The Lingering Ghost of “Ma” Barker
There is a small, rundown house just outside the town of Ocklawaha, Florida that stands as one of the most infamous locations in gangland history. The cottage, on the shores of Lake Weir, stands empty and silent these days, its windows dark and its paint peeling. A few “private property” signs are posted around but it’s not a place where most people would venture. The porch sags and the wooden steps lean precariously to one side but none among the living bother to walk here anymore. This is a place where dark memories linger and where death occurred on January 16, 1935.
It was here that the last stand of the feared Barker gang took place and where “Ma” Barker and her son, Fred, battled it out with G-Men before being shot to death. This horrific battle occurred more than 70 years ago but there are those who claim that it has not yet ended for at least one restless spirit that still resides here in this house.
After Prohibition came to an end and celebrity gangster Al Capone went to prison, the American public needed a new fixation for their fascination with crime. President Roosevelt’s New Deal administration, led by the newly empowered FBI, began a national war on crime to confront the seeming peril of kidnappers and bandit gangs that were terrorizing the Midwest, robbing banks and kidnapping wealthy businessmen for ransom.
The outlaw gangs of the Depression era were largely inventions of the FBI, with two very conspicuous exceptions. The Dillinger Gang, consisting initially of convicts he helped break out of Indiana’s state prison, worked closely as a group until most of the gang was arrested after a hotel fire in Tucson led to them being recognized. After Dillinger’s escape from the Crown Point, Indiana, jail, he was forced to team up with Baby Face Nelson, who had his own band of robbers and had to grudgingly accept being called the Dillinger Gang by the national press. Dillinger’s own criminal career only lasted another four months before he was set up and killed outside the Biograph Theater (or vanished into history, whichever story the reader is inclined to believe).
The only other traditional Depression-era outlaw gang was the one headed by Alvin “Creepy” Karpis and the Barker brothers, mainly Arthur and Fred, and supposedly captained by the notorious “Ma” Barker. Despite kidnappings, burglaries, murders, and dozens of bank, train and payroll robberies starting in the 1920s, the FBI was not even aware of the existence of the Barker gang until an informant passed on information about them in 1934. Their career had spanned the entire “public enemy” era and while the Barkers and Alvin Karpis were the principal members, they often teamed with criminals from other gangs and also worked with organized crime groups in several cities, notably Chicago.
But despite the criminals who came and went, the main members of the Barker-Karpis gang were always the Barkers, who hailed from the backwoods of the Ozark Mountains. The only real mystery about these outlaws was what role “Ma” Barker actually played in the gang. Legend, based largely on FBI publicity reports, has it that she groomed her sons to be lawbreakers and managed their criminal careers, planning the gang’s many crimes. There’s no doubt that she knew of her sons’ activities, which made it necessary to constantly move to avoid the police, but what she did beyond that is open to debate. Alvin Karpis characterized “Ma” as an ignorant hillbilly who traveled with her sons because they were “family” and who often came in handy as camouflage. A later member of the gang, Harvey Bailey, said, “The old woman couldn’t plan breakfast. When we’d sit down to plan a bank job, she go in the other room and listen to Amos ‘n’ Andy or hillbilly music on the radio.” He laughed at the idea of “Ma” Barker as a cunning, ruthless gang leader, plotting their crimes.
J. Edgar Hoover would later call “Ma” Barker “a monument to the evils of parental indulgence” and this may be a little closer to the truth. She seemed to be more along the lines of the mothers of the James boys, the Youngers, the Daltons and the countless other bandit teams of the rural regions than the bloody figure familiar to movie-goers and devotees of crime literature. “Ma” Barker was simply devoted to her sons, whom she chose to believe were driven to their crimes by hard times and persecution by the authorities. She was likely just a non-judgmental matriarch of a clan from the Ozarks whose careers just happened to be in crime.
Had she not died with her son Fred after a gun battle with the FBI, “Ma” Barker might have only received a short jail sentence for harboring her criminal children, as the mothers of Bonnie and Clyde did. But once the Feds ended the siege of their hideout and they discovered that they had killed an old woman who turned out to be “Ma,” the myth-making and villainizing began.
