Date: April 16, 1897
Location: Somersworth, New Hampshire
Victim: Joseph A. Stickney
Cause of Death: Blows to the head, slashing
Accused: Joseph E. Kelley
On April 15, Kelley went into the bank wearing a false mustache and goatee, and carrying a revolver. The presence of a woman customer in the bank scared him off, but following day he once again donned the disguise and entered the bank when no other customers were there. Joseph Stickney, the cashier, knew Kelly, but the old man did not recognize him in the false beard. Kelley ordered some stamps from the cashier and when Stickney went in to the cashier’s room, Kelley followed him and shut the glass door behind him. When Stickney shouted for the police Kelly struck him on the head several times with a blackjack. Stickney fell to the floor and Kelley cut his throat with a razor.
The body of Joseph Stickney lay undiscovered for over two hours. When police realized what had happened, Joseph Kelley was considered a suspect but they believed that he had accomplices. They also believed that he had returned to his home state of Massachusetts. Two men were arrested in Waltham, Massachusetts and held in connection with the Somersworth robbery until both proved to have alibis.
Joseph Kelley had grown up in the town of Amesbury, Massachusetts in a family of ten children, all described as “bright and smart.” His family told reporters that young Joe was a quiet orderly boy who was barely 10 years old when he began to turn wild. He had been involved in some petty thefts, such as bicycle stealing, and served about seven months in the Concord reformatory for breaking and entering. But those in Amesbury who knew him were surprised at the charge of murder and believed that if he was involved in the robbery it was as an accessory and not a principal.
When the Somersworth police realized that Kelley had travelled north, they traced his movement to the town of St. Justin De Newton, Quebec. There he had paid a hotelkeeper $10 in gold for a woman’s dress. He left the hotel wearing the dress, saying that he wanted to surprise his wife who lived in Montreal. Kelly was found in a Montreal brothel, sitting between two prostitutes and still wearing the dress. If the disguise was meant to fool the police, it had not worked; Kelley was arrested by the Montreal Police and extradited back to Somersworth, New Hampshire to stand trial.
Back in the Dover courtroom the prosecution presented witnesses who had seen Kelley the day of the murder or who had seen a man with a mustache carrying a pillow case. Railroad employees who had spoken to Kelley that day testified, as did the Quebec hotelkeeper who sold him the dress.
The cross-examinations of the Somersworth witnesses by the defense indicated that they might be seeking an insanity plea. Kelley was described as boyish; he wrote poetry and had tried several unusual money making schemes, such as selling artificial bouquets on the street and using a megaphone from the roof of a hotel to advertise businesses. On the fourth day of the trial it became official—when court opened that morning, Kelley stood up and said he was ready to plead guilty if his hanging could be scheduled for January 16, 1898. The reason for the date was that Kelley had a contract with the devil that would expire on January 15. The guilty plea was accepted, the jury was dismissed, and the remainder of the trial would consist of arguments relating to the degree of the crime.
The Kelley family and others from Amesbury were no longer speaking of Joe as “bright and smart” but said that his Amesbury nickname had been “Foolish Joe.” At age four Joe had fallen and a rusty nail had pierced his skull. He was unconscious for three days. Following that he had suffered from fits and convulsions as a child and sleepwalking as an adult.
“He is a child. I should place him about 8 or 9 years old, mentally and morally. He has the impulses and instincts of a man, but the judgment and capacity of a child of 9.”
“A high-grade imbecile expresses Kelley’s condition. He is far from being an idiot. A high-grade imbecile has all the impulses of a man but the judgment of a child.”
When Kelley realized the import of his plea it was a great blow to his pride. He was especially hurt when poems he had written were read in court to illustrate his mental deficiencies. The Boston Daily Globe described Kelley’s reaction:
“…but when he found out that his lawyers were deriding his poetry, making fun of his lectures and holding him up as a maniac, he wept in poignant grief, the first emotion he has shown since he has been charged with the crime…to have his lyrics termed doggerel and to be called a high grade imbecile was too much for the prisoner’s pride and he burst into violent weeping and covered his face with his handkerchief.”
The judges ruled Kelley insane, found him guilty of second degree murder and sentenced him to thirty years in the State Prison in Concord. When asked what would happen after his sentence expired the medical men agreed that Kelley was unlikely to live that long.
Verdict: Guilty of second degree murder
Kelley was indifferent to his sentence and almost seemed disappointed that he would not hang, telling reporters:
“Well I expected something different. I thought I was going to be hanged. My lawyers are satisfied, though, so I suppose it is all right.”
In Somersworth, people were extremely dissatisfied with the outcome of the trial. Most felt that Kelley deserved to hang for his crime. A secret meeting was held among twenty men of Somersworth, New Hampshire, and Berwick, Maine, to assess the situation. They formulated a plan to kidnap Kelley while still in the Dover jail, and to take him out and lynch him, but they lacked the leadership necessary to execute the plan.
Joseph Kelley was taken quietly to Concord to begin his sentence.