A Newspaper Martyr — “Uncle Wes” Robertson

Gallatin Publisher Wesley L. “Uncle Wes” Robertson is known as Missouri’s Newspaper Martyr.

Gallatin Publisher Wesley L. “Uncle Wes” Robertson is known as Missouri’s Newspaper Martyr.

In the building still housing printing presses off the northeast corner of Gallatin’s business square, Uncle Wes was fatally shot at his desk about 4 p.m. on Dec. 23, 1919. He died about three hours later. His fate climaxed a bitter four-year feud with a disgruntled former city official over stories the 70-year-old editor had published in the Gallatin Democrat.

The newspaper had been leading an effort to rid the community of bootleggers. Hugh Tarwater sued the newspaper for libel following a report on a fine levied against Tarwater for being intoxicated. Damages claimed in the lawsuit totaled $20,000.

In those days, Gallatin, like most small towns throughout America, hosted a Chautauqua. Uncle Wes was on the program committee, and when one of the advertised speakers failed to appear with the crowd waiting in the hot August sun, he set about to fill in.

Imagine, if you will, this colorful, rotund, good-natured bundle of quick and often biting wit, leaning back on his ample haunches, inserting his thumbs into his suspenders and opening his remarks by declaring, “Had I known I would be called upon to speak, I would have worn my $20,000 suit!”

The plaintiff, who was in the audience, stalked from the scene red-faced and obviously enraged. Several weeks passed, building up to a fateful end.

The fiery editor had served as the official town Santa Claus for a number of years. Ironically, it was a chilly December afternoon just two days before Christmas when Gallatin’s longtime publisher was fatally shot as he sat at his desk. During the confusion, Robertson was shot two or three times, and Robert J. Ball, junior manager of the newspaper, was shot at several times but escaped without injury. Tarwater, 50, was immediately taken into custody.

The scene of Tarwater confronting Uncle Wes was one of four selected by the Missouri Press Foundation to be featured in the Missouri Press Heritage Collection. A print of the work by artist James Burkhart is displayed at Gallatin Publishing Company, 203 North Main, located next door to the scene of the shooting. Other heritage prints also on display depict “The First Wilderness Newspaper,” “The First Newspaper Press Arrives in St. Louis,” and “The Country Newspaper Office,” a typical scene during the 1930s.

Wesley L. “Uncle Wes” Robertson was editor and co-publisher of the Gallatin Democrat for over 25 years, the first president (1891) of the Northwest Missouri Press Association, president to the Missouri Press Association (1901), and is remembered as Missouri’s Newspaper Martyr. His funeral services, conducted by the Rev. G. B. Smith at the Methodist Church under auspices of the Masonic and Oddfellows lodges, was exceptionally large.

Reprinted from the Gallatin Tourism booklet (1989) and the Gallatin Democrat, December, 1919