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In the annals of kidnappings in the United States, there is one that stands out in the category of unbelievably bizarre. Unfortunately, this case ultimately had a tragic ending. It happened in Kansas City, Missouri, and the victim, who was released unharmed, was the sensitive, vulnerable, but trusting 25-year-old daughter of the city manager.

Mary McElroy befriended her abductors almost immediately. Today her experience might be described as Stockholm syndrome, though I'm not sure that would be accurate.

In 1933 some considered her behavior weirdly inappropriate. When three of her four abductors were captured, she defended them. Later she argued not only against the death penalty, but against any punishment that included jail time. There were many who believed Mary McElroy had fallen in love with one of the kidnappers, though she insisted she merely felt the men who had abducted her were misguided and could be rehabilitated.

Two of the men were still behind bars in 1940 when Miss McElroy committed suicide, leaving behind a note that expressed her lingering bitterness that her abductors had been punished. She declared her death would be the execution everyone wanted.

Syracuse Journal, May 29, 1933
Hunt Kidnappers of Mary McElroy,
Daughter of the City Manager

KANSAS CITY, Missouri (INS) — Every member of the police force here was engaged today in the most intensive search known to the department as they sought the kidnappers of Miss Mary McElroy, 25, daughter of Judge H. F. McElroy, city manager. The young woman was released yesterday, for $30,000 ransom, after having been held captive for 29 hours.

Police believe the organized crime element had no part in the abduction. Several underworld figures came forward with offers of assistance.

Judge McElroy said every police agency would be thrown into the search for the two men, despite the warning by the men when the ransom was paid that if police were put on their trail they would “get” him.

The kidnapping victim, a popular young social leader, viewed her experience almost like a great adventure. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything,” she said. “My abductors were very attentive to me. They gave me roses and a detective story to read in the basement room where they were guarding me. And they even fixed me up with a radio, an electric fan, easy chairs and a comfortable bed on which they had spread clean linen.”

Miss McElroy, wearing two roses given her by the kidnappers, was released yesterday at the gates of the Milburn Golf Club, near here, two hours after her father had paid the ransom to four men in an automobile on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. Two of the men, to whom Judge McElroy paid the $30,000 ransom, scaled down from $60,000, wore masks.

Two armed men abducted the young woman from the palatial McElroy residence Saturday, forcing her to leave her bath and dress. Strapping a handkerchief over her eyes, the abductors took her away in an automobile.

The kidnappers apparently thought Miss McElroy was a child. They told Miss Heda Christensen, the housekeeper, they wanted to deliver some cosmetics to “the little girl.” Miss Christensen refused to unlock the door, and they drew revolvers and forced their way in.

They went upstairs, pounded on the bathroom door and ordered Miss McElroy to dress. She soon emerged to face the armed men. Again they appeared surprised that she was a grown woman. They took her to the waiting car, explaining to the housekeeper that she would be unharmed if she did as she was told.

Not until she was released was the news of her kidnapping broadcast, the kidnappers having threatened to kill her should the police or newspapers be informed. Police cars, given descriptions furnished by Miss Christensen, were sent on a widespread search for the kidnappers after the girl returned home.

Though somewhat exhausted, Miss McElroy talked about the abduction with E. C. Reppert, director of police, and T. Higgins, chief of detectives. Her stories was one of friendly spirit between captors and captive which amazed the police officers.

“I joked with the men,” she said, “and when they mentioned a $60,000 ransom, I told them I was worth more than that.

“I slept well all night. It did me good to get away. I had a good rest and I needed it. And I learned things about gangs while I was gone. They even showed me how a machine gun works. But part of the time they kept me handcuffed with my wrists chained to a wall.

“After they had talked with father this morning, one of the men came to me and said, ‘You have a wonderful father and I am going to meet his terms. I think he has been doing a fine job in Kansas City trying to put men to work. But why should a man work for $2 a day?’ ”

The gang praised her behavior, she added. “One of the men told me he had been studying medicine and regretted that he had to give up his intended profession.

