Under Penalty of Death

Book cover of Under Penalty of Death, published by Indiana University Press

Kevin Meredith, February 9, 2023

The first time I read Howard Woolverton’s secret FBI account of his kidnapping, I laughed. 

The second time I read the statement, I started worrying. So, I called David Hendry, Jr., Woolverton’s grandson, who had been keeping the statement in a safe deposit box for decades, waiting for someone to write about it. 

“Dave,” I began somberly, “are you sure your grandfather was kidnapped?” 

“What?” was his shocked reply. 

The statement didn’t make sense, I explained. Things were missing. Details didn’t add up. Other passages hinted at much bigger things. But Hendry insisted the kidnapping had to be real, and he convinced me to keep at it. So in early 2019, I began researching. At the start, all I had to go on was Hendry’s certainty and Woolverton’s statement, the peculiar account of everything the man claimed he could remember about being waylaid by gangsters in South Bend, Indiana, in late January 1932. The typewritten document ran five-and-a-half pages long and bore the date of 1934, two years after the kidnapping. 

I bought a six-month subscription to newspapers.com in the hopes I’d turn up a story or two that corroborated the things Woolverton had told the FBI. I started by searching “woolverton” for January 27, 1932, the day after he was allegedly snatched. 

Oh yes, Howard Woolverton got kidnapped. 

The newspapers.com database for that date turned up 242 stories from newspapers across America trumpeting the Woolverton abduction. Twenty-one papers in Indiana reported the crime, as well as a dozen papers each in Illinois and Ohio. “Rich Man Held for $50,000,” shouted the top of the Chicago Tribune’s front page. The New York Times ran the story on page 2. 

A $10,000 reward fund was announced. Police in Indiana, Illinois and Michigan mobilized to a near-war footing in their search for Woolverton and his abductors. In Washington, D.C., deliberations resumed on a federal anti-kidnapping law. 

And the stories continued in earnest for much of that year, thousands of them, Woolverton this, South Bend that. 

The press called the crime brazen, a singularity, the worst example so far of the depravity of the growing kidnapping industry. An innocent businessman driving home with his wife had been snatched, his ransom set at an impossible $50,000 in cash, his death promised if his wife talked or didn’t pay up. 

But around 11 p.m. January 27, 1932 – twenty-four hours after he was grabbed, and despite Florence Woolverton’s decision to go to the police and press – Woolverton returned home unharmed, hopped up his front porch, went inside and shut the door. 

So, I had my story. The kidnapping happened, and it was a big, dramatic deal. But as I kept digging, the story got a lot more complicated, and a lot more strange. 

The kidnappers told Woolverton not to talk, and he agreed, to protect his wife and 12-year-old daughter. And he had good friends in high places to help him engineer the coverup. 

Despite press protestations that turned into a near-riot on the Woolverton’s front porch the night of his return, and local officials who tried to investigate, the coverup held – for 90 years. 

So, who kidnapped Howard Woolverton? That’s another twist in the tale, and quite possibly why there was a second coverup of the kidnapping, this time by the FBI, which helped sweep a history-making crime under the rug for almost a century. 

In his statement, Woolverton mentioned a coughing kidnapper who claimed to have been gassed in World War I. No such person was identified when Hoover talked about the crime (which he did often, but without mentioning Woolverton’s name). Instead, Hoover blamed George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Kelly’s wife Kathryn Kelly, and Eddie Doll as the only perpetrators, all successfully prosecuted by the FBI for other crimes. But none of them were injured WWI veterans. Two of the Kelly’s criminal friends were, however, and that’s where things got awkward for Hoover. Both were involved in a bloody FBI screwup at a train station in Kansas City, something Hoover probably didn’t want to talk about. 

Not only did Woolverton’s kidnapping happen, it seems to have played a central role in a new era of kidnapping coverage by the media, as well as the passage of the Federal Kidnapping Law, which shut down the growing kidnapping industry for good. 

Under Penalty of Death began as something of a personal project for Dave Hendry, who wanted a professional writer to put together the story of his grandfather’s kidnapping, and hoped to raise a little money for the Weber State University ski team through sales of the book (Hendry skied for the Ogden, Utah, school in the 1960s). 

But as I researched and wrote the book over the next three years, I realized we had something much bigger on our hands.