ST. LOUIS • In April 1931, headlines chronicled the kidnapping of Dr. Isaac Kelley Jr., a prominent surgeon. He had driven from his home at 32 Portland Place after getting a mysterious call to help a sick child in Clayton. His car was found in Jennings.
John T. Rogers followed the story for the Post-Dispatch. On the night of April 27, Rogers was at the home of William D. Orthwein II, Kelley's brother-in-law, who received several strange calls from an unidentified voice.
When Rogers got home about 1:30 a.m., his wife said someone had been calling for him, too. Their phone rang again.
"Have you got your clothes on?" a man asked. "A friend of yours wants to see you." The man told Rogers to drive to North Grand Boulevard and Finney Avenue, park and blink his headlights.
Rogers drove there and waited. "Don't get nervous," said a man who got into the car and told Rogers to drive north, then downtown. "Is this going to lead anywhere?" Rogers asked. "Yes," said the man, who held two pistols, but never on Rogers.
He told Rogers to drive across the Mississippi River to East St. Louis, then north on a dark road past an abandoned service station. The man told him to turn around, and two cars suddenly followed. They stopped at the station.
"Here's your friend," the man said. "Who?" asked Rogers.
"Dr. Kelley," said the man.
Rogers helped the blindfolded Kelley into his car, then did something right out of old movies about newspapers: They drove to Rogers' house in midtown St. Louis, where Rogers and other reporters interviewed Kelley for 2 1/2 hours before the doctor went home to his family.
Under a screaming headline, "Dr. Kelley Released to Post-Dispatch Man," the scoop ran almost four pages on April 28, 1931. Rogers contributed a first-person account of his part in the caper. Competing reporters couldn't interview Kelley until that afternoon. (His family said no ransom was paid, but others said it was.)
The kidnapping remained unsolved until 1934, when another Rogers scoop led prosecutors to charge Nellie Muench, a party girl married to a doctor. They alleged that Muench cooked up the kidnapping with some hoodlum drinking buddies to cover her entertainment debts.
On January 25, 1935, Kelley was in court and identified Felix MacDonald, one such drinking buddy, as a kidnapper.
The case became crazier when Muench faked a pregnancy and obtained a newborn from an unwed mother to gain sympathy during her trial. She was acquitted of kidnapping, but gave a parting exclusive to Rogers in December 1936 before she went to prison for the baby hoax.
Four months later, Rogers died at a dinner party at age 55. He had won a Pulitzer Prize in 1927 for stories about a corrupt judge.