-by Greg Hoots-
William Thomas Smale came to Kansas in 1869 as a 14-year old youth when his family immigrated to the United States from Canada. Smale’s father was a farmer, and the family settled on 160-acres of land located six-miles east of Eskridge, Kansas in rural Wabaunsee County. In the late 1870s William married Mary Earl from Eskridge, a young lady two-years his junior. The young couple moved into a small boarder’s house on Smale’s father’s farm, and William continued to farm with his dad. In 1880, Mary Smale gave birth to the couple’s firstborn, a son. The 1880 census identifies the child as being named Earl Smale; however, a newspaper account written in 1903 identifies the child as Ralph Smale, and the latter appears to be confirmed by cemetery records.
Mary Elizabeth McKelvy was born in 1867 in Barkleyville, Pennsylvania, the eldest of thirteen children born to Irish immigrant, Andrew McKelvy and Elizabeth Grey McKelvy. The family moved from Pennsylvania to Kansas in 1878, settling first in Dover, Kansas before moving to the new town of Eskridge, Kansas in 1880. By the time Elizabeth McKelvy gave birth to her tenth child, Laura, in 1881, Mary Elizabeth had finished the eighth grade, and within a year the fourteen-year old girl was “placed” as a servant in the home of a young married couple, William and Mary Smale. The Smales lived east of Eskridge on Eight-Mile Road, and insofar as the couple had a toddler, everyone thought that Mary Smale could use the help at home. Mary McKelvy moved into the Smale’s home in early 1881.
Tragedy struck the Smale family in 1882, as William and Mary Smale’s toddler son, barely two years old, died suddenly after a short, intense illness. According to newspaper accounts, Mary McKelvy was the only person at home with the Smale’s son when he died. Historical accounts of the day did not reveal the cause of death of the young boy.
Then, if the Smales had not endured enough tragedy, just months after the child’s death, William’s wife, Mary died suddenly at the age of 25. Despite considerable speculation, there was no cause of death made public at the time of Mary Smale’s passing.
Mary Earl Smale’s death left 27-year old William Smale living alone with his 14-year old servant girl.
Before the year’s end, William Smale and Mary Elizabeth McKelvy were married on December 18, 1882. For whatever reason, at the time of their marriage and for more than fifteen years that followed, Mary Elizabeth McKelvy represented herself as being born in 1865, which would have made her 17-years old at the time of her marriage to William Smale, rather than 15-years of age, which was the case in fact.
William and Mary McKelvy Smale had three children, Mary Grace, born in 1887, William, born in 1889, and Amelia Salina, born in 1890. In the 1890s, Smale’s parents moved to Eskridge, and William’s family moved into Smale’s parents’ home while his younger brother, Percy and his wife Bessie moved into the small boarder’s house next door. In 1901 William Smale had a new two-story farm house built on the family property on Eight-Mile Road, a half-mile west of the Harveyville Road.
Mary Grace Smale excelled in school, and after graduating from the eighth grade, the Smales decided to send her to teacher’s college in Emporia. Mary Grace had been the smartest girl in her rural school, and she had taken music lessons for a number of years, becoming an accomplished pianist. It was a major financial commitment on the part of the Smales to send their gifted daughter to school in Emporia, as she would have to board there during the school terms.
By late 1901 when Mary Grace enrolled in school in Emporia, there was some discord in the marriage of William and Mary McKelvy Smale. Mary was ten years younger than William and a very attractive lady. Rumors were numerous, linking her to other men. And then, a neighbor, William Overman, openly accused William Smale of having an inappropriate friendship with Overman’s wife, and in fact, Overman had threatened to shoot Smale over the alleged indiscretion. Newspaper accounts of the day, however, openly claimed that Overman had a mental aberration, and that he had accused a number of men of cavorting with his wife.
The year of 1903 would prove to be more turbulent for the Smale family than anyone could imagine. While the accusations of infidelity in the Smale marriage were alarming, the events that were about to unravel would shake not only the Smale family but the entire community.
