Kelly, Kathryn Thorne (1904–1998?)

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Kelly, Kathryn Thorne (1904–1998?)

American kidnapper who allegedly advanced the career of her husband, Machine Gun Kelly. Name variations: Cleo Brooks; Cleo Coleman; Cleo Frye, Kathryn Frye; Kathryn Thorne. Born Cleo Brooks (some sources cite Cleo Coleman) in Saltillo, Mississippi, in 1904; possibly died on July 27, 1998, in St. Paul, Minnesota; daughter of James Emery Brooks and Ora Brooks (who would later marry Robert K.G. "Boss" Shannon and take the name Ora Shannon); married Lonnie Frye (a laborer), in 1919 (divorced soon after); possibly married Allie Brewer (briefly); married Charles Thorne (a bootlegger), in 1924 (died 1927); married George Kelly Barnes also known as George R. Kelly also known as Machine Gun Kelly (1895–1954, a bootlegger, robber, and kidnapper), in September 1930; children: (first marriage) Pauline Frye.

Associated with the crime wave that swept the United States during the 1930s, Kathryn Kelly was headed for trouble from a young age. Born Cleo Brooks in 1904 in Saltillo, Mississippi, she was married, had a daughter, and divorced by her early teens. She then changed her name to the more glamorous Kathryn and joined her mother Ora Shannon 's bootlegging operation at age 17. In 1924, Kathryn married a local bootlegger Charles Thorne who was found shot to death three years later. Though the coroner's jury called it suicide, Kathryn had allegedly told a gas station attendant the day before he died, "I'm bound to Coleman, Texas, to kill that goddamned Charlie Thorne."

By this time, Kathryn had developed into an outwardly sophisticated, gracious woman and was ready to involve herself in more lucrative criminal endeavors. She also had a record. She had been arrested in Fort Worth in 1929, working under the alias of Dolores Whitney, and charged with shoplifting. She had been convicted in Oklahoma City, then using the name Mrs. J.E. Burnell, of robbery, but the conviction was reversed on appeal. When she met bootlegger George Kelly, who had served a stint at Leavenworth for smuggling liquor, she felt that he was the kind of man she could mold into her ideal outlaw. They married in Minneapolis in 1930. Legend has it that she then set out to market her husband into a criminal superstar.

Under Kathryn's direction, George Kelly, along with several cohorts, carried out a series of bank robberies in Texas, Oklahoma, and Washington state. She is said to have bought Kelly his first Thompson submachine gun and made him practice with it. She also gave out the spent cartridges to family and friends as souvenirs from "Machine Gun" Kelly, boasting he was a desperate criminal wanted in three states for murder and bank robbery. Possibly, it was Kathryn who spread the stories that he had been a machine gunner during World War I (though George was a college student at that time) and was so proficient with the "chopper" that he could write his name in lead and knock walnuts off a fence. The stories held. The wanted poster dispersed by the FBI on August 14, 1933, would describe George as an "Expert machine gunner."

Kathryn used the ill-gotten money to purchase cars, jewelry, and furs, but soon grew anxious to move into "the big time." Reading about the increasing number of kidnappings across the country, she convinced George into upgrading their criminal activities. Her first kidnap victim, found in the phone book, was Howard Woolverton, a manufacturer and banker's son from South Bend, Indiana. After holding Woolverton hostage for several days in 1932, the Kellys discovered that his family had no money to pay for his release, so they let him go.

Kathryn was more selective in choosing her second victim, millionaire oilman Charles F. Urschel, whom George and his henchman Albert Bates snatched from the front porch of Urschel's mansion in Oklahoma City on the night of July 22, 1933. Urschel was taken to the remote Texas ranch owned by Kathryn's mother Ora Shannon and Ora's second husband Robert K.B. "Boss" Shannon, a Democratic political boss in Wise County, Texas. Urschel was held until a substantial $200,000 ransom was paid through a family intermediary in Kansas City.

