Interview with John Lee Kelley
Interview with John Lee Kelley
Interview Date: October 29, 1992

Camera Rolls: 312:15-18
Sound Rolls: 312:08-09
Interview gathered as part of The Great Depression .
Produced by Blackside, Inc.
Housed at the Washington University Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.
Editorial Notes:

Preferred citation:
Interview with John Lee Kelley , conducted by Blackside, Inc. on October 29, 1992, for The Great Depression . Washington University Libraries, Film and Media Archive, Henry Hampton Collection.

These transcripts contain material that did not appear in the final program. Only text appearing in bold italics was used in the final version of The Great Depression.

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INTERVIEW
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QUESTION 1
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Why don't we just start by talking about what you remember of the conditions in eastern Oklahoma in 1930 to '32?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, I particularly remember them in the 1930, you know, to '32, because I then was thirteen, twelve, fourteen years old. And the situation had gotten so rough, because of the farms, had been mostly sharecroppers on the farms. And then when the economy got bad, the people, the gins and so on weren't buying the cotton that was produced or the corn and so on, and so the poor sharecroppers had to move off. And that was when we started seeing the influx of people from eastern Oklahoma heading, like on this highway you were talking about on the predecessor, to Interstate 40. They would head through there with the, on the top of their cars they would have there pretty well a mattress, a chicken coop, and car full of kids. And they were just leaving, just abandoning their everything else, or anything else they had, and they were heading to California. And that was when the beginning of the Okies. They were leaving Oklahoma because they could not make a living there.

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QUESTION 2
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

And was that because the, the crop was bad, or was it prices?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Prices. Prices were so bad that the crops, you know, just you could practically go out in the field and pick corn because they couldn't sell it. And then of course, just a few, few years later was when the federal government, to help bolster the economy for the farmer, had the, you know, when they were killing the cattle and the pigs. And I can remember, now this was probably '33, in 1933, and I can remember going out my, we had a car, and I drove it out to this place where they were killing the cattle.

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QUESTION 3
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Did you ever do this in '32 as well?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

No, it was after '32 that they started that, because Roosevelt was elected, and after he had gotten, assumed the office, and he, then they started realizing what they had to do, and they had the banks closing, this and that.

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QUESTION 4
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Let me ask you, before Roosevelt was elected, do you remember if there were, was there government assistance or anything?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

No, there was no assistance at all that I, I remember. And I think it was a whole lot like it is right now. They, the, Mr. Hoover felt that if he just waited long enough that the economy would come back. And of course when Roosevelt ran against him and was elected, Roosevelt was more of a conservative than Hoover was, except when he became president, he saw that drastic action had to be taken. So...

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QUESTION 5
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Do you ever remember the Red Cross at all in Oklahoma?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

No.

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QUESTION 6
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Let's, let's go on to your father. Can you tell me just something, you know, the type of man your father was? A little bit about what he did?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, he, when I, of course, I was born, we're going way back there, he was a farmer, and a very unsuccessful farmer. And then he became, when I was quite small, the night watchman in the city of Checotah, and that was followed, in 1922, I believe it was, he was elected chief of the police. And he was the type of fellow that once you met him, you know, he was, people always remembered him. And he was elected then sheriff in 1924 of McIntosh county, and we moved from Checotah to Eufaula. And he immediately became quite well-known throughout the area because of his success in capturing lawbreakers and so on. And of course the penitentiary in the state is at McAlester, some 30 miles south of Eufaula. And two or three miles south of Eufaula there was a river, the South Canadian River, and there was a toll bridge over the South Canadian River. It was the only method of getting across the river for probably 75 miles either direction, up the stream or down the stream. So the fellows that would break out of the penitentiary, steal a car, and come rolling north, would hit this toll bridge, and generally they didn't have any money, hadn't thought of that. And so they would barrel on through the toll bridge, they would call my father, and he would catch the fellas. And so he achieved quite a bit of notoriety there for catching escaped convicts from McAlester.

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QUESTION 7
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Do you, getting back to, you know, 1930, '31, '32, your father at that point was capturing a lot of people other than people just coming out of—

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Right. Oh yes.

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Tell me a little bit how he, the different bank robbers he caught, and just sort of what his, how his career was going at that point.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, he had, there in McIntosh county, we had the one bank robbery at Checotah, Oklahoma. And he caught the two fellas, we had two bank robberies, Checotah and Hichita, the first one was in Hichita, Oklahoma. And three fellas robbed the bank there. And he in the, about a week or so's time, had caught the three bank robbers. Then, perhaps a year later, the bank at Checotah was robbed, and he caught those two bank robbers and within a week or 10 days' time. And so he, when he would take out after them, we wouldn't see him or hear from him, generally, until he called back in to his under-sheriff and told him he was coming back in with the bank robbers.

