Bright, Bold Blackmailer: Murder of Alice Kelly 1888

Murder Victim

Alice Kelley
28-year-old Blackmailer
Cause of Death: Beaten and Slashed
Motive: Revenge for Blackmail

Murder Scene and Date

Wooded Area
“Old Field”
Ottumwa, Iowa
Wapello County
July 9, 1888


By Nancy Bowers
Written January 2013

location of Ottumwa, Iowa

location of Ottumwa, Iowa

It was early — about 7:00 a.m. — on Tuesday July 10, 1888 and the beginning of a hot, mid-summer day in Wapello County when a 15-year-old local boy in a two-horse wagon passed by the timber line on what Ottumwa residents called the “Old Field” north of town.

He stopped at the top of a hill and walked a short way into the woods, perhaps to relieve himself. There he found a horse and buggy tied to a tree and saw what looked like a person lying on the ground. Believing it was a man covered with his lap robe and sleeping off a drunk, the boy left the woods.

As he emerged, Ottumwa resident John Fleming rode up on his horse and the boy shared what he discovered; the two walked back into the woods to check on the person.

from the Monticello Express

from the Monticello Express

When they drew back the lap robe, they were horrified: the person on the ground was not a drunken, sleeping man. It was a dead woman in a blood-soaked white dress who was bruised and beaten about the head. Nearby lay a razor and a 12-inch long, one-inch thick iron rod.

Pinned to her white dress was a corsage of flowers, splashed in blood.

Wapello County Sheriff L.J. Michael responded with Deputy Marshal Daniel Hannon to examine the crime scene. They found blood and signs of a struggle beginning six feet away from the horse and buggy that continued another 25 feet to the bottom of a slope.

After the crime scene was surveyed, a local undertaker who accompanied the Sheriff carried the body to an Ottumwa funeral home for examination.

There, authorities identified the dead woman as 28-year-old Alice Kelly. There was no doubt as to cause of death: she was brutally murdered — beaten and slashed.

☛ Bold Woman in Town ☚

Ottumwa as it looked a year after Alice Kelley's murder.

Ottumwa as it looked a year after Alice Kelley’s murder.

Alice Kelly arrived in Ottumwa barely a month before; and from the time of her appearance, had caused not just a stir, but a sensation.

On June 13, Alice registered at the luxurious 50-room Dick’s European Hotel, writing her place of residence in the guest book as Detroit, Michigan.

Ottumwa had seen no one like her before. One newspaper wrote that Alice, who was said to be well-educated, was “not pretty but rather good looking and of fine appearance” and the Ottumwa Courier called her “a bright, bold woman.”

But her character was questionable. The Waterloo Courier reported that she “bore not a good reputation.” The Ottumwa Courier later wrote:

“She was a dashing woman, not particularly handsome, but one who would attract attention most anywhere. She was rather bold in her actions, but there was nothing about her to indicate her real character.”

Even franker newspaper accounts termed Alice Kelly a “scarlet woman” and a “prostitute,” and the Chariton Democrat claimed:

“She was a woman well known throughout the west as a desperate character, blackmail being her greatest hobby. She is well known over the line of the [Chicago Burlington and Quincy Rail Road]. But a short time ago she returned to Ottumwa from Detroit, much to the joy of many leading men of that city, several of whom are known in national politics.”

☛ Lodging Difficulties ☚

Less than a month after checking in and without paying her bill, Alice Kelly arranged to have her baggage secretly smuggled out of Dick’s European Hotel and took a room in a private Ottumwa home.

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

from the Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette

Although Alice was charged with theft of services for failure to pay her hotel bill, she finagled her way free through what a newspaper termed “a point of law” by claiming she was not a transient and had made arrangements with the clerk for an extension.

On Monday, July 9, Alice was asked to leave the private home where she took lodgings, and she moved her belongings to the Revere House about 2:00 p.m. that afternoon.

After eating supper at her new location, Alice rented a buggy from Crips Brothers Livery, something she did each day.

That night, as always, Alice drove alone through Ottumwa and was seen about 7:00 p.m. on Third Street. Then she headed south from town to Frederick and Caroline Herrman’s greenhouse and bought a corsage of flowers. She appeared to the Herrmans to be in a great hurry.