On January 22, 1903, while still enrolled at teacher’s college, Mary Grace Smale married Edward Chelf, the son of Charles Chelf, a nearby neighbor of the Smales in Wabaunsee County. Neither the bride or groom were of legal age, however the marriage ceremony was performed. The Alma Enterprise of February 13, 1903 reported, “The marriage of Miss Grace Smale to Edward Chelf was solemnized in Emporia Jan. 22nd. The young people are well and favorably known in this vicinity…They will reside here, having leased the J. R. Turner farm. They have the best wishes of many friends for a long and happy life.”
William Smale was enraged to learn that his underage daughter had married the Chelf boy. He vowed to have the marriage set aside. His wife, however, supported her fifteen-year old daughter’s desire to wed, perhaps because she, too, married at fifteen-years old. The dispute caused considerable friction between the Smales.
Newspaper accounts claimed that Mary McKelvy Smale had sought a separation from her husband, William, but a property settlement could not be negotiated, and the couple reconciled. The Emporia Gazette of November 12, 1903 claimed that the couple, “separated a year ago and she demanded an equal division of the property. Smale refused to do this and she returned home, but the couple did not live harmoniously.” There are no published legal notices of any divorce action.
On Monday, March 9, 1903 tragedy struck at the Smale farm, once again. Salina Smale, the Smale’s youngest child, died suddenly after a very short but severe illness. Dr. Trivett, the attending physician, listed Salina Smale’s cause of death as “hydrophobia” or rabies. The Alma Signal of March 14, 1903 reported, “Salina Smale died of hydrophobia at 9 o’clock on last Monday morning. The girl was bitten some five or six months ago and the dog was afterward killed, although it was not thought at the time that the dog was mad. Nothing more was thought of the dog bite until too late to save her life. She was taken with malaise Sunday and complained some during the day although nothing serious was suspected. At 2 o’clock on Monday morning Doctor Trivett was called, but on account of the darkness and the distance, he did not reach there until 5 o’clock in the morning. The girl showed symptoms of hysteria and the doctor was at a loss to account for other symptoms, nothing having been said about the dog bite, but the fact was mentioned and the from the girl calling for water and the convulsions into which she was thrown at the sight or mention of water left no doubt in the doctor’s mind that it was too true, and death came at 9 o’clock. The doctor has practiced medicine for thirty years and never witnessed a case of the kind before and says he never wants to see another, for without question it was the most horrible death he has ever seen.”
The loss of Salina and the animosity created by Mary Grace’s marriage to Ed Chelf had left the family in turmoil. While Grace’s mother supported her daughter’s marriage, William Smale still vigorously opposed it. To complicate matters, Grace’s relationship with her new husband had soured, and by late summer of 1903 she had returned home to live with her parents.
Monday, November 9, 1903 was a moonless fall night in Wabaunsee County. William and Mary Smale and their children, Will and Mary Grace, had enjoyed their evening meal and were still seated around the family’s dining room table. William Smale rose and crossed the room to a table on which a mantle clock sat. Smale began winding the clock and chime mechanisms, his back to a window. The hands of the clock read 7:45. Suddenly, a blast from a shotgun exploded just outside the house, shattering the window as buckshot projectiles struck William Smale in the back of the head, killing him instantly while his family sat only a few feet away. Screams from the family rang into the night as the assassin fled the scene in the dark, apparently afoot.
Screaming, Mary Smale ran to her husband’s lifeless body. Next, she lifted the phone receiver and spun the crank on the telephone, only to find that it was dead. The assailant had cut the telephone lines leading to the Smale’s home. Percy and Bessie Smale, who lived next door, had no phone, so young Will Smale rode his pony in the dark to William Pringle’s home, just about a quarter of a mile to the north, to report the shooting. The Pringle’s phone was on the same party line as the Smale’s, and they discovered that their phone, as well, was dead. One of the Pringle boys departed for Harveyville in a buggy to notify authorities of the crime. By the time Will Smale returned home to assure his family that help was coming, it was obvious that there was no saving his father.
When the Pringle boy arrived in Harveyville, a call went to the Sheriff’s office. It was learned that Sheriff Fred J. Frey was in Topeka, and a telegram was sent to him there. Frey sent a wire to two deputies, Fred Baker of Alma and Robert Shumate of Harveyville to take charge of the crime scene and not allow anyone to approach the exterior of the house where the shooter had lay in wait. Frey said that he would be at the scene on Tuesday. Sheriff Frey then called a bloodhound trainer from Manhattan, Kansas, a Mr. Wright, and made arrangements for the tracker to bring his dogs to the Smale’s house the next morning.
