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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: Frank Kelley

by Susan Couso

Frank Kelley didn’t have an easy life. He was born in the coal mining region of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, where work was difficult at best. Kelley had a tough childhood and by 1901, he was fifteen years old and on his own.

Stories of life out west lured him to California, where he worked for a while as a teamster for the Southern Pacific Railroad before landing a job working for the Western Pacific Railroad near Chilcoot.

It was at Camp 1, in Chilcoot, where Frank Kelley got into a lot of trouble.

He seemed to sometimes have difficulties with reality, and strong drink amplified the delusions. By January 1907, Frank had amassed $250 from saving his wages. He took his wad of cash to Reno to celebrate and ended up spending it all, mostly on whiskey.

As Frank returned to the rail camp near Chilcoot, his inebriated state began to skew his reasoning. He attacked the foreman, attempting to kill him with an axe, and then just went berserk, flailing around and hitting anything nearby.

He was immediately unarmed by an officer at the camp who then telegraphed Sheriff Charles Emerson, in an attempt to have the 21-year-old madman removed.

Emerson responded and secured the crazed man for the challenging trip back to Susanville.

It was about nine o’clock on the evening of January 21st when Emerson arrived with his detainee and found that the jail cells were full. Kelley was given a place to sleep in the jail corridor, and Guard Perry Stout was left in charge to prevent his escape.

At this point, no one was seriously injured, and Emerson and Stout figured that the combative inmate would just ‘sleep off’ his drunken escapade.

Perry Alfred Stout was an industrious man who owned shares in nine different mines in Plumas County. He was a hard-worker, and his job at the jail ensured steady pay. Stout had been born in Missouri and spent a lot of time trying to make a living as a miner. Mining was arduous work, and at age 52, his job as a Deputy Sheriff proved to be a welcome respite.

But tonight, things would take a drastic turn. As Perry sat in his chair, watching his captive sleep away his drunkenness, he dozed off himself. Unaware that Kelley was a sometimes-deranged man, Stout let his guard down.

As Stout fell into a deep and comforting sleep, Kelly seized the opportunity to attack. He crept from his bed in the corridor and picked up a piece of firewood. He then went to the sleeping guard and repeatedly bashed his head with the wooden weapon.

Perry Stout never awoke. After pummeling Stout with the log, Kelley went through the guard’s pockets and found a pocketknife. He took the knife and plunged it into the limp body twenty-one times and then slit his throat almost completely through before ceasing his frenzy.

He cleaned the knife carefully on Perry’s clothes and gently laid it upon his chest. Kelley then noticed Stout’s holstered pistol. He took the gun, but never fired it. Instead, he removed the bullets and arranged them in a semi-circle around the dead man’s head.

This done, Kelley crawled back into his bed and went to sleep.

At just about midnight, Deputy John Packard arrived at the jail with dinner for Deputy Stout. As he opened the door, he saw Perry Stout’s bashed body on the floor, and the sleeping Kelley wrapped in his blanket. He immediately locked the door and ran to Sheriff Emerson’s home to alert him.

As the two officers returned to the scene of the slaughter, they carefully opened the jail door. Perry Stout lay as before, with the full horror of his slashed and battered body all too evident. His attacker was still asleep in his bed.

Sheriff Emerson was unsure if Kelley had the Deputy’s pistol, and carefully crept towards the demented inmate. When prodded to consciousness by the sheriff and asked why he murdered Stout, Kelley began to rant, “I didn’t shoot him, I cut his throat.”

He then continued with his delusions, saying that the monkeys were trying to eat him, and that he heard the Deputy say that he would feed Kelley to the monkeys. He said that he had no choice, he had to kill Stout. At this point he began jumping around and saying that the monkeys were still trying to eat him.

Word soon spread throughout the area. Deputy Perry Stout had been murdered by a maniac inmate. On February 7th, a preliminary exam was held for Kelley to answer to the charge of ‘murder’, but it was decided not to proceed further until District Attorney Robert Rankin returned from San Francisco.

On Monday, February 19th, a hearing was held in Superior Court to determine Kelley’s mental state. By Tuesday at 2 o’clock in the afternoon the evidence was in and by five o’clock the argument was submitted to the jury. Kelley was judged to be insane and on February 20th, Sheriff Emerson and Deputy Packard left with Kelley for the Napa State Insane Asylum.

Three months later, Dr. Elmer Stone, at the Napa institution, determined that Kelley was fit to stand trial, and Sheriff Emerson was dispatched to pick up Kelley and return him to Susanville. They arrived back in town early in the morning of May 31st.

In July, the trial was held in Superior Court, and there was little doubt of the verdict. On July 23, 1907, Frank Kelley was found guilty of murder in the second degree and sentenced to fifteen years in San Quentin.

But due to the shenanigans of the legal system, the issue of the guilt of Frank Kelley had not been truly determined.

Kelley, in an attempt to lessen his time in prison, offered a deal to the Lassen County court. He had pled ‘not guilty’ to the earlier charge of murder, but now he offered to plead ‘guilty’ to a charge of manslaughter. In a move not understood by most of us, the court agreed. This second trial netted Kelley a sentence of only six years.

Frank Kelley first entered San Quentin on August 4, 1907, and on May 22, 1908, was released to Lassen County for a new trial. On June 11, 1908, he was returned to prison to serve a six-year sentence. Kelley spent his prison years working as a waiter in the prison mess hall and was finally released on August 11, 1912.

After Kelley’s release from prison in 1912, he disappeared into the mass of humanity which we today call ‘civilization.’

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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