Wayne County Wanderings: Sarah Ulrich Kelley

Every once in awhile, the most amazing story just kind of falls into your lap when you least expect it.

On Thursday afternoon, while I was working on what was to be this week's column, an unsolicited letter landed here in the newsroom … one that quickly changed my plans.

The missive came from Fernandina (FL) and was penned by Bonnie Naizby. Inside the envelope, I found a short note and a clipping from a paper in Reading.

This column, written by Ron Devlin of Berks County, deals with one of the most enigmatic and mercurial characters in Honesdale history: Sarah Ulrich Kelley.

Now, I've done a great deal of reading and research on the borough's early days and this is a name I'd never once encountered.

However, my curiosity was piqued. Try as I might, I just couldn't concentrate on my original column because I kept glancing over at the clipping Mrs. Naizby sent us.

I finally just gave up and turned my full attention to the letter …. and, boy am I glad I did!

Humble Beginnings

Sarah Ulrich was born in Lanesboro on July 18, 1842

According to contemporary sources, she received “a good common school education” and went on to become a teacher in Oakland Township, Susquehanna County.

At the age of 20, Sarah married Horace J. Kelley of Smiley Hollow.

The Kelleys had family in Wayne County, both in Honesdale and Pleasant Mount. Soon after the wedding, the couple moved here and set up house on High Street.

It's uncertain what she did for a living thereafter. What is certain, though, is that Sarah became one of the area's truly fascinating characters.

The Kelleys had two children: George died very young and Dora spent the majority of her adult life living in Scranton.

Whatever became of Sarah's husband seems to be lost in the mists of time.

At some point, Horace picked up the nickname “California.” Whether that means he fled to the West Coast or simply dreamt of such a sojourn is unclear.

What is abundantly clear, though, is that “California” Kelley disappears from the story during the height of his wife's adventures.

There is some evidence that he may have had an affair … but, it's also been suggested that Sarah's growing eccentricity forced him to flee with the children in tow.

The White House

At some point in her late 30s, Sarah became obsessed with an odd combination of poetry and politics.

In fact, she tried on several occasions to run for public office, but each time was thwarted by two things: Being a woman and failing to file the proper paperwork in time.

The high point of her political “career” came in the run-up to the national elections in 1888. The presidential race was particularly interesting in that no fewer than nine parties advanced candidates.

Sarah Kelley decided that she was eminently qualified to assume our country's highest office and began campaigning in earnest. In fact, she enlisted the “help” of our very own founder, Benjamin Franklin Haines.

The Scranton Tribune published this little snippet, tongue in cheek: “Sarah desires Bre'r Haines as a running mate. However, after perusing the columns of The Independent for two months, she cannot tell whether he is a Democrat or Republican … Benjamin, come off the fence!”

According to Mr. Devlin's column, Sarah traveled to Springfield (IL) during the summer of 1888 to attend a “national convention.” She stopped off to visit relatives in Berks County; but, sadly, no record of her attendance at any such convention can be verified.

“I expect to be elected the next president of the United States,” she told a reporter at the time. “Not because I am a woman, but because I am the only candidate that can unite the labor vote, the temperance vote, the independent vote and the republican vote.”

Needless to say, Sarah's candidacy never really gained traction. So, she returned to Honesdale where another grand idea began taking shape...

The Poetess

According to family members, Sarah was very interested in literature and started writing poetry at a young age.

Indeed, several of her poems appeared in papers across the state and she adopted the moniker “The Bard of Shanty Hill.”

According to The Wayne Independent: “Mrs. Kelley has probably received more notoriety than any woman in the eastern part of this country. She has written many verses which were extensively published by kind-hearted newspapermen.”

It eventually occurred to Sarah that she should be named the US Poet Laureate. And so, she embarked on another trip … this time to Washington, DC.

Incredibly, she actually secured the aid of John Sherman, a politician from Ohio who eventually served as Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury.

Then-Senator Sherman drafted a resolution to make Sarah Kelley America's top poet at an impressive salary of $3,000 per year.

Again, The Wayne Independent: “Mrs. Kelley is now in Washington attending her case in person. And, for the reputation she bears for tenacity, Congress might just as well give in.”

Unfortunately, Senator Sherman's motion didn't receive any support and she returned to High Street to contemplate her next move.

Snake Oil Salesman

Sadly, the final chapter of our story (and of Kelley's life) is a tragic one.

According to family members, Sarah began to deteriorate mentally as she approached 50. She stopped writing poetry, ceased seeking public office and began dabbling in “medicine.”

Kelley concocted pills in her High Street home … pills which she claimed could cure anything from sciatica and headaches to bronchitis and La Grippe.

There is no evidence that these pills had any curative powers whatsoever.

Sarah spent the rest of her short life traveling all over Wayne County hawking her miracle pills for 25 cents a bottle. And, it was on such a sojourn that she met her untimely end.

The onetime presidential candidate and national poet laureate aspirant had been staying near Cherry Ridge with a farmer by the name of William Bubster.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1896, the pair decided to travel into Honesdale to deliver some milk.

“As they were coming down Union Hill, the horses became frightened,” said The Wayne Independent.

“As they went over a water bar in the road, Mrs. Kelley was either thrown out or else she attempted to jump...”

Sarah landed hard, striking her head on the road. She was carried into the house of Benedict Karl. Kelley lay unconscious and was attended to by a Dr. O'Connell.

She was eventually returned to her home on High Street where she died the next day.

“Mrs. Kelley was conscientious and sincere in her religious views,” The Independent said upon her death. “Her example in Christian life was in many ways worthy of imitation.”

These are kind words, but they don't even begin to encapsulate the life of an endlessly fascinating woman … a woman of many talents, impulses and grand dreams.