THE ‘PEYTON PLACE’ MURDER: The True Story Behind The Best-Selling Novel

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Gilmanton

Grace Metalious, born and raised in Manchester, New Hampshire, came from humble beginnings. A former mill worker, mother of three, and school principal’s wife, she would shock the nation in 1956 with the publication of Peyton Place, her first novel about a murder in a small town.

Quickly becoming the best-selling book of its time, the sexually-charged book spawned sequels, two Hollywood movies, and a long-running television series on ABC starring Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal. It also made Metalious a pariah in the town where she lived, and tabloid fodder for years, ultimately leading to her untimely death at the age of 39.

Unknown to most readers, behind the fictional story about the lives and scandals of residents of a small New England town Metalious called Peyton Place, lay a dark secret based on fact. The story was, in part, inspired by a true life crime known in the press as “The Sheep Pen Murder,” which took place in Gilmanton, New Hampshire in the late 1940s. 

In THE ‘PEYTON PLACE’ MURDER: The True Crime Story Behind The Novel That Shocked The Nation historian Renee Mallett skillfully weaves together the lives of Metalious and Barbara Roberts, the confessed killer behind The Sheep Pen Murder. In her book, Mallett shines a new light on the inspiration behind the shocking best-selling novel and explores what happens when true crime and literature meet.

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From The Book:

You begin to look for a substitute. Somehow you are going to create something. And then one day you look at your typewriter. — Grace Metalious

Grace Metalious
Author Renee Mallett

“You have no idea of the kind of life I lead when my father is home,” Barbara Robert confessed, words that would come to haunt a year later when the full truth of conditions at the Roberts Farm became known to everyone.

Barbara’s co-workers at the wool mill knew her as a conscientious, proper girl— but they worried for her. They said she popped Aspirin frequently throughout her shifts and she was often found on the machines crying silently. Sometimes the tears would come so hard Barbara would be overwhelmed and would need to leave the machine floor to calm herself. The other women at the Packard Wool Mill assumed she was nervous about her new job and scared of being seated at the large noisy machines in the mill. Shifts were long in the textile mills; the machinery was dangerous. A careless worker could easily lose a finger, a limb, or even their life. Because of the dangers another worker assisted Barbara on the machines until she could get the hang of it. Barbara was polite enough to this co-worker but not overly friendly. She offered no reason for her nervousness and let everyone around her believe she was scared of the machines.

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When her brother Charles arrived, leading Barbara from the mill in tears, her co-workers assumed he had come to give her news of a death in the family. When they read the newspapers the next day they were as shocked as anyone to what as being reported. Barbara Robert’s confession had made the front page. They had no idea a killer had been in their midst.

“My name is Barbara Roberts. I live with [my boyfriend’s mother] at Ashland. I understand that I do not have to talk and that anything I say may be used against me. This statement is made voluntarily without any promise having been made.

I shot my father, Sylvester Roberts, last December at our home in Gilmanton Iron Works. This happened December 23, 1946 at 6p.m. I shot him with a gun that was at the house. It was his gun; I don’t know what caliber it was. After I shot him, I dragged him into the barn myself and put him into the cellar under the sheep pen. There was nobody there when all this happened. I never told anybody about this until I told my brother today (Sept. 5)”

 It was a crime that the locals would come to know as “The Sheep Pen Murder,” and it would live on in a much different way within the pages of a fiction novel being written by Grace Metalious, another Gilmanton, New Hampshire resident, years later.

That book was Peyton Place, as shocking and scandalous as the crime that inspired it. During a time when the average first novel by an unknown author could expect to sell 2,000 copies total, Peyton Place sold 60,000 copies in the first ten days of its release. The demand was so high that it’s publisher, Julian Messner Inc, had to ration copies of it when it came time to distribute, just to make sure that bookstores all around the country could get at least a few copies. Two weeks after the book’s release 20th-Century Fox negotiated the movie rights, earning Grace another $125,000 on top of the book royalties. After the movie came out, the book outsold Gone with the Wind. Within six months the book set publishing records: it was the fastest-selling novel in the history of publishing, and it was the best-selling first book of all time. One year after that the book achieved an even greater milestone— Peyton Place was the best-selling novel ever published up to that time.

All this happened despite some very large obstacles to sales. Many places would flat out just not carry the book. It was illegal to even mail a copy to anyone in Australia, Canada, South Africa, or the Soviet Union. One library in Beverly Farms, Massachusetts put a large sign out on their front lawn that read “This library does not carry Peyton Place. If you want it, go to Salem.” A Providence, Rhode Island bookseller faced fines and imprisonment when he was accused of selling it to a minor. If Gilmanton residents wanted a copy of the book written by their neighbor, they had to drive to nearby Laconia to get it, there was not one single retailer in town that would carry the book. A bookstore in nearby Meredith, New Hampshire graced their window with a sign reading “Peyton Place is here— I don’t know why you want to read it, but we are selling it for $3.95.” A Laconia bookshop reported selling hundreds of copies.

Manchester
An advertisement for the Peyton Place movie

After the publication of Peyton Place Grace Metalious would never again have a quiet respectable family life. The novel brought her fame, a sort of infamy really, and a fortune. Those things brought the kinds of hangers-on that often show up when someone has had a sudden stroke of good fortune such as a large inheritance or winning the lottery. The little girl who had wanted everything and wanted it all the time, the girl who was married and tied down with children while still a teenager, suddenly had money and free time and lots of new friends who wanted her to share both with them. A party began that never really slowed down or ended.

In the short and troubled life of Grace Metalious, the former mill worker from humble beginnings would pen a shocking best-selling novel that would then be turned into a slightly more sanitized movie. That movie would then be turned into an even more sanitized television show. The Peyton Place television series was a prime-time soap opera that aired two to three times a week for five years on ABC. It starred Mia Farrow as Allison MacKenzie and Ryan O’Neal as bad boy Rodney Harrison. The Cross family, the literary stand-ins for the real-life Robert family, were eliminated as characters in the show from the start. It would surely have upset Grace Metalious, but she died six months before the show ever aired. As the stories of Peyton Place, through movies and years of T.V, became copies of copies of copies, the women behind the book, Grace Metalious and Barbara Roberts, became more and more removed from the story. The ‘Peyton Place’ Murder tells the story of how Peyton Place came to be written- and recounts the shocking true crime that has been hidden at the center of it. 

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