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The Leavenworth Times - Leavenworth, KS
  • Portraits of the Past: The Nelly Don kidnapping sensation

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  • Former Missouri Senator James A. Reed made a desperate request to mobster Johnny Lazia, a major figure in the Kansas City organized crime scene:
    “Nellie Don has been kidnapped! And, I need the help of your gangsters to locate her and bring her back home!"
    Nell Donnelly was a well-healed Kansas City legend, and had laid the ground work for her fortune in the early 20th Century when she moved to the city from Parsons, Kan.
    A skilled seamstress and dress designer, her company prospered selling affordable and stylish housedresses with added ruffles and other frills. Those frills distanced her products from the plain cotton dresses of the day. Her company did well, and by 1930 was selling dresses nationwide and she employed 1,000 people in Kansas City.
    On Dec. 16, 1931, Nell Donnelly had been abducted along with George Blair, her 28-year-old chauffeur, by four hoodlums and held for $75,000 ransom.
    Her 1928 Lincoln Convertible was hijacked at gunpoint as they pulled into her own driveway at 5235 Oak. They were immediately driven in her limo about 20 miles west to a small farm and creamery just northeast of Bonner Springs, where she and Blair were held captive for 34 hours.
    The next day, the kidnappers delivered a ransom demand to James E. Taylor, a Donnelly family lawyer, in Nell’s own handwriting addressed to her husband.
    Taylor called in his law partner, James A. Reed, who in addition to being a well-known attorney and popular former Kansas City mayor, was a neighbor and very-very close friend of Nell Donnelly — she was actually his mistress and they even had a child together.
    Reed was in court in Jefferson City at the time, but immediately left the courtroom and headed for Kansas City to personally take charge of finding Nell and her chauffeur.
    The abduction and search for Nell became an immediate media sensation, with Reed's involvement attracting a great deal of media attention.
    The powerful and well-connected Reed was an ally of Thomas J. Pendergast, whose political machine ran Kansas City at the time.
    Reed got in touch with gunman Johnny Lazia, who was also in league with Pendergast.
    Without protest from the police, Lazia sent out known criminals and gangsters on search parties for the missing woman.
    Within hours, Lazia’s men found a restaurant operator who knew the kidnappers' plans, and with a little persuasion, he spilled the beans. In the wee hours of the morning, the mobsters stormed the farm house in Bonner Springs, pushing the kidnappers aside as one of the rescuers put his arm around Nell’s shoulder and said, “Mrs. Donnelly, there has been a mistake. These men are from out of town. You have a lot of friends. We have come to rescue you.”
    Page 2 of 2 - They escorted Nell and George Blair to their car and dropped them off in Armourdale on Kansas Avenue in Kansas City, Kan., and the rescue car sped away.
    After walking for about a mile or so, the couple found an all-night cafe and candy store near 12th Street and went inside for coffee.
    Thirty-four hours after they were kidnapped, an anonymous phone call to the police led to their discovery surrounded by people in the candy shop.
    No ransom was ever paid.
    The court case that followed led to the acquittal of Paul Scheidt. However, the other kidnappers, Martin Depew and Walter Werner, received life sentences, and Charles Mele was given a 35-year sentence.
    Nearly two years after the kidnapping, the Donnellys divorced on Dec. 13, 1933, and Nell unexpectedly married James A. Reed. She lived to be 102 and died Sept. 8, 1991.
     
    Information from "Historic Missourians-Nell Donnelly Reed" by Kimberly Harper, of The State Historical Society of Missouri, was used in this column.
    To reach Ted W. Stillwell, email teddy.stillwell@yahoo.com or call (816) 252-9909.

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