Jealousy and Bad Whiskey, Day 2: Witness Preston SEELY, May He Rest In Peace

25 March 1914 was cold and dreary. Press had just had his 23rd birthday 9 days earlier. Perhaps he was still celebrating on 25 March 1914. weather for the time period of Preston’s death.

The front page of The Coffeyville Daily Journal announced that Independence, Kansas was getting a new county road for motorized automobiles and motorcycles. On page 2 of the paper, union suits were advertised for 45 cents each. (Remember those union suits Papa BATES wore every day of his life??) union suit ad.

There was the usual small town gossip tidbits that you would find in any newspaper of that era. On page 5 you could even find news from my home territory of Delaware County, Oklahoma. (Note to self: remember this the next time you’re researching for a blog post!!)

It was just an average day in the Coffeyville area. Right up until 8:00 p.m. when Press SEELY is found “dead with a bullet through his head”, as the next day’s edition of The Coffeyville Sun so “tactfully” stated in their headline.

His Side, Her Side, His Side, His Side, Their Side, and the Truth
Preston’s Side, Isabelle’s Side, AJ’s Side, Willie’s Side, Willie & Isabelle’s Side, and Somewhere In There is the Truth

There are many sides to this particular story. I will try to acquaint you with as many of them as I can. Hang on- it’s our first day of testimony. We’ll have 5 witnesses. Press SEELY is the first. Here’s his story of the day of his death.

Press’s story is told by others in roundabout ways. It’s the only way a dead person can tell his tale. Press was, by the accounts of others, in love with Miss Isabelle STEWART. He was prone to drink. Although he came from a good family, he was a black sheep- a “ne’er-do-well”.

On 24 March 1914 Press SEELY, with others, received a consignment of whiskey in the afternoon and about 4:00 he held a celebration in the woods outside Dearing, Kansas. He had to bootleg whiskey. It was prohibition-era Kansas and the prohibition sentiment was strong. Some of the guys had guns and they shot them off as young, drunk country boys who are horsing around in the woods sometimes do. They were rough-housing- just messing around and having a good time. Before 8:00, Press was three sheets to the wind when somebody who couldn’t keep their pie hole shut told Press that Press’s girl was going for a buggy ride with Willie PETTY. Willie PETTY! They’d known each other several years. Willie fancied himself a rival of Press’s for the affection of Isabelle.

Press called out to two of his buddies- the LETT brothers, A. J. and Ira Nels. (Nels seemed to find trouble- or it found him, depending on who told the story.) He was jailed in Kansas at least twice between 1915 and 1920. Once for assault and once for bigamy. From what I can tell, he went to prison in Oklahoma on a charge of disposing of mortgaged property. Nels claimed the bigamy charge was bogus. I’m not sure what happened with all the charges. Both brothers ended up in Oklahoma.) The three of them- Press, and AJ and Nels LETT- started for the STEWART residence in Dearing, Kansas. About 8:00, a half block from the STEWART home, the three saw Willie PETTY in his horse-drawn buggy sitting in front of the STEWART home talking to Isabelle, Andrew “AJ” MEDFORD (Isabelle’s former brother-in-law), Laura (Isabelle’s mom), Charles SMOLEY (brother-in-law of Willie’s sister Nora), and some others. Willie was driving the buggy. Beside Willie sat AJ MEDFORD and Isabelle was getting ready to get into the wagon. Press told the LETT boys to go on- that he could take care of Willie by himself. Some say Press threw a rock at the wagon before he attacked. Then Press drew a knife and headed for the buggy, cursing all the way. He climbed onto the rear axle of the buggy, reached over the top, and seized Willie by the collar trying to pull him out. As he slashed and stabbed at Willie with the knife, the horses got spooked and began running making the wagon begin wobbling side to side. The knife was described as “big” and “open”.

Some reports say it was at this point Willie pulled his revolver. Willie struggled with AJ (who was trying to stop Willie) and a shot fired that went through AJ’s hand and into Isabelle’s stomach. Then Willie turned partly around and struck Press on the back of the head cutting a gash in Press’s head. Then Willie fired a second shot sending a bullet into Press’s head just behind his left ear and killing him instantly. Other reports say Willie pulled his revolver and shot Press in the head just behind his left ear in a downward trajectory, killing him instantly and then turned and shot again hitting AJ and Isabelle. Either way, the end result was the same. Press rolled from the buggy to the roadside and there he lay for hours while County Attorney Charles D. ISE and Sheriff Robert W. LEWIS and other deputies arrived to investigate. (If you’re interested in learning more about Sheriff LEWIS, there is a nice biography here.)