“Ma” Barker was born Arizona Donnie Clark near Ash Grove, in Boone Township, which is northwest of Springfield, Missouri, on October 8, 1873. When she married George Elias Barker in 1892, she listed her name on her marriage license as “Arrie Clark” but somewhere along the line adopted the name of Kate. The Barkers lived at different times in Aurora and on secluded Ozark farms. Between 1893 and 1903, the Barkers had four sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (who went by “Doc”) and Fred. In 1910, they moved to Webb City, near Joplin, and there George found work in the area’s lead and zinc mines and left the care of the children to Kate.
The Barker boys soon gained a reputation for rowdiness and bad behavior and were often accused of stealing and shoplifting. Legend has it that neighbors who complained to George Barker about his sons were simply told, “Talk to Mother. She handles the boys.” Those who dared confront “Ma” were screamed at, called liars and sent on their way. It was said that she had a desperate belief that the community had singled out her sons as scapegoats for every crime committed in town.
On March 5, 1915, Herman Barker was arrested by the Joplin police for highway robbery. Popular accounts say that “Ma” got him released and stated that she could no longer live in such an intolerant town, and moved the whole clan to Tulsa, Oklahoma, – but this is not entirely the truth. Herman actually remained in Missouri and was convicted of burglary the following year but escaped from the Springfield jail. He moved to Billings, Montana, and adopted the alias of Bert Lavender. He was arrested again for burglary and convicted with a sentence of six to twelve years in the state prison at Deer Lodge. He languished in prison until 1920, when he moved to Minnesota with the new alias of Clarence Sharp. He was apparently not a very good burglar because he was arrested and convicted again on the same charge and sentenced to another stretch in the state prison at Stillwater.
The rest of the family did move to Tulsa, probably because Kate’s mother and stepfather were living there. They lived in several different places in Tulsa, often with “Ma’s” family. Before 1918, none of the boys, except Herman, seemed to have serious criminal records. The remaining boys started hanging out with other young troublemakers around the old Lincoln Forsythe School and the Central Park district. They formed the “East Side Gang,” which in time numbered more than 20 young thieves and hoodlums. The gang included Volney “Curly” Davis and Harry Campbell (later important members of the Barker gang) and William “Boxcar” Green. Green would pay a leading role in a mass breakout from Leavenworth Prison in 1931 and then commit suicide rather than be recaptured.
Lloyd Barker actually steered clear of trouble by enlisting in the Army, where she served as a cook until he was mustered out in 1919. But trouble was something that seemed to come looking for his brother, Doc. He was arrested in July 1918 for stealing a government- owned car in Tulsa. Doc escaped but was recaptured in Joplin in 1920 and returned to Tulsa, then escaped again. He was arrested again, using the name Claud Dale, for an attempted bank burglary in Coweta, Oklahoma, and jailed in Muskogee. Ray Terrill was arrested at the same time and both were transferred to McAlester for safekeeping. Doc was later released by court order but Terrill was sentenced to three years for second-degree burglary on March 1, 1923. He was subsequently arrested for other crimes but either escaped or managed to beat the rap.
On August 26, 1921, a night watchman named Thomas J. Sherrill was killed by burglars at the construction site for Tulsa’s St. John’s Hospital. Doc was arrested for the murder, tried and convicted and sentenced to life at McAlester. Nearly a year later, fellow East Side Gang member Volney Davis was also sent up for a life sentence for this same murder. Davis escaped from McAlester in January 1925 but was recaptured just 13 days later in Kansas City.
Lloyd Barker left the Army in 1919 but mostly bummed around until being arrested for vagrancy in 1921. On June 17, with William Green and another man, he robbed a mail truck at Baxter Springs, Kansas, a crime for which he was arrested and convicted. He was sent to Leavenworth for a 25-year sentence and this marked the end of Lloyd’s criminal career. Paroled in 1938, he went straight and re-enlisted in the Army during World War II. He spent the war as a cook at a P.O.W. camp at Fort Custer, Michigan and when it ended, received an honorable discharge. He married and then managed a bar and grill in Denver for many years. In March 1949, his wife killed him with a shotgun at their home in Westminster, Colorado. She was placed in an insane asylum shortly afterwards.
