Strange Bedfellows

Nell Donnelly

Nell Donnelly

Nell Donnelly and her chauffeur, George Blair, were kidnapped on December 16, 1931. Donnelly had become famous after her 1916 founding of the Donnelly Garment Company, which sold stylish but affordable dresses for daily wear by ordinary women. Backed by the sales of “Nelly Don’s,” as the dresses became known, the company grew into a multi-million dollar business with over 1,000 employees in the 1920s.

Donnelly’s financial success made her a target for kidnappers hoping to garner a large ransom. During the turmoil of the Great Depression, kidnappings of wealthy individuals and their loved ones were relatively common. Within two years of Donnelly’s kidnapping, Mary McElroy (the daughter of city manager Henry McElroy) and Charles Lindbergh, Jr. (the son of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh) were prominent kidnap victims.

Donnelly’s kidnappers threatened to blind her and kill the chauffeur if Paul Donnelly, her husband, contacted the police or failed to pay a $75,000 ransom. Fortunately, her husband called upon James A. Reed, a distinguished Democratic politician whose connections with Kansas City boss Tom Pendergast helped him to become Jackson County attorney, Kansas City mayor, and a three-term U.S. senator. Reed convinced John Lazia, a local mobster also connected with Pendergast, to organize an extra-legal search for the perpetrators. Lazia’s underworld operatives located and freed Donnelly and her chauffer just two days after their kidnapping, and the police later located and arrested the kidnappers.

Within a year of her kidnapping, she divorced Paul Donnelly and purchased his share of the dress company for one million dollars. One of the factors in the divorce was the fact that the biological father of Nell Donnelly’s son, David, was not Paul Donnelly, but James Reed. Reed’s efforts to secure Donnelly’s release in December had not been the act of a benevolent stranger after all. She married James Reed on December 13, 1933, nearly two years to the day after he facilitated her rescue. Nell Donnelly Reed reportedly lived a full and happy life until her death in 1991, while Paul Donnelly committed suicide in 1934 after marrying someone half his age and spending his entire fortune.

Read full biographical sketches of people involved with kidnappings in Kansas City during the Great Depression prepared by Missouri Valley Special Collections, The Kansas City Public Library.

View images of Nell Donnelly and employees that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections.

Check out the following books and articles about Nell Donnelly.

Visit the Historic Garment District Museum in Kansas City. The museum highlights Kansas City’s history as a garment manufacturing center.

Carry out further research on Nell Donnelly Reed using archival material.

References:

Flynn, Jane Fifield. Kansas City Women of Independent Minds. Kansas City, MO: Fifield Publishing, 1992.

Christensen, Lawrence O. Dictionary of Missouri Biography. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1999.

Hulston, Nancy J. “Biography of James Alexander Reed, Attorney and Politician.” Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, 1999.

Magerl, Barbara. “Biography of Nell Donnelly Reed, Dress Manufacturer.” Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, 1999.

McMillen, Margot Ford and Heather Roberson. Called to Courage: Four Women in Missouri History. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002.

O’Malley, Terence Michael. Nelly Don: A Stitch in Time. The Covington Group, 2006.

Jason Roe
Historical date: 
Wednesday, December 16, 1931

About the Author

Jason Roe is a digital history specialist at the Kansas City Public Library, content manager and editor for the Civil War on the Western Border website, and the author of the Library's popular "This Week in Kansas City History" column. Prior to joining the Library, he earned his Ph.D. in American history from the University of Kansas in May 2012. While at KU, he was named the 2011-2012 Richard and Jeanette Sias Graduate Fellow at the Hall Center for the Humanities, and he received the History Department's 2012 George L. Anderson Award for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation for his work, "From the Impoverished to the Entitled: The Experience and Meaning of Old Age in America since the 1950s." He enjoys tackling a wide variety of projects relating to U.S. and local history.

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