The flowers she purchased from the greenhouse were still fastened to her dress when her body was discovered.

☛ Investigation ☚

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette graphically described the wounds found during an inquest and postmortem by Coroner E.H. Sage at 10:00 a.m. on July 10:

“There was a bad bruise above and a little back of the ear, which caused a fracture of the skull two and a half inches long. The brain was badly contused. This wound had evidently been made by the iron rod after the woman had got out of the buggy, and the person who hit her was evidently behind and to the right of her. The middle finger of her right hand was also badly bruised as if she had thrown up her hand to protect her head. Her throat was evidently cut after she was knocked down and both hands were cut as if she had grasped the razor and had fought desperately for life. There was a small flesh cut on the back of her right arm between the wrist and elbow. There was a cut two inches long obliquely on the right side of her chin, and one some two inches below the main cut on her throat. The cut on her throat that completed the murderer’s work, was fully seven inches long, and was so deep that it severed the windpipe.”

No suspects in the brutal crime were readily apparent to investigators because Alice was almost always alone.

from the Atlantic Daily Telegraph

from the Atlantic Daily Telegraph

The night of the murder was different, however. Alice Kelly drove through Ottumwa alone as usual until nearly dark. Then about 8:30 p.m., three separate witnesses saw someone with her in the buggy — a slight, clean-shaven, reddish or sandy-haired man weighing about 140 pounds who wore light summer clothes and a narrow and stiff-brimmed white straw hat. He was a stranger to the witnesses.

The Atlantic Daily Telegraph speculated that this man killed Alice:

“It seems evident that she had some secret which she was holding over the man . . . .”

Governor William Larrabee offered a $500 reward (Iowa Secretary of State Office)

Governor William Larrabee offered a $500 reward (Iowa Secretary of State Office)

Iowa Governor William Larrabee offered a $500 reward for information leading to the killer.

Ottumwa and Wapello County investigators did as much as they could to solve the murder but without success. They believed that the killer was familiar with the Ottumwa area and lured Alice to a secluded spot where he knew they would not be seen and that he may have had assistance with changing his blood-spattered clothes so as not to arouse suspicion.

Whoever had killed Alice Kelly, law enforcement and Ottumwa citizens believed they knew the motive for the murder, as spelled out by the Ottumwa Courier:

“. . . it is evident that whoever committed the murder did it to shut her mouth, on the principle that dead women, as well as dead men, ‘tell no tales.’

It is charitable to believe that she was insane in regard to the means of obtaining money, but there was a great deal of method in her madness.”

☛ Troubled Life ☚

Alice was born in Inland, Iowa, in 1860 to what newspapers termed “respectable parents” — Laura Burgess and Moses Huston Kelley — and had several siblings.

Alice Kelley spent time at the Iowa State Reform School in Eldora

Alice Kelley spent time at the
Iowa State Reform School in Eldora

As a teen, Alice became incorrigible and displayed a terrible temper. Because they could not control her, Moses and Laura Kelley had Alice confined to the State Reform School at Eldora and then examined by County Insane Commissioners.

After her release from Eldora, Alice moved west and by the 1880 census was boarding with Council Bluffs saloon keeper George Gerspucher and his wife Bell Gerspucher; she listed her occupation as dressmaker.

Not long afterwards, Alice met and became obsessed with a dentist living in Red Oak, Iowa. She accused him of “betraying” her, claiming she was seduced and abandoned. After the dentist married another woman, Alice’s accusations and behavior became so extreme that he and his new wife left for Detroit to escape her.

Alice then moved to DeWitt, Iowa. After she made accusations against other men and attempted to blackmail them, she was asked to leave town.

Detroit House of Corrections

Detroit House of Corrections

In 1885, Alice traveled to Detroit in search of the former Red Oak dentist who had been her obsession; again, she tried to extort money from him. One day on the streets, she seriously assaulted his pregnant wife who, newspapers reported, nearly died.

After this attack, Alice Kelley was declared insane and sentenced to 18 months in the Detroit House of Corrections, which had housed Belle Starr and other notorious figures.