According to the papers, after the investigation Press’s knife was found lying between his feet and a partially empty quart bottle of whiskey fell from his pocket. Press’s body, when it was finally moved from the road, was taken to Oklie O. CRANE’s store for “undertaking and further investigation”. Dr. Harry L. ALDRICH- the Coroner from Caney, KS- arranged an inquest that was held on the morning of 25 March 1914 at O. O. CRANE’s store in Dearing, KS. Willie and AJ were arrested through the night/early morning hours before the inquest. County Attorney ISE was waiting on the outcome of this inquest before he arraigned Willie or AJ or determined what, if any, charges would be made against them. Deputy County Attorney Joseph W. HOLDREN attended the inquest, among others. No new developments came about as a result of the inquest. The inquest jury’s verdict was that Preston SEELY had died of a gunshot wound inflicted by William PETTY. They did not (or would not?) determine whether there was murderous intent in the shooting. The inquest jury found that a bullet entered Press’s skull about an inch over the ear and ranging downward. A gash was found just above the bullet wound of a nature that officers believe Press received a blow with the butt of a revolver. (If you’d like to know more about Dr. ALDRICH, there is a short biography about midway down the page here.)

Just for reference, a Coroner’s Inquest is an inquiry into the manner and cause of death and is conducted by the Coroner (Dr. ALDRICH) or Deputy Coroner and includes a court reporter (in this case, Bessie KENIADY [probably ‘KENNEDY’ misspelled]- ISE’s stenographer) and six jurors present. The jurors are citizens of the county in which the death took place. This type of inquiry may or may not require an autopsy.

Press was 21 years old. He was the son of a Dearing blacksmith. The SEELY family had lived in Dearing for the previous 7 years. The newspaper reporters called it “murder”, yet they defended Willie, vilified Press, and insulted the SEELY family. They described the SEELY’s as “a good family” yet made numerous statements that seem contrary to that. The reporters initially stated the SEELY family had notified the county attorney the morning after the murder that they would not have anything to do with Press’s body and the county could deal with it themselves and pay for everything. Starting a couple of days later they printed statements that the SEELY family “demanded” an investigation (an action which Dearing residents supported). Yet, they continued to make the SEELY’s sound pushy and belligerent. Through the month of April, reporters printed statements that the SEELY family “demanded” a trial for a murder charge and that they were not satisfied with the police’s determination that the murder was an act of self-defense.

One more article appeared in The Coffeyville Daily Journal on 28 March 1914. It was a sad afternote. Elmer SEELY- Press’s brother who lived in Blackwell, Oklahoma at the time- arrived in Dearing on Thursday evening. He was one day too late for Press’s funeral which was held on Wednesday afternoon.

Photo posted by “Will” at

Oh- the remnant of that “consignment of whiskey”? Did you wonder what happened to it? Never fear. It was snagged up by County Attorney ISE. Evidence, you know.

This concludes Press’s testimony. Without the actual court case file, I can’t tell you any more than this. Remember yesterday’s preview of Press’s early life and then compare and contrast to these new details. You may begin deliberating amongst yourselves and forming your initial opinions regarding guilt or innocence. Tomorrow we’ll be hearing from Isabelle STEWART. Rest up, jurors. You’ll need fresh ears and eyes for Isabelle’s testimony.

Until tomorrow,
Lisa @ Days of Our Lives

Resource list:
The Coffeyville Daily Journal
5 July 1906; 15 November 1907; 30 October 1908; 7 November 1908; 29 April 1910; 4 November 1910; 9 November 1910; 9 December 1910; 28 December 1910; 15 November 1911; 10 January 1912; 17 January 1912; 3 February 1912; 7 February 1912; 30 March 1912; 26 March 1914; 28 March 1914; 5 June 1915; 12 June 1915; 15 September 1915; 9 February 1916; 17 February 1916; 23 February 1916; 13 May 1916; 12 February 1917; 27 February 1919; 31 March 1919; 21 April 1919; 3 July 1919; 23 December 1920

The Coffeyville Weekly Journal
22 July 1910; 4 November 1910; 18 November 1910; 9 November 1910; 17 March 1911; 24 March 1911; 29 September 1911; 15 November 1911; 17 November 1911; 24 November 1911; 8 December 1911; 15 December 1911

The Arkansas City Daily Traveler
29 May 1920

The Evening Star
26 March 1914; 27 March 1914; 28 March 1914; 31 March 1914; 1 April 1914; 13 April 1914; 15 April 1914; 13 February 1915

The Daily Republican
17 November 1911; 17 November 1913; 26 March 1914; 10 January 1916

The Hutchinson News
26 March 1914

The Parsons Daily Sun
24 June 1905; 26 March 1914

The Oxford Register
2 April 1914

The Alma Enterprise
3 April 1914

The Leavenworth Post
26 March 1914

The Chanute Daily Tribune
26 March 1914

The Wichita Daily Eagle
27 March 1914

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