William Kelly was a large man, 6’2″, with hard muscles built from a lifetime of farm work. But still, he sat humbly and quietly.
Across from him sat his mother, Myrtle Kelly, who was fervently asking why he had committed the deed that had put him here, in the Harrison County, Iowa jail.
He explained that he remembered waking up the morning of that fateful day in the summer of 1933. He had fed the chickens on his farm, while his son Billy played in the yard. When he had finished, William took the two-year old back into the house and set him at the breakfast table.
All William knew for certain is that when he did start remembering again, he was holding a bloody hammer in his hand, and that he had just committed one of the most shocking crimes to ever occur in Logan, Iowa.
Love and Marriage
William Elmer Kelly was born in Centerville, Iowa, in 1906. When he came of age, he decided to become a school teacher and began attending classes at the Iowa Teaching College in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
It was there that he met Leah Jones, the daughter of a wealthy and successful farmer near Logan, Iowa.
The two quickly became romantically involved. On Christmas Day of 1929, Leah and William were married, settling on a farm near Logan. Together, they ran the farm and taught school.
William and Leah, like all married people, had their share of problems to overcome. But, they worked through them and lived happily together.
At the end of 1931, they were blessed with their first child, a boy they named William Elmer Kelly Jr, or Billy for short. Along the way, Leah quit teaching to stay home and take care of the baby.
In the summer of 1933, William went back to Cedar Falls for some additional college courses. When he returned, the peace between him and Leah was over.
The couple had several arguments, and on at least two separate occasions, Leah confided in some of her neighbors that William had physically abused her. Tensions mounted between the two.
On July 31, 1933, William Kelly walked into the Sheriff’s Office at Logan, covered in blood. He immediately confessed to killing both Leah and Billy, telling the sheriff, C.F. Cross, that they should send a doctor to the house.
Someone was immediately sent to the Kelly Farm, where they quickly found Leah and Billy Kelly in the farm house. They were lying just outside the bedroom door, covered in blood.
Leah had been beaten by a hammer about the head, face, and shoulders. Her right arm, jaw, and some of her teeth and fingers were broken. Shockingly, the young woman was still alive.
Young Billy was not so fortunate. He was found dead beside his mother, his skull crushed by multiple hammer blows to the top of his head.
Leah was immediately taken to a hospital in Council Bluffs, Iowa, but it was already too late. She died a short time later.
Back at the jail, William barely ate or spoke. Every time that Cross or anyone else asked why he had murdered his family, he would break down crying, stating that he didn’t know.
News of the grisly double murder spread quickly through the small town and surrounding rural community. Many had known the couple, had trusted their children to them while they were at school. Leah had grown up there, and was seemingly well-liked.
Soon, there was angry, violent talk against William Kelly. The sheriff, to prevent a possible lynching, secretly took him to the jail in Council Bluffs.
After tempers had quieted and things had settled somewhat, Kelly was brought back to Logan. It was then, two days after the murders, that Myrtle Kelly visited her son in jail, where they had their conversation.
Hearing, Confession, and Trial
That same day, a preliminary hearing for the murders was carried out at Logan, during which Kelly was charged with first degree murder. For his part, he sat stone-faced and unemotional. Only when the names of Leah and Billy were mentioned did his face twitch.
After the hearing, Myrtle Kelly had spoken to the reporters, telling them what her son had told her in the jail earlier that day. She explained that while he confessed openly to having committed the murders, William didn’t remember anything.
A few days later, Leah and Billy were laid to rest near Logan. Almost 1000 mourners poured into the small cemetery to pay their final respects to the two innocent victims.
Meanwhile, law enforcement officials had grown tired of William’s silence. After threatening to beat an explanation out of Kelly, the school teacher finally relented.
He explained that Billy had brought the hammer into the house while they were outside that morning. Afraid that the child might hurt himself, William took it away and set it aside.
Not too long after, he and Leah began fighting again. They had been doing that a lot recently, but this time was different. This time, Leah told William that she was fed up, and that she was taking Billy and leaving.
William snapped. Grabbing the hammer, he began to viciously beat his wife, leaving nearly thirteen distinctive hammer marks on her body.
While he stood there, Billy came up to his bleeding and broken mother, crying out for her. In that moment, William made a choice. Thinking that he didn’t want his young son to grow up without his parents, William decided to murder Billy.
