LOOKING BACK: Death comes to the state line

This undated photo shows how Morrill's Main Street looked in the early 1900s.One of the businesses pictured was the Farmers and Merchants Bank, where Sylvia Kelly was employed. Miss Kelly was killed in 1918 in a case of mistaken identity.

Local newspapers not only chronicle the “hard news” of the day, but also some of the quirky stories of people in strange circumstances — stories that add texture and context to the life of the community.

That’s because news tells of the places and events, while people tell the stories.

Some are humorous, like the conductor who stopped the train to retrieve his dentures that had fallen out the window. Maybe he’d sneezed really hard.

Others were more tragic. One in particular happened just before Christmas, making it even more memorable.

The Dec. 11, 2008, Yesteryears timeline in the Gering Courier included a short item under the “90 Years Ago” heading: “Morrill bank employee Miss Sylvia Kelly was killed by peace officers at Henry when the car she was riding in was fired upon by mistake.”

By mistake? What does that mean? Shouldn’t peace officers be more careful? Unanswered questions demand further research, which led to a tragic tale.

The first story appeared in the Dec. 13, 1918, edition of the Courier. On Wednesday, Dec. 11 at about 8:15 p.m. near Henry, Denver detective Clifford L. Landry shot at what he thought was a stolen vehicle for refusing to stop. The short life of the 19-year-old Sylvia Kelly came to an end that day.

A coroner’s jury was impaneled later that night by Scotts Bluff County Sheriff Frank Koenig and County Attorney J.L. Grimm. The jury determined that Landry had fired the shot “without felonious intent.”

So how did this young woman seem to end up in the wrong place at the wrong time? Details in the story shed some light.

Kelly was an employee of the Merchants Bank at Morrill. She had been visiting her parents about 25 miles north of Torrington, Wyoming. For the return trip on Dec. 11, 1918, she hired Torrington garage owner James P. Nolan to drive her to Henry, where she was to take the night train back to Morrill.

Remember, this was a time when Nebraska’s rural roads were mostly “primitive,” especially for vehicular travel.

About the same time Kelly started on her last ride, an anonymous call came into the Goshen County Sheriff’s office in Torrington. The voice on the line said a car had been stolen from Main Street and was heading east toward Henry, just inside the Nebraska state line. Sheriff James Sherman and Landry, who was working for the sheriff, went to pursue what turned out to be the wrong suspect. That is if one even existed.

Sherman and Landry caught up with the suspect car at Henry and it refused to stop. Sherman admitted he fired the first shot to puncture a tire. Landry shot as well, but one of his bullets killed the woman.

After a preliminary hearing, the two men were placed under $5,000 bonds while awaiting trial in district court for Scotts Bluff County.

Landry’s trial came up first, in March 1919. The courtroom was packed most days, with many from the Torrington and Henry areas — including Kelly’s father.

After deliberating nearly 24 hours, the jury found Landry guilty of manslaughter. Landry’s attorneys said he “has indicated his intention to accept the finding of the jury and take the situation just as it lays.”

Sherman’s manslaughter trial began in April. During his testimony, Sherman said he had “in no manner deputized Landry to assist him.”

Never answered was an obvious question: If Landry hadn’t been deputized, why was he shooting at people? Why was he even part of the pursuit?

After about 30 minutes of deliberation, the jury found Sherman not guilty.

The story from the May 2, 1919, Courier ended with “Whether full justice has been done or not will probably never develop further now, although there are some who still claim not.”

This story just brought up more questions, but they will remain unanswered. What about the many contradictions in the testimony? Why wasn’t the anonymous phone call investigated further? Was the reportedly stolen car ever found or was the entire story a fabrication?

The mission of the newspaper is to tell the stories of our lives and times. Those stories need to be set down in print and online so they don’t vanish from our institutional memory.

We're always interested in hearing about news in our community. Let us know what's going on!

Jerry Purvis is a reporter with the Star-Herald. He can be reached at 308-632-9046 or emailed at jpurvis@starherald.com.

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