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QUESTION 8
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Was there a lot of crime in general? Did it seem like there was, I don't know, if it was a crime wave? Was there a, a lot of crime during that time?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes, there was a lot that, looking back on it now, you can nearly justify, because there was a lot of stealing, you know, steal someone's hogs, butch them, and so there was a lot that sort of thing going on because of people being hungry. And of course I think a lot of that was overlooked by the enforcement authorities, because they realized that it was a matter of a person eating.
**

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QUESTION 9
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

The people, I don't know, maybe you could only talk about in, in your particular area, but were people afraid at all, you know, now, sometimes are very afraid even to go—

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Oh, no, no. No, there was none of that at all that I recall. It, people were pretty generous and helping each other. And I can remember the, after my father was killed, a farmer that lived west of town came in one day with a hog, he had butchered a hog, and he brought the hog in and gave to my mother. And we then, of course, salted it down and so on. But, and that farmer then for years would bring in, he had an orchard, and he would bring apples, peaches, whatever was ripe at the time. And the thing that was so amazing about it was the farmer, back then they had a lot of bootleggers, and this farmer happened to be one of the bootleggers. And my father had told him, warned him that if he didn't get out of bootlegging, that he was going to have to catch him. And so sure enough the fellow didn't get out of the bootlegging business, he was caught, and sent to jail, and it I think it was 90 days that they got in jail. And while he was in jail, my dad would check on his family, make sure they were all right. So then after my dad's death, this fellow helped make sure that my dad's family was all right.

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QUESTION 10
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Oh, that's great. Speaking of, of your dad, and catching, I know that you told me one time that your father never killed anybody.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

That's right.

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

And tell, tell me how he felt about that. He was proud of that.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, yes. He felt, that—

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TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

OK, let's see. Let's go back, we were talking about, oh, your father not having shot anybody. [INAUDIBLE]

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes, that's right. And so the entire time that he lived as a police officer, he never shot anyone. He had always prided himself on being able to talk people into surrendering. If someone had a gun and was threatening and so on, he would approach someone and talk them into giving him the gun. Of course, that probably was one of the causes of his death.

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QUESTION 11
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Now did he ever tell you about that when you were young, that he never pulled a gun? Never—?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

No, but I knew it, whether he told me or not I don't recall, but we always knew that. And then of course like the friend of his, Bill Counts, who had been a deputy sheriff, said that he had told him that he had never shot anyone and didn't intend to.

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QUESTION 12
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Let me start to get on Pretty Boy Floyd and, and some of the other famous bank robbers sort of in general. Why were they so difficult to catch, do you think?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, because of the, back then—

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Can you start over and just, if you could tell me, "The bank robbers were, the bank robbers were difficult to catch," or "Criminals were difficult to catch—"

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes, they, now, particularly the bank robbers were difficult to catch, because each county had a sheriff, and that sheriff was responsible for the law enforcement in that county. So the fellow would rob the bank, or the fellows would rob the bank, they would leave, the sheriff would go to the county line and they were already gone, and so he didn't actually have authority in other counties. And so the bank robbers were in pretty, had pretty easy pickings, of course, because the FBI was, it was completely non-existent as far local crime was concerned. And they, there was no highway patrol in Oklahoma, where they could notify them that there was a car going. And so the only thing a fellow, a sheriff could do, if you didn't take out after them and stay after them, would be to get on the phone and call various sheriffs in various counties and tell them be on the lookout for them, the robbers.

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QUESTION 13
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Well, the Oklahoma Bankers Association had a hand in trying to capture people.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes, that, it, and that was the reason that they took part in it, was because the bank robbers were getting out of the county, and the, and then there was no one to pursue them any further. And so the, after my dad was retired as sheriff, they, yes, the Oklahoma Bankers Association, got him to take out after the bank robbers that hit various banks, and, of course, which he did that on a number of small banks that were robbed, and then he then became involved in the hunt for Floyd, because Floyd was robbing so many banks. And Floyd also was killing a lot of people. They, they, I think they estimated it was eleven or twelve people that he had killed, so, which seven of them were police officers. So, the—

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QUESTION 14
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

What did, what did your father think about this Pretty Boy Floyd myth? Or, you know...?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Oh, they, then, they didn't have the myth. That all came later, when people were looking for something to write that would be maybe a little interesting or catch someone's eye. And they were thugs, then, for example, in Floyd in robbing a bank twice down at his home town of Sallisaw, they realized he wasn't robbing the bank to give money to the poor, he was stealing from the poor, so to speak. And so my father had very little feeling for those people who robbed banks like that, because they weren't hungry, they were just out-and-out crooks.