While in the Detroit House of Corrections, Alice was said to exhibit a pattern that “became more pronounced every day”:

“A mania for declaring that she had been criminally intimate with officials of the prison and any male visitors she chanced to see.”

Alice was then transferred to the Michigan Asylum for Insane Criminals in Ionia (later Ionia State Hospital). According to the website, this facility housed:

“Insane felons, criminal sexual psychopaths, insane convicts from other prisons, patients transferred from other state institutions that had developed dangerous or homicidal tendencies and persons charged with a crime but acquitted on the grounds of insanity.”

Michigan Asylum for Insane Criminals in Ionia

Michigan Asylum for Insane Criminals in Ionia

In the early winter of 1888, a Michigan Supreme Court — possibly consisting of one of the prominent men she had blackmailed — freed Alice from the asylum and she moved to Ottumwa.

One account says that she chose Ottumwa to be near her sister Sarah G. Adams and her husband Ebenezer, who lived on Center Street. Another version claims that the dentist Alice earlier attempted to blackmail had taken up residence there. The Jackson County Sentinel wrote:

“Upon her arrival it is said the dentist with his family immediately left for parts unknown.”

Then Alice began searching for her next victim in the thriving Des Moines River town that was a stopping place for both river and railroad travelers and which was home to many prominent men in the packing, coal, manufacturing, and rail industries.

Each night Alice drove the streets of Ottumwa in a buggy, her attributes on display.

On the night of the murder, she had adorned herself with a corsage of flowers for an apparent assignation, likely with her killer.

☛ Alone At the End ☚

photo by Rodger Schnoor

photo by Rodger Schnoor

Alice Kelley is buried in the Inland Cemetery in Cedar County, Iowa. Her parents Moses and Laura Kelley were dead by the time of her murder, but she was survived by her sister Sarah Kelley Adams in Ottumwa and three brothers — Ammon, Samuel F., and David Kelley — termed “completely respectable people” about whom the Burlington Hawk-Eye wrote:

“Owing to the waywardness of Alice she was estranged from her brothers and sisters, and they refused to have anything to do with her.”


Please note: Use of information in this article should credit Nancy Bowers as the author and Iowa Unsolved Murders: Historic Cases as the source.


  • ☛ “Alice Kelly’s [sic] Killing,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 11, 1888.
  • ☛ “Alice Kelly’s [sic] Murderer Described,” Atlantic Daily Telegraph, July 18, 1888.
  • ☛ “A Brutal Murder,” Jackson Sentinel July 19, 1888.
  • ☛ “A Brutal Murder: Alice Kelly [sic] Found Butchered Near Ottumwa, Wapello County,” Monticello Express, July 17, 1888.
  • ☛ Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 17, 1888.
  • ☛ “Goings-On In Iowa,” Waterloo Courier, July 18, 1888.
  • History Of Wapello County, Iowa and Representative Citizens, Compiled and Edited by Capt. Samuel B. Evans; Chicago, Illinois: Biographical Publishing Company, 1901.
  • ☛ “Home Happenings,” The Humeston New Era, July 25, 1888.
  • ☛ Ionia County Historical Society.
  • ☛ Jackson Sentinel, July 26, 1888.
  • ☛ “Latest Iowa News,” Sioux County Herald, July 26, 1888.
  • ☛ “The Ottumwa Murder,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 13, 1888.
  • ☛ “The Ottumwa Murder,” Oskaloosa Daily Herald, July 19, 1888.
  • ☛ “News Of The State,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 11, 1888.
  • ☛ “News Of The State,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 19, 1888.
  • ☛ “Pistols At Prayers,” Burlington Hawk-Eye, July 11, 1888.
  • ☛ Plymouth (Michigan) District Library.
  • ☛ “Purely Personal,” Chariton Democrat, July 19, 1888.
  • ☛ “The Scarlet Woman’s End,” Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette, July 10, 1888.
  • ☛ “Sensation At Ottumwa,” Palo Alto Reporter, July 20, 1888.
  • ☛ “Sensation At Ottumwa,” Sioux County Herald, July 19, 1888.
  • ☛ U.S. Census.

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