Alex Goldenson and Mamie Kelly (Courtesy photo)

Alex Goldenson and Mamie Kelly (Courtesy photo)

The Death of Mamie Kelly

There is no doubt that 18-year-old Aleck Goldenson shot Mamie Kelly. Was it a “criminal lust for blood,” a passion coming from a Romeo-and-Juliet-type scenario or hereditary insanity? One hundred and thirty years later, we still don’t know for sure …

At 3 p.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 10, 1886, as 14-year-old Mamie Kelly walked home from school with two friends, her next door neighbor, Aleck Goldenson, beckoned to her from across the street. Mamie told her friends she would be right back and went over to Goldenson. After a brief conversation, Goldenson drew a pistol. He said, “Damn you, take that!” and shot Mamie in the face point-blank, killing her instantly. A delivery man saw the shooting and chased Goldenson, who ran into a police station and confessed.

“I’ve shot my girl,” he said, “I’ve done it. Lock me up at once; lock me up — they want to lynch me.”

Incensed by the murder of an innocent schoolgirl, angry crowds started to gather. In response, Police Chief Patrick Crowley moved Goldenson to the more secure central prison.

Goldenson claimed he and Mamie had been involved in a clandestine relationship, that her grandmother had forbidden her to see him, but that she had continued to stalk him even after he tried to break up the affair. He had been drinking heavily when he ran into Mamie and they got into an argument. Goldlenson said he shot Mamie after, “She called me a dirty Jew.”

Goldenson gave police a letter that, he claimed, Mamie had written him. In the letter, Mamie proclaims her love for Goldenson: “Please come back to your own Mamie Kelly once more.”

While angry crowds gathered at the murder scene, two letters were found on Mamie’s body. The first was a job application letter from Mamie for a position as a sales lady. The second was a letter from Goldenson to Mamie. Within a few hours, his letter mysteriously disappeared.

In those Victorian times, Goldenson’s statement to police hit like a bombshell. Murder was bad enough, but defiling the reputation of a young girl was beyond forgivable. People rushed to defend the dead girl.

Maggie Sweeney, Mamie’s teacher, declared that the letter Goldenson gave police was a forgery. She produced Mamie’s writing samples from school to show the difference. Goldenson’s handwriting seemed to match the letter. Sweeney also declared that the job application Mamie wrote was a writing exercise from school. Mamie’s schoolmates and neighbors attested to her good character and all said they never heard her mention Goldenson.

As part of his autopsy report the coroner said, “The charges made by Goldenson against the virtue of his poor victim were ascertained to have emanated from his filthy brain.”

Because Goldenson — described by the Chronicle as a “man with marked Hebrew features” — was Jewish, and because the area was mostly working-class Irish Catholics, passions were especially high.

Mobs led by men with nooses tried to storm the jail where Goldenson was kept. It took many hours and more than 100 police using their nightsticks to finally disperse the crowd.

“It was the greatest clubbing exhibition the police force ever gave” reported the San Francisco Call. “Eighty-nine heads were patched up in the hospital that night.”

A rumor that the Jewish community was raising money for Goldenson’s defense prompted this response from a group of prominent Jews: “The Hebrews of San Francisco will, if it is necessary, contribute $100,000 to prosecute Goldenson but not a dollar for his defense.”

The defense claimed Goldenson was insane. At the trial, he was shown to be a volatile alcoholic who insulted women in the street and attacked old men and smaller boys without provocation. Goldenson’s mother testified that he had started acting strange after an attack of scarlet fever and was subject to fits. She also said that his grandfather in Russian Poland had been declared insane for 24 years.

Rebuttal witnesses for the prosecution testified Goldenson acted normal, except for periods of drunkenness and troublemaking. The jury convicted Goldenson in less than an hour, and he was sentenced to death. As his execution neared, he changed his story again: He said his relationship with Mamie was romantic but not physical.

Goldenson died with a picture of Mamie in one hand, an American flag in the other and a crucifix around his neck. In his final hours, he converted to Catholicism, making his burial site uncertain. He was denied burial in the Jewish cemetery because of his conversion, and his father refused to have him buried in a Catholic cemetery. He was finally interred in the nondenominational Odd Fellows cemetery.

So which do you think is the real story? Was Goldenson delusional? Was he legally insane? Did Mamie have a schoolgirl crush? Or is there another explanation? Send me your conclusions, and I will publish the results in my next column.

Paul Drexler is a crime historian and director of Crooks Tour of San Francisco. For more information, visit

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