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A Doctor, A Reporter, and A Kidnapping: A Physician's Abduction in Prohibition Era St. Louis

Dr. Kelley is pictured in an April 24, 1931 newspaper article on his kidnapping.
Dr. Isaac Kelley is pictured in an April 24, 1931 newspaper article on his kidnapping.
Dr. Kelley models the tape-covered driving goggles, April 28, 1931.
Dr. Kelley models the tape-covered driving goggles which his kidnappers used to blindfold him, April 28, 1931.
Angelo Rosegrant is pictured in a September 28, 1934 newspaper.
Angelo Rosegrant is pictured in a September 28, 1934 newspaper article on his kidnapping trial.
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April 20, 1931, a night which would eventually set into motion a kidnapping, a murder, the theft of a baby, and multiple trials, was appropriately dark and stormy.

Dr. Isaac Kelley, a St. Louis area physician, was reading in his family’s home when, around 10:00pm, he received a phone call from a man who called himself “Holmes.” The man insisted that Dr. Kelley come to the home of Holmes’ nephew, who was sick and in desperate need of a doctor. Dr. Kelley agreed to see the sick boy, but when he arrived at the address given to him by Holmes, he found no anxious parents waiting to greet him. Dr. Kelley peered through the wipers of his car and the driving rain at a home which was entirely dark, except for one illuminated window, where the figure of a man was silhouetted.

As Dr. Kelley sat in his car, wondering if he’d found the right house, a man abruptly entered the passenger side of Dr. Kelley’s car. Pressing the hard barrel of a gun against Dr. Kelley’s side, he instructed Kelley not to look at him, and to drive. After a bumpy drive through the wind and the rain, Kelley was forced to stop and exit the car. He was blindfolded, but could still hear the whispers of men as more kidnappers joined his original captor. Forced into another car, he was again driven in a circuitous route to another house, and taken to a cot. Peeking under his blindfold as he sat on the cot, he got his first clear glimpse of a kidnapper, “…a most picturesque-looking pirate, bandaged up with a handkerchief over his face and hanging down over his chin, sitting there with a gun in his lap….”

Over the following week, he was moved to multiple locations in this manner-first bundled into a car, then driven to a new house. He was usually treated fairly well by the multiple men holding him. On the morning of April 27, he was, “permitted to sit in an easy chair and read some detective stories [which he] had asked for. [Dr. Kelley and the kidnappers] had a very nice breakfast of bacon and eggs, coffee cake and coffee....”  However, on another occasion, a kidnapper asked Dr. Kelley, from behind a cracked door, if the doctor could “play his typewriter”. Nonplussed, the doctor indicated he could not, causing the man to shove a Thompson machine gun through the door’s crack. When asked how he liked the “typewriter,” Dr. Kelley claimed he coolly replied, “It looks very nice….I haven’t seen one since the war.”

In the early hours of April 28, 1931, Dr. Kelley’s path began to converge with that of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reporter who was assigned to cover his kidnapping. Reporter John T. Rogers was a Pulitzer Prize winner who had been in contact with the Kelley family lawyer throughout the kidnapping. After spending an evening with this lawyer, he drove home, where he received a call. The voice at the other end indicated that he should drive to a certain location, where he was met by a man. The man handed him a box containing some small personal effects which were taken from Dr. Kelley, and directed him to drive a circuitous route. As Rogers neared a dilapidated gas station north of East St. Louis, IL, the man riding with him abruptly left the car. Driving on, Rogers found a bewildered looking Dr. Kelley, still wearing the driving goggles with eyepieces covered in tape that the kidnappers had used to blindfold him, standing by the side of the road.

The aftermath of Dr. Isaac Kelley’s extraordinary kidnapping was as scandalous as the event itself. John T. Rogers, scenting a scoop, interviewed Kelley for two and a half hours before reuniting him with his family. The Post-Dispatch ran his exclusive story on the kidnapping under a photograph of Dr. Kelley in his tape-covered driving goggles and the headline, “Dr. Kelley’s Story of Experience in Kidnapers’ Hands.” Of his kidnapping, Kelley said, "...I have lost all faith in mankind. A doctor who is willing to do what he can and go where he is asked ought to be more or less exempt from dastardly things like this."

In the three years following his kidnapping, various men and women were accused of being involved in the kidnapping. Some of them, “police characters” were killed in “gang warfare” before the trial began. One man, who had confessed and began cooperating with police, was murdered in a drive-by shooting as he sat on the steps of a sheriff’s home. Angelo Rosegrant, pictured above, was tried and convicted on the testimony of Dr. Kelley and the owner of a “recreation parlor” who had overheard the group plotting the kidnapping. However, it was the sole female defendant-a socialite and accused jewel thief-in the kidnapping case who would provide the most sensational story of all.

Her story can be found in the Becker Brief "A Socialite, A Baby, and Blackmail: Scandal and High Society in Prohibition Era St. Louis."

 

Newspaper clippings on the kidnapping of Dr. Kelley and the trials of those accused of kidnapping him are held at the Bernard Becker Medical Library Archives, in the 1936 Saint Louis Medical Society scrapbook.

There are multiple newspapers articles on the kidnapping from the time accessible through the Illinois Digital Newspaper Collections. For a modern discussion of the case, see descriptions in Barry Cushman’s “Headline Kidnappings and the Origins of the Lindbergh Law.” The St. Louis Post-Dispatch also has excellent photos to complement this story, including a picture of one of the bolt holes where the kidnappers stored Dr. Kelley.

 

 

* Please note: Becker Briefs pages may contain links, email addresses or information about resources which are no longer current.