He spent more than a week in court, and “then and there, I had made up my mind that I could do what those men were doing.” He determined to become a lawyer. The stolen suit was returned to him, and we undoubtedly see him wearing it here in this portrait of him around age nineteen, taken sometime during his two years at Weaverville College.

MS255_003B PHOTO A copy

It took nine years for Gallatin Roberts to achieve his ambition to become a lawyer. He clerked in a store to save money, attended college at different institutions, taught school, and finally studied law at Wake Forest. His profession led to politics, two terms in the NC legislature, and a term as Asheville mayor. In 1927 he was persuaded to run again for mayor. So as fate would have it, Roberts was in office on November 20, 1930, when Asheville’s Central Bank and Trust, with more than four million of city funds on deposit, failed to open its doors.

People looked for someone to blame. February 21, 1931, the Buncombe County grand jury indicted Roberts, along with six other public officials and eleven bank officials, on charges of conspiring to misuse public funds for the benefit of Central Bank and Trust Company. Although he declared his innocence and expressed confidence that he would be acquitted, Roberts couldn’t bear the shame of the indictment and the thought of a trial. Roberts committed suicide February 25, 1931.

If his suit had not been stolen, would Roberts have chosen a different profession, and would his life have followed a different course? We thank his granddaughter Linda Burgin for bringing us his fascinating story through her donation of the Gallatin Roberts Collection.

Posted by Betsy Murray

3 comments on “A Stolen Suit and the Fickle Finger of Fate

  1. cathrynphotoavlnc
    April 25, 2014

    Betsy wrote a great article that makes me want to read Roberts’ autobiography! Thanks!

  2. Vance
    April 27, 2014

    I’ve read the tragic story of Mayor Roberts’ death, and now look forward to learning of his life! Thank you for giving this material a home where the public can appreciate and learn from it.

  3. Pingback: HeardTell Blog Countdown to 100,000 Views! | HeardTell: The North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library

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This entry was posted on April 25, 2014 by in Events, Local History, Manuscript Collection, New Donations and tagged .

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