9 year old boy lying down with an African lioness in a circus cage.

Paul Kelly, Part One

Greint Report for May 21.  Paul Kelly

I began writing to Paul Kelly about 7 years ago.  He had occasional columns in Circus Report, a trade magazine of the industry.  He wrote of his and his family’s experiences, and always ended with a request for letters.  So I began corresponding with a man who had murdered two other men. We traded letters and emails up until this April.  I won’t be writing him again.

Paul entered the California prison system in 1979, pleading guilty to both crimes.  His sentences, 25 to life and 15 to life made him eligible for parole after 16 years, but 40 years later he was still inside.

Paul came from circus royalty, his grandfather was Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown known as “Weary Willie”, and his father Emmett Kelly Jr., who also donned tramp make-up. Emmett Jr.  loaned his name and act to various producers who would put on the “Emmett Kelly Jr. Circus”, sometimes on stage, sometimes in a tent, and twice on the grounds of the Nixon White House. He also marketed a remarkably popular series of ceramic figurines of Weary Willie.  Paul grew up in Peru, Indiana, one of the towns that was winter quarters and home to many circuses over the years. Lion Trainer Clyde Beatty was his Uncle, and as a child he took a turn working some of his lions.

And he learned the trapeze, an act his grandparents had before Emmett went into clowning.

Shortly after this, when he was 10, the bottom of one of his legs was cut off in a “railroad accident.”  He wouldn’t talk about it beyond saying just that.  He said his father, on the road, did not come to see him. 

Paul got an artificial leg and developed a ventriloquist act, and although his mother banned him from working with cats again, he continued to work trapeze and had a good solo trap act. My father and I saw him as part of the Emmett Kelly Jr. Circus when it played the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.  You don’t forget seeing a trapeze act done by a man with an artificial leg.

Not long after that, in California, he committed his murders, a few weeks apart.  In both cases, the victims were men whom he met at a gay bar, had sex with, and then beat to death with a hammer.  Paul wrote me that he committed these crimes because he was using drugs, but in another letter he said that while he worked for his father and tried to have a good relationship with him, Emmett Jr. could never accept Paul’s homosexuality. It doesn’t take Freud to think that the root of his crimes was a mix of shame, anger and guilt at being gay.  1979 was a different time.

I learned a fair amount about prison life from him.  California prisons, at least the ones for serious offenders, are dominated by three race-based gangs- White, Brown and Black.  To join a gang you have to prove you are tough and will follow orders. In practice, that means you have to beat someone up.  If you are in a gang, you have protection- even if you are attacked, your gang will avenge you.  If you are outside of a gang, then you are the logical target of someone wanting to join one. For self-preservation, Paul joined the white gang.  When his first parole hearing came up, part of the evidence against him being released included his membership in the white supremacist organization.  So there he was, caught in a Kafkaesque world. Eventually he renounced his membership, which meant he would be killed, so he was placed in a special wing of Corcoran State Prison where former gang members, informants, criminals who had been police and child sex offenders and others likely to be killed were isolated from the general population.

Prisoners were allowed some personal posessions- small televisions, radios, and for a while, a limited version of iPads that were locked down to a special email system. A company called JPay provided a way for people to put money in the prisoner’s canteen account, and also provided a way for inmates to purchase some of the bigger ticket items such as the iPads and, for parole hearings, a new set of civilian clothes.

Being in the protective unit meant Paul didn’t have to fear gangs, except for a couple of months of an idiotic experiment to let protected and general populations mingle during exercise periods. He was terrified in those times, but after a couple of killings the policy was reversed. But even then he wasn’t safe.  The prisoners in his unit lived with their “Cellies” in Pods, which were groups of 8 beds in a largish room. During exercise periods, the doors were left open so people could come and go.  One time Paul wasn’t feeling well, so stayed in bed to nap.  Another inmate came in, looking to steal something. The iPads and televisions were engraved with the prisoner’s number (C-21335), but the peripherals- ear buds, etc. could be stolen and traded. The thief either didn’t see Paul sleeping or thought he could get in and out without waking him up, but Paul awakened.  He had taken his leg off for the nap, and so was largely helpless when the man attacked him, and beat him hard enough that he got a brain bleed.

The Bakersfield police came to the prison to investigate the crime, something I thought ironic, and the thief was caught.  They considered bringing him to trial, but the warden just revoked all his “time off for good behavior” which effectively punished him without the time and ritual of a trial.  Paul did recover. He continued his attendance at Narcotics anonymous meetings, tried to reconnect to his Catholic childhood by attending mass, and eventually was awarded a “gold vest.”  The gold vest is given to inmates who assist inmates who are old or crippled. In his case, he could push people around in their wheelchair.  The gold vest allowed him more liberty to move around the prison, and he was proud and happy of that.

I’ll close this first half with a photo from the Nixon Library. That is Trisha Nixon holding the baby chimp inside the Executive Mansion.

October 31, 1972. Scenes of the Halloween Party, with Tricia Nixon Cox as the hostess. Negative Lab Pro v2.2.0 | Color Model: Frontier | Pre-Sat: 3 | Tone Profile: Linear + Gamma | WB: None | LUT: Crystal

End of Part One

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