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    By Brian Hunt

    Alice Speed Stoll did not feel well. The 26-year-old wife of oil-company executive Berry Stoll nursed a 103-degree fever in the upstairs bedroom of their two-story brick home on Lime Kiln Lane. 

    The Speeds were old society (including James Speed, Abraham Lincoln’s attorney general), and in 1927 they hired Arthur Loomis to design the Neo-Classical J.B. Speed Art Museum, named after Alice’s grandfather, James Breckenridge Speed. The Stoll family was known throughout Kentucky for its oil refinery and gas stations (slogan: “Giving wings to your car”).

    In early October 1934, homes in the area had been experiencing telephone problems. So it drew no attention when a repairman showed up at the Stolls’ home late in the afternoon on the 10th. 

     “I want to check your phone. Is Mr. Stoll home?” the man asked. 

    “No,” said the maid who answered the door. 

    The man poked around the house, then went upstairs to check the lines. When the maid wasn’t looking, he pulled a .45-caliber automatic pistol and stuck it in her back.

    “Don’t squawk,” he said, according to the FBI’s voluminous case file. “You get into the room where Mrs. Stoll is.”

    When Alice saw the two enter her bedroom, she asked, “What are you doing here?”

    “I am going to kidnap you,” the man said.

    He was no electrician. Thomas Robinson Jr. was a 27-year-old with a criminal history. In 1929 he impersonated a sheriff, entered the homes of two women and stole their jewelry and automobiles. He pleaded insanity and was sent to the Central State Hospital in Tennessee. Doctors diagnosed him with delusions of grandeur: “He knows right from wrong as any normal person would, but he is just one of those types that cannot resist the temptation of doing wrong and committing crimes.”

    Stoll, fearing for her life, tried to reason with Robinson. “Let’s get together and talk this over,” she said. “If it will do you any good, I will write a check out right here and save you any trouble.”

    This upset Robinson. He set his gun on the bed and began to tie her up. When Robinson saw Stoll reach for the gun, he removed an iron pipe from his pocket. He struck her on the head, and blood splattered onto a pink coverlet and pillowcase. 

     Robinson took Stoll to his car. Before leaving, he tossed an envelope onto the bed. “You give this to Berry Stoll,” he said to the maid. It was about 4 p.m. One of the most notorious crimes in Louisville history had just occurred. Newspaper headlines were similar throughout the country: LOUISVILLE SOCIETY BELLE KIDNAPPED.


    Within hours, Berry Stoll arrived home and read the ransom note: “TO THE MEMBERS OF THE STOLL FAMILY DO NOT CALL IN POLICE, BUT READ THIS LETTER, OR YOU WILL NEVER SEE STOLL AGAIN, EITHER ALIVE OR DEAD.” Handwritten in pencil: “$50,000 for Mrs. Stoll.”

    He disregarded the warning and contacted the police. Given the family connections, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was notified. (The FBI had jurisdiction over kidnappings, thanks to the Lindbergh Law passed two years before in response to the kidnapping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s toddler son.) An FBI team, led by Cincinnati special agent in charge E.J. Connelley, arrived in Louisville early the next morning. Evidence abounded: the typed and handwritten ransom note, Alice’s blood on the bed and fingerprints on the telephones that Robinson had pretended to inspect. 

    Out of many clues, the kidnapper’s choice of intermediary stood out: Thomas Robinson Sr. in Nashville, Tennessee. Family patriarch Charles Stoll remembered giving the man’s son a job several years before, but the young man had quit six weeks into the work. Just a few weeks before the kidnapping, the son had asked Charles for another job but was turned away. Charles still had the application that included the man’s handwriting. Connelley sent handwriting and fingerprint samples to the FBI lab in Washington, D.C., for analysis. The lab made its identification and Hoover sent out a confidential telegram to the FBI Nashville office: “FIND YOUNG ROBINSON.”

    Thomas Robinson Jr. took Alice Stoll to an apartment he’d rented in Indianapolis. For seven days he alternated between remorse about his crime and locking her in a closet for hours at a time. “Oh, if you only knew, if you only knew, if you only knew the circumstances why I did this,” Robinson said. 

    They slept in the same bedroom, with Alice’s hands tied together with a rope that circled under her mattress and led over to Robinson’s bed, where the rope was tied to his wrist. If she tried to leave, he would wake up immediately. He allowed Stoll to write a letter to her husband that included her wedding ring as proof of life. “I know this is my last chance to be returned alive,” she wrote.

    Back at the Stoll house, news of the kidnapping attracted throngs of people: reporters, concerned citizens, the city director of public safety, the mayor — even Kentucky Gov. Ruby Laffoon made an appearance. Reporters shouted at Berry Stoll every time he made an appearance outside. “All I want is my wife back alive!” he yelled. 

    Berry Stoll followed instructions and left the ransom money at a railway express company. Robinson Sr. appointed his daughter-in-law Frances (Thomas Jr.’s wife) to pick up the package. The FBI tailed her on the train from Nashville to Indianapolis, but she managed to shake them. She headed to the apartment she and her husband had rented the month before.

    Robinson Jr. took the ransom money and disappeared. Alice Stoll contacted relatives in Indianapolis to drive her and Frances back to Louisville. Before leaving, she called a friend in Louisville: “It is me, and tell Berry I will be home sometime tonight.” FBI agents intercepted the car and arrested the kidnapper’s wife. They rushed Alice back to her home. 


    Robinson Jr. eluded arrest for more than a year and a half. An error with how the serial numbers of the ransom money were published allowed Robinson to spend thousands of dollars at hotels, racetracks and nightclubs without notice. Frances and Thomas Robinson Sr. were tried for aiding and abetting but were found not guilty.

    In 1936, a tip led the FBI to Robinson in Glendale, California. After a brief trial by judge, he was declared guilty and sentenced to life in prison at Alcatraz. He appealed his sentence in 1943 and was granted another trial, by jury, where he again was found guilty — this time with a death sentence. In 1945, President Truman commuted his sentence to life in prison. Robinson escaped a minimum-security prison — twice — before he was released in 1970. He died in 1994 at the age of 87. 

    Alice Speed Stoll died in 1996. While alive, her family rarely discussed the kidnapping publicly, and it became a purposely forgotten part of their history.

    Cover Image: Stoll kidnapper Thomas Robinson, Jr.; a New York Times account of Stoll's ransomed release.

    This originally appeared in the October 2016 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazine, click here. To find your very own copy of Louisville Magazine, click here. 

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