Upon his release, Urschel provided clues to FBI agents who subsequently apprehended Kathryn's parents and half-brother at the Texas ranch and carted them off to jail. Meanwhile, the Kellys traveled in Kathryn's 16-cylinder Cadillac to St. Paul, Minnesota, then a haven for outlaws who were tolerated by the corrupt local government for a price, where they began spending the ransom. From there, they traveled around, from Chicago to Texas, from Kansas City to St. Louis, staying on the move, now panicked as the law closed in. While spending her newfound wealth, Kathryn schemed to get her family released from federal custody. At one point, she offered to trade her husband for their release, but the FBI turned her down. Law enforcement also received the following letter from Kathryn:

The entire Urschel family and friends, and all of you will be exterminated soon. There is no way I can prevent it. I will gladly put George Kelly on the spot for you if you will save my mother, who is innocent of any wrong doing. If you do not comply with this request, there is no way in which I can prevent the most awful tragedy. If you refuse my offer I shall commit some minor offense and be placed in jail so that you will know that I have no connection with the terrible slaughter that will take place in Oklahoma City within the next few days.

A more threatening letter would arrive at the Urschels'.

On September 27, 1933, while the Kellys were hiding out in a Memphis boardinghouse, the local police, accompanied by a few FBI agents, captured the pair in a raid. When found, Kelly was in his pajamas and Kathryn was asleep. Both were so hungover from consuming six quarts of gin the previous night that they did not put up a fight. The FBI spread the myth that George cried, "Don't shoot, G-men!" Rather, George dropped the gun on his foot and mumbled, "I've been waiting for you all night."

The Kellys were tried, convicted, and sent to prison for life. Said Kathryn, "My Pekingese dog would have got a life sentence in that court." During the trial, it became obvious that George was not the gun-toting, brazen killer depicted in the media, though he may not have been the Casper Milquetoast now put forth by crime buffs either. Kathryn claimed to be an innocent victim of her "marriage to a gangster."

Kathryn was incarcerated at a federal prison in Cincinnati and later transferred to Milan, Michigan. Before imprisonment, she deeded her Fort Worth home (owned by husband Charles Thorne) to her 14-year-old daughter Pauline Frye who was then sent to live with an aunt. George Kelly was confined in Leavenworth, transferred to Alcatraz in 1934, where he became a Bible student and wrote contrite notes to Urschel, then returned to Leavenworth where he died of a heart attack on July 18, 1954.

In prison, Kathryn began to write and became assistant editor of a prison newspaper, the "Terminal Island Gull." In December of 1940, she wrote:

We realize that every "feminine fluff" beneath our roof carries within her heart a full quota of loneliness, grief and mental suffering. None of us like to do "time." It isn't play, it is sapping three hundred and sixty-five days filled with golden opportunities slipping away year by year, each day gone forever from the span of life. The drabness, the necessary discipline attached to an institution pulls at the vital organs of living twenty four hours each day. The Government can never fashion from steel and stone a prison that will mean "home" to any of its inmates.

Kathryn Kelly served time until June 1958, when she was released from prison, along with her mother, on $10,000 bond, pending an appeal. Her lawyer maintained that the government's case was based on a handwriting expert who testified that she had written the letters to the FBI and Urschel family. This, he said, might have been disputed by another expert. The judge granted a new trial and ordered the FBI to produce its files. Rather than produce files, the FBI let the case lapse, and Kathryn Kelly went free. Her mother was institutionalized at the Oklahoma County Home and Hospital in Oklahoma City, and Kathryn took a job there as bookkeeper. In 1970, she was still working there and living on the premises as a virtual recluse. She may have died in 1998. In 1970, a suppressed report among the FBI files was revealed. It contained an affidavit from another FBI handwriting expert who claimed that the letters might have been written by George.


Cooper, Courtney Ryley. Ten Thousand Public Enemies. Boston, MA: Little, Brown, 1935.

Finnegan, James. "Machine Gun Kelly," in Master Detective. April 1970.

Moreland, Harrison. "The Untold Mystery Behind the Urschel Abduction Horror," in True Detective Mysteries. March–May 1934.

Scheneck, Stephen, and William W. Turner. "Mrs. Machine Gun Kelly," in Scanlan's Monthly. May 1970.

Whitehead, Don. The FBI Story. NY: Random House, 1956.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts