Jan. 11, 2022

The First Killing of a U.S. Marshal

The First Killing of a U.S. Marshal

January 11, 1794. In Georgia, a man named Robert Forsyth becomes the first United States Marshal killed in the line of duty.

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Cold Open

It’s hours before dawn on August 19th, 1779 in northeastern New Jersey. Captain Robert Forsyth holds his musket high as he and fellow members of the Continental Army wade through a mud-filled marsh. Led by Major “Light-Horse Harry” Lee, this small group of soldiers is preparing to attack a British-held fort at Paulus Hook.

Robert is worried. The marsh water has soaked his soldiers’ ammunition, and he knows many won’t be able to fire on British troops when the time comes. Robert eyes his bayonet. If it comes down to it, they will fight hand to hand in order to secure a much-needed victory.

In 1779, many view the American Revolution as a lost-cause. The British dominate both land and sea, and colonial morale is waning. General George Washington needs a decisive win that can help him turn the tide and spark “Patriot Fever.” He believes a successful attack on Paulus Hook, a fort that stands in the shadow of the British fleet in New York, could do the trick. Washington trusts Major Lee’s soldiers, men like Captain Robert Forsyth, to pull off the daring raid.

As they close in on the fort, Major Lee gives the order to charge. Robert and his fellow soldiers rush the fort.

The British pepper them with light fire. But it’s clear Lee’s men have taken the British by surprise. With mostly bayonets, Robert and the rest of the soldiers overwhelm the British forces. They kill or wound 50 redcoats and take 150 of them prisoner before disappearing back into the darkness.

The victory at Paulus Hook fuels “Patriot Fever” just as George Washington had hoped. And Robert Forsyth’s bravery in the battle and throughout the war will not go unnoticed. After the revolution, General Washington will help Robert achieve success in the nascent U.S. government. But Robert’s service to the new Republic will put him in harm’s way again, and eventually earn him an unfortunate distinction; Robert will become the first United States federal officer killed in the line of duty. 


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is January 11th: The Killing of a U.S. Marshal.

Act One: Washington Creates the Marshals

It’s spring, 1789 in newly-elected President George Washington's office in New York. Washington sits at his desk and writes out a list of concerns he intends to present to Congress. As he writes, Washington thinks through his fears for the future of his young country.

As the nation expands, Washington worries that the federal government won't be able to keep up with growing state and local power. He needs to balance federal power with the growing call for States’ Rights. He believes the federal government has to maintain some form of authority throughout the states if America has a chance to survive. And he has come to believe that a strong Judiciary Branch of government is the only way to ensure federal authority. But Washington needs Congress’ support to create the system he envisions.

Throughout the summer, Washington works closely with Congress to establish the full scope of the federal court system, and he pushes Congress to pass what will become the Judiciary Act of 1789. Senators Oliver Ellsworth and William Patterson handle much of the writing of the law, but Washington plays an integral role in establishing the structure and duties of the new Judiciary Branch.

On September 24, 1789, the Judiciary Act passes. The law establishes and organizes a federal court system, but Washington understands that they can’t function successfully without law enforcement backing them up. The new president believes federal courts need federal officers. And Washington’s solution is the creation of the United States Marshals.

Section 27 of the Act reads in part, “And be it further enacted, that a Marshal shall be appointed in and for each district… to execute throughout the district all lawful precepts directed to him.” In fall 1789, President George Washington has his judiciary branch and his law enforcement agency. Now, he just needs men to fill the posts.


It’s September 28, 1789, in New York, four days after the Judiciary Act has passed. George Washington steps into his office and heads directly for his desk. He’s feeling hopeful about the direction his country is moving in. He grabs pen and paper and writes a letter to Edmund Randolph, the first Attorney General of the United States. In the letter, Washington expresses the importance of the U.S. Marshals to the young country. He makes it clear to Randolph that the courts and the officers who serve them will stand as a pillar of the new United States government. Washington continues that in order for the system to work, he needs “the fittest characters to expound the laws and dispense justice.”

Not long after penning the letter to Randolph, Washington sets out to appoint his first group of United States Marshals. He tells those closer to him that the first generation of Marshals should be men who have served their country. And high on his list are those who fought with the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. When Washington sets his sights on appointing the first U.S. Marshal in Georgia, he knows there’s only one man for the job.


In September of 1789, at his home in Augusta, Georgia, Robert Forsythe tells his wife the news: President George Washington wants him to be Georgia’s first United States’ Marshal. Robert is no stranger to the concept of service.

He was born in Scotland in 1754, but since moving to the colonies as a teenager, he felt a call to serve and lead in his new home. That call inspired Robert to join the Continental Army, and later to serve here in Augusta, where he settled down with his wife and sons. Robert is Augusta's tax assessor, a board commissioner, and a justice of the peace. Since the war, he saved some money and lived a relatively quiet life. But when Robert receives the news that President Washington wants him to join the Marshals, he doesn’t hesitate.

Robert Forsyth throws himself into his new role as Marshal. Along with his deputies, he serves warrants for the federal courts in Georgia, collects federal debts, and even tracks down witnesses to guarantee their appearance in court. But aside from his regular duties, Robert will take on a new challenge set out for the Marshals by President George Washington and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Robert will ride across Georgia to “enumerate” its population as part of the first United States census.

Act Two: The First Census and Beyond

It’s August 1790 in a Georgia courthouse. Robert Forsyth is quiet and focused. He stands alongside assistants he’s chosen to carry out the monumental task of conducting the first United States census. Robert and his men come to attention as a judge enters the courtroom. And soon they are all taking an oath before the judge: “I will well and truly cause to be made a just and perfect enumeration and description of all persons living in my district, and return the same to the President of the United States.”

