In Episode 293 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger investigate an 1897 Good Friday murder and bank robbery that left the town of Somersworth, New Hampshire, in shock. A 68-year-old pillar of the community named Joseph Stickney was found lying in the bank in a pool of his own blood. The police chased 24-year-old Joseph Kelley into Canada where he was apprehended and brought back to New Hampshire for trial. In court, Kelley claimed he was under contract with the Devil.
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[DRIVING IN CAR]
RAY: Downtown Somersworth, New Hampshire, looks like a cute and quiet New England town.
JEFF: It is for sure. The town is nestled on the banks of the Salmon Falls River, which also marks the town and state’s border with Maine.
RAY: There’s a big white church here on Market Street, some restaurants and shops. And a fire-engine red building there—oooooo it’s a bakery!
JEFF: That bakery is our destination.
RAY: Perfect! I could go for a cupcake or something like that.
JEFF: We’ll park here.
[CAR STOPS DOORS CLOSE]
JEFF: This handsome, three-story building wasn’t always a bakery, Ray. This used to be the location of the Great Falls National Bank.
RAY: Now that you say it, that it DOES seem like it could have been a bank. It’s got that stately look to it.
JEFF: Back on Good Friday of 1897, a bank cashier was murdered and robbed inside that building. The perpetrator was chased across state and country lines, and when he was brought before a New Hampshire judge, he explained he committed the heinous crime because he was under contract with the Devil.
JEFF: Hello, I’m Jeff Belanger, and welcome to Episode 293 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Think of us as your townie buddies taking you on a strange tour as we chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We appreciate you riding with us as we explore true crime, ghosts, monsters, UFOs, aliens, roadside oddities, and the just plain weird. Please subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts because it’s free and we don’t want you to miss a thing.
JEFF: Before we investigate this strange tale of Easter weekend robbery, murder, and contracts with the Devil, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor Nuwati Herbals!
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JEFF: So Ray, we’ve both been making an effort to eat better here this spring.
RAY: Right. Bathing suit weather is coming up. I want to fit into my bikini.
JEFF: Totally fair. If we go into the Market Street Bakery and get cupcakes…
RAY: I know, I know… but I’m weak. I can resist anything but temptation!
JEFF: I get it. Baked goods are a weakness of mine too. Should we have just one each and then say, “The devil made me do it?”
RAY: Oh… nice segue. Right. Blame it on the devil. He’s the ultimate scapegoat.
JEFF: I picture Old Scratch down there in the fiery depths of hell laughing demonically as he watches us above… “Yes Jeff and Ray… YES! Eat the cupcakes and I win HA HA HA HA…”
RAY: You’d think the Devil has better things to do…
JEFF: Like plot murder and mayhem.
JEFF: Before we step into this bakery to tempt ourselves with baked goods, let’s head back to April of 1897, and visit the bank.
RAY: It’s Good Friday, April 16th, 1897 here in Somersworth, New Hampshire. The Easter weekend is coming up, and folks in town are looking forward to family dinners and church services.
JEFF: Here at the Great Falls National Bank, things are quiet. Not a lot of business is happening today probably because of the upcoming holiday.
RAY: Sure, some people maybe took the day off. So here’s a little more background on this building. The bank opened in 1845. Business was so good that 23 years ago the original one-story building was rebuilt by some fancy Boston architects into this grand structure we see today. The ground floor is home to a harness store, the second floor is the bank, and the third floor is meeting space for the Knights of Pythias group.
JEFF: Working in the bank today is a young, 20-year-old woman named Parchie Swasey who is the assistant to Bank cashier and treasurer Joseph Stickney. Stickney is 68 years old and has been working with the bank for 35 years. He’s a fixture in the town for sure.
[FACTORY WHISTLE IN DISTANCE]
RAY: That factory whistle means it’s noon. Lunch hour.
JEFF: The bank is empty, so Mr. Stickney sees no reason Parchie can’t go get her lunch as well. Stickney is still working on some accounts so he’s going to stay back at the bank for a while longer before closing up to take his lunch.
RAY: It’s ten past noon when the proprietor of the harness shop downstairs locks his doors for his lunch break, leaving Joseph Stickney the only person inside the entire building.
JEFF: It’s 12:15…
[DOOR OPENS/CLOSES FOOTSTEPS ACROSS THE FLOOR]
JEFF: A young man in his mid-twenties has just entered the bank. He’s got a goatee and mustache, and he’s wearing a derby hat. He looks even a little bit dashing. Stickney feels the customer looks vaguely familiar. A man looking about the same was in here yesterday afternoon around this same time, too, but Stickney was helping another customer at the time and the man quickly left.
