Saturday, February 9, 2013

A Contract with the Devil.

On April 16, 1897, cashier Joseph A. Stickney was murdered during a daring daylight robbery of the Great Falls National Bank in Somersworth, New Hampshire. The frenzied investigation that followed, crossed state and national borders resulting in the arrests of Joseph Kelley, a resident of Somersworth with peculiar habits. Joseph E. Kelley confessed to the murder, leaving the court to decide whether his actions were driven by a mental disorder, whether he was feigning mental disability, or whether Kelley had in fact made a contract with the devil.

Date:  April 16, 1897

Location:   Somersworth, New Hampshire

Victim:  Joseph A. Stickney

Cause of Death:  Blows to the head, slashing

Accused:   Joseph E. Kelley


Twenty-four year old Joseph Kelly lived in a room in a Somersworth, New Hampshire boarding house, across the street from the Great Falls National Bank. Every day he would watch through the bank window as the elderly clerk, Joseph A. Stickney counted piles of greenbacks, gold and silver. Kelley, who was in debt and in desperate need of money, began to imagine how easy it would be to walk into the bank and take the cash. The image became irresistible and Kelley devised a simple plan to rob the bank.

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.

Kelley quickly stuffed $4,125 in bills and coins into a pillow case he had brought with him. The door to the cashier’s room had locked when shut, so Kelley had to shatter the glass to get out. The bank was still empty and Kelley was able to leave unobserved. He returned to his boarding house, ate dinner, and paid his landlady twenty dollars that he owed.  Kelley transferred the rest of the money into a suitcase then went to the train depot.

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.

Kelley had not gone to Massachusetts; he had taken a Boston & Maine train as far as Union, Maine. There he took the next train for Cookshire Junction, Quebec, where he boarded the Halifax Express and bought a ticket for Montreal.

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 and 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.

Trial: November 8, 1897
Joseph E. Kelley was tried in Dover, New Hampshire and on the first day of the trial the jury was taken by train to Somersworth to see the murder site and Kelley’s room across the street. Kelley smiled throughout the proceedings both in Somersworth and Dover, and seemed to enjoy the attention he was getting.

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.

Kelley was examined by several mental health experts who all agreed that he suffered from arrested development. Dr. Charles Bancroft of the New Hampshire State Asylum for the Insane concluded from Kelley’s history and from the eight examinations he made, that Kelley was incurable, saying:
“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.”
Dr. Thomas Waterman, examining physician for the city of Boston concurred saying:
“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.”
Several other medical experts agreed with their colleagues and all asserted that Kelley was incurable and would not benefit by being sent to an asylum.

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.

Scales, John. History of Strafford County, New Hampshire and representative citizens. Chicago: Richmond-Arnold, 1914.


"Confession of Crime." The Boston Daily Globe 10 Nov. 1897: 1.
"Just as Almy." The Boston Daily Globe 11 Nov. 1897: 1.
"Kelley Declared Insane." The Boston Daily Globe 12 Nov. 1897: 1.
"Kelley's Boyishness." The Boston Daily Globe 9 Nov. 1897: 1.
"Kelley's Strange Plight." The Lowell Sun 12 Nov. 1897: 5.
"Opinions in Somersworth." The Boston Daily Globe 13 Nov. 1897: 7.
"Slipped the Snare." The Boston Sunday Globe 18 Apr. 1897: 1.
"Story of a Murder." The Oak Park Vindicator 28 May 1897: 2.
"Third Day of Kelley's Trial." Lewiston Evening Journal 10 Nov. 1897: 1.
"Thirty Years." The Boston Daily Globe 13 Nov. 1897: 1.
"To Lynch Kelley." The Evening Herald [Syracuse] 16 Nov. 1897: 1.


Time after Crime says:
June 3, 2016 at 7:47 AM

I wonder what happened to him ? Did he die before his sentence was up? If not where did he go?

WomenEmpowered says:
June 11, 2016 at 9:31 PM

I know he was released from prison - I have that confirmed from the state. But I don't know when he died. He served the full 30 years

Unknown says:
January 3, 2021 at 4:17 PM

Joseph A Stickney was my great-grandfather. Can anyone point me to the source of this drawing of him, or any other images of him or the bank building?

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 4, 2021 at 10:12 AM

Unknown- The portrait is from The Boston Sunday Globe, April 18, 1897. The building if from The Boston Daily Globe, November 9, 1897.

Kelly says:
June 18, 2022 at 4:31 PM

So, I've been researching this gentleman and his family since early this year, and I got his death record from New York State. He died May 17, 1937. This information is also available on FamilySearch, so I feel comfortable putting it here. I can confirm it's him based on the relations listed on the death certificate. I believe he was released in 1920 (for good behavior), and he went on to live in New York City and remained there until his death. There's an article in one of the Massachusetts newspapers that even talks about how he was a pro billiards player and had returned home to show off his skills. I think that was in the 30s. Seems like he remained pretty hidden, otherwise. I hope this helps anyone who's interested in knowing what happened to him!

Kelly says:
June 18, 2022 at 4:35 PM

Oh! Also, it said he was a steward before his death, so perhaps that was a longterm occupation? Definitely not sure.

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