Haunted: The Kelly Family Murders

Hauntings are a hallmark of the Halloween season.

A common horror fiction theme is having an unsuspecting individual or family move into a new home. Sometimes these are places where some kind of violent act – generally a suicide or murder – took place. The personalities involved with that event remain there as spirits, trapped in the place where they spent their last moments on earth.

When the new people take up residence, wild and crazy scariness inevitably ensues.

Another common theme runs along similar lines. In this one, though, the supernatural entity comes to the individual. The reasons vary – occult ritual, spirit seeking help, tormenting ghost seeking revenge, etc. – but the idea remains the same

Either way, the protagonists of the story become haunted. The saving grace of a haunted place, however, is that you can just run out the front door and never come back.

If you’re haunted by something, though, it follows you wherever you go. At work, at home, at school, in the car driving down the road. There is no respite, no escape. You’re trapped until you can get rid of whatever it is attached to you.

But what if you can’t? What if you can never truly escape whatever it is that’s haunting you?

Founded in 1876 as the Iowa State Normal School, the college had been devoted to the education and training of Iowa’s future teachers from the very beginning. Although the school had changed its name to the Iowa State Teacher’s College in about 1909, its purpose remained the same.

When William Elmer Kelly decided to become a teacher, it was the obvious place for him to learn.

Moving from his hometown of Centerville, Iowa, he enrolled in classes in the late 1920’s. Somewhere along the way, he met Leah Jones. The attractive daughter of a wealthy and successful farmer near Logan, Iowa, she fell madly in love with the young farmer.

Logan Iowa
Logan, Iowa

On December 25, 1929, Leah and William were married. Settling on a farm near Logan, they planned to teach school in the surrounding area. Her family was local, and Centerville wasn’t too far away.

In 1931, Leah gave birth to a baby boy. They named him William Elmer Kelly, Jr, after his father. To differentiate between father and son, the couple called him Billy. After having him, Leah decided to stop teaching so that she could stay home and raise him.

Leah Kelly
Leah Kelly

When Billy was two-years-old, William went back to Cedar Falls in order to attend some extra classes. When he returned, his attitude toward Leah had changed.

William started to argue with her, and the couple now fought constantly. On at least two occasions, William had gotten so angry that he had physically beaten Leah. He had never been that way before, and, while Leah was a dutiful wife, she was not about to just sit back and let her husband do this to her.

Tensions between the two quickly mounted.

On July 31, 1933, William Kelly walked into the Logan County Sheriff’s Department covered in blood. When the sheriff, C.F. Cross, asked him about it, William immediately confessed to killing both his wife, Leah, and his son, Billy. He told Cross that someone should probably send a doctor.

The police immediately went to the Kelly Farm. Inside, lying by the bedroom door, they found the bodies of Leah and Billy Williams. A bloody hammer lay nearby. The officers checked the two for any signs of life.

William had used the hammer to strike Leah on the head, face, and shoulders. Some of her teeth had been knocked out, and her right arm, jaw, and some fingers were broken. In spite of all of that, Leah was still alive.

Billy was not so fortunate. The poor child’s skull had been crushed by multiple hammer blows to the top of his head.

Thinking quickly, the police immediately took Leah to the closest hospital, located in Council Bluffs, Iowa. She lingered for a while, but was unable to recover. Leah passed away a short time later.

Back at the jail, William rarely spoke, nor did he eat much. Whenever Cross or anyone else asked why he had murdered his family, he told them that he didn’t know. Frequently, he broke down crying.

News of the grisly double murder spread quickly through the county and surrounding areas. Leah had grown up around Logan, and then had taught school there. A lot of people had known and liked her.

Before long, people started saying angry, violent things about William Kelly. Cross started to fear that the people would break into the jail and lynch him. After seeing what he had done to his family, Cross might have been okay with William’s death, but he was determined that it would be part of the due process of the law.

To prevent any possible lynching, Cross had Kelly secretly removed from the Logan County Jail and taken to Council Bluffs. Eventually, tempers cooled and things quieted down in Harrison County. Kelly was returned to Logan. While he was there, his mother, Myrtle, visited him.

He sat humbly and quietly while his mother asked him if he had really killed Leah and little Billy. William said that he wasn’t sure.

William told Myrtle that he remembered waking up that morning and feeding the chickens. Billy had been playing the yard. When he’d finished with his chores, William took his son back into the house and sat him at the breakfast table. According to what he told his mother, that was the last thing that he could remember.

Later that same day, a preliminary hearing was held in Logan. Kelly was charged with first degree murder. William mostly sat, showing no emotion. However, when the names of his wife and son were mentioned, he would frown and twitch.

When the hearing was over, Myrtle Kelly spoke to a group of reporters that were covering the proceedings. She told them what William had told her: that he confessed to killing his family, but that he didn’t remember doing any of it.

Leah and Billy were laid to rest in a small cemetery outside Logan. Nearly 1000 mourners came to pay their respects to the unfortunate woman and her son. In a morbid request, William asked Sheriff Cross for permission to attend their funeral. It was denied.

Harris Grove Cemetery
Harris Grove Cemetery, where Leah and Billy were laid to rest. 

By this time, law enforcement officials had grown tired of Kelly not telling them what had happened. They were sick of the tears when they asked him questions. Finally, after threatening to beat him until he gave them an answer, Kelly relented

After he had brought Billy inside from the yard that morning, William noticed that his son had brought a hammer with him. Afraid that Billy might hurt himself with it, William took it away and set it aside.

Later, he and Leah got into yet another argument. In spite of the many fights they’d had recently, that one was different. Leah was fed up with the fighting and the beatings. She told William that she was going to take Billy and leave. She wasn’t coming back. She was done.

