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BRYAN COUNTY HISTORY: Geraldine Arnold, Oklahoma's young heroine

By Mary Maurer
Bryan County Genealogy Library

On July 22, 1933 Charles F. Urschel, 40, was enjoying a friendly card game with Walter Jarrett, when two men entered his Oklahoma City mansion and kidnapped them. Walter was released about an hour later, but Charles was held for nine days. At the time, Urschel was worth about $40,000,000 and was reputed to be “the richest man ever kidnapped.” His wife paid $200,000 for his return. With the information he provided, a search began for his kidnappers.

In August, Luther Arnold, also 40, left his home near Ardmore, and with his wife and young daughter hitchhiked to Texas to seek whatever employment he could find. Luther, a member of a prominent Caddo family, had left his hometown a few years earlier, moving first to Wichita Falls and then back to Oklahoma. The depression forced him to take desperate measures to support his family.

The Arnolds reached Itasca, Texas on the same day that fugitive Kathryn Kelly, disguised and driving a vegetable truck, stopped at a nearby filling station. She offered the family a ride, telling Luther that she had a ranch and might be able to give him a job. They stopped that night at a tourist camp in Cleburne. The next morning, Kathryn took Mrs. Arnold and 12-year-old Geraldine (Jerry) into town, bought them some clothes, gave them some money, and “treated them well.”

She later spoke with Luther about a personal problem. Her parents, R. G. “Boss” Shannon and Ora Shannon were being charged in Dallas for their part in a kidnapping. Kathryn needed Luther to go to Dallas and assess the situation. When he returned with the news that the government had refused all plea deals, she inquired if he knew any Oklahoma lawyers. He named John Roberts of Enid. Kathryn then furnished him with a car so he could hire Mr. Roberts. She promised to leave instructions at the post office about how to find his family upon his return.

Luther’s wife and daughter were in a house in San Antonia when he got back, but so was Kathryn’s husband, George Kelly, aka “Machine Gun” Kelly. She told Luther that George was really low on money and needed to “go east to get some.” George was gone the next morning. Some newspaper accounts state that Kathryn and Jerry also “disappeared.” Others say that Kathryn told the Arnolds she was going to take their child on a trip. Whatever the initial circumstances were, Jerry ended up traveling with Kathryn, providing another component of her “disguise.” She took good care of the girl, although she did introduce her to some shady characters and Jerry also witnessed some criminal behavior.

The events of the next few weeks made headlines across the nation. Some of the many accomplices in the kidnapping were quickly taken into custody. However, Kathryn and George, separately zigzagging across the country and staying in a variety of lodgings, eluded capture. There are alternate stories about the reason for her release, but Jerry was eventually placed on a train in Fort. Worth and sent back to her parents in Oklahoma City. Once there, she described the Kelly’s hideout in great detail. The Kelly’s were taken into custody the morning of September 26, 1933 at the home of J. R. Tichenor in Memphis. $73,250 of the ransom money was found buried on his property. Later, Jerry told authorities where more of the ransom was buried on the Cass Coleman farm in Texas.

A reward of $15,000 had been offered for the arrest of the Kellys. In June of 1934, after some court battles and negotiations, Geraldine Arnold settled for $4,000.

George Kelly was sentenced to life in prison and died there in 1954. Kathryn and her mother were released after 25 years. She allegedly died under an assumed name in 1985.

Bryan County History is a weekly feature contributed by members of the Bryan County Genealogy Library and Archives in Calera. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Texoma Marketing and Media Group. Is there a historic event or topic you want to read about? Contact the library at P.O. Box 153, Calera, OK 74730.