James Skelly was born in Dublin, Ireland in December, 1868. He came to the United States at age 21, and joined the New Britain Police Force in June of 1906.
What follows is taken from contemporary newspaper accounts of the crime which took his life.
Patrolman Skelly was an 18-year veteran of the NBPD on October 11th 1924. Shortly before 7:00 PM, Edward Johnson, a "hostler" at a stable behind the D&L store, reported what proved to be safe-crackers in the store. Patrolmen Skelly, Liebler, and Atwater were at HQ. Patrolman Clarence Lanpher arrived in his personal vehicle, which was pressed into service to transport all the officers to the scene, also picking up Patrolman Malona at Main and Court Streets.
Malona had been told by the hostler that one suspect had fled, and Officers Malona and Liebler pursued him. Skelly and Atwater entered the store from the rear, when a suspect ran down the stairs, ordering them to "Get down there again or I'll kill you!" and started firing at them. Atwater took cover behind a counter but Skelly was struck, believing he had suffered a leg wound. He fell into the arms of Patrolman Lanpher, who had just entered the door.
In fact, Patrolman Skelly had been shot near his ribs and the bullet traveled downward, severing an artery and punching sixteen holes in his intestines. The suspect escaped. Skelly was taken to New Britain General Hospital. An accomplice, Walter E. Shean, was apprehended by Officer Malona near the Herald building. A briefcase containing evidence of the safe job was recovered.
Shean was a member of a wealthy family in Springfield, MA. He identified the gunman as Gerald Chapman, who had escaped from the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, where he was serving a 25-year term for a $2,400,000.00 bond robbery in New York in 1921. Shean was brought to NBGH where he was viewed by Officer Skelly, who identified him as the shooter, saying, "Yes, that's the man that done it." Investigators, however, felt that Shean was not the gunman, because he had been apprehended prior to the shooting.
Patrolman Skelly died on the operating table during the surgery, which was attempted to save his life.
Chief William C. Hart was critical of the procedures used by the responding officers in not covering the escape route of the gunman. He said, "If a man had stayed at the front door on guard, we might have had another dead policeman, but we would also have had a chance to get the murderer of Jim Skelly." Chief Hart ordered all officers to report to headquarters the following morning to attend the funeral and "pay honor and respect to the memory of James Skelly, who died in the performance of his duty."
Rev. Michael Keating, pastor of St. Joseph's Church, had administered last rites to the dying officer, who was a member of his congregation. The morning following the shooting, he led his parish in a prayer for "speedy recovery or happy death," saying: "He was shot while on duty, by a coward. You have seen him out in front of this church, Sunday after Sunday directing traffic and watching out for the safety of you and your children. This morning he took his life in his hands when duty summoned him, and now he at death's door, with his fate in the hands of the Great Director of All Traffic. If he passes on, may God clear his path as he has cleared yours on the busy street. Pray for him."
No sooner had he concluded, when an altar boy brought word of Patrolman Skelly's death.
On January 18th 1925, Gerald Chapman was arrested in Muncie, Indiana. During the apprehension, Chapman fired at an officer but missed. During the six-day murder trial in Hartford, crowds gathered due to Chapman's status as one of the "top ten" criminals in America. The jury deliberated for eleven hours, after which Chapman was sentenced to hang.
Although he proclaimed his innocence to the end, Chapman was executed on April 5th, 1926. The killer was a popular and glamorous figure, as were many outlaws of his era. For years after his burial, women visited his grave with flowers. Walter Shean was sentenced to 1-5 years in prison for aiding a burglary and carrying a concealed weapon.