This Scandalous 1946 Small-Town Murder Helped Inspire Peyton Place

In 1956, Grace Metalious wrote Peyton Place, an immediate best-seller about the scandalous secrets of a small town in New England. One of its inspirations was the real-life case of 20-year-old Barbara Roberts, who shot her father in December 1946 while defending herself and her younger brother.

Barbara and 17-year-old William had an unusually strong bond; she’d raised him since the siblings’ mother died a decade prior. Together, they stashed their father’s body in a barn on the family’s New Hampshire property, where it lay undetected for eight months. Though Peyton Place, oft-banned for its racy content, would later use the facts of the crime as thinly-veiled source material, contemporary headlines glossed over what was really happening on the Roberts farm that led to murder.

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Here’s an excerpt from the Lewiston (Maine) Evening Journal, dated December 3, 1947, written after Barbara pled guilty to manslaughter, a charge reduced from second-degree murder, and sentenced to three to five years. (Brother William, who also pled guilty, got four years’ probation.)

The State charged the girl shot her seaman father, Sylvester, 52, to death last Dec. 21 during an argument in their farm home ... and, with the aid of her brother, buried the body in a pig pen where it was discovered eight months later ...

County Solicitor William W. Keller said there were strong circumstances that prompted the state to reduce the charge of manslaughter. He quoted the girl as saying she fired the fatal shot after her father had grabbed her by the throat for her failure to meet him at a railroad station upon his return from sea.

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The article goes to note that Barbara was busted after her two older brothers, both Merchant Marines, returned home, started wondering why their father hadn’t written them any letters, and eventually figured out what had happened. Though they turned her in, however, it seems they had some sympathy for her plight:

They expressed admiration for their younger sister during the trial, and said she had shown “great family responsibility” in caring for her younger brother since their father died.

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What isn’t mentioned is the other abuse that allegedly went on at the farm. As the blog Literary Crushes/Grave Matters notes (follow the link to see Sylvester Roberts’ grave):

There were fair reasons for her to have killed the bastard. Her entirely believable accounts of being sexually abused by him over many years elicited a great amount of sympathy ... The central drama of Peyton Place is based on this incident. Lucas Cross, the father, is depicted as an incorrigible drunk who habitually beats his wife and rapes his beautiful and lovely stepdaughter, Selena. She becomes pregnant by him. The town’s good doctor, Matthew Swain — against his principles, but full of a wonderfully touching sympathy for Selena — secretly performs an illegal abortion.

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In real life, of course, Barbara was not Sylvester’s stepdaughter, and author Grace Metalious originally wrote that Lucas and Selena were blood relations. A Vanity Fair profile on Metalious (worth reading; she was quite the character, in addition to being an unlikely literary sensation) delves into how the author discovered the Roberts’ story, so taboo it forced her editor to soften Peyton Place’s retelling of it:

Grace struck up a friendship with Laurose Wilkens, who wrote part-time for The Laconia Evening Citizen and had tracked Grace down when rumors surfaced that the wife of George Metalious, the new school principal, was writing a novel about some of the townspeople. Grace confirmed that she was working on a book, but insisted it was pure fiction. Soon, she and Laurie were together almost every day in the kitchen of Shaky Acres, Laurie’s farm in Gilmanton.

While George began his job as a teacher and principal, Grace wrote. Laurie told her the story of Barbara Roberts, a local 20-year-old who in 1947 shot and killed her father, then buried his body in a goat pen on their farm. She had pleaded guilty to second-degree homicide and was sentenced to 30 years to life. Then the truth came out: for years, Roberts and her sister had been raped regularly by their father, and at times chained to a bed for days. One night he flew into a rage, chasing Barbara and her young brother around the kitchen table and threatening to kill them. She reached into a drawer, extracted her father’s gun, and shot him dead. Only after an exposé by some crusading journalists—including a cub reporter for the New Hampshire Sunday News by the name of Ben Bradlee—was Barbara Roberts freed.

Grace soaked up the details, and she used them in Peyton Place in the story of Selena Cross, the dark ingenue from the wrong side of the tracks who is brutally raped by her stepfather and kills him, burying his body in a sheep pen. (Saying that the American public wasn’t ready for full-on incest, Kitty Messner insisted Grace change him from father to stepfather.)

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After her release, Roberts seems to have slipped back into anonymity; there appears to be record of what she thought of Peyton Place. Readers, of course, gobbled it up; it was made into a feature film in 1957, and a mega-popular TV series (starring a young Mia Farrow as Selena) from 1964-69.

Top image: Barbara Roberts on Sept. 6, 1947 (AP Photo)

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