Last week, we looked at the 1948 killing of Dorothy Eggers by her husband, Arthur Eggers. This week I’m bringing you something a bit different. You’ve probably heard of Peyton Place. The 1956 novel, set in a fictional New England town, sold millions of copies. It also spawned a hit movie and a successful television series. But did you know that one of the major plot elements in the book comes from a real-life crime? The killing of Lucas Cross by his stepdaughter Selena in the book has its roots in the real-life murder of Sylvester Roberts. Roberts’ daughter, Barbara, shot him in 1946 after years of abuse.
Barbara Roberts was born on January 27, 1927, the fourth of five children. Her father, Sylvester Roberts had immigrated from Birmingham, England in the early 1920s. But the factory jobs he found in Boston and New York were little different or better than those in Birmingham.
Shortly after Barbara arrived, Sylvester bought a small farm near the town of Gilmanton, New Hampshire. He had little interest in farming, it turns out. When her mother died in 1937, it fell to Barbara to be the woman of the house and raise her younger brother, Billy. She was barely 11 years old.
In 1942, with America newly engaged in World War II, Sylvester Roberts and his oldest two sons joined the Merchant Marine. Now he was gone for long stretches of time. But when he returned, he ruled the roost with an iron hand—or fist.
Barbara Roberts Kills Her Father
In December 1946, Barbara received a telegram announcing that Sylvester would be returning home. When this occurred, he expected Barbara to pick him up at the train station, some 23 miles from the farm. This time, however, the family car was not running and in a garage for repairs. When Sylvester arrived at the farm on December 23, 1946, he was in a towering rage.
Violence was nothing new in the Roberts household. Sylvester had been abusive to his children for years. But this time, he chased Barbara and Billy around the kitchen table, all the while threatening to kill them. Barbara managed to get her hands on a gun—Sylvester’s gun—and shot him dead. Then, according to her confession, she covered the body with a sheet and dragged it into the barn. There she put it in the cellar under the floorboards of the sheep pen.
Barbara Roberts Confesses
Sylvester Roberts’ body reposed under the sheep pen until September 5, 1947. That’s when Barbara finally confessed to her brother Charles. Taken to the police station, she repeated her story of shooting her father. Stunned detectives could hardly believe the neat, slim girl sitting in the interrogation room could be responsible for such mayhem.
When Barbara’s trial began on December 2, 1947, she pled guilty to manslaughter in the first degree. Judge William Grimes sentenced her to three to five years in state prison. Her little brother, Billy, also pled guilty to the same offense. As a minor, he got four years’ probation.
Shortly after Barbara went to prison, the truth about what had really gone on in the Roberts household came out. The story came from a group of journalists, including cub reporter Ben Bradlee of Washington Post fame. For years, Sylvester Roberts had physically abused his children. But he had also repeatedly raped his two daughters, Barbara and her older sister, Marjory.
The revelation of this ugly secret generated public sympathy for Barbara. Citing “the girl’s best interests,” New Hampshire governor Charles M. Dale pardoned her on December 21, 1948. She had served barely a year in prison.
Barbara Roberts eventually married and left Gilmanton. She died in relative obscurity, age 89, in Rochester, New Hampshire on February 7, 2016.
In the 1950s, New Hampshire housewife Grace Metalious began working on a book. One of the central plot elements involves a young girl, Selena Cross, murdering her physically and sexually abusive father. Nominally fiction, Peyton Place appears to be a composite of several small New Hampshire towns, including Metalious’ hometown of Gilmanton. Racy for its day, the book created quite a stir in New Hampshire, not least for dredging up the “Sheep Pen Murder.”
A new book by Renee Mallett, The Peyton Place Murder, explores the Roberts case and its relation to Peyton Place and author Grace Metalious.
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