Sunday, September 22, 2013

Making a Name For Himself

Historic newspaper collections sometimes help bring to life the ancestors we puzzle over. For a specific—though limited—time frame in Fort Wayne, that has certainly been the case for our Stevens and Kelly families.

Remember all those reports I found on John Kelly Stevens, the jocular Fort Wayne policeman who happened to be my husband’s great grandfather? Just from his work in the downtown area coupled with his easy-going, talkative nature, there was enough newspaper coverage of his daily escapades for me to get a good idea of what the man was like.

If you think the stack of news reports for John Kelly Stevens was helpful, consider his (possible) relative, Richard Kelly, who for a time served not only as sergeant—as John Kelly Stevens had—but also as police captain. Yesterday, I considered that very thought: all three hundred six examples of it. If being a beat cop in Fort Wayne merited journalistic attention, being an administrator in the city Police Department meant being in a glass fish bowl of editorial inspection.

Richard Kelly—youngest son of Timothy and Ellen Kelly—was not always a police officer. Like John Kelly Stevens, he started out in one of Fort Wayne’s well known centers of employment: the railroads. Perhaps because his father was foreman at the “Pennsylvania shop,” it wasn’t hard for young Richard to gain employment there. By the time of the 1900 census, as a young married man, Richard reported his work to be brakeman for the railroad.

Sometime before the 1910 census, Richard was awarded his position as patrolman with the Fort Wayne police force. While I couldn’t pinpoint the date of his employment, we’ve already seen mentions of Richard’s work as patrolman from June of 1907.

Who can explain what seemed to be a meteoric rise to the top for Richard? The earliest reports don’t seem to be included in the newspaper collections I’ve scanned. But somehow, by early 1908, he began to see signs of favor from above. The Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel reported on March 11, 1908, that the Board of Safety had just the past week appointed Patrolman Richard Kelly as Captain of Police.

Don’t be too impressed, though. Remember, this is Fort Wayne. It all, apparently, came crashing down upon the next election. It must have been a rocky road in the interim between the November election and the change of regime that next January. Upon the election of Republican Jesse Grice, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette mused on November 24, 1909,
It is understood that Police Captain Richard Kelly will retain his present position under the new administration, although nothing official has been given out…

Apparently, the mayor’s office had no such intention, as the Fort Wayne Daily News subsequently noted on January 3, 1910. The Fort Wayne Weekly Sentinel affirmed on January 5: Richard Kelly was “reduced from captain to sergeant.”

Just as fast as the fall can follow the reinstatement. That, indeed, was what happened in Richard’s case. Upon the return of Democrat William Hosey to office at the end of Grice’s term, The Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette noted,
Richard Kelly last night resumed his position as Captain of Police after four years of service as sergeant.

Who knows what impact the next mayor—a Republican again—had on Richard’s law enforcement career. At some point, news reports began to refer to him as “Police Clerk” rather than as Captain, and that is what was entered for his occupation in both the 1920 and the 1930 census records. While the 1940 census listed the more generic “policeman” for occupation, I can hardly believe that for the now-sixty-eight year old widower living in his son-in-law’s household; he was probably still serving, though, as police clerk.

Through that nearly lifelong span of work in law enforcement, Richard Kelly received his fair share of mentions in the local news. Whether for surprise night raids on gambling rings, for attempted rescue of victims of drowning, train wrecks, or gruesome work injuries, or for testimony in court proceedings, his name featured prominently. As a representative of the police department, he was sued for damages by local business owners, accused of corruption—even saw his wife accused by criminals—sent to recover escaped suspects who were being extradited back to his county’s jurisdiction. He spent his fair share of time in parades as well, and represented his local chapter as a delegate to the national convention of the Fraternal Order of Police.

Somehow, after those years of service, he was transformed from the man Richard Kelly, to the public figure Richard Kelly. News reports morphed to mention him in unofficial capacities—his brother’s and stepmother’s obituaries, for instance, mentioning Captain Richard Kelly as surviving relative. Richard Kelly’s vacations, sick days, trips out of town, family illnesses, and even his young daughter’s birthday party became news because they were Captain Kelly’s trips, illnesses or celebrations.

Thankfully, that status even spun off a benefit for me as Kelly family researcher—I found reports of his trips to Toledo to see about his one surviving aunt in her last days.

What surviving aunt?

If it weren’t for the fact that it was Captain Kelly’s aunt, there probably would never have been any newspaper mention of her at all. Since it did rise above the level of “blip” on my radar, it set me off on another chase: to find out just who this one surviving aunt might be.

Not to be impartial or anything, I fervently hoped it would be a Kelly aunt and not a sister of Richard’s stepmother. I certainly had yet to uncover any link to the prior generation of the Kelly family. This was my hope to make that connection.


  1. Wow that was many mentions! I can't help but think back on those newsy items in the paper . It was real local flavor. We are missing that now a days:)

    1. Just think. Maybe someday people will be researching us and need to head to Facebook so they can get all the real news on our lives...

  2. Those early newspaper "bits" are like facebook status now... I wonder what the fascination is with "keeping track of folks and their whereabouts"??

    1. Lately, I've had this theory that people have an innate desire to seek out a "town square" that facilitates interpersonal connection. We keep searching from place to place--dumping MySpace for Facebook when MySpace got too glitzy, leaving Facebook for the next best thing when Facebook got too manipulative and commercialized. All we want is a place to hang out and chat with friends, a place where it's safe to meet new people who are interested in the same stuff we are.

      In my book, it's all about making connections. There's no hiding it: we are all social beings to one extent or another.

      And, as genealogy researchers, we're glad that was our ancestors' tendencies, too!


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