William’s temper flared, and he snapped. He grabbed the hammer and started hitting Leah with it, breaking bones and knocking out teeth. When he was done, he stood there, staring at Leah. William was sure she was dead.

Billy ran over to his mother, crying out for her. As William stared at the touching scene that he had created, a thought occurred to him. With his mother dead and his father in prison, Billy would grow up without parents. He didn’t want that for the boy. It would be better if Billy were dead.

Raising the hammer, William mercilessly beat his own son to death.

William E. Kelly pled guilty to first-degree murder and was sentenced to life in prison. In 1933, he was sent to Iowa State Penitentiary in Fort Madison, Iowa.

William Kelly 25
William Kelly

His first few years at Fort Madison were rough. After that, he gradually adjusted to prison life, mostly keeping to himself. Kelly kept himself in excellent shape, and read whatever he could get his hands on. He worked as a prison woodworker for several years, becoming a model inmate. Later, Kelly worked as a watchman, keeping an eye out for fires through the overnight hours.

The positions paid better than most prison jobs, and William was good with money. He eventually amassed nearly $7000, an incredible sum for a prisoner.

After thirty-two years at the Iowa State Penitentiary, Williams became eligible for parole. While it might have been three decades old, there were still some who had never forgotten what he had done. Three of his former sister-in-law’s came forward and testified about the murders. Kelly’s parole was denied for another thirteen years.

In 1978, then Governor Robert Ray commuted his sentence. In spite of the protestations of Leah’s sisters and a delegation of concerned people from Harrison County, Kelly was released from prison forty-five years after he was first incarcerated.

He may have been able to finally breathe free air again as a parolee, but Kelly found life outside of prison very uncomfortable. He had spent a lifetime behind bars, and a lot had changed.

For the second time in his life, William Kelly had a hard time adjusting to a new life.

He was sent to live in Burlington, Iowa. Kelly was given a room there with Earl Roberts, a former prison inmate who liked to help former convicts like himself get a foothold in the outside world. Earl and his wife, Marj, had even found William a good job as a janitor at an outside mall.

The first week of his release, Kelly wanted to go back to prison. The second week, he was hospitalized for hypertension and breathing problems. Kelly recovered, and his attitude and health seemed to get better.

Kelly was a good worker, and he began to adjust. After work, he would come home and visit with the Robertses. He even seemed to like their nieces and nephews, whom he would tell stories of his younger life on the other side of the state. He still had issues with being free, but he was making it work.

In late summer 1978, Kelly learned that he might lose his job. The federal government was making budget cuts, and the money that funded his positions might be going away. When he went to his scheduled meeting with his parole officer, Kelly told him that he wanted to be sent back to prison.

His parole officer, William McCullough, had been Kelly’s prison counselor in Fort Madison for over several years. He probably knew Kelly as well as anyone did. McCullough asked Kelly to wait until the following week, and then they’d talk about it more. Kelly still had options outside of prison, and McCullough wanted to discuss them. William agreed, and left.

The next week, Kelly came to McCullough’s office with a box cutter. Sliding out the blade, William began to slash at McCullough. The attack was short but vicious, and McCullough was left cut and bleeding, requiring seventeen stiches. One particularly deep cut would leave an 8-inch scar across his neck.

When police arrested him, they asked the parolee why he’d done it. Kelly said that it was obvious: he wanted to go back to prison. He was anxious to get on with the legal process and get going. Kelly didn’t bother explaining much else.

McCullough theorized that Kelly must have thought that he was going to be sent back to prison no matter what. A believer in predestination, William must have thought that he was predestined to return to Fort Madison.

Whatever his reasons, Kelly got his wish was sent back to Fort Madison.

In 1982, Kelly received a visit from Rev. Doug Maben, director of an organization called Criminal Justice Ministries. William was due to be released, and Maben asked where he was going to go. Kelly, having been in prison for longer than some people have been alive, honestly didn’t know.

William Kelly Old
William Kelly in later years.

Maben invited him to come to a facility called the Hanson House of Hospitality, a home for former prison inmates in Des Moines, Iowa. When he was released later that same year, Kelly moved to Des Moines.

While he was there, Kelly’s job was to take care of certain parts of the facility, as well as take care of the resident cat. In return, Hanson House supplied him with $25 and a place to stay.

Though he seemed outwardly happy for a time, Kelly still had a hard time adjusting. He was known as a clever conversationalist when he chose to be, with a keen intelligence. However, Kelly was a loner, isolating himself from other people.

William was free from prison, but seemingly not from the past. He would still break down and cry when talking about his family. Several people at Hanson House overheard him having conversations with Leah, his long-dead wife. Kelly passed away at the age of eighty-four.

According to Google, one of the definitions of the word ‘haunted’ is something that is “…difficult to ignore or forget.”

William Kelly had the whole world. He had a loving wife and son at home. He had gone to college, become a teacher, and owned a good farm. William Kelly had every means in the world to be a success.

But he had made a choice.

William Kelly’s actions were irreversible. While it could be argued that he murdered his wife in the heat of the moment, he undoubtedly made a much more cold-blooded choice when he looked his young son in the face and raised the hammer.

For him, this wasn’t a celluloid horror story or a crime drama written by a bestselling author. This was his life, and the consequences for his actions would prove to be all too real. Even more than decades in prison, Kelly’s actions had caused a scar on his psyche that refused to heal.

William Kelly could never forget his family. He could never truly leave the horrors of that long-ago day in 1933. His wife and son remained with him every day for the rest of his life.

In the end, death was the only thing that could set him free. He had spent a lifetime in an internal prison of his own design, haunted by memories of things that he could never undo.



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“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.

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