Herman Barker was released from prison in 1925 and formed a small gang, burglarizing banks and stores throughout Oklahoma and the southwest. This group, sometimes known as the Terrill-Barker-Inman gang, included Herman Barker, Ray Terrill, Elmer Inman and others. Their favorite technique, credited to Terrill, was to back a stolen truck up to a bank, haul out the safe with a winch, and then drive away to open it at their convenience. For a time, the gang used the Radium Springs Health Resort near Salina, Oklahoma, as a hideout. Radium Springs was operated by Herman Barker and his common-law wife, Carol, under the names of Mr. and Mrs. J.H. Hamilton, but it was actually owned by Q.P. McGhee, a corrupt former judge from Miami, Oklahoma, who worked with the gang and served as their attorney. McGhee was always around to bail out captured gang members or to gain their release with fraudulent warrants that claimed they were wanted elsewhere. The health resort was heavily armed and fitted with a powerful electric light that was used as a warning beacon in the event of a raid. Safes stolen by the gang were looted and then dumped off a nearby bridge into the Grand River.
Fred Barker soon joined up with his brother at Radium Springs. Fred had been arrested in Miami, Oklahoma, in September 1922 and a month later, was jailed in Tulsa on a charge of vagrancy for 30 days. In June 1923, he was convicted of armed robbery and sentenced to five years at the state reformatory in Granite. Fred was paroled, only to be arrested again for robbing a bank. He was later arrested as a fugitive in Little Rock, Arkansas; for burglary in Ponca City; and was wounded in a gun battle with police in Kansas City. He managed to get away from every one of these scrapes with no jail time, likely thanks to his brother’s friend McGhee, who was often accompanied on his trips by a crooked Miami County deputy. But his luck would not hold out. While using the alias of Ted Murphy, Fred was arrested again in Winfield, Kansas, in November 1926 for burglary and grand larceny. This time, he was convicted and sentenced to a term of five to ten years at the state prison at Lansing.
Earlier, in June 1926, Herman Barker and Elmer Inman were arrested for car theft in Kansas and extradited to Oklahoma, where they were both wanted for robbery. McGhee saw to it that they did not stay in custody for long. Herman, charging with robbing a county attorney in Miami, was released on bond on June 22. Inman was charged with bank and post office robbery in Ketchum, also made bond. Inman was arrested again in Ardmore, Oklahoma, with Ray Terrill, for burglary. Together, they overpowered a jailer on September 27 and escaped. Inman was recaptured on December 27 while burglarizing a store in Oklahoma City. He was convicted and sentenced to seven years in prison but escaped by jumping from a train en route to McAlester on March 17.
During the early morning hours of January 17, 1927, members of the gang attempted to burglarize the First National Bank at Jasper, Missouri, near Joplin. They arrived in two cars and a truck and entered the bank by cutting bars from one of the rear windows. They managed to get the bank’s safe onto a cart and were wheeling it out the back door when a baker, who was coming in to make bread for his business down the street, spotted them and telephoned the night telephone operator, who alerted the town marshall. Police officers from Joplin and Carthage quickly deputized a group of citizens to help apprehend the gang and rushed to the scene. The burglars were forced to abandon the safe and the truck but still managed to escape in their two cars. One of the cars sped west into Kansas. Herman Barker and Ray Terrill were in the other car and they returned to their hideout, a small house at 602 East Main Street in Carterville, Missouri. Unfortunately, the local police had been watching this house, thanks to an anonymous tip that stated that it was “the headquarters of an organized band of outlaws.” A gun battle followed and Barker was wounded and taken into custody, along with Terrill.
Herman was extradited to Fayetteville, Arkansas, on bank robbery charges. Terrill, a McAlester escapee who still owed the state 20 years on his earlier bank robbery conviction, was returned to Oklahoma but escaped again, this time jumping out of a moving car as it neared the prison. On March 30, Herman also escaped by sawing apart the bars of his cell. When he left, he took a suspected forger named Claude Cooper with him.
The gang was soon back to work again. On May 12, they stole a safe containing $207,000 in cash and securities from the state bank at McCune, Kansas. On August 1, a man came into the American National Bank in Cheyenne, Wyoming, and, using the name R.D. Snodgrass, cashed three American Express Travelers checks. “Snodgrass” then left the bank and climbed into a blue Chrysler with Idaho plates. A woman with dark hair was also in the car. The teller quickly identified the checks as having been stolen during a Buffalo, Kansas, bank robbery in December 1926. He chased after “Snodgrass” who hurriedly drove away. “Snodgrass” was actually Herman Barker and the woman who was with him was his wife, Carol. Deputy Sheriff Arthur E. Osborn managed to catch up with the Barkers’ car at Pine Bluffs, about 40 miles east of Cheyenne. As the deputy approached the car, his own gun still holstered, Barker pulled out a .32-caliber automatic and shot the officer two times before speeding away. Osborn was found a half hour later, dead on the side of the highway. At first, his killer was mistakenly identified as Elmer Inman.
