Death of the man who killed, the man who killed Jesse James

This is one of my favorite stories of the Territorial period of Oklahoma history. The other day a friend of the museum Fred Staff called us from Bolivia. Yes, Bolivia in South America. Fred is a writer from Oklahoma who currently lives in Bolivia. Anyway, Fred wanted to know what we knew about Frank James living in Oklahoma around the time of statehood. I’m sure there must be a James gang treasure buried in the Wichita Mountains story in Fred’s future. All this talk about the James gang made me think of Edward O’Kelly or Ed Kelly or Red Kelly and his ties to Oklahoma City and the James Gang.

So on April 3, 1882 Jesse James stepped up on a chair to dust a picture. “But the dirty little coward who shot Mr. Howard,” Robert Ford, seized the opportunity and shot James in the back of the head. Ford and his brother Charley would be indicted, plead guilty to murder, sentenced to hang, and be pardoned by the Governor of Missouri all in the same day. The brother would receive a portion of the reward for Jesse and leave the state. The Ford brothers toured the country reenacting the assassination on stage until Charley, suffering from Tuberculosis and addicted to morphine killed himself. Bod would wander the west opening saloons in various boomtowns, 1892 would find him in Creede Colorado.

Ford opens the Ford Exchange on Main Street in Creede and within a week it burns to the ground along with most of the downtown. Three days later on June 8th Edward O’Kelly walked into Ford’s newly re-opened tent saloon with a double barreled shotgun and shot him in the throat with both barrels. O’Kelly thought he would be hailed as a hero for killing the dirty little coward; instead he was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He served nine years of the sentence.

Edward O’Kelly

After his release from prison and being implicated in two other murders O’Kelly left Colorado and by late 1903 found himself in Oklahoma City. He hung around the dive bars of West First and Second streets that attracted a criminal element. He was said to have swaggered around in an overcoat that concealed two .45 revolvers. O’Kelly never left his boarding house or even ate his meals without the overcoat. On the day of his death January 13, 1904 he did leave without his coat and police detained him on suspicion of the burglary of the Alton-Dawson Produce House. Police saw him as the head of a gang of thieves and desperados.

Around 9:00 Officer Joseph Burnett approached a fully armed O’Kelly in front of the McCord-Collins Mercantile Company building. Burnett had previously arrested O’Kelly as a suspicious character. As Burnett came closer he said “Hello, Kelly.” “Howdy,” came the response as O’Kelly pulled a pistol from his pocket. Burnett grabbed O’Kelly’s wrist and bashed him in the head with a Billy club. Bob Jackson a friend of O’Kelly fired four shots at the officer before running off, O’Kelly pleading for him to return so they could murder the SOB. Burnett drew his own gun fired and missed. The two men grappled, cussed and shot at each other when they could. Burnett called to the people walking by and watching that he was a policeman and for them to help him. “How do I know you are a policeman,” replied one passerby. A. G. Paul a baggage man at the Frisco freight house across the street ran to assist Burnett. As Paul grabbed O’Kelly, Burnett pulled his other gun and shot him in the leg and then the temple killing him instantly. Burnett staggered from the fight his clothes on fire, with flesh wounds to his left arm and leg, and an ear chewed off.

Burnett would later become a Captain in the Oklahoma City Police force and die of a stroke in 1917. Both men are buried in Fairlawn Cemetery in Oklahoma City.