By 10:00 pm Deputy Shumate had arrived at the scene along with numerous Harveyville residents and numerous rural neighbors of the Smales. Justice of the Peace, S. B. Easter decided to empanel a Coroner’s jury, however, Coroner Silverthorne was unavailable, and Dr. L. A. Walker of Harveyville was summoned to conduct the inquest. At 1:00 am, six jurors were empaneled, including George Hawks, Theo. Walton, Joe Atkinson, John Bell, William Pringle and Sam Harris. Brief testimony was given by the Smale family members and the Pringles, the nearest neighbors of the Smale family. The jury returned a verdict saying, “The deceased came to his death by a gun-shot discharged by some person unknown.” Smale’s body was then moved to a different room in the house where he was prepared for burial.
At 9:00 am on Tuesday morning Sheriff Frey and Mr. Wright arrived at the Smale house accompanied by two bloodhounds. The men made a circle of the house with the bloodhounds, but it was apparent that scores of people had walked around the house during the evening prior, and all signs of tracks had been obliterated. The hounds did not find a trail; however, one of the dogs attempted to enter the house a number of times but was not allowed admission to the residence.
Virtually every neighbor of the Smale family had visited the scene by midday, except for the shooting victim’s son-in-law, Ed Chelf or his father Charles Chelf, who lived less than a mile away. Their absence at the scene, coupled with the stories that the locals told of the discord between William Smale and Ed Chelf, along with a claim that linked Mary Smale romantically with Charles Chelf, led Sheriff Frey to ride to the Chelf farm and confront the men. Both Ed Chelf and his father were arrested and their gun, a twelve-gauge shotgun and some reloaded ammunition were seized, and the men were taken back to the Smale house.
County Attorney Fred Seaman was in Lyndon, Kansas on Tuesday attending to a civil matter when he received a call from Sheriff Frey, apprising him of the details of the Smale murder. Seaman was displeased with the handling of the first Coroner’s inquest, and departed Lyndon immediately to preside over a second inquest.
The District 36 schoolhouse was located just across the road, diagonally, from the Smale property, and the second inquest, which began at 6:00 pm on Tuesday, was held in the school building. The second Coroner’s jury included, J. B. Montgomery, W. D. Twinam, Samuel Shaw, S. M. Harris, H. P. Peterson, and Ennis Barlow. The hearing, which lasted virtually all night, took testimony, mostly hearsay, from a variety of relatives, friends, and neighbors of the Smale family. The jury listened to the testimony of fourteen witnesses, including, Mary Grace Chelf, Mary Smale, Willie Smale, Wm. Pringle, Dr. L. A. Walker, Joe McCaslin, Mrs. William Pringle, Chas. Heinlein, Chas. Brown, W. H. Wetzel, Ed Mader, Wm. Pringle, Jr., and Percy Smale. More than one individual testified that they had heard William Overman, who lived nearby, accuse William Smale of having inappropriate relations with Mrs. Overman, and that Overman had threatened to “fill [Smale] with lead”. Other testimony claimed that Overman had recently “stayed up two nights with a gun waiting for Smale to arrive.”
Another neighbor testified that they had heard stories of Mary McKelvy Smale visiting the widower, Charles Chelf with some frequency, and that allegedly, Chelf visited the Smale home often when William Smale was absent.
Testimony was presented concerning the deaths of William Smale’s first wife and his son, Ralph. Sensational testimony was given, implying that the death of Salina Smale, just months earlier, was suspicious and a result of poisoning rather than hydrophobia. The witness claimed that William Smale was the intended target of the poisoning, but that Salina had consumed it by mistake.
Edward Chelf and his father Charles Chelf were both called to testify, however the Chelfs had employed Judge William Thompson of Harveyville to provide legal counsel, and the Judge told the Coroner’s jury that he had advised his clients to not testify at the hearing.
At dawn on Wednesday morning, the Coroner’s jury adjourned, returning a verdict that was not publically announced; however, both of the Chelfs were formally charged in the murder, and each posted a $1,000 bond to guarantee their appearance at a preliminary hearing in Harveyville on Friday, the 13th of November.
