For those who have doubts about the fairness of the American justice system, the murder trial of Phil Kennamer in 1935 may provide a bit of assurance that sometimes, no matter who the defendant knows, justice can be served (that is if you do not mind a manslaughter conviction where murder may be appropriate).
Kennamer was the pampered son of a prominent federal judge from Tulsa, Okla., who was convicted of killing a friend, John Gorrell, shortly after Thanksgiving Day 1934 despite having a high-powered former state attorney general leading his defense and some of the country’s preeminent psychiatrists of the day testifying that he was insane at the time he shot Gorrell twice in the head.
Kennamer’s unusual dual defense of temporary insanity and self-defense failed to completely sway the jury of 12 of Oklahoma’s common folk who discarded the circumstantial evidence of murder in favor of a manslaughter charge. The judge still came down hard on Kennamer, sentencing him to 25 years in prison. After the state appellate court denied Kennamer’s appeal his supporters pleaded for a commutation from the governor, but those fell on deaf ears and the wavy-haired erudite society boy with heavy eyelids and over-sized ears ended up serving a good part of his sentence before being given a chance to redeem himself (but we’ll get to that later).
Gorrell’s murder shined a light on an exclusive “club” within Tulsa’s well-heeled: The children of what we now call nouveau riche made wealthy by the nation’s ever-increasing hunger for oil. The Hy Hat Club, as the brats dubbed themselves, was a group of swells and younger post-debs who seemed to have it all and wanted more. By 21st century standards most of what the Hy Hatters did was tame, but for the early 1930s it was beyond scandalous.
Consider the club’s informal initiation ritual: Drink 10 glasses of beer, hop into a car, and drive around a corner at 60 mph. Once accepted, the Hy Hatter was invited to drink heavily, drive fast, and, according to a contemporary newspaper account, smoke “the stupefying marihuana weed and other things yet more sinister.”
One anonymous Hy Hatter explained the youthful ennui this way to an International News Service reporter:
The whole trouble in Tulsa society is this: Forty years ago these millionaires did not have a dime. They were workers in the oil fields and their wives were just ordinary girls — some of them waitresses and the like. Then comes the golden flood of oil and gold. They had millions all of a sudden. They showered money, money, money on their children. Too many expensive automobiles, too much time to do nothing.
In all fairness to the alarmist reporter, some of the Hy Hatters were involved in things more sinister (which also will be revealed later). The Register will defer to you about whether smoking the “stupefying marihuana weed” is sinister, but we can all stipulate that drinking and driving is perhaps not sinister, but is stupid and unacceptable behavior in any decade or among any group.
Young Kennamer was one of the more wild Hy Hatters and good friend of the group’s leader, Sidney Bora, who was described as “President of the Oil Town’s ‘Flaming Youth’ Organization.” Sidney would come to a tragic end of his own, but (you guessed it) we’ll get to that later.
Prior to coming to the attention of the Tulsa police for his involvement in Gorrell’s death, Kennamer wrecked three cars, emerging unscathed from two and with a gash to his forehead from the last, which he displayed with the pride of a German military school student sporting dueling scars. He had been trouble from the get-go, according to his family. The Oklahoma Court of Appeals summarized Kennamer’s resume thusly:
Judge Kennamer, father of the defendant, testified at length as to the conduct, actions, and declarations of his son Phil from the time of his birth up to the night of the tragedy. He stated that he had sent him to the New Mexico Military School in 1930; that he ran away from there the following spring; that in 1931 he sent him to the Southeastern Normal School, at Durant; the next year went to San Angelo, Tex.; that he disappeared from San Angelo; later he was located at New Orleans; that when he returned to Tulsa he entered high school, later quit high school, attended Cascia Hall three or four months; that he had a very emotional disposition and at times he was very unreasonable in his conversations and actions; that he had told him seriously that he wanted to join a revolution in some foreign country. He talked of joining the French Foreign Legion, saying it would be a good way to banish himself from decent society; that he secured various positions for his son, when he started out to make a living for himself, and he would work a few weeks and quit…
Kennamer, Gorrell, and probably Bora, were at the center of the things more sinister performed by the Hy Hatters, who, bored with drinking, getting high, and driving fast, began to turn to crime. At first the offenses were petty, like stealing and selling dope, but eventually the little imps began to tire of those. Most Hy Hatters were somewhere in that hazy area between high school and college and although they were children of privilege, pocket money was still hard to come by thanks to a mania for high-stakes gambling. The inner circle wanted money and they wanted to get it fast and as easily as possible — preferably without any outside work or heavy lifting. Their first thought was extortion. The Hy Hatters tried to get other rich but not-too-bright youths into compromising situations usually involving sex and then taking incriminating Kodaks, but while smoking pot and drinking bathtub gin was all right in Tulsa, old-time sexual mores still held sway in the flat lands of Oklahoma and there weren’t enough loose girls or boys to make that scheme profitable. Something else would have to be done.
