A/CHIEF HARRY J. KELLY (04/28/1939 - 07/18/1939)
SDPD 12/20/1915 - 1943
03/26/1891 - 02/04/1955
By Katherine Hon

Harry J. Kelly, the second son of an Irish blacksmith, was born in Piqua, Ohio, in 1891 and came to California at the age of 19.  His first job in San Diego was as a warehouseman for Cook-Haddock Co. - a wholesale grocer.  He joined the SDPD on December 20, 1915, and served as patrolman, detective, Chief of Detectives, and Acting Chief of Police in his nearly 30-year police department career.

Twenty-four-year-old Harry Kelly made his first arrest just after midnight on Christmas Eve, 1915. He collared P. Finnegan, an Irish laborer, for disturbing the peace.

Nearly 20 years later, Harry recalled his first arrest in a March 1934 San Diego Union profile: “While on his beat he found a big Irishman choking a Jew.   ‘Well, it wasn’t a joke, either,’ he explained, ‘because I had to take my countryman to the station.’” 

In the late nights and early mornings of 1916, Harry arrested waiters, cooks, and laborers for vagrancy and being drunk. 

One May evening he arrested a chauffeur for reckless driving. He teamed with George Sears, who later served as Chief of Police from September 1934 to April 1939, to arrest two men for battery. He teamed with others to make arrests for highway robbery and manslaughter.

In October 1917, Harry Kelly and George Sears, along with four others, were promoted to Investigators.   Harry took a leave of absence from July to November 1917 to serve in World War I.

A year later, on June 3, 1918, he married Julia Helen Wicarius at Our Lady of Angels Church.  In 1922, Harry was promoted to Detective Sergeant, and in 1929 he became a Lieutenant. 

In 1932, Harry was promoted to Chief of Detectives, and he led the bureau for 11 years.  The detective division was described in a 1938 San Diego Union article as including, “its extensive bureau of identification with records that reach out into the whole field of crime, while every major type of crime is covered by specialized details or departments of the division.”

One of Harry’s most horrific cases occurred in 1933, when elderly Mrs. Laura Straw was murdered and her dismembered body was found in two burlap sacks floating in the bay. 

The San Diego Union reported the story on October 16 with an inset article about how the newsboys’ cries of “Extra! Extra! Extra!” stopped Harry, who was on vacation at the time and in town only an hour to prepare for another week-long trip.  He bought a copy of the Sunday paper, saw the headlines, and an hour later was “at central police headquarters, directing the hunt for the fiendish slayer of Mrs. Laura Ella Straw. His vacation was over!”

Two years later, on May 24, 1935, the murderer was interviewed at Folsom Prison on the eve of his hanging.  In an eerie parallel to Harry’s Sunday alert to the crime, the murderer related that it was the newsboys yelling extras about the finding of the body that signaled him to make his (temporary) escape.

Harry always kept his sense of humor. In his 1934 profile, he told the reporter that a few years ago he decided to make a livestock venture and purchased 200 chickens.  “Those fowls wore me out,” he said.  “It was more work caring for them than it was doing my job at headquarters. The family began eating them and that finished my chicken venture.”   He admitted he was still fond of chicken, however.

Harry’s nearly 30 years on the police force spanned considerable local political turmoil.  When George Sears retired under pressure from the mayor in April 1939, Harry, next in rank below Sears, was named Acting Chief of Police, and served until July 18, 1939. 

Though his tenure was brief, Harry was the chief for the key move of the department into its new headquarters on Market Street. A May 7 San Diego Union article stated, “Over the negative vote of Mayor P.J. Benbough, city council yesterday accepted Market St. police headquarters and flashed the green ‘go’ light for Harry J. Kelly, acting chief, to begin moving the department into the $390,000 building tomorrow.”

When appointment of a new chief was imminent, rumors of a police department purge flew. In a “local politics” column, Richard Pourade wrote: “Certain not to be purged is Capt. Harry J. Kelly, chief of detectives, who is acting chief of police. He has lots of friends, his honesty has never been questioned, and there is no officer in the detective bureau rated capable of taking over his job. And, if Captain Kelly is left in the chief’s job on a temporary basis long enough, there might not be any cleaning up left for his successor. Captain Kelly has been accomplishing very quietly many of the objectives of the new city administration. And he has come in for much unofficial praise from Navy officials on the way he handled the city on the return of the fleet. Among the jobs he has accomplished, without publicity or excitement, are: Chasing bookmakers out of sight; clearing the streets of hawkers for card games and bookies; putting the clamps on Herman Hetzel’s Gold Club; running ‘Doc’ Deel, Johnny Deel’s little brother, out of the card game racket, and curbing the over-zealous beer squad.”

In July 1939, John T. Peterson was coaxed out of retirement by the City Manager to serve as chief, and Harry returned to his Chief of Detectives position. When Harry retired in 1943, the bureau appointing his second-in-charge M. E. Donnelly to captain of detectives.

Harry and his wife Julia left the unassuming North Park bungalow that had been their home for over 20 years around 1945. They settled in Berkeley, where he worked as a security guard. He died of cancer on February 4, 1955 in the Veterans Hospital in Alameda, and was buried with Julia’s sisters, brother, and mother at Holy Cross Cemetery in San Diego.
* Katherine Hon is a local San Diego author and the owner of Hon Consulting Inc.  Ms. Hon played a crucial part in the ten year battle to save the Old Police Headquarters from demolition.  Today she and her husband reside in North Park in the former home of Chief Kelly.  To purchase her novel, click on the banner link.
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