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QUESTION 15
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

What would happen to, say if you were a depositor, what would happen to your money?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, if the bank was still sound after they had come in and taken several thousand dollars, then the bank generally had a capital structure that they would replace the money that was lost from their capital structure. And the, unless the bank was a small bank and they hit it and it folded up. Then the people that had money in there were just out in the cold. So it made it very bad for small banks trying to get started. And the thing that was so bad later, in later years, was the glorifying these thugs that robbed the banks.

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QUESTION 16
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

I know that Pretty Boy Floyd in particular, people would hide him out. Do you have any idea why?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, mostly that was another myth that they were, that has been brought out. And they will now, you go in the hills and you'll find some old fella, and he will say, "Yeah, well Pretty Boy Floyd was, I hid him out" or this or that. Well, for example, here in Springfield, Missouri, Floyd and his henchman then, Adam Richetti, robbed a bank in Halltown, just west of Springfield, and Richetti was from up around Bolivar, north of Springfield, and they went up there to hide out. And the sheriff up there went out looking for them and found them. Fortunately, the sheriff wasn't killed. He, Richetti and Floyd went on, then in, on later times got into the Kansas City union massacre, which they, well that is, of course, a little later.

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Great.

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QUESTION 17
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TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

OK, so let's go back to the Banking Association again, and just talk to me about why they got involved. Why...?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, the, the Oklahoma Bankers Association got involved in the robberies of the bank and trying to stop them. There were so many of them happening that the Bankers Association then got my father to start helping, my father had retired as sheriff of McIntosh County, start helping the sheriffs in other counties who were suffering from the bank robberies. And so there were a number of those that occurred, and my dad had helped catch all of the robbers. But Floyd started robbing banks around, then the Bankers Association got him to take out on that case. And Floyd was, frankly, a little smarter than most of the average bank robbers, where he would move out of the one area, and he would hit maybe a hundred miles away.
** And he had, I had mentioned, robbed banks is Missouri, and so he, shall I continue talking about that?

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QUESTION 18
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Let me, since we're going to roll out, let me just ask you a question about, getting back to the crime wave a little bit. You said there were a lot of bank robberies in Oklahoma. Were there more bank robberies than there had been before?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes. Before the, there're quite many more than there was before the Depression hit. And they would rob, you mentioned, we mentioned the town of Boley, and I believe Boley was the town that was, had, had their bank robbed, and the president of the bank killed, I'm trying to remember, Birdwell, who was one of Floyd's cohorts when my dad was killed. And the other fellow in the bank robbery with Birdwell was captured. At, being on the other side, I was real happy to read that they started chasing the other fellow with their shotguns, which had birdshot, and they had him halfway filled up with birdshot by the time he finally gave up. And that was a fellow named Patterson.

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QUESTION 19
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TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Great. Now let's talk about when your father, April 9th, 1932, when your father went to wait, to trap Floyd. And if you could just start out for me with "The Oklahoma Bankers Association asked my father—"

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes. The Oklahoma Bankers Association asked my father to take out after Floyd, and, in fact, the machine gun that my father had was given to him by the Oklahoma Bankers Association. So Floyd had been living part-time in Tulsa. Tulsa was quite a rough town, then. And so the city police had jumped him a time or two, and he had managed to get away, he and Birdwell. And so the, my father then started realizing with Floyd being there in Tulsa as much as he was, that he probably was, he had an ex-wife there, and so he probably was looking for his ex-wife or finding her, and a son. And so Father had found then that this ex-wife's parents lived down south of Tulsa at Bixby, out from Bixby. And so he had a telephone operator, in those days the telephones had a central operator that had to go through, and so he had arranged with the telephone operators there in Bixby to let him know, Floyd's wife had moved down to live with her parents
** down in this oil field house, and so the operator, telephone operator, let my father know that Floyd had been calling his wife.
** And so they set up a deal, and Floyd had told her he was coming to Bixby, and so that was the way that they were able to set up the trap.
** Now shall I go ahead with the...? And so he arranged, he had a number of officers with him in the posse to trap Floyd. And at one end of the road was a schoolhouse. And behind that schoolhouse they had left a car, Dad's car, and had Dad's chief deputy and best friend he had, named Bill Counts, was there at that place. And they felt that Floyd would come in from that direction, up to the gate coming into this place where his wife was. And there, there was a shed there by the gate, and my dad placed himself behind that shed and he had two officers there with him. And there were two farmers that, from that area, that were acting as guides, and they were there. Then, on the other end of the road from the school, was a group of officers in a car, excuse me, and they didn't, they were there and they did not think Floyd would come in from that direction. So, along, around two o' clock in the morning it got quite cold
** , and Floyd had told his wife over the phone he'd be there around midnight or so. And apparently the fellows at this one end of the road that they thought Floyd would come in decided to go into Bixby, which was two miles, and get some coffee.
** The two officers there with my dad behind this shed decided to go down across the field to where the car was and the chief deputy was to get coats they'd left in the car. And so then they gave their guns to these two farmers. Well, it turned out then that while all of this was transpiring Floyd came in through this place where these officers had left
** to go get coffee and pulled into this gate and my dad couldn't be positive that it was Floyd, because those officers would have given him a signal if Floyd came through, and they would've come up and blocked, you know, the thing off. So when Floyd, they came up to open the gate and my dad stepped out, then the gun battle started, and my dad was killed.
** And Floyd pulled out and went out the, out the same way he came in, which caused the papers at that time to feel that there must've been some sort of collusion between some of the officers and Floyd for him to do that. But anyway, that was the way it did happened.

