“Police and detectives say they know of few cases where a child disappeared so completely as did Nancy Ellen Keys,” — The Cincinnati Enquirer reported on Feb. 15, 1949.
On Feb. 12, 1929, the 4-year-old Keys was reportedly abducted from her home in Hillsboro. As police raced against the clock to find the missing young girl, investigators uncovered a web of lies and deception that ended in a heated court battle.
Nancy Ellen was a young girl whose life had been marked by tragedy. On April 15, 1927, her mother, nurse Ella Keys Hammond, died of an apparent suicide. Two-year-old Nancy Ellen was left to live with her grandparents in Hillsboro. The investigation around Ella’s death revealed she had died by poison in a Cincinnati hotel room, leaving a note addressed to Orval Overholser, a man with whom she was rumored to be having an extramarital affair.
Upon his supposed lover’s mysterious death, Overholser sought guardianship of Nancy Ellen, but the courts granted custody to grandparents, Nathan and Nannie Keys. Overholser later broke into the Keys household in what Nathan Keys reported was a kidnapping attempt. The case against Overholser was overturned due to lack of evidence, but Nancy Ellen was kept on close watch after the break-in.
One Tuesday in 1929, Nancy Ellen and her aunt, 17-year-old Lillian Keys, had just returned from a Hillsboro cruising party. Edith and Jack Bowen, along with their 4-year-old son Gordon, were headed to Cincinnati, and they invited the girls along for the ride. At the corner of Front and Vine streets, Lillian was ejected from the car and the car, along with Nancy Ellen, disappeared.
Almost immediately after receiving news of the events, officials leapt into action. A $1,000 reward for Nancy’s safe recovery was offered in Hillsboro, but no one could find any trace of the girl or the mysterious neighbors.
As police unraveled the case, three suspects emerged, none of which could be located by police. The first was Overholser, the man who had tried to gain custody of Nancy and who allegedly attempted to break into the Keyes’ Hillsboro home. The other two suspects were the Bowen couple, whose names were aliases.
Two Dayton attorneys made an appearance in the case, stirring up rumors and hearsay that permeate the case with conspiracy. According to Ward Collopy and Louis Cousineau, Overholser hired two kidnappers, one a family member, to gain the trust of the Keys family and abduct Nancy Ellen. Overholser believed was Nancy was his daughter from his affair with the nurse Ella Hammond years before. When asked where Overholser was, Collopy reported that he was “1,000 miles away from Dayton.” The two attorneys also spoke about Nancy’s mother’s sudden death, which they claimed was not suicide, but murder. Cousineau later dismissed those accounts.
In December 1930, a couple with the aliases June and Roy Clendenen, residing in West Palm Beach, Florida, were arrested in connection to the crime. In 1931, Daryl Overholser and Eva Bone were released from custody by Florida Governor Doyle Carlton. Nancy Ellen was still nowhere to be found.
Five years after the disappearance of Nancy Keys, a shocking break in the case returned the lost girl, almost 10 years old and calling herself Jean Overholser, to her grandparents. Nancy Ellen had grown up with Orval Overholser under a new name.
In a horrific turn of events, Nancy Ellen Keys, or Jean Overholser as she was known in Florida, was forced to testify on behalf of her kidnappers. She was asked which parent she preferred and her treatment as an Overholser versus as a member of the Keys family. Shocking the court, Nancy expressed her wish to be called Jean, and stated she “would not be happy in Ohio.”
Additionally, witnesses testified that Nannie Keys, wife of Nathan Keys and Nancy Ellen’s legal guardian, was cruel to her daughter, the deceased Ella Hammond, and forced her to marry. Her real love interest, it was revealed, was Orval Overholser, who supported her financially and was the biological father of Nancy Keys. The court eventually sided with Nannie Keys as guardian, and Nancy Ellen was returned to Hillsboro, despite her wishes.
The strange events of Nancy Ellen’s kidnapping has layers upon layers of conspiracy, but in the end, she was returned to her grandparents. She grew up and by all accounts lived a full life despite her chaotic childhood, marrying Thomas Williamson in 1942.
Information for this story came from a vareity of old newspaper stories.
Isabella Warner is a stringer for The Times-Gazette.