Willie Sell

Neosho County, Kansas
Date of Crime:  March 8, 1886

Willie Sell was convicted of murdering his parents, brother, and sister. In the early morning hours of March 8, 1886, 16-year-old Willie banged on the door of a neighbor, Robert Mendell, talking hysterically and incoherently. Mendell did not understand Willie's story, but had caught the words, “blood, murder and hatchet.” Mendell accompanied Willie back to his family's two-room house. On the floor lay the bodies of Willie's father, James W. Sell, a schoolteacher and farmer, and Willie's mother, Susan. In the corner, still in her bed, was Willie's teenage sister, Ina. Their skulls had been beaten with a hatchet and their throats had been cut. The floor was slick with blood. In an adjoining room, where Willie had been sleeping, was the body of Willie's brother, Watta Sell, 19, who was killed in the same manner as the other members of his family.

Evidence indicated Willie's parents had struggled hard with their killer. Ina's fingers had been cut as if she had awakened and warded off the knife that cut her throat. Although there were no telephone or telegraph wires to the isolated farms in the area, word of the murders spread and crowds of people converged on the Sell house. After the Coroner and the County Attorney arrived, an inquest was held that day at the crime scene. Mendell testified that Willie had come to his house fully dressed. Willie was ordered to undress and blood was found on his underwear and on one knee. Blood was found under Willie's fingernails and in the wrinkles of his knuckles. It appeared he had tried to wash his hands. Willie weighed under 90 pounds and would have had a hard time struggling with his parents.

Willie said he awakened that night and saw the figure of a strange man in the doorway. He ran to the main room of the house and stumbled over the body of his father. The floor was covered with blood and Willie knelt on one knee and tried to arouse his father without success. Willie said at this point everything turned black for him, but somehow he put on his outer clothing and ran from the house. Outside Willie said he saw the man he had seen in the doorway join a second man and that the two rode off on horses the second man had been holding.

Witnesses testified Willie had quarreled with his brother Watta over the affections of a girl and that Willie resented his parents' insistence that he work. Money was found in the pocket of the trousers of Willie's father, eliminating robbery as a motive for the crime. The Coroner's jury found that Willie had killed his family. The crowd was incensed against Willie, and in order to prevent a lynching, the Sheriff and the Coroner threatened to shoot anyone who touched Willie when they removed him from the house to jail.

Willie was tried in Erie, Kansas before a regular jury of the same men who tried to lynch him. The prosecution argued that it was unlikely that Willie would have been spared in the massacre, as the killer had to lean across where Willie had been sleeping to strike Watta's head and slash his throat. However, in the darkened room, 90 pound Willie would have been easy to miss buried under a mountain of covers.

In the room where Watta was killed, blood spattered on the wall almost to the ceiling. The defense pointed out that on the pillow where Willie slept, blood plainly outlined the spot where his head had laid. This evidence meant that Willie was lying on the pillow, presumably asleep, at the time of Watta's murder.

The defense also argued that the Sells' butcher knife, which was allegedly used to cut the victims' throats, could not have been the murder weapon. Doctors testified that the butcher knife was dull as a hoe. Thus the actual weapon had to have been taken by an outside intruder.

Eight years after Willie's conviction, Mrs. Sophie M. Boyce, a Kansas City, Kansas woman, learned about Willie's case and with her father, Judge James M. Mason, visited Erie to read the evidence. They came away feeling a grave injustice had been done.

Boyce then dedicated her life to freeing Willie, wrote 600 letters on his behalf, and got up a petition for his pardon. The county attorney who prosecuted Willie signed it as well as several jurors. New evidence also emerged. A gang of horse thieves had been operating near the Sell home. The elder Sell was a member of the Anti-Horse-Thief Association and had ridden with a posse that pursued three thieves. Sell managed to shoot one of the thieves, creating a motive for the massacre.

Men also admitted that after the murders they found horse tracks on the road near the Sell house, right where Willie said they would be. Boyce and her father privately printed 10,000 copies of a book called Voices from the Prison which they distributed to influential people throughout the state.

In April 1907, after Willie served 21 years in prison, Kansas Governor Hoch pardoned him. Four years afterward, Willie, who had worked in a prison dispensary, opened his own drug store and ran it for 39 years. He died in 1960.  [1/09]


References:  Mad Killer of the Prairie, The Innocents

Posted in:  Victims of the State, Kansas Cases, Quadruple Homicide Cases, Favorite Case Stories, Parent Murder Cases