George Washington wants a census taken for a range of reasons. A state’s population will account for its number of representatives appointed to the lower house in Congress, and population will also help establish the level of federal funds each state is entitled to. But Washington and many other men who fought in the Revolutionary War, like Robert Forsyth, knows there is another important role the census will play: it will illustrate the number of potential soldiers living in the United States. To help determine the country’s military readiness, the first U.S. census puts a strong emphasis on counting “free white males” who are aged sixteen and over in every household. Robert Forsyth has fought enough battles to understand the need for such information, but he knows not everyone in Georgia will see things his way.

After the oath, Robert gathers his men outside the courthouse. He reiterates the difficulties that lie ahead. Counting the population of Georgia will mean countless hours on horseback, riding across the state, and locating households in the vast countryside. Robert makes it clear that some people will not want to give up the information asked of them. But Robert tells his men that they will accomplish their goal of counting Georgia’s population and that they will not let President Washington down.

So throughout the year, Robert and his assistants crisscross Georgia, gathering information for the census. Robert discovers that he was right in thinking not everyone would be eager to reveal personal information. Some people cite religious concerns as their reason for not wanting to take part in the census. They often point to a story in the Bible pertaining to David, the king who saw a plague brought down on Israel when he tried to count his people. Robert finds others have refused to cooperate because they see the census as a step towards new federal taxes, and they want no part of that.

But despite the push-back, Robert is determined to finish the job. He and his canvassers work hard to make sure Georgia is fully accounted for. And on June 25th, 1791, Robert and his men finish the “enumeration” process. They tally the first population of Georgia at 85,548 people. When George Washington receives the nation’s final census count, he questions the result, believing it should be higher. But Washington never questions the commitment, skill, and patriotism of his first generation of United States Marshals.

With the census behind him, Robert Forsyth returns to his ordinary duties as a United States Marshal. He occasionally has run-ins with angry people who he’s served with court papers, and even finds himself chasing warrant-dodgers from time to time. On the whole, though, Robert’s career as a Marshal is free of incident. But that all changes in early 1794, when Robert Forsyth meets a former preacher. 


It’s January 1794 in Augusta, Georgia. Former Methodist preacher, Beverly Allen, makes his way through the streets with his brother William. Both men are excited. They’re on their way to meet a local merchant with the hopes of making some money.

Beverly has given up the Church to become a businessman. He and his brother have come from South Carolina to Georgia to seek their fortune. But during Beverly’s short time in Augusta, he’s already garnered a reputation as being untrustworthy. One writer will say, Beverly Allen’s “character is as vile as it is possible.”

And it seems Beverly and his brother live up to their reputation. Little is known what transpires after the two brothers find the merchant they've been looking for. But soon after their meeting, the merchant files a complaint of “financial impropriety” against the Allen Brothers.

Unconcerned, Beverly and William go about their business. But the merchant’s complaint will soon lead to a court order. And Marshal Robert Forsyth will be tasked with serving the brothers with papers. Robert will quickly locate Beverly and William. But what will start out as a routine day on the job will end in bloodshed.

Act Three: Death of Robert Forsyth

It’s January 11, 1794, at Mrs. Dixon’s Boarding House in Augusta, Georgia. Robert and two of his deputies step inside the local inn. Robert is calm, as he always is on the job. He’s here to serve court papers, a regular occurrence in his line of work. Talking to a group of friends in the front room, Robert spots Beverly and William Allen.

Hoping to spare the two brothers' public embarrassment, Robert asks if they can speak privately outside. But suddenly, and without a word, Beverly Allen runs up the stairs and disappears into a room, bolting the door shut behind him. Robert and his deputies pursue him, hoping to talk some sense into Beverly. But as Robert approaches the room, the sound of the gunshot echoes off the walls of the inn. The wooden door splinters, and the ball that Beverly Allen fired strikes Robert in the head. Robert’s body crumples, dead before it hits the floor.

In the blood-spattered hallway of the inn, Robert’s deputies step over the body of their fallen leader, rush into the room, and bring Beverly Allen into custody. No one will ever know why the former preacher fired on a U.S. Marshal who was simply trying to serve him with court papers. Because within weeks, Beverly Allen will escape from jail, flee to Kentucky, and live out the rest of his life as a free man. Robert’s family can do nothing but mourn the loss of a husband and father.

Robert Forsyth’s death will make him the first United States federal officer killed in the line of duty, a list that includes over 400 U.S. Marshals who have lost their lives serving their country.

Robert Forsyth’s epitaph reads, “[he] left an impression on his country and friends more durably engraved than this monument.” And that impression will continue for decades. In 1981, the United States Marshal Service will issue an award in Robert’s name commemorating “a U.S. Marshals Service employee who… demonstrated unusual courage.” 

And while Robert’s enduring legacy will be that of a fallen hero, his largest mark on history will perhaps come in the form of the youngest son he left behind. John Forsyth will feel the call to service just as his father did. He will serve as Georgia’s governor, a member of the United States Congress, the United States’ Minister to Spain, and Secretary of State to Presidents Andrew Jackson and Martin Van Buren. John will also be the namesake for Georgia’s Forsyth County, ensuring that the Forsyth family and the sacrifice his father made will not be forgotten.


Next on History Daily. January 12, 1948. Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of the nationalist movement against the British rule of India, begins his final fast.

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Mischa Stanton. 

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Michael Federico.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.