May 21st’s meeting will feature Tom Frew presenting on the “Hermit of the Wabash.” The Hermit, born Robert Caskie, was originally from a wealthy Virginia family and served under Robert E. Lee in the Civil War.
Caskie was featured in one of the most famous pictures of the Civil War, known as RG#1, showing a group of young men posing for the camera during the John Brown deployment in Charleston around late November 1859. The image is found in numerous reference books and on many internet sites. Perhaps most notably it was used by Ken Burns in his monumental Civil War documentary. Because John Wilkes Booth served in this unit as a subordinate of Caskie, many mistakenly believed it was Booth featured in the picture’s center.
At the war’s conclusion Caskie and his brothers revived the family’s lucrative tobacco business. By
1876 the effects of a disastrous family lawsuit (Caskie V. Harrison, rendered in 1874) would drive the brothers from Richmond in an attempt to avoid the enforcement of its unfavorable judgment. Robert would go on to become the largest tobacco exporter in Missouri. As the more financially successful of the Caskie brothers, Robert would be the “deep pockets” to pursue to settle the judgment. In 1884 after exhausting all appeals to the initial 1874 judgment, Robert Caskie abandoned his wife and children, leaving her as a “widow” allowing her to return to Richmond.
Caskie himself would live the next 20-plus-years under the alias of “Captain” Roland Smythe, aka the “Hermit of The Wabash,” in Sullivan County. While not addressing Booth specifically, nor identifying himself correctly, Caskie spoke of his recollections of John Brown and his time spent in Charleston. Caskie only publicly reclaimed his true identity in the last remaining years of a 98-year lifespan and at least once compelled a nephew to publish his “non-death notice” in 1904 in an effort to further his masquerade as Roland Smythe. Robert would die in fact in 1928 while living with a son.
Presenter Tom Frew is president of the Sullivan County Historical Society. In addition to his long-time support and leadership of the historical society, Tom helped spearhead the development of a new Sullivan ordinance creating “The City of Sullivan Historical Preservation Commission.”