At this point in time, a significant development occurred in the case. The news story of the murder was acquired by national news services after papers in Topeka and Kansas City printed the story. Within days, sensational headlines about the crime appeared in hundreds of newspapers in Kansas and across the nation. In many cases, the story was embellished, and particularly, the headlines sensationalized the crime, while making unfounded accusations against a number of persons involved in the case. Within days of the story “going viral”, Mary McKelvy Smale was tried and convicted in the headlines of newspapers across Kansas of arranging her husband’s murder, the murder of her husband’s first wife and child, and the murder of her youngest daughter.
Scores of newspaper headlines declared four individuals guilty of involvement in the Smale murder. Little evidence followed the claims.
To illustrate the point, one needs look no further than the headlines from the front page of The Hutchinson News, dated November 12, 1903. The sensational headline reads, “MYSTERY DEEPENS, Widow of Wm. Smale Also Arrested for Murder, With a Neighbor, Charles Overman, She is Charged With Complicity, CRIME RESULT OF A PLOT, In Which Whole Family is Said to Have Participated, Shooting Concealed Awhile by Cutting the Telephone Wires.” Of course, apart from reference to the severed telephone wires, the entire headline was devoid of any truth.
On Friday the 13th of November, the scheduled preliminary hearing for Charles and Ed Chelf convened at Harveyville with Justice S. B. Easter presiding. All of the witnesses assembled for the hearing, along with Judge William Thompson who represented the Chelfs. When the court convened, County Attorney Fred Seaman made a motion for a ten-day continuance before beginning the preliminary hearing. Judge Thompson replied to the motion, saying that his clients would waive their preliminary hearing in favor of a trial in District Court in Alma which would convene the following February.
County Attorney Seaman objected to the defense attempt to waive the preliminary hearing, saying that “he did not care to have the accused running at large where they could easily forfeit bond and escape from the country if they saw that the prosecution was piling up evidence against them.” Arguments from both sides continued for more than two hours in the makeshift courtroom established on the second floor of a vacant store building in Harveyville. Finally, after much argument, Justice Easter ruled in favor of County Attorney Seaman, setting the preliminary hearing for December 1, 1903, and the Chelfs were released on bond.
The two weeks which followed the first scheduled preliminary hearing were extremely busy and frustrating for County Attorney Fred Seaman. One by one, all of the suspects in the Smale murder came forward with iron-clad alibis for the time of the shooting. Seaman found that the scurrilous and slanderous accusations against Mary McKelvy Smale all proved to be without any proof in fact, and by the time December 1st arrived, the County Attorney discovered that his vigorous investigations had only served to clear all of his suspects of any involvement in the crime.
The preliminary hearing was set to convene on Tuesday, December 1st at the Odd Fellow’s Hall in Harveyville, and the meeting room was packed with spectators when court convened. Judge Thompson appeared with his defendants, Ed and Charles Chelf, and Fred Seaman represented the State before Judge Easter. Court was called to order and the case was called by the clerk. County Attorney Fred Seaman addressed the judge, declaring that the State was dismissing all charges against both of the Chelfs. Seaman stated that the State had insufficient evidence to prosecute the men in District Court, and that he had no desire to reveal what evidence he did have at that point in time. Easter ordered the defendants be released and their bonds returned and declared the court adjourned. After the hearing Seaman was asked by the press as to how the case would proceed, to which he replied, “I have nothing to give out.”
Fred Seaman began the new year of 1904 deeply engrossed in his prosecution of the Smale murder case. It was frustrating in that despite devoting considerable resources and time in the case, he had little or no evidence that would tie any specific individual to the crime. While the Chelfs had plenty of motives in the case, both of the men had solid alibis from multiple witnesses. William Overman, a man who had threatened to shoot William Smale, was judged to be half-crazy in the court of public opinion, and like the Chelfs, Overman had spent the evening of the killing in the presence of witnesses.