On August 29, after robbing an icehouse in Newton, Kansas, Herman Barker and two other men shot it out with police officers in Wichita. During the battle, Herman killed another cop, Patrolman Joseph E. Marshall. Herman was hit several times and was so badly wounded that he shot himself rather than be taken alive. Ray Terrill and Elmer Inman were captured at Hot Springs, Arkansas, on November 26 and were sent to the Oklahoma state prison. Herman’s wife, Carol, subsequently pleaded guilty as an accessory in Deputy Osborn’s murder and admitted that it was Herman, not Elmer Inman, who had killed the officer. She was sentenced to serve two to four years but since Wyoming did not have a place for female prisoners, she was sent to the Colorado state prison in Canon City to serve her time. She was paroled in October 1929 after serving two years. Soon afterward, she was working as a prostitute out of the Carlton Hotel in Sapulpa, Oklahoma, and briefly became the girlfriend of Alvin Karpis. Karpis would later marry her niece, Dorothy Slayman. Karpis left Dorothy in late 1931 and following in her aunt’s footsteps, she became a prostitute.
George and Kate Barker buried Herman at the Williams Timberhill Cemetery near Welch, Oklahoma, where they and Fred would eventually join him. The family plot was purchased for them by McGhee, who would soon be convicted of aiding and abetting Herman Barker and Elmer Inman. Soon after, George left his wife. Apparently, Kate and a friend had been seeing other men in Tulsa. George moved back to Webb City, Missouri, and spent the remainder of his life operating a filling station. Kate took up with an alcoholic sign painter named Arthur Dunlop and they moved into a house in Tulsa together. Dunlop spent more time drinking that painting and, with Herman dead, Kate had little money to live on. After she was released from prison, her daughter-in-law, Carol, supported Kate and bought her groceries. Kate despised Carol, just as she would all the other women in her son’s lives. She constantly did everything she could to discourage and sabotage all of the Barker boys’ relationships with other women. According to Alvin Karpis, “Ma didn’t like female competition. She wanted to be the only woman who counted with her boys.”
Alvin Karpis, who was born in Montreal, Canada, in 1908, met Fred Barker at the Kansas state prison in 1930. While earlier incarcerated at the State Industrial Reformatory in Hutchinson, Kansas, Karpis became a prison protégé of a safe-cracker and cop-killer named Lawrence DeVol. The two escaped from Hutchinson in March 1929 and engaged in a burglary spree. Recaptured in Kansas City in March 1930, Karpis was returned to the reformatory but then was transferred to the penitentiary after three knives were found in his possession. He still managed to earn time off his sentence by working in the prison-owned coal mine. In reality, he hired lifers to work in his place, another trick that he learned from DeVol. Karpis and Fred Barker became close friends and agreed to form a criminal partnership when they were released.
Fred was paroled in March 1931 and Karpis was released a few months later, in May. They contacted Carol and Ma Barker in Tulsa and Ma sent a telegram to Fred, who was living in Joplin with another ex-convict named Jimmie Creighton, who was wanted for kidnapping, robbery and attempted murder. Creighton was also a suspect, with Lawrence DeVol, in the April 1930 murders of two businessmen at the Hotel Severs in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Karpis and Barker went to work burglarizing homes and businesses in the area.
On the night of May 16, Jimmie Creighton shot and killed a local man named Coyne Hatten outside the Morgan Drug Store in Webb City – apparently because Hatten failed to apologize enough for bumping into him on the street. Karpis and Barker fled back to Tulsa in Creighton’s car and Creighton was later convicted and sentenced to life in prison for the murder.
On June 10, Tulsa authorities arrested Fred Barker, Alvin Karpis, Sam Coker and Joe Howard. Karpis was transferred to Henryetta, Oklahoma, to face charges of burglarizing a jewelry store. He returned the stolen jewelry and entered a guilty plea for burglary on September 11. He received a sentence of four years but it was suspended since he had made restitution and had already served three months in the country jail. Barker was transferred to Claremore, Oklahoma, on another burglary charge but escaped on August 16 with several other prisoners. Coker was returned to McAlester to complete a 30-year sentence for bank robbery. Howard was released on bond and disappeared.
