On the morning of Jan. 25, 1910, an unknown man delivered a note to the office of the Sedalia Democrat Sentinel. The note, badly spelled, ungrammatical, and handwritten on half a sheet of note paper, said, “There is a case on trail — Minnie Kelley and Dan Johnston — you are forbid to print and oblige. Minnie Kelley.”
Such provocation naturally encouraged the Democrat-Sentinel to investigate the case. The paper then printed the details in a front page story.
Those involved in the case included several officers of the court who did the jobs they were assigned. The other figures in the case — W. G. Davidson, Minnie Kelley, and M. D. Johnston — were unfamiliar with the courts and responded with a variety of emotions. Davidson was angry, Kelley was embarrassed, and Johnston was scared.
The case started some months before, when Johnston, known as Dan, moved from Cole Camp to the Sedalia area. The 20-year-old man was the son of well-off parents. Johnston took a job as a farm hand for Harper Smith north of Sedalia but later was employed at the Mo Pac Railroad roundhouse. He rented rooms at a boarding house at 922 E. Third St. He met and courted Minnie E. Kelly, a laundress and the 19-year-old daughter of Mrs. Mildred Kelley, a widow who lived at 1414 E. Fifth St. In October 1909, he seduced Minnie by promising to marry her if she succumbed to his passion.
Minnie succumbed, but Johnston did not marry her. On the morning of Jan. 24, 1910, her brother-in-law W. G. Davidson went to Justice of the Peace J.B. Rickman and filed a complaint against Johnston. Rickman issued a warrant for Johnston’s arrest on charges of seduction and breach of promise. At 9 p.m., Sheriff M.T. Henderson arrested Johnston at his boarding house and took him to the county jail to spend the night awaiting his arraignment the next morning.
Johnston proclaimed his innocence and denied promising Minnie he would marry her. He had nearly $200 in his pocket at the time of his arrest, so he was able to hire attorney Harvey Williams to represent him.
Johnston was so frightened of spending the night in jail that he implored Sheriff Henderson to spare him the night there. Sheriff Henderson kindly allowed Johnston to spend the night in the Sheriff’s quarters rather than in a cell.
On Jan. 25, Prosecutor Dow recommended Johnston be held on $500 bail. Johnston spoke with his attorney and with the prosecutor and finally agreed to marry Minnie in order to have the charges against him dismissed. He acquired a marriage license, and 10 minutes later Judge Lewis Hoffman pronounced the couple husband and wife.
A young woman who had been seduced generally hoped to be married by her seducer. The young woman’s relatives sometimes threatened the seducer with serious bodily harm to insure a marriage. Less frequently, young women filed breach of promise suits, which brought public embarrassment to their families. Minnie, in her concern that the trial not be detailed by the press, reflected that embarrassment. The situation was hardly an auspicious way to begin a marriage.
Rhonda Chalfant is the president of the Pettis County chapter of NAACP and the Pettis County Historical Society.