“I told him that I attended the college at Rockford, Illinois, and he seemed interested in my work there.”

The young woman’s release followed the receipt of two letters in her handwriting Saturday night, telling that she had been kidnapped and that $60,000 ransom was demanded for her release.

The first letter apparently original with Miss McElroy, read as follows:

“Dear Dad, I have been kidnapped. They are demanding sixty thousand dollars. If this is reported to the police or the newspaper they will ask one hundred thousand dollars and I may not be returned. You will hear later where to send it. Any letter without my thumb print is counterfeit.

“We are off the gold standard so please send used currency. I will be released six hours after you send it. They want twenty thousand in twenties, twenty thousand in tens and twenty thousand in fives. If this money is marked they will harm you or Henry (her brother), so be careful. They have treated me with great consideration and I am not frightened. My love, Mary.”

Miss McElroy’s thumb print was in the upper left hand corner of the letter. The second letter obviously was dictated by the men who held her prisoner. It read:

“Dear Dad, stay at home Sunday. They will get in touch with you. They want the money done up in $1,000 packages. They want nothing but used currency. When you receive information where to go, go alone in your car. If any dicks follow you, you won’t be met.

“The money will be checked for counterfeit and marks before I am released. If any trouble comes up after I am released they will try to avenge it. I love you. Mary.”

Three telephone calls were made to the residence yesterday, the kidnappers finally agreeing to accept $30,000 and giving the city manager directions as to where it was to be paid.

Judge McElroy and his son, Henry F. McElroy Jr., went to the designated lonely road in Kansas with the bundle of currency.

There were two elements of the above account that would reported differently in stories written years later. Though one of the kidnappers is quoted as mentioning "the little girl," there are some who believe the intended target was Mary McElroy's brother, Henry Jr., who was 23 at the time.

Also, while Mary McElroy said she was handcuffed with her wrists chained to a wall only part of the time, later accounts would make it seem she had been chained to a wall throughout her captivity, which lasted about 29 hours.

Those later accounts don't square with the woman's reaction — “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything" — soon after she was released, though she may simply have been trying to put up a brave front.

Rochester Democrat Chronicle, May 30, 1933
KANSAS CITY (AP) — Mary McElroy, daughter of City Manager H. F. McElroy, declared today she felt no malice toward the men who kidnapped her and collected $30,000 ransom from her father.

“I don’t believe I’d like to see any of these men sent to the penitentiary,” she said. “I still cannot feel any malice toward them; they treated me with such consideration.”

They were “simply business men,” she continued, who had taken her as a hostage for money.

Her attitude was in sharp contrast to that of her father, who ordered police to spend 24 hours a day in search of the kidnappers.

“I made no deal or agreement with them,” Miss McElroy said. “I did tell them that maybe in a few days I would be the only defender they would have, but I brought that up myself. I felt it might be true, and I am sure of it now.

“Yes, we even talked about the possibility of a training school for kidnappers, but of course it was just banter.”

Her brother, H. F. McElroy Jr., said he felt as his sister does in her forgiving attitude toward the kidnappers. He said he was stirred with gratitude toward them for their kind treatment of her.

The above International News Service photo appeared on the front page of the Syracuse Journal, Friday, February 12, 1937, in connection with a story about an attempt to extort money from McElroy under the threat of a second kidnapping of his daughter. There was another photo on the page — Amelia Earhart, who announced plans to circle the globe on a route "as close to the equator as I can make it." Her first attempt started on March 17, but was called off soon after it began. She tried again in June, on a new course. This became one of the most famous airplane flights in history. She disappeared over the Pacific Ocean and people have been looking for her remains and her plane ever since.
 

Four men were held responsible for the kidnapping — Clarence Stevens, brothers George and Walter McGee, and Clarence Click, who lived in the farm house where Mary McElroy was briefly imprisoned. Stevens avoided capture, but the other three were quickly found, arrested and tried. Walter McGee became the first person ever given the death penalty for kidnapping in the United States. Several states had increased the punishment for the crime as a result of the tragic Lindbergh baby abduction the year before.

