Posts Tagged ‘William Snowdon Robson’

The life of Thomas Smith Robson; an adventurer, practical joker and low class Bohemian

Friday, July 14th, 2017

By Allan R. Ellenberger

Thomas Smith Robson, the scion of a great English family, was the son of Robert Robson, Esq., Newcastle-on-Tyne, and Emily Jane Snowden. His brother, William Snowden Robson, was an English lawyer, judge and liberal politician and a Member of Parliament. There was no similarity between these brothers: while Thomas was a jolly, roistering, and mad-cap fellow, his brother William was the personification of English respectability. Both brothers were born at 26 Eaton Square, a somber but eminently aristocratic square of London.

In his early life, Robson earned a PhD at Heidelberg, Oxford and other institutions. He was an expert chemist, man of letters, a thorough student of law, and an expert linguist of several European languages. Robson possessed a splendid physique, lived only at night, and slept during the day. When he wanted an evening alone, he would order a dozen quarts of Riesling wine, and drink the entire batch before the sun rose. He eventually became an embarrassment, dimming the dignity of his family traditions, and was sent on his way.

In 1890, he arrived in Denver with fourteen trunks and a desire to do something unusual. Accordingly, he took up with an infamous army officer whose only asset was his military title. Breaking ties with his family, he spent his last cent getting to Montreal, where he and the officer bluffed their way into the most fashionable hotel on the officer’s signature. From there, they became reporters on the Montreal Star until they were found out and were driven from the town.

Robson then went to Boston and was hired as a waiter in a 10-cent lodging house. Evidently this was not strenuous enough, so he hitch-hiked to Roxbury in mid-winter, eating only green apples for ten days. He then met a wealthy New Yorker, who attempted to make him a general agent of a big colonization scheme. However, Robson would rather starve than work for another man, so he became a stove tinker, making his way to Montana on a stock train. On the way, he was taken care of by an actor who owned a large stock farm; he promised to give Robson a good salaried job for as long as he wanted it. Five miles before reaching the farm, Robson changed his mind and jumped off the train; away from the actor permanently.

Robson traveled to Northern California and stirred up a band of Indians living on a reservation, to do wild deeds; he stayed with them for many months. His next stop was San Francisco, but he remained there only a short time. In 1896, he jumped on a train for Los Angeles. There he met J.R. Carson, who ran the Old Curiosity Shop on North Main Street, Carson persuaded Robson to write home to his family. He did, and discovered that his father was dead, and that he and his brother shared the estate. He was not interested in money except for the good he could do with it, and the trouble he could stir up.

With his inheritance, he booked a suite at the Van Nuys Hotel, but then he rented a 25-cent room in a lodging house where he would sleep. He made a bet with friends that he could escort one of the most notorious women in the city to one of the best hotels. He won his bet by bribing the clerk with a hatful of money. A quick trip to San Francisco followed, and there he sent out invitations to his former cohorts, a collection of loafers and loungers that he treated to a royal banquet at the Poodle Dog, San Francisco’s first and most famous French restaurant. On the way back to his apartment, he lay down in a mud puddle in his evening clothes, defied the police and stopped traffic. A wrecking car crew, and a wagon load of officers put him to bed.

Returning to Los Angeles, Robson found that a sewer trench was open on Main Street, and as a practical joke, he hired a gang of men to fill it up in the middle of the night. Then he engaged several undertakers, and had horses and lines of funeral coaches sit outside a friend’s house all day. Another time, about a hundred boys rushed into a busy drug store in response to a fake advertisement Robson had enlisted in the newspaper.

Finally, bored with his antics, he started for England. Stopping at New York, he bought a hand organ and a monkey from an Italian street musician, and performed up and down Fifth Avenue until he was arrested and put in jail. In Paris, he threw gold around the streets, and gave away money to every homeless person he could find. One day, when someone gave him a bad Franc, he became angry. So to show his disdain, he emptied all his money down a sewer and was left penniless. Once he replenished his supply of money, he attempted a “scientific demonstration” of the insidious effects of constant absinthe drinking, and informed his friends that he was now engaged in a work that would benefit humanity. This experiment resulted in his being locked up in a private asylum.

Going to London, his brother William was not pleased to see him; his antics were not those of a dignified Member of Parliament. But Robson was offended by a speech his brother made, so he left for Venice. There, he tried to organize the gondoliers into two factions; soon they were insulting and fighting each other before fleeing in the middle of the night. Returning to Paris, he remained there for a year or two.

Finally, he returned to Los Angeles. He was in ill health and asked Benjamin Balmer for help. Balmer took him into his home and cared for him. Robson allegedly settled down except for an occasional night of his own when he would lock himself in his room and drink. However, he kept clear of trouble and the police.

Balmer claimed that Robson had unclean habits and was frequently intoxicated. In spite of this, Robson was well cared for by the Balmer family, and Mrs. Balmer would serve as a nurse for him. For the last two years of his life, he was a broken man and scarcely able to help himself. On January 12, 1904, Thomas Smith Robson died at the Balmer home at 465 Bixel Street. He was 49 years old.

Robson’s body was buried in the Chandler Gardens section at what is now Hollywood Forever Cemetery. A large granite cross was placed on his grave.

The inscription:

“Sacred to the Memory of Thomas Smith Robson PhD (Heid) Youngest Son of R. Robson Esq. J.P. of New Castle Upon Tyne England. He Died at Los Angeles on 12th January 1904 Aged 49 Years. The Dead Shall Be Raised Incorruptible And We Shall All Be Changed.”

Robson left a considerable estate valued at about $50,000 in England, personal property in California amounting to $9,490 and real estate valued at $3,450. Robson left his entire estate to his brother William in England. William hired an administrator in San Francisco to handle his brother’s estate. For the care and attention that the Balmer’s gave Robson, they asked for $4,000 from the administrator, and when they were refused, they brought suit. As a reward for his kindness toward Robson, Balmer was allowed $2,400 by the judge.

William Snowden Robson (1852-1918)

Note: Robson’s brother, William Snowdon Robson (1852-1918) was a Member of Parliament between 1885 and 1886. Robson married Catharine Burge, daughter of Charles Burge, of Portland Place, London in 1887. He was invested as a Queen’s Counsel in 1892. He again held the office of Member of Parliament between 1895 and 1910. In 1905, he was knighted and was appointed to the Privy Council. He was Solicitor General for England and Wales from 1905 to 1908, and Attorney General for England and Wales from 1908 to 1910 when he was made a Lord of Appeal in Ordinary and a life peer with the title Baron Robson, of Jesmond in the County of Northumberland. He resigned as Lord of Appeal two years later. William Snowdon Robson died aged 66, at Telham Court, Battle, Sussex. In available biographies, there is no mention of his younger brother, Thomas Smith Robson.

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