Karpis joined Fred and Ma Barker, along with Arthur Dunlop, on a rented farm outside Thayer, Missouri, close to the Arkansas state line. On June 20, Phoenix Donald, who was better known as Bill “Lapland Willie” Weaver, was paroled after serving six years of a life sentence for murder and bank robbery and came to live on his sister’s farm only two miles away from Karpis and the Barkers. On October 7, Karpis, Barker, Weaver and a man named Jimmie Wilson robbed the People’s Bank at Mountain View, Missouri. They made off with $14,000 in cash and securities.
On the night of December 18, a burglary occurred at McCallon’s Clothing Store in West Plains, Missouri. Two strangers had been seen in town that day driving a 1931 DeSoto and were suspicious enough to residents that a couple of them wrote down the car’s license plate number. The following day, three men drove a 1931 DeSoto into the Davidson Motor Garage in town to have two flat tires repaired. A repairman noticed that the tires matched tread marks that had been left by the burglar’s car and he told his boss. The garage owner called Sheriff Roy Kelly and the owner of the clothing store, Clarence McCallon. When they arrived in a police car, the occupants of the DeSoto opened fire on them. Alvin Karpis fired the shots that killed the sheriff, putting four bullets into Kelly’s chest. Barker, armed with a .38-caliber revolver, hit the sheriff in the right arm. Barker and Karpis quickly fled the scene, leaving behind the third occupant of the DeSoto, a college student named J. Richard Gross, whom they had picked up while hitchhiking. He was arrested but later released when it was realized that he had definitely gotten in a car with the wrong people.
Lawmen raided the farm near Thayer, but found that it was abandoned. The house was located on a hill, with a good view in every direction, and was surrounded by barbed wire. The front gate had been fitted with an electric alarm bell that warned the occupants of the house of intruders. Inside, the police found photographs of the Barkers, Karpis and Dunlop, along with letters, including one to Kate from Lloyd Barker in Leavenworth, thanking her for sending Christmas gifts. They also found an interior drawing of the First National Bank of West Plains.
West Plains Police Chief James A. Bridges and Howell County Sheriff Lula Kelly, who succeeded her murdered husband, offered a $1,200 reward -- $500 each for the arrest and conviction of Alvin Karpis and Fred Barker and $100 each for the arrest of “A.W. Dunlop and Old Lady Arrie Barker, Mother of Fred Barker.” This was the first official notice of Ma Barker, who would make no further news until she was killed three years later by federal agents.
The Barkers, Karpis, Weaver and Dunlop deserted the southern Missouri farms and fled to the home of their friend, Herb Farmer, near Joplin. Farmer was an old pal of the Barkers and owned a chicken farm in an isolated, rural area. He was a confidence man with a long record of arrests who reputedly harbored a number of outlaws, including, at one time, Pretty Boy Floyd. Farmer would later serve a term at Alcatraz as one of the Kansas City Massacre conspirators. When the Barker-Karpis gang arrived in Joplin, Farmer suggested that they go to St. Paul and contact Harry Sawyer. Coincidentally, Karpis’ friend, Lawrence DeVol, arrived in St. Paul around this same time. He was on the run after killing a policeman in Kirksville, Missouri, as well as being wanted for murders in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa.
For many years, St. Paul had been a safe town for criminals. Out-of-town fugitives could hide out there without interference from the police, as long as they paid a protection fee and committed no crimes within the city limits. In 1928, the fixer for this system, a bootlegger named “Dapper” Dan Hogan, had been killed by a car bomb and his successor, Harry Sawyer, imposed even fewer restrictions. He no longer enforced the rule about committing crimes within the city limits, as long as he received a cut of the action. The police department was as corrupt as ever and visiting criminals were still safe from arrest. A city that had been safe from crime since the early 1900s was now as dangerous as any other place in America.
After checking in with Sawyer, the Barker-Karpis group rented an apartment at 1031 South Robert Street in West St. Paul. Fred and Karpis again went to work committing small burglaries, thefts and hijackings. In December 1931 and January 1932, they staged carefully planned nighttime raids on the Minnesota towns of Pine River and Cambridge. Several citizens were taken hostage and the gangsters systematically looted a number of major businesses and private homes. In addition, thanks to Harry Sawyer, they also made their most important future business connections.