[FOOTSTEPS ACROSS THE FLOOR]
RAY ALTERED: I’d like some stamps.
JEFF: Stickney turns to walk into the cashier’s room to get the stamps.
JEFF: He enters the room not realizing that his customer is right behind him.
[DOOR CLOSES/CLICKS LOCKED]
[WHACK WHACK WHACK]
RAY: The customer just hit Mr. Stickney over the head with a blackjack he pulled from his pocket!
JEFF: The old man just crumbled to the floor.
RAY: No… the customer is pulling out a razor and slicing at the neck of the unconscious banker. This is terrible!
JEFF: I can’t watch this….
RAY: As Joseph Stickney bleeds out on the floor of the cashier’s room, the thief begins to load a pillow case with all of the money he can find in the vault. It takes him less than a minute to pull $4,125 dollars worth of cash and gold and silver coins. But now he has another problem.
RAY: The glass door to the cashier’s room locked when it shut. With no other way out…
RAY: The murdering thief shatters the glass window… and climbs out…
[WALKING ON FLOOR]
[DOOR OPENS AND THEN CLOSES]
RAY: And walks right out the bank door into the middle of downtown Somersworth. (BEAT) Let’s follow him.
JEFF: The thief calmly walks down the midday sidewalk with a heavy bag slung over his shoulder. He’s aware he looks out of place. He’s becoming hyper-aware of every other person walking downtown. Could they be staring at him? What’s in the sack?
RAY: The thief just jumped the fence into a small orchard nearby. He’s stashing the bag at the base of a large apple tree. It looks like he’s pulling a few bills of cash out…
JEFF: Look at that! He’s pulling off the goatee and mustache. They were a disguise!
RAY: He just jumped the fence again and is walking back toward town. Wait a minute. The bank is in that direction too. Is he nuts?
JEFF: I’m not sure. Let’s keep after him. He’s walking on the opposite side of the street as the bank now.
RAY: Okay… he’s going inside that boarding house across from the bank.
JEFF: The man who just walked into that boarding house is 24-year-old Joseph Kelley. I saw him slip his landlady the $20 dollars in back rent that he owed her. She seems delighted to get her money. Kelley isn’t inside very long. He’s changed his clothes and is now walking back toward the orchard carrying a suitcase.
RAY: He looks nervous. He keeps looking over his shoulder. We should hang back a little. (PAUSE) Okay, he’s walking up to the tree where he hid the pillow case full of money. He’s packing the loot into the suitcase, and now heading back toward his boarding house.
JEFF: Kelley watches out of his boarding house window as police swarm the bank building. Parchie Swasey was the first to discover Stickney’s body in a pool of his own blood after she returned from lunch. The shattered glass, the dead banker, and the missing money made it clear this was a bank robbery.
RAY: It was a PLANNED bank robbery. Police figure whoever did this was watching the bank, learning the habits of the employees, and knew when the building was empty and vulnerable.
JEFF: Joseph Kelley knows the police are going to come knocking on every door soon enough.
JEFF: As afternoon settles on the shocked town of Somersworth, New Hampshire, Joseph Kelley finishes his dinner at the boarding house, then slinks off to the train station.
[CHUGGING TRAIN LEAVING STATION]
JEFF: And heads north on a train bound for Maine and then Canada, with a suitcase full of money.
RAY: Back in Somersworth, Easter weekend has a dark cloud hanging over it. Joseph Stickney was a pillar of the community. Anyone who had ever been to the bank knew him.
[LIGHT CHURCH ORGAN UNDERNEATH]
RAY: His pastor, Reverend Hyde stands on the pulpit on Easter Sunday to read a psalm. He gazes out the window of the church to where he can see the bank where Stickney was murdered on Good Friday no less. Rev. Hyde is emotional throughout the service. It was difficult to celebrate the Easter service on such a dark day for the church and town.
JEFF: Police, meanwhile are honing in on Joseph Kelley as their prime suspect. They asked around in all of the nearby buildings and that’s when they learned from his landlady that Kelley had come and gone a few times on Friday, paid his back rent with cash, then left with a suitcase. The train station recalled he bought a ticket north that would get him to Canada. Police figured that was enough to investigate further.
RAY: Sure. Joseph Kelley could easily case the bank from his boarding house window. He suddenly has money he owes, and then he slips out of town hours after a murder. That’s definitely suspicious.