The ’30s was the decade of the outlaw, and one of the more popular crimes for gangsters was kidnapping. Two high-profile snatches had been made right around the time things began to go bad for the Hy Hatters. The Barker-Karpis gang held Edward Bremer, son of a wealthy Minnesota Banker and brewery magnate, hostage until his family came up with $200,000 ransom, while closer to home, Machine Gun Kelly kidnapped oil wildcatter Charles Urschel from his home in Oklahoma City. Kelly’s crime ended up with him being captured and sent to Alcatraz, but for a while, it looked as if Creepy Karpis and Ma Barker had gotten away with theirs.
Allegedly Gorrell came up with the idea to kidnap one of Tulsa’s debutantes while he was in college in Kansas City. Unfortunately, the target he chose was the pretty young woman that Kennamer was infatuated with.
Brazen-headed Virginia Wilcox was the 19-year-old daughter of Tulsa oil magnate Homer F. Wilcox. Virginia was one of those women who is easy to hate for all the wrong reasons. She had it put together: Not only was she wealthy, but she was confident, smart and beautiful. Virginia was not part of the Hy Hat crowd but she dated Phil Kennamer four or five times. She would later testify that she did not know John Gorrell at all.
There was no romance between Virginia and Phil Kennamer; in fact she had expressed her dislike for the wild son of the federal judge. At his trial when the defense put forward the notion when Gorrell announced that the target of the kidnapping plot was Virginia Wilcox, something snapped in Phil’s besotted head. He began to see himself as Virginia’s protector who had to slay the man who sought to harm her. The prosecution countered with testimony that Kennamer’s infatuation had turned into a love-hate obsession that eliminated his motive of protection.
“He said that he was very fond of Miss Wilcox and thought a lot of her at one time, and she didn’t care for his attention, that she disliked them and spurned them,” testified Hy Hatter Otto Kramer. “He felt very bitter towards it all, not only to her but to her family, and he expressed himself as going to get even sometime, if it took him to his last days.”
Regardless, when Gorrell put forward his plan, Kennamer was unwilling to let it move forward. Clearly his reticence was not because he was afraid:
“Kennamer said he knew a place … where they sell beer and sandwiches,” one of Gorrell’s friends, Ted Bath, said from the stand. “He knew that on Monday mornings, probably early in the morning, one or two o’clock, there would be a sum of money there, probably three or four hundred dollars, and suggested hat he and I and John should hijack this place and get that money.”
When Bath declined, Kennamer suggested the unsuccessful blackmail scheme.
“He suggested then that he would defray all of my expenses if I would make an effort to ingratiate myself with Virginia Wilcox as to be able to get her into a compromising situation, so that some pictures could be taken of her,” Bath testified. “I said I wouldn’t be interested.”
Kennamer was still unhappy with the kidnapping plan and tried to convince Gorrell to settle for a different form of extortion, which Gorrell apparently accepted — at least for the time being. Kennamer took a page from the crime manual of early 20th century Italian immigrants: the Black Hand scheme.
In a Black Hand scheme a blackmailer alleges to be part of a powerful crime organization and threatens harm to the victim unless money is given to buy off the extortionist. The name comes from the mythical “Black Hand” gang that spread terror among the new Italian immigrants. There was never such an organization and should not be confused with the Mafia, but it did give rise to the term “blackmail.”
Gorrell and Kennamer wrote a note demanding $20,000 from Homer Wilcox or one of his two children would be harmed. Kennamer was supposed to mail the note.
