The History of Baltusrol: A Golf Course Murder Mystery

July 22, 2016
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At a long, tough slog like the Lower Course at Baltusrol Golf Club, site of this year’s PGA Championship, players often talk about staying patient.

A sense of perspective is helpful, too.

Shoddy lie? Pshaw. Unlucky bounce? Big deal.

Lots of folks have had it worse here, starting with the guy for whom the course is named.

That guy was Baltus Roll, and for an inkling of his fate, look to his remains. They’re buried roughly five miles from the Baltusrol clubhouse, in the Revolutionary Cemetery, in Westfield, New Jersey.

“In memory of Boltus Roll,” his rust-hued tombstone reads. Note the misspelling. A minor insult added to his injuries.

“Murdered,” the tombstone also reads.

Until the incident in question, on Feb. 22, 1831, Roll led a quiet, rural existence, tending oxen and raising crops on the same lilting land where the golf club lies today. He was a thrifty fellow, or so the locals said. Rumor was that he had lucre stashed away in the farmhouse he shared with his wife.

Like a lot of rumors, it fell on the wrong ears. 

Around midnight, on that frosty February date, two men burst through the farmhouse door while the Rolls were sleeping, according to testimony provided to authorities by Roll’s wife, Susanna. After demanding to know where the money was, the intruders, she said, “dragged my husband out of bed, punched and beat him, and took him out of the house.”

Terrified, she fled into the surrounding woods. When she returned with help, several hours later, she found the farmhouse ransacked and her husband’s lifeless body lying outside in a puddle, naked, hogtied, with severe bruises around his throat. A coroner’s report listed strangulation as the likely cause of death.

He was 62.

News of the murder spread quickly. So did a police investigation, which focused partly on a clue fit for a Hollywood film. No, they weren’t looking for a one-armed man. They were hunting for a horse with a missing shoe; its hoof-prints had been found at the crime scene.

As it happened, just such a horse belonged to a man named Peter Davis, a local ne’er-do-well whose distinctive blue eyes, it also happened, matched a description of one of the killers provided by Susanna. Throw in the fact that in the weeks before the murder, Davis had been overheard in town talking about his need for money, and the cops had a prime suspect. The other guy they wanted was Lycidias Baldwin, who was known to run in Davis’ company but likely aroused suspicion with his name alone.

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“Lycidias, I’ve always loved that one,” says Rick Wolffe, a co-author, with Robert Trebus, of Baltusrol, 100 Years: The Centennial History of Baltusrol. “It almost sounds like a Star Wars villain.”

As a manhunt closed in on him, Baldwin holed up in the boarding room of a Newark-area tavern and took his own life, overdosing on opiates. Davis, who was apprehended quickly, went before a judge and jury in a highly publicized procedural that the tabloids helped sensationalize.

“It was like the O.J. trial of its time, the ‘trial of the century,'” Wolffe says.

Among other highlights, the courtroom spectacle featured a pit-bull of a defense attorney, a “Johnnie Cochran of his era,” in the words of one modern-day newspaper story, as well as the testimony of a rope expert, who linked rope found on the three-shoed horse to rope that had been used to hogtie Roll.

Incriminating evidence abounded, including an account from a local bartender who said he’d heard Davis and Baldwin talking about the murder, but the judge ruled much of it circumstantial, and the jury voted to acquit.

To many observers, justice wasn’t legal but poetic: one day after eluding a murder conviction, Davis was indicted on four counts of forgery in an unrelated case. He died while serving a 24-year prison sentence.

But the notoriety of the crime he was accused of lived on. So did the name of the murdered farmer, albeit it in contracted form.

By 1895, when Louis Keller, the publisher of a society listing called “The Social Register,” established a golf club on the land Roll had farmed, he knew just what to call it. A friend of his had already dubbed the property “Baltusrol Way.”

It wasn’t a big leap to name the club we have today.

The rest, as they say, is history, and there’s nothing quite like history for offering perspective. Later this week, when a player hits a bad shot and finds himself in a grave of his own making, he might despair. But he’d be better off reflecting on this epitaph, which is engraved on the tombstone of a murdered farmer, on grounds not far from the first tee.

Ye friends that weep around my grave
Compose your minds to rest
Prepare with me for sudden death
And live forever blest