JEFF: Up in Canada, he’s not helping the suspicions die down. New Hampshire police are already en route north to Quebec to try and find him.
RAY: No, Kelley is not helping his case at all. A local hotelkeeper recalls a man fitting Kelley’s description paying him $10 to buy a woman’s dress—he claimed it was for his wife in Montreal. And while that’s not so unusual. What struck the hotelkeeper as odd was seeing Kelley leave the hotel wearing the dress.
[CHUGGING TRAIN FADES IN AND OUT]
RAY: In Montreal, police track Joseph Kelley to a brothel where they find him sitting between two prostitutes… STILL wearing the woman’s dress trying to blend in…
JEFF: So Kelley is extradited back to New Hampshire where he faces murder and felony bank robbery charges. The overwhelming circumstantial evidence, plus police find a few drops of dried blood on his bowler hat. They believe they have their man. It’s here we learn a little more about Joseph Kelley.
RAY: Kelley was born and raised in Amesbury, Massachusetts. He was one of ten kids. He was considered a bright child, but started getting into trouble when he was about ten years old. He stole some bicycles, and even served seven months in the Concord Reformatory for theft. But no one thought he was capable of murder.
[JUDGE GAVEL BANGS ON BENCH]
RAY: It’s November 8th when the trial begins in nearby Dover, New Hampshire.
JEFF: Joseph Kelley looks odd here in court doesn’t he?
RAY: What do you mean?
JEFF: I mean he’s grinning a lot. Smiling. He doesn’t look like a guy who very likely could be executed for his crimes.
RAY: Hmmm. I guess you’re right. He seems to like the attention a little too much.
JEFF: The jury is brought over to Somersworth to see the scene of the crime. They’re also shown Kelley’s old boarding room cross the street where he could case the bank. The Quebec hotelkeeper who sold him the dress testifies, as do railroad workers who saw him board the train the night of the murder.
RAY: During cross-examination, some people in the courtroom start to suspect an insanity plea might be coming for Joseph Kelley. His lawyer describes him as a man who writes poetry, and one who found himself in multiple money-making schemes, whether selling artificial flowers, or standing on the roof of a hotel with a megaphone to advertise local businesses.
JEFF: That doesn’t exactly make you insane, though. Plenty of people write poetry and try to earn a quick buck.
[GAVEL ON BENCH AGAIN]
JEFF: It’s day four of the trial when Joseph Kelley announces to the court that he’s ready to plead guilty… only IF his hanging could be scheduled for January 16, 1898. When asked why that specific date, Kelley replies that he’s got a contract with the devil that expires on January 15th.
RAY: With that… the jury is dismissed. The guilty plea is accepted, and the rest of the trial is now going to focus on how mentally fit Joseph Kelley is, and what his punishment should be.
JEFF: Mental health experts examine Kelley, including Dr. Charles Bancroft of the New Hampshire State Asylum for the Insane. He concludes that Kelley is quote, “A child.” The doctor went on to say, quote, “I should place him about 8 or 9 year old, mentally and morally. He has the impulses and instincts of a man, but the judgement and capacity of a child of 9.” Expert after expert claims Kelley is quote, “An imbecille.”
RAY: Kelley’s lawyers are reading some of his poetry in the court room as further proof that he’s not mentally fit. When Kelley realizes his poetry is being read to make him look foolish as opposed to showing the world how wonderful his art is, he cries openly.
JEFF: When the trial finishes, Joseph Kelley is found guilty of second degree murder. Kelley is disappointed that he won’t hang.
RAY: Back in Somersworth, the news is NOT welcomed. Everyone feels Kelley should hang for his crimes—murdering an innocent old man like that, whether he was emotionally a 9-year-old or not. About 20 men try to organize a lynch mob to kidnap Kelley from the Dover jail and hang him properly, but none of that comes to fruition. Joseph Kelley is sent to jail. And that brings us back to today.
JEFF: And you wonder that if a person was mentally fit enough to case the bank, learn the habits and patterns of the employees, apply a disguise, and execute his plan like he did, could he really be mentally unfit?
RAY: And if he WAS mentally fit, could there have been some deal with the devil?
JEFF: Some contract that expires on January 15, 1898?
RAY: Yeah, that seems rather specific. And today, the bank is now home to a bakery, where you can go… if the devil tempts you… and nibble on some baked goods while you ponder the possibilities of the crime and robbery that took place here over a century ago.
JEFF: And whether the deal with the devil was true or not, announcing a deal with the devil in court spared a guilty man his life at the end of the hangman’s rope.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think!