Somewhere along the line Kennamer decided not to go through with the plot. His motivation remains unclear, but according to the defense he was either insane at the time or not insane and attempting to protect the woman he loved.
Kennamer made no secret of his new-found hatred for his former partner-in-crime. He flew to Kansas City where Gorrell was studying dentistry allegedly with the intention of killing him. His initial plot does indicate some unsoundness of mind. Floyd J. Huff, the prosecution’s star witness recounted a conversation he had with Kennamer:
Kennamer asked me if I knew why he came up to Kansas City, I told him I did not and asked him why, and he said, “I came up to kill Gorrell,” I looked at the boy and he said, “You do not believe me.” He told me his intention was to rent an aeroplane, that they were going to take a ride above the clouds and when they got up there he was going to hit Gorrell over the head and he was going to jump out in a parachute I guess, the only way he could have gone if he intended to live.
The plot failed when Kennamer and Gorrell — who was a licensed pilot — failed to rent a plane in Kansas City.
Things came to a head on Thanksgiving night 1934. Most of the Hy Hatters were hanging out at the Owl Tavern in Tulsa where 3.2 beer was legal. Kennamer came in around 9:30 p.m. or so and stupidly boasted to anyone in earshot that he was looking for Gorrell and wanted to kill him. He displayed his weapon of choice, a large hunting knife that was certainly able to do the job. His friends took him at his word and made an effort to stop him. Randall (Beebee) Morton recalled that Kennamer told him “It is eaither Gorrell’s life or my own.”
“I said, ‘Phil, maybe I had better take that knife, I may want to use it going hunting,’ and I just reached over and got it and put it in my overcoat pocket,” Morton testified. “He said, ‘Beebe, are you going to send me out with these bare hands to kill Gorrell.’ I said, ‘Yes, if that is the way you want to go, Phil,’ and he just walked out and left the tavern.”
Later that night Kennamer and Gorrell had it out. They were in Gorrell’s car arguing when Gorrell took out his revolver. Kennamer managed to take it away from him and shot his ex-friend twice in the head, killing him immediately.
Two days later, accompanied by his father the federal judge, Phil Kennamer surrendered to police and was charged with murder. His attorneys immediately pressed for psychiatric tests and some of the era’s great American psychiatrists examined him. In typical fashion the doctors hired by the defense found him insane, while those for the state disagreed.
Noted psychiatrist Dr. Karl Menninger was the lead doctor for Kennamer’s side.
I think he was irrational. I think he did not fully understand the consequences of his own acts. I do not think he was able to distinguish between right and wrong because of his mental illness at the time, and that his mental illness was of such a nature that he was incapable of grasping the ordinarily accepted standards, but rather substitute his own. His egotism is so great and his belief in his own omnipotence, his own greatness and his own perfection seem to me to have been so great that he had rather his own moral code, which to him seemed the proper one rather than that which the rest of society, including ourselves, ordinarily accepts. This mental illness has been classified in the modern books and by the profession generally as psychopathic personality.
Since Kennamer never denied killing Gorrell the defense used the backup strategy that Kennamer shot Gorrell in self defense, fearing for his life.
The brief trial was the talk of Tulsa and exposed the Hy Hat club to the light of day. In the end the jury rejected the self-defense and insanity arguments and found Kennamer guilty of manslaughter, apparently coming to the decision since Gorrell displayed the gun but Kennamer put himself in harm’s way.
The judge lowered the boom on Kennamer, sentencing him to 25 years in prison.
Kennamer disappeared into the prison system until 1938 when he was granted a six-month parole to spend time with his dying mother. Tongues wagged that the special treatment was the result of Kennamer’s pedigree, and they were probably right. However, when the appeals court upheld his conviction and the state Supreme Court decided not to take up the case, he was returned to jail.
Six years later Kennamer was given parole with the stipulation that he join the army to fight in World War II. He finally got the opportunity to jump out of airplanes, serving in Europe with the 13th Airborne, 460th Parachute Artillery Battalion. He died in France on Aug. 14, 1944.
As for Bora, the Hy Hat club president, he was found dead in his car shortly after Gorrell was killed (Kennamer was in jail at the time). The coroner ruled the case a suicide, but his family never accepted the decision. The club disbanded after the murder scandal.