The formation of the Barker-Karpis Gang, as it was when it began to make headlines, might be dated to the night of December 31, 1931. Karpis and Fred Barker attended a New Year’s Eve party at Harry Sawyer’s Green Lantern Saloon on Wabasha Street, where they met some of the most infamous members of the Midwest’s underworld. They included Minneapolis crime boss Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld, Capone mobster Gus Winkeler and several leading bank robbers like Harvey Bailey, Tommy Holden, Francis “Jimmy” Keating, “Big Homer” Wilson, and Frank “Jelly” Nash, a former member of the old Al Spencer gang who may have known the Barkers during their younger days in Tulsa.
Nash had escaped from Leavenworth in October 1930, as had Holden and Keating. They each had been sentenced to serve 25-years after a mail train robbery in the Chicago suburb of Evergreen Park. They arrived in Leavenworth in May 1928, where they met Nash and other Spencer gang veterans. They also met a minor Oklahoma bootlegger named George Kelly, who was serving a short sentence for smuggling liquor onto an Indian reservation. Kelly, whose real name was George Barnes, would later make headlines as “Machine Gun” Kelly, but at the time he worked in the photographic section of the prison’s record room. On February 28, 1930, Holden and Keating walked out of Leavenworth, using trusty passes that had been made by Kelly. They fled to Chicago, then to St. Paul, where they were joined later that year by Kelly and Nash.
In St. Paul, Holden and Keating teamed up with Harvey Bailey, who had been committing bank robberies for nearly a decade. A former bootlegger, Bailey had only been arrested once and had never served any prison time. Law enforcement agencies considered him one of the country’s top bank robbers, however, after his suspected involvement in the Denver Mint robbery of 1922. Bailey’s regular associates included “Big Homer” Wilson, another longtime bank robber; Charles Fitzgerald, a criminal in his 60s with ties to the Chicago mob; Verne Miller, a decorated World War I veteran and former South Dakota sheriff turned bootlegger, bank robber and killer, whose increasing mental instability may have eventually led to his murder by other gangsters who were endangered by his erratic behavior and Bernard Phillips, alias “Big Bill” Courtney, a former Chicago policeman who saw more money in being a bandit.
The group formed a gang with a sometimes-floating membership and went on to commit a number of spectacular robberies, cleaning out banks all over Iowa, Nebraska, Texas, Minnesota and Wisconsin. On October 20, 1931, they robbed the Kraft State Bank at Menomonie, Wisconsin, and Cashier James Kraft, the son of the bank’s president, was taken hostage and killed. Two gang members, Charlie Harmon and Frank Weber, were found shot to death after the robbery, their bodies lying in a pool of blood next to that of James Kraft. It is believed that they were shot to death by other gang members for killing the hostage. Harmon’s widow, Paula, who was known as “Fat-Witted,” later hooked up with Fred Barker.
The deaths of Harmon and Weber left vacancies in the gang’s membership and Barker and Karpis soon joined up. On March 29, 1932, they joined Tommy Holden, Bernard Phillips and Lawrence DeVol in the well-executed holdup of the North American Branch of the Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis. No one was injured or killed and the gang escaped with $266,500 in cash, coins and bonds. They escaped in a fast Lincoln that belonged to an executive of the National Lead Battery Co. of St. Paul. It had been stolen just for this job.
A short time later, Nick Hannegraf, the son of the Barkers’ landlady, recognized Karpis and Fred Barker from their photographs in True Detective magazine and dutifully called the police. St. Paul Police Chief Tom Brown, who was on Harry Sawyer’s payroll, advised Hannegraf to report this at the Central Police Station. The desk sergeant there told Hannegraf that he would have to come back later and see Inspector James Crumley, who also took cash from Sawyer. Seven hours after the first call was made to Brown, St. Paul police officers raided the house on South Robert Street but, of course, the Barkers, Karpis and Arthur Dunlop were long gone. The telephone call likely cost Dunlop his life. His body was found the next day on Lake Fremstadt, near Webster, Wisconsin. He had been shot three times at close range. It was theorized that he was killed by Karpis and Barker because they suspected him of being an informer.
