Small-time true crime from New Castle, Pa.

Harold Kelty, “Holdup”, 16 March 1934

Harold Kelty

On the back of Harold Kelty’s mug shot, a police officer wrote, “With Bill Harlan and John Hawk, stuck up Hutchinson Gas Station near New Wilmington, Pa.” The ink growing thin, he dipped his fountain pen in the ink pot, and continued a moment later, in darker script: “Age 17 at time. Married Capt Smith’s daughter—Golf Course. Much family trouble.”

Harold’s family trouble began early in his life. His mother and father lived with his paternal grandmother in a big house on Quest street. He was the last child in the family, with three older sisters. His father, a telegraph operator, beat his mother, knocked her down and abused her. When Harold was seven—just before his father secured a patent on an automobile carburetor mechanism designed to inject water, alcohol and heated air into the manifold—his mother left the family and married another man. Harold set fire to the lace curtains in his parents’ bedroom. A few years later, he set fire to the shingles on the side of the house. That same year—the year after one of his older sisters ran away, either to Youngstown, Cleveland or Detroit—Harold and a couple of friends were arrested for throwing stones through the glass front of the new sign in front of the Trinity Episcopal church. They had broken it several times already. A few months later, Harold and some other boys were arrested for robbing lard from a Boyles avenue home and smearing it over someone’s front porch, and for stealing dozens of eggs from the East street market and pelting North street junior high and Campbell’s undertakers.

In the midst of all this, when he was nine, Harold went to admire the Christmas tree that had been placed beside the bench in the police court—the first to be displayed in the city’s police station. He told the officers it was pretty. He liked the lights, which had been rigged so that they would twinkle on and off in a gentle rhythm. He asked to be allowed to leave a note with his name and address under the tree. He said that he hoped Santa Claus or the police department would remember him and that he would return on Christmas morning. There is no record of any such appearance.

At the age of eleven, Harold ran away. His father had to drive to Cleveland, Ohio, to pick him up. That summer, his father worked ceaselessly in his front yard. His neighbors noted that he spent every spare moment keeping his part of Quest street looking like the driveway through some private estate. They told the local paper that he deserved a medal for civic pride, not that New Castle had such a thing.

When he was seventeen—as the inscription on his mug shot notes—Harold and two other boys from the north hill held up a gas station eight miles north of town. They separated and fled the state. Harold was the last to be caught, in March, 1934, when he walked into the sheriff’s office and announced that he had been roaming the country for months since the robbery and wanted to get it over with. While on the run, he had married one of the young daughters of the golf pro at the New Castle field club, Captain V Arthur Smith. Evidently, they had recently separated. (Captain Smith, formerly of a Scottish regiment of the British army, shot himself in the head in a cubicle of the clubhouse toilets a few years later. The burden of wounds received at Gallipoli during the first world war was said to be to blame.)

Harold received no custodial sentence. He went back to school, graduating later than planned. When he was twenty, he married for the second time. He and his wife, Dora Mae, became involved in the Mahoningtown Methodist church, holding regular bible classes for young people in their home. They had no children of their own.

Harold died in 1995, at the age of seventy-seven.

Sources: New Castle News (26 September 1906, “Kelty-Watkins”;28 July 1922, “Two Small Fires Caused Last Night”; 10 May 1926, “Four Divorces Are Handed Down By Judge Hildebrand”; 20 December 1926, “Police Department Has Christmas Tree”; 18 April 1927, “Three Boys Damage Trinity Church Sign”; 12 September 1927, “Shingle Fire ON Sunday Afternoon”; 23 November 1927, “Boys Arrested For Hurling Eggs”; 24 September 1928, “Cleveland Gets Local Runaways”; 16 March 1934, “Youth Surrenders To County Sheriff”; 29 August 1934, “Pa Newc Observes”; 10 July 1937, “Morning Wedding In Third Church”; 11 April 1938, “Wound Fatal To Captain Smith”; 1 June 1939, “Here And There In Sports Land”; 21 September 1967, “Deaths Of The Day”; 28 August 1975, “News Flashback”).

2 responses

  1. daftladdie

    I imagine you writing this in the same way you prepare meals- all with one hand while Freyda is cradled in the other looking on and wondering what going on. Nice piece of non parliamentary writing BTW

    October 8, 2013 at 10:30 am

    • I must give her a credit as a special adviser.

      October 8, 2013 at 11:12 am

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