The Mob Boss Who Helped A Senator Rescue A Fashion Designer

“Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows.” —William Shakespeare, The Tempest

In A Nutshell

Nell Donnelly was a successful fashion designer based in Kansas City, Missouri, and the owner of a company that had amassed US$3.5 million by the 1930s. But success brought attention from the wrong crowd. On December 16, 1931, Nell and her chauffeur were kidnapped. A motley crew came to her rescue: Senator James A. Reed, mob boss Johnny Lazia and his gangsters, and a coerced shop owner all helped free Nell, sans ransom.

The Whole Bushel

Nell Donnelly of Kansas City, Missouri was unique among American women in the early 1900s. While most women stayed at home, her husband Paul encouraged her to attend college and receive an education. She did so, and it opened the door to success. She graduated in 1909 from Lindenwood College; by 1919, she had created the extremely successful Donnelly Garment Company, which sold housedresses and aprons.

The Donnelly Garment Company was raking in the cash. By 1931, it had amassed $3.5 million in sales, and employed 1,000 workers. But success had its pitfalls; one night, Nell didn’t come home. She had been kidnapped by three men, on December 16, 1931, for a ransom of $75,000.

Enter family friend James A. Reed, a Democratic US Senator from Missouri. While Paul worked with Kansas City Police, Reed pulled strings outside the law: He enlisted the help of notorious crime boss Johnny Lazia to find and rescue Nell.

Lazia’s gangsters began searching for Nell. They managed to come across her abandoned car, inside which they found a rope covered with red paint. Remembering a gas station that had recently been painted, the mobsters found and threatened the owner (with loss of life) into telling them the customer to whom he sold the rope. The gas station owner directed the mobsters to the kidnappers’ headquarters, but by the time they arrived, only one man remained—the others had fled, fearing Lazia’s wrath. Lazia’s mobsters let the kidnapper go, and freed Nell and her chauffeur.

The catch? Nell was having an affair with Reed—which is why he was willing to associate with Lazia to rescue her. Just one year later, Nell divorced Paul and married Reed. By 1953, the Donnelly Garment Company was the largest dress manufacturer in the world, having expanded beyond aprons and housedresses. But in 1956, Nell left the company, and it would eventually file for bankruptcy in 1978. Nell died in 1991 at age 102.

Show Me The Proof

Travel Channel: The Gangsters will Find Her
John Lazia
Photo credit: The State Historical Society of Missouri