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QUESTION 20
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

What, what was the effect of that? What happened to your family?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Well, of course, the officers had practically no insurance those days. There my mother had five children and she had never worked a day in her life, and she had the five of us to support. And I had an older brother and older sisters, and they had started to work. And so I can remember my mother going to door to door selling [NOTE: The actual title is ], and then the, another book that she had that she sold was the . This was back before Will Rogers ever died. But she did that, about anything she could to make a living. And then later years she went to work in the department store here, and worked there until her death.

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[production discussion]

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

OK, so, "After my father was—"

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

After my father was killed, Floyd and Birdwell, it is felt, went back over to the Seminole area. And the police, then, over the state, had known they were hanging out in that area, and they started putting pressure on that area. Floyd then went back over the to Sallisaw area. The people over there didn't want him around anymore. And so in, because he was turned out with the people there, I think, he robbed the bank over there for a second time. And he had such a rough time having a place to stay in Muskogee and Tulsa. They no longer wanted him around there. And that then was when he headed out and went to Kansas City and was involved in this union massacre. And in the mean time, the FBI had been authorized after the Lindbergh kidnapping to cross the state lines on pursuing criminals. And so he wasn't able to stay around Kansas City, and he took off to New York, he and this Richetti, who had been with him on the Kansas City union massacre. And being in New York after a while, the gangsters there, the head of the gangsters, just didn't want him around, because it was causing heat up there. That's when he headed back, and in Ohio the car broke down. And that's when the FBI, Melvin Perviss, flew in, and they managed to trap Floyd. And I believe that they caught, first they caught Richetti, and I think he was executed for the Kansas City union massacre. And Floyd then was trapped at a farm house, he was trying to get the farmer to take him in to town, and they were just getting ready to get in the car, I think, when the FBI and local officers came down the road. And Floyd jumped out of the car, ran round behind the house to a corn crib, and tried to call, crawl under the corn crib. And the officers found out, and started that way, yelling at him to surrender. And he got up from the corn crib and started running across the field, and that's when they decided that he'd gone far enough, and so they shot him. And then of course there's all sorts of stories about what he said when they got there, but then the thing that belies that is that they found that he was hit with twenty-nine bullets. So...

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QUESTION 30
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Let me back you up a little bit, to 1932, to right after your father was killed, and this idea that there were vigilantes, I mean, people—

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TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

—Floyd was being turned out, then.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes, that's right.

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Was it vigilante groups or—

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

More, more like, rather than vigilantes, they were people who before had been afraid to—

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

[laughs]

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

We ran out?

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TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

OK, so let's start with right after the incident with, when your father was killed. After that, people started getting together in something like vigilante groups.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yes. They would become more, more like neighborhood groups that you have now. When they see someone fooling around someone's house, they will notify the police. Well, the groups started doing that. In Oklahoma, they would, various farmers, they would see someone coming in, well, they'd call the sheriff, let him know that there was someone there that they didn't think belonged. And so it go so hot that, as I mentioned a while ago, that Floyd just had to leave the country. And of course that contributed to his downfall.

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QUESTION 31
TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Great. Now let's talk about after, with your mother. If you could just tell me again how, you know, that there was no insurance for police officers' wives and that sort of thing.

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

Yeah. There's no insurance at all, and when-

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Again? Can you say it again?

JOHN LEE KELLEY:

There's no insurance at all for my mother other than the small amount that my father had been able to get, which was I think $1,500 dollars. And so there she was with five kids, and we didn't own a home. And so she was a very smart lady, and she took the $1,500, and then of course houses were so much cheaper, she bought a house for I believe it was $800. And then in short order, next door was another house, and the fellow that owned it was buying it, lost his job or something or other, and he was leaving Eufaula. So he told her she could have that house if she would just make the payments on it. So she rented the house for enough to make the payments, and she ended up owning a couple of homes there. And she died in 1959, and at the time of her death, she left a, not large estate, but a nice little nest egg she had saved through her real estate and through her working in this department store.

TERRY KAY ROCKEFELLER:

Great. Cut.

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[end of interview]