Syracuse American, July 30, 1933
By WILLIAM J. GOOD
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (INS) — As the nation’s criminologists hailed the death penalty meted out to Walter H. McGee for the kidnapping of Miss Mary McElroy as a great forward step in the move to stamp out such crimes, McGee himself stood in death row in the Jackson County jail and cried out against a fate that will send him to the gallows.

“I think I have been given a raw deal,” he told International News Service in the first interview he has given since a jury declared he must die on the scaffold for the kidnapping of the city manager’s daughter.

“I didn’t have a chance,” he said, as he spoke of other convicted kidnappers who have escaped with prison sentences.

Although he had confessed to officers that he helped with the kidnapping and no effort was made to deny it during the trial, he was very careful today not to admit his participation in the crime.

“Don’t forget,” he said several times, “I’m not saying I kidnapped her.”

Does he think the death penalty is ever justified for kidnapping?

Again he hesitated apparently trying to answer cautiously. “It might,” he said.

When?

“Well,” he began slowly, “if the person was treated bad . . . or hurt . . . or killed, then the death penalty might be all right.”

“But you said you treated her well,” he was reminded.

“I’m not saying I kidnapped her,” he declared again.

The McGee brothers and Click would discover there was someone who would work tirelessly on their behalf — the victim of their crime. Mary McElroy had sympathy for the men who had abducted her and felt each should be given the opportunity to turn his life around. Helping those men, particularly George McGee, became her obsession, though her life would have other complications.

In February, 1937, a woman identified as Joyce McGee was charged with extortion and accused of threatening to kidnap Mary McElroy. The woman claimed a relationship with Walter and George McGee, but police discovered she was a woman of several aliases — Peggy Hughes, Joyce Nash, Joyce McBrayer and Joyce Richetti, among them — and was not related to the McGee family.

Using the name Joyce Richetti, the woman sent a letter to Miss McElroy's father. The letter said:

"I need money badly. If you take this to the police, you will get only me, but that won't keep your family from harm. I want $500 at once. If not, the same thing will happen to your daughter, Mary, that happened in 1933. Only this time you won't get her back.

"Having me pinched won't keep her from being snatched. Pay $500 now, or it will cost you plenty to get her back, if ever. I'm at the General Hospital. Come by yourself to see me."

Below her signature she added, "If I'm pinched, Mary will be taken at once."

Instead of receiving $500, the woman was handed a seven-year prison sentence. After her court appearance newspaper identified her as the wife of George McGee, but this was probably the result of sloppy reporting. Police said the woman also claimed to have been married to two other criminals, but these claims also were untrue.

In 1938 Clarence Click, one of the trio arrested for Mary McElroy's kidnapping, was released from prison after serving more than four years of his eight-year sentence.

Thanks to the victim's efforts, Walter McGee was spared execution and given a life sentence instead.

In 1939 the McElroy family suffered another blow, one that many felt was long overdue. Henry F. McElroy Sr., Mary's father, was forced out of office as city manager of Kansas City.

A Chicago native, McElroy moved to the Missouri city and became associated with "Boss" Tom Pendergast, whose corrupt political machine was as notorious in the Midwest as Tammany Hall was in New York City.

It was Pendergast who arranged for McElroy to become city manager of Kansas City, and by all accounts McElroy had a long list of accomplishments, which made his children, Mary and Harold F. McElroy Jr. very proud.

But these accomplishments were only part of the story. McElroy was suspected of having strong ties to the Kansas City mob, and also of receiving bribes. So in 1939 he was ordered to appear before a federal grand jury investigating his personal finances. Already in bad health, McElroy died in September of a heart attack a day before the scheduled hearing.

Mary McElroy, who had spent several weeks taking care of her father, was devastated by his death, and never recovered.

Buffalo Courier-Express, January 22, 1940
KANSAS CITY, Missouri (AP) — Brunet Mary McElroy killed herself today after seven tragic years of brooding over what she termed the punishment of the men who kidnapped her in 1933.

