Date: September – December 1887
Location: Oak City, Kansas
Victim: J. T. Taylor and at least ten others.
Cause of Death: Dropped down a trap door
Accused: The Kelly Family
Travel through the Kansas No-Man’s-Land was dangerous in 1887; there was always the possibility of being waylaid, robbed and murdered by highwaymen. Reports of a number of cattlemen, salesmen and other travelers entering No-Man’s-Land and not coming out, in the last four months of that year barely raised an eyebrow.
The Kelly family, believed to be respectable, honest and industrious, owned a ranch in No-Man’s-Land about ten miles from the town of Oak City. The family consisted of 55-year-old William Kelly, his wife Kate, their son Bill, age 20, and daughter Kit, 18. The ranch was close to the main road and travelers would often stop in for a meal or to spend the night with the Kellys.
In early December, 1887, the Kellys suddenly, and for no apparent reason, left their ranch and set out for parts unknown. A week or so later a group of men went out to look around the abandoned ranch. In the cellar beneath the house they found the decomposing remains of a man and in one corner found two other bodies, both so decomposed that they were unrecognizable. Four more bodies, including one woman, were found buried beneath the stable, two more were found alongside the barn, and another two at the corner of the barn. Only one body was identified, a man better dressed then the others, was believed to be J. T. Taylor who had been reported missing.
Reports of the discovery were delivered by travelers through No-Man’s-Land arriving in Wichita, the end of December. Mr. Charles Randolph, prospector from Chicago described the Kelly’s mode of killing:
“A very ingeniously arranged trap door was found in the floor of the house through which it was supposed the victims were dropped and killed…Either the father or in some cases, the daughter, who was not a bad looking girl, carried on a conversation with the guest while the mother prepared the meal. Everything being ready for the sacrifice the victim was seated at the table, his chair being placed on the trap. At the given signal the spring was touched and the unhappy traveler would be thrown down into the basement, where in the dark—if the fall did not break his neck—he could be dispatched at pleasure. This is supposed to have been the modus operandi, for no one is known to have ever escaped from their clutches.”It was believed that the Kellys had taken their ill-gotten gains and headed for Mexico and a posse was formed to ride into Texas and find them. The posse caught up with the Kellys encamped about fifty miles south of Oak City where they put up a desperate fight.
William got away, but his trail was easy to follow as his horse was only shod on the front. After three hours of riding the posse came close enough to order him to halt. There was a brief gunfight then the old man surrendered. They asked him to confess but he claimed he had never killed anyone and it was the talk of foul play in No-Man’s-Land that prompted him to move his family to Texas.
The posse strung him up and left his body swinging for several minutes then let him down and asked him again to confess. This time he admitted that he and his family had killed and robbed nine men and two women. All of the family members were equally guilty. He told the posse where they could find the money. He was strung up again and this time left to hang until he was dead.