‘The Ghost of Baltusrol’

INSIDE SPORTS, The Ghost of Baltusrol, 800x800“On a bright, smoldering afternoon late last week, the golf historians Bob Trebus and Rick Wolffe parked their sport utility vehicle…and walked through a rusted iron fence into a small cemetery behind a white steeple church.

“Do you remember where it is?” Wolffe asked.

“Trebus squinted. He scanned the field for a moment before pointing about a hundred yards out, beyond a stand of pine trees, toward a sunny plot of faded gray tombstones arrayed in a row. Among them, sitting up straight and dignified, one red basalt headstone somehow appeared to be in better condition than the rest.

“In memory,” it read, “of Boltus Roll.”

baltus-roll-grave-tombstone(600)“When the 98th ‘PGA Championship’ begins Thursday at nearby ‘Baltusrol Golf Club’, fans might wonder about the club’s name. Some might know the ridge poking up from behind the fifth green as Baltusrol Mountain. Others might know the leafy street in Summit above ‘Interstate 78’ as Baltusrol Road.

“What sometimes gets lost to history is that the road, the mountain and the world-famous golf course are linked by the memory of a farmer and the macabre legend of his coldblooded murder on a wintry night in 1831.

“Wolffe and Trebus are among a group of Baltusrol historians who have done their best to keep the membership aware of the farmer’s tragic connection to what became his eponymous club. About 25 years ago, one of their colleagues, Dick Brown, discovered a plaque on the side of a home atop the ridge near the ‘Watchung Reservation’, with views that gaze east across the hallowed 36-hole golf club and Union County.

“The plaque said it was Baltus Roll’s house. That must have been the site, the historians surmised, where the old farmer was killed. (It is widely believed that, in the hasty arrangements after Roll’s death, the tombstone carver misheard the spelling and mistakenly put an “o” in his first name.)

“Almost two centuries later, this sad, gruesome slice of New Jersey’s early history still echoes in club lore and ghost tales. Not long ago, Wolffe uncovered writings by A.W. Tillinghast, the course’s renowned architect, which mentioned observances of strange, devilish creatures stalking the woods of the ridge at night.

“Members occasionally bring up Roll’s legend in a different light.

“I’ve often heard people say that the rough is so thick, it’s Baltus Roll getting his revenge,” Trebus said.

Sean O’Hair - 14thHole (PHOTO: Jeff Gross)
Sean O’Hair – 14thHole (PHOTO: Jeff Gross)

“In life, Baltus Roll resided with his wife, Susannah, and son on what was then a far less populated ridge, where they grew apples and raised livestock.

“At about midnight on the rainy night of Feb. 22, 1831, Roll, then 62, and his wife were woken by a loud pounding on the door. A man called out that he was looking for directions to some indecipherable place. Then, the voice quickly followed up by asking,

“Are you not going to get up?”

“When Roll answered no, the door burst open. Two men rushed in, grabbed Roll from his bed, beat him and dragged him outside into the cold.

“According to his widow’s testimony to a Newark courtroom in June 1831, she saw the two men tying up her husband in the yard with a thick white rope.

“The large man was at his head, choking him,” she said. “I did not see him stir, nor did I hear him make any noise. I heard them say to him, ‘Lie still and we will not hurt you.’ I thought he was dead.”

“Susannah Roll ran for cover in the woods. At daybreak, she returned to the house and saw her husband atop a snow bank, stripped of his clothes, bound at the wrists and ankles, lying lifeless. The door of the house was open and she thought the murderers might still be inside, so she ran to the nearest neighbor, Jesse Cahoon, about three-quarters of a mile down the road. Together, they returned to the house and declared Baltus Roll dead.

“Within days, two suspects emerged: Peter B. Davis, an opium addict who made no secret of his need for money, and his accomplice Lycidias Baldwin. Davis was captured March 1, and Baldwin, upon hearing about Davis’s arrest, fled to nearby Morristown and apparently overdosed on laudanum, a cocktail of morphine and alcohol, a day later.

“Davis’ trial quickly became one of New York and New Jersey’s top news stories.

“It was like the trial of the century,” Wolffe said. “It was a widely followed trial in the newspapers of the day.”

'TheStoryOfBaltusRoll'Clipping“James Lum, Baltursol’s communications manager, dug up the old court transcript, which ran 32 pages long. The trial lasted less than a week but involved 94 witness testimonies. One witness said that he had seen Davis about a week before the murder inquiring about where Roll’s house was located.

“He makes a good deal of money, don’t he?” Davis said, according to the court transcript of the witness. “Do you know if he puts out his money — has he a good deal of money by him?”

“But, with regard to the murder, Davis maintained his innocence. He claimed he had spent the night of Feb. 22 in Camptown, New Jersey (now Irvington), although a witness who was supposed to be staying with Davis that night maintained he had not heard Davis enter. The next morning, Davis was at the bar downstairs. His horse was soaking wet. Davis said the stable must have leaked.

“After a stirring, four-hour closing statement by Davis’ lawyer, William Halsey, the jury deliberated for only about three hours before returning a not-guilty verdict {?}.

“Davis did not have much time to celebrate. On July 4, he was arraigned before the court on four indictments for forgery. He pleaded guilty to three of them and later died in prison.

“Sixty-four years later, in 1895, an opportunistic social climber named Louis Keller constructed a nine-hole golf course on the property near Roll’s old farm. According to Wolffe, one of the club’s eight founding patronesses suggested to Keller that the name be Baltusrol, after the already-named mountain and road.

“The singularity of the name remains a conversation piece for members and visitors.

“There are dozens of other clubs called Oakmont,” Wolffe said, referring to the site of this year’s ‘U.S. Open’ in June. “But there is only one Baltusrol.”

pga-championship-baltusrol(600)“Trebus, standing in some shade in the cemetery, said he doubted this would be the last tour of the gravesite he was going to give. Baltusrol is a popular site for major championships, having hosted seven men’s and two women’s ‘U.S. Opens’ and the 2005 ‘PGA Championship’.

“It’s the kind of story that, every 11 years, it comes alive again,” Trebus said. “It recreates itself.”

–‘A farmer murdered in cold blood: How the PGA Championship course got its name’,
Zach Schonbrun, The New York Times, July 26, 2016



FEATURE IMAGE: Chick Evans on the 10th hole, in the 1915 United States Open at Baltusrol Golf Club

PHOTO: Suzy Allman - New York Times
PHOTO: Suzy Allman – New York Times

“Baltus Roll farmed the land on which the club now sits, in the shadow of the Baltusrol (First) mountain, which is really just a big hill. His family had immigrated to the United States and had maintained the farm with oxen over the years, leading some in the area to believe the Roll family was wealthy. Convinced of this, two men, identified as Peter B. Davis and Lycidias Baldwin, went to Roll’s home on the Baltusrol mountain on Feb. 22, 1831, to try to get him to share the location of his fortune. Roll, 62 at the time, was tied up by the criminals and beaten after refusing to cooperate. His wife escaped, but when she returned with help, the men had left and Roll was dead in an icy pool of water.

“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.”

“…At the bottom of the tombstone, there’s a poem:

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

–‘The ghost of Baltusrol Golf Club: Baltus Roll, his murder and the legend’,
Golf News Net, July 26, 2016


BaltusrolSee also:
‘2016 PGA Championship at Baltusrol: A haunted golf course, but not a scary one’:



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