By Danny Crownover
Last week, The Vagabond talked about Robert “Bob” Barton and his famous blind tiger located in downtown Gadsden. Barton was believed to have been born 1843 in Ireland. He operated the first sea food restaurant here in Gadsden and was the first to bring in oysters to this area. Old Bob, as he was sometimes known, was the all-time blind tiger king of Gadsden and Etowah County.
Around 1898, the story of the death of Old Bob Barton circulated. Four young men started into a saloon at about 10 o’clock one night when they were halted in surprise. The men had seen the Rev. S.L. Dobbs, pastor of the First Methodist Church, and the town drunkard starting up the stairs that led to rooms in the second story, where Old Bob had been living for years. As the two could be heard lumbering upstairs, the four young men looked at each other in wonder as they heard a sudden and unearthly noise coming down from above.
“It’s all right,” said the bartender, “It’s nothing but Old Bob dying. What you are hearing is the death rattle.” When asked if that was the occasion for the preacher being on the premises, the bartender replied that somebody had suggested that the dying man might want to say something to a minister.
The opening and closing of a door told of Dr. Dobbs’ entrance into the death chamber. Angry protest, accompanied by a string of curses clearly heard downstairs, indicated that Old Bob had determined to die as he had lived.
Pretty soon, however, there was quiet, and words of an old-fashioned hymn came from the preacher’s lips and floated down below. There was a short but earnest prayer, followed by a series of sobs that were unmistakable, and finally the tiptoeing footsteps of Dr. Dobbs as he was leaving the room.
As soon as the good doctor was gone, the four young men went upstairs to bid the old man goodbye and to offer any assistance. They found Bob propped up in bed with four black men standing around. These were men who had been his faithful servants in his heyday as the best restaurant owner and the biggest blind tiger operator in town.
The terrible rattle in Bob’s throat was rapidly growing weaker, but he could still talk. When asked if he knew one of his visitors, he replied, “No, and I don’t want to know him, d**n him, but I’ll meet him in heaven.”
In his next breath Bob called the young man’s name and said. “John, I hear the most beautiful music; it is the sweetest thing I ever heard. There was never any music like that on earth. Don’t you hear it, John? God, how beautiful it is.”
There was more of that kind of talk, but when he was moved slightly by one of the black men, Bob raved and cursed. It was while he was talking about the music again that Bob turned to John and said, “John, loan me $5. I want to bet on four sixes.”
Those were his last words.
Dr. Dobbs once told how he came to be At Old Bob’s deathbed. He was on his way home from a prayer meeting when a drunken man lurched against him and asked if he was a “parson.” On confessing that he passed for one, the good doctor was then asked to go along to see a dying man who wanted to see a preacher. With his companion staggering along, they set out for the saloon.
As they entered into a room, Dr. Dobbs noticed a sign on the door that read, “No admittance except to club members.” This door was opened by a black man, and the preacher and the drunkard walked in and sat down by Old Bob’s bed.
On learning of Dr. Dobbs mission, Old Bob declared he did not want any “Psalm Singing” around him. Something Dr. Dobbs knew or suspected about the Bob’s life caused him to pick up two sticks from the floor and fashion them into a cross. With this improvised cross raised before the dying man’s eyes he asked again if he could not pray. and the reply was:
“Sure, go ahead,” Bob replied. The priest won where the preacher had failed.
The next day it rained, but Old Bob had to be buried and Dr. Dobbs had to conduct the funeral.
Those who knew this grand old preacher understood that he made it a solemn occasion.
Dobbs admitted afterwards that it was a terrible experience. The water had filled the grave and no amount of bailing during the morning would lower it. The coffin was pushed down to the bottom of the opening with long poles in the hands of sturdy workmen.
Old Bob Barton died in a litter of gambling paraphernalia, but under his rough exterior, the man had a good heart, and many called him friend.