The Vagabond – The unusual passing of Bob Barton


By Danny Crownover

Not many folks in this area are aware of the story of the death of Bob Barton, a noted restaurant keeper and blind tiger operator in the 1880s. Barton loved chicken fighting and horseracing, and the voice of the faro dealer, the click of the dice and the noise of the spinning top of the roulette wheel were music to his soul.

At about 10 p.m. one evening, four young men entered a local saloon. They halted in surprise at the sight of the Reverend S.L. Dobbs, the pastor of First Methodist Church, and the town drunkard climbing the stairs that led to rooms where Barton had lived for years.

As they moved into the saloon, the young men heard a sudden and unearthly noise coming from above.

“It’s all right,” said the bartender. “It’s nothing but the sound of old Bob dying. What you’re 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.

Angry protests accompanied by a string of curses soon were heard downstairs. Apparently, old Bob was determined to die as he had lived.

Eventually things settled down, and the words of an old-fashioned hymn from the preacher were heard.

A short but earnest prayer ensued, followed by a series of sobs. As soon as Dr. Dobbs left Barton’s room, the four young men went upstairs to bid Barton goodbye and to offer any possible assistance.

The young men found Barton propped up in bed, with four big African Americans standing by. The men had been Barton’s faithful servants in his heyday as the best restaurant owner and the biggest blind tiger operator in town. The terrible rattle in his throat was rapidly growing stronger, but Barton could still talk.

When the one of the young men asked if he knew one of his attendants, Barton replied, “No, and I don’t want to know him, but I’ll meet him in heaven.”

In the next breath, Barton 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!”

Barton then raved and cursed after he was moved slightly by one of his attendants. Barton eventually said, “John, loan me $5. I want to bet on four sixes.”

Those were Barton’s last words.

Dr. Dobbs later explained just how he ended up at Barton’s death bed. Dobbs was on his way home from prayer meeting when a drunkard lurched against him and asked if he was a parson. On confessing that he passed for one, the good doctor was then asked to see a dying man who wanted to see a preacher.

With his drunken companion staggering alongside, Dobbs set out for the saloon. He noticed a sign on an upstairs door that read, “No admittance except for club members.”

Dobbs knocked on the door, which was opened by one of Barton’s attendants. Dobbs and the drunkard walked in and sat down by Barton.

Upon learning Dr. Dobbs’ mission, Barton declared he did not want any “psalm singing” around him. Something Dobbs knew or suspected about the Barton’s life caused him to pick up two sticks from the floor and fashion them into a cross. With the improvised cross raised before the dying man’s eyes, Dobbs asked again if he could not pray.

“Sure, go ahead,” Barton replied.

Evidentially, the priest had come through where the preacher had failed.

It rained hard the following day and water covered the earth, but Barton had to be buried and the funeral had to be conduct by Dobbs, who afterwards admitted that it was a terrible experience. The rainwater had filled the entire grave, and no amount of bailing during the morning lowered the water level. The coffin finally was pushed down to the bottom of the opening with long poles.

Barton died in a litter of gambling paraphernalia, but he had a good heart under his rough exterior, and many called him a friend.

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