Then, there was Mary McKelvy Smale, the widow of the shooting victim, who had been accused of the killing by the sensational headlines. Despite considerable investigation, Seaman could not produce an iota of evidence that Mrs. Smale had any involvement in the shooting. After all, she was seated with her children in the room with her husband when the killer struck. There had been an accusation that Mrs. Smale had poisoned her youngest daughter, Salina. Seaman had questioned Dr. Trivett who had attended Salina Smale at her death, and Dr. Trivett insisted that the child had died of hydrophobia, “staking his reputation” on the diagnosis. The Alma Signal reported on that rumor in their December 11, 1903 issue, printed under a headline asking, “Is It True?” The story reads, “There is a strong rumor out that the body of little Selina [sic] Smale, who died very suddenly last April was exhumed about a week ago and sent to an expert chemist for analysis, for the purpose of finding out whether traces of poison could be discovered. Whether this is true or not, or just what the object for so doing it, is all conjecture. The officers refuse to talk and the whole thing seems surrounded in mystery, as it has been since William Smale was shot.” There was never any printed confirmation of the exhumation, nor any publically released results of such an examination.
In January of 1904 frustration was growing over the lack of progress in the Smale murder investigation. On January 12th, Governor Willis Bailey offered a $250 reward for the capture of the murderer of William Smale, and the Wabaunsee County Commissioners matched that reward amount. The family of William Smale offered $500 reward to the same end, making a total of $1,000 offered for clues leading to the arrest and conviction of the killer.
County Attorney Seaman became increasingly desperate for clues in the case. A story in The Alma Enterprise of February 26, 1904 relates the following: “The country may yet learn who killed Wm. Smale of Harveyville. County Attorney Seaman wrote the question and held the paper tightly in his hand and told no one, while attending one of Anna Eve Fay’s séances in Topeka last Thursday night. Miss Fay called out his name, read the question concealed in his hand and asked him to write her a letter about it, as she did not consider that it would be proper to tell the whole audience who committed the deed.”
As the year 1904 progressed, the Smale case grew cold. There were no new leads. There were no tips submitted in an attempt to collect the $1,000 reward. November of 1904 saw a new County Attorney and new County Sheriff elected to office in Wabaunsee County. There was very little evidence in the Smale case for Seaman and Frey to transfer to the new law enforcement officers of the county.
In April of 1904 Mary Grace Smale Chelf filed for divorce from her husband Ed, “alleging extreme cruelty, in that he has used harsh language toward her and has repeatedly struck and choked her.” The case languished in court for at least two years before a divorce was eventually granted.
On August 10, 1909 Grace Smale married O. E. Cosley, formerly of Eskridge, a railroad man working for the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway. Grace had been a teacher at Keene District 56 School for a few years and was principal of the school at the time of her marriage to Cosley. In January of 1910 she resigned her position at Keene and moved with her husband to Herrington, Kansas.
Mary McKelvy Smale remained on the Smale farm on Eight-Mile Road after her husband’s death. She transferred 40-acres of the property to her son, Will, and 35-acres of land to her daughter Grace. On October 11, 1910 Mary Smale married Elijah Peavley, a railroad man from Harveyville who was 15-years her junior. Mary remained on her rural Wabaunsee County farm until her death on October 15, 1952.
Fred Seaman departed Alma after his term of office expired at the end of 1904, moving to Topeka where he pursued a career in education. In 1920, Seaman became the first principal of Seaman High School a Shawnee County rural high school. Seaman High was one of the first three rural high schools organized in Kansas. Seaman died in Shawnee County in 1948 at the age of 82.
While the Smale murder made daily headlines in the days that followed the brutal crime, news of the crime and investigation soon lost its headline appeal. The last reference found in newspapers of the crime comes from The Beattie Eagle of February 20, 1908, noting, “About four years ago a similar murder was committed in Wabaunsee County when someone shot Wm. Smale as he was at home with his family in the evening reading the paper. The murderer is still at large. The people in that county are still at a loss to know where to lay the blame.”
No one was ever tried nor convicted in the murder of William Smale.
Categories: Early History
Never heard anyone mention this story while I grew up in Eskridge and there were many people that I knew, including my great grandfather who would have been adults in the community when the murder occurred. Very interesting.
Thanks, George, I only learned of the case by searching the early Wabaunsee County newspapers for “murder trial”. In that the guilty party was never found, I’m surprised that it wasn’t more well-known.
Me too. My Great Grandfather Herb Smith was living nearby on either the Gardner Ranch in Bradford or on the farm north of Eskridge 8 miles when the 1903 murder occurred. I was 18 when he passed away. He never spoke of it to me. And my father and mother were close to him as well and They never mentioned it either.