During the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s, Kelly worked as a bootlegger for himself as well as a colleague. After a short time, and several run-ins with the local Memphis police, he decided to leave town and head west with his girlfriend. To protect his family and to escape law enforcement officers, he changed his name to George R. Kelly. He continued to commit smaller crimes and bootlegging. He was arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1928, for smuggling liquor onto an Indian Reservation, and sentenced to three years at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas, beginning February 11, 1928. He was reportedly a model inmate and was released early. Shortly thereafter, Kelly married Kathryn Thorne, an experienced criminal who purchased Kelly's first machine gun and insisted – despite his lack of interest in weapons – on his performing target practice in the countryside, and went to great lengths to familiarize his name within underground crime circles.
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