At the end of August, William E. Kelly was placed on trial for first degree murder. He pled guilty, and was sentenced to life in prison and sent to Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.
Kelly had a very hard time the first few years there, but gradually adjusted. He kept to himself and became a model inmate. He worked as a woodworker for several years, and then became a nighttime watchman, keeping an eye out for fires.
He kept himself in shape and became a voracious reader. William also saved his money, eventually amassing $7000, a monumental sum for a prison worker.
When William finally did become eligible for parole in 1965, his former sisters-in-law testified to what he had done and helped to keep Kelly behind bars.
Later, in 1978, he became eligible again. This time, his sentence was commuted by the Governor of Iowa, in spite of the efforts of Leah’s sisters and a delegation of concerned people from Harrison County, Iowa.
Kelly was released in 1978, but was uncomfortable with life outside prison walls. So much had changed since he was incarcerated in 1933 that he had a hard time adjusting.
He was given a place to live in Burlington, Iowa, by Earl Roberts, a former prison inmate who liked to help out newly-released inmates. He and his wife even gave him a job as a janitor of an outdoor mall.
Just like prison had been in 1933, Kelly had a hard time at first, but gradually began to adjust. Or so everyone thought.
Seven weeks after he had been paroled, William walked into the office of his parole officer, Mike McCullough, and asked to be sent back to prison. McCullough asked William to wait to decide until the following Wednesday. He knew there were other options, and wanted to help William out.
When Wednesday came, William walked into the office and began to slash at McCullough with a box cutter. The attack, while not fatal, gave the parole officer seventeen stiches and what would heal into an 8-inch scar across his neck.
Just as he had several decades before, Kelly stated that he was anxious to get on with the legal process and go back to prison. He didn’t bother explaining much else.
It didn’t take long for him to get what he wanted. William happily settled back into his old routine until 1982, when he was released a second time. This time, it was for good.
He moved to Des Moines, Iowa, living at a home for former prison inmates called the Hanson House of Hospitality. Kelly spent most of his time by himself, playing with his pet cat or watching the traffic go by through his window.
But, even after having paid for his crimes in the eyes of society and being a free man, he would still break down and cry when talking about murdering his family. Several people heard him talking to his dead wife while walking around the facilities.
William Kelly passed away in Des Moines at the age of eighty-four. Although he died a free man, William had spent over forty-nine years behind bars, and in some ways, never left.
While he had been released from his cage, William was still very much haunted by the actions that he had committed all those years ago. He still wondered why he had chosen to kill his innocent son, and still tried to understand Leah’s murder by having imaginary conversations with her.
In the end, death was the only thing that could set William Kelly free. He had spent a lifetime in an internal prison of his own design, haunted by memories of things that he could never undo.
“Iowan Uses Hammer To Slay Son, 2.” The Des Moines Tribune, 7/31/1933″
“Romance of T.C. Campus Ended by Double Murder.” The Courier, 8/1/1933
“Injuries Fatal to Mrs. Kelly.” The Des Moines Tribune, 8/1/1933
“Kelly Bound Over to Jury.” Des Moines Tribune, 8/2/1933
“Iowan Bound Over on Dead Murder Count. Davenport Democrat ad Leader, 8/2/1933
“Held in Jury.” The Des Moines Register, 8/3/1933
“1,000 Attend Rites for Hammer Victims.” The Des Moines Tribune, 8/4/1933
“Hammer Killer of Wife, Baby to Get Sentence Saturday.” The Courier, 8/24/1933.
“Iowan to Know His Fate Saturday for Murdering Infant.” The Daily Times, 8/24/1933
Iowa Department of Public Health; Des Moines, Iowa
“Ray Commutes 2 Life Sentences.” Des Moines Register, 2/16/1978
“After 45 Years in Prison, He’s Blinded by Freedom.” Des Moines Register, 2/16/1979
“Women Work to Keep Confessed Killer in Prison.” Des Moines Register
Pedersen, Daniel. “Free After 49 Years – Now What?” The Des Moines Register, 11/21/1982
Santiago, Frank. “Aging Killer Copes with Freedom, Past.” The Des Moines Register, 4/15/1990
State Historical Society of Iowa; Des Moines, Iowa. Iowa Death Records; Reference Number: 101797054
State Historical Society of Iowa; Des Moines, Iowa Death Record.