Police said she had taken her own life. They found a note penned in ink in the handwriting of the slender 32-year-old daughter of the late H. F. McElroy, stormy Pendergast political machine leader, who was ousted as city manager last spring.

The note said:

"My four kidnappers are probably the only people on earth who don't consider me an utter fool. You have your death penalty now, so — please — give them a chance."

It was signed "Mary McElroy."

Police found a small caliber pistol, identified by Henry F. McElroy Jr. as his sister's, on the floor near the divan in the sun room where Miss McElroy's maid, Mrs. Inez Strange, discovered her mistress' body shortly after 9 a.m. today.

A police examination disclosed powder burns on the dead girl's right hand. The right side of her face also was burned by powder, indicating, officers said, the pistol had been held close to her head when the fatal shot was fired.

The bullet penetrated her head just forward of and near the top of her right ear. Police made paraffin tests which they said showed Miss McElroy's right hand had held and fired the death weapon.

Her body was clad in a gray lounging suit, slacks and jacket. A pair of dark glasses covered her eyes.

Her death was the tragic end of seven harrowing years, beginning with her kidnapping in 1933. Then followed the trial of three of her four abductors; her successful appeal to the governor to commute the death sentence of one of them; the ousting of her father as city manager in the breakdown of the Pendergast machine last spring and, finally, her father's death last summer.

Both the maid and H. F. McElroy Jr., her brother, told police she had appeared in good spirits last night and yesterday afternoon.

Since the kidnapping Miss McElroy had suffered several nervous breakdowns.

During one of them Miss McElroy disappeared from home and eleven hours later was found in Normal, Illinois.

Returned to Kansas City, she said she held no "personal hard feelings" against her kidnappers "and I am sure they do not hold hard feelings against me.

"That's what makes the situation all the worse," she added. "I have nightmares about those men and the fates they brought on themselves. I was part of the drama that fixed their destiny. I cannot forget them. I have visited them in prison. Something drives me to do this. I cannot let them go."

In a frank and vivid interview four years ago, Miss McElroy said her foremost ambition was to make "normal, acceptable citizens" of her abductors. She took them gifts on frequent visits to prison at Jefferson City until her father quit the City Hall. From last spring until his death she had devoted all her attention to him.

Miss McElroy said the dreadful memory of 30 harrowing hours she was chained to a basement wall in a small Kansas house finally had faded. In its place was an "intense interest in the well being" of the kidnappers

"Now I am their friend and I'm sure they are mine.

"George — that's the little one — is taking a high school course. (She sent him gifts, books and arranged for an instructor from the correspondence school to visit him.)

"Walter wouldn't be interested in school work. He's more like this — " Miss McElroy displayed a pair of gloves and a handbag the convict had crocheted for her.

She said she would help Click find a job after his release.

"I'm not trying to be benevolent. I only know I want to help those McGee boys find themselves. They can be good citizens right where they are. They have to learn to look people in the eye all over again. If I can have any part in teaching them, it will be the happiest thing in my life."

George McGee was paroled in 1947. His brother, Walter, died in in prison in 1949, of a heart attack. He was 44 years old and would have become eligible for parole in 1951.

I found nothing more on Clarence Click, who was released from prison in 1938, and as far as I can tell, Clarence Stevens, the fourth member of the gang behind Mary McElroy's kidnapping, was never captured. Since Stevens was one of the two men who entered the McElroy house and physically abducted the woman — Walter McGee was the other — he likely would have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment.

It was easy to blame the kidnapping itself for Mary McElroy's state of mind when she killed herself, though it may be more accurate to blame the way people treated and talked about her because of her efforts to help the men who had abducted her. No doubt the loss of her father also weighed heavy on her mind, but what lingers with me is what she said in her suicide note:

"My four kidnappers are probably the only people on earth who don't consider me an utter fool."

 

For more on Mary McElroy:

Mary McElroy, the City Manager's Daughter

The Lady and Her Kidnappers, Mara Bovsun, New York Daily News, July 11, 2009

Kidnapped!, Kansas City Public Library

 
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