The Innocents (1964)
by Edward D. Radin

Excerpt from Chapter 5 on

Willie Sell

The Lizzie Borden case is probably one of the best known in this country. Although she was acquitted by a jury, people preferred the legend that she had axed to death her father and stepmother. Yet there was another case in that general period even more horrifying than the Borden murders, in which Willie Sell, sixteen, was charged with hacking to death his father, mother, sister, and brother, but this case is virtually unknown. Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the public's cry for blood was answered; Willie Sell was convicted. Perhaps the public also would like to forget that Willie Sell served twenty-one years for the murders he did not commit.

It was shortly before midnight on Sunday, March 7, 1886, when Willie pounded on the door of a neighboring farm, five miles from the town of Erie, Kansas, and asked for help. He said he had awakened suddenly; the lamp was lit in the adjacent room occupied by his parents, and a stranger was standing in the doorway. He leaped out of bed and the intruder ran out of the house. In the next room he found his father and mother dead on the floor. His sister also was dead in her bed.

A group of neighbors returned with the boy and found one more victim, the brother, who had been sleeping in the same large double bed with Willie. Asked why he had not mentioned his brother, the boy replied that he had forgotten he was home; the brother had returned from college for a one-day visit and was to return to school the next morning.

Because Willie had been asleep in the same bed, he immediately became the prime suspect. It was known that Sell had over $1,000 cash in the house. This money was missing. The parents' room showed signs of a severe struggle; both Mr. and Mrs. Sell were tall and sturdy, while Willie weighed only ninety-five pounds.

The public outcry against the boy was so strong that he was removed to the jail at Fort Scott to prevent a lynching. The trial held in August was a mere formality; everybody knew Willie was guilty, and he was quickly convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Some eight years after Willie was imprisoned, a Mrs. Sophie M. Boyce became interested in the case. She was the daughter of Judge James M. Mason of Kansas City, Kansas. She and her father went to Erie, where the trial had been held, and read the minutes. They became convinced that there had been no evidence against the boy at all and that there had been no attempt at an investigation.

Mrs. Boyce sought out the men who had first entered the house and learned they had detected a strong odor of chloroform. The only druggist in Erie told her that on the night of the murders two strangers on horseback came to his store and purchased chloroform, which he put up for them in an unusually shaped bottle with a crooked neck. They rode off in the direction of the Sell farm. After the trial the druggist had bought the farm and found this same bottle empty in the Sell yard.

Willie had said on the night of the murders that when the stranger ran outside there was another man there holding two horses. The two men had mounted quickly and galloped away. Mrs. Boyce located three farmers who said they had searched the yard after hearing Willie's story and had found the fresh tracks of two horses just where the boy said the men had been. None of these witnesses was called at the trial.

For thirteen years Mrs. Boyce carried on her campaign to clear Willie Sell, appearing before every pardon board and every governor. One board did recommend his release, but the governor refused to approve it when the residents of Erie protested. In 1907 she finally succeeded in interesting Governor E. W. Hoch, who conducted a thorough inquiry. After studying the information the governor said he believed certain persons had been more interested in the scramble to get part of the Sell estate than they had been in finding out who murdered the family or in giving Willie Sell a fair trial. The court had refused to appoint any person named by the boy as guardian, and at the end of the trial the estate was so depleted that there had been no funds left to finance an appeal. Convinced that Sell was innocent, the governor granted a pardon. Hue and cry died hard in Erie; upon news that Sell had been released, effigies of both Willie and Governor Hoch were burned on the main street.