After the police raid, the gang temporarily shifted its base of operations to Kansas City. The Barkers and Karpis stayed at the Longfellow Apartments for a time as “Mrs. A.F. Hunter and sons” then rented an apartment at 414 West Forty-Sixth Terrace. Bailey, Nash, Holden, Keating, Phillips and DeVol also rented apartments nearby. On June 17, they robbed the Citizens National Bank in Fort Scott, Kansas, of $47,000. That same day, a pal of Fred’s named Jess Doyle was released from the Kansas state prison and joined the gang. Some of the proceeds from the bank robbery were spent on a lavish party for Doyle’s prison release at the Barker-Karpis apartment.
On July 7, Kansas City police officers, accompanied by Special Agent Raymond Caffrey of the future FBI (it was still known then as the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation), arrested Harvey Bailey, Tommy Holden and Francis Keating on the Old Mission Golf Course after allowing them to play a few holes. Their fourth, gang member Bernard Phillips, escaped to warn the others. Phillips was later suspected of betraying the three captured men, particularly after other gang members learned that he used to be a policeman. Phillips disappeared a year later on a trip to New York with Frank Nash and Verne Miller. He was never seen again.
At the time of the arrest, a Liberty bond from a recent bank robbery was found in Bailey’s pocket and turned over to Fort Scott authorities as evidence for his subsequent trial. Holden and Keating were returned to Leavenworth and the rest of the gang headed back to Minnesota. The Barkers, Karpis and Frank Nash rented a cabin on White Bear Lake. Barker and Karpis then contacted a shady Tulsa attorney named J. Earl Smith, who was retained by the gang to defend Bailey. Smith took the money but never showed up in court and Bailey ended up with a court-appointed lawyer named James G. Sheppard. On August 16, Smith was found shot to death at the Indian Hills Country Club near Tulsa, where he had gone after receiving a mysterious telephone call from an unknown client. The next day, Bailey was sentenced to 10 to 50 years in the Lansing, Kansas, state prison. Bailey later escaped from prison on Memorial Day 1933, along with nine others using smuggled guns. Frank Nash and the Barker-Karpis gang would be erroneously suspected of arranging the jail break, but they had nothing to do with it. Bailey was recaptured after a short bank robbery spree and accused of involvement in the Kansas City Massacre and the kidnapping of an Oklahoma oilman. No solid evidence ever connected him to either crime.
With most of the members now in prison, Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis were left running the gang. On July 25, 1932, Barker, Karpis, DeVol, Jess Doyle and Earl Christman robbed the Cloud County Bank at Concordia, Kansas, and made off with about $250,000 in cash and bonds. On August 18, they pulled a second job at the Second National Bank of Beloit, Wisconsin, for $50,000.
Arthur “Doc” Barker was paroled from his life sentence at McAlester in September 1932 on the condition that he leave Oklahoma forever. He was more than happy to oblige and after a brief stop to visit with his father, he joined the gang in St. Paul. He came along for the next several robberies as the gang hit the State Bank & Trust Co. in Redwood Falls, Minnesota, the Citizens National Bank at Wahpeton, North Dakota, and then a bank in Amboy, Minnesota, where Lawrence DeVol was recognized as one of the gunmen.
Doc Barker wanted to arrange a parole for his pal, Volney Davis, who was still in McAlester for the Sherrill murder. Karpis managed to contact a “big-time operator” in St. Paul who said that he could arrange to get Davis an early release for $1,500. The gang paid the money and unbelievably, Davis, a convicted murderer and former escapee, was released from the Oklahoma state prison in November. He was not paroled but was granted a two-year “leave of absence,” after which he was due to return back to prison in 1934. He must have been laughing all the way to St. Paul, where he joined up with the gang and a short time later, accompanied Ma Barker on a trip to California to visit her sister. Soon after this, Davis’ girlfriend, Edna “The Kissing Bandit” Murray, escaped from the women’s state prison in Jefferson City, Missouri. It was her third prison break. Edna had been serving a 25-year sentence for highway robbery and when Davis learned of her escape, he returned to the Midwest to join her and her teenaged son, Preston Paden.
The Barker-Karpis gang, which now also included Bill Weaver and Verne Miller, robbed the Third Northwestern Bank in Minneapolis on December 16. During the robbery, two policemen and an innocent bystander were killed. They escaped with $22,000 in cash and $92,000 in bonds but the heat from this robbery was tremendous, thanks to the murders. They decided to get out of the area for awhile and Miller returned to Kansas City while the rest of the gang, except for DeVol, drove out to Reno. DeVol stayed behind and went on a drinking binge. While intoxicated, he crashed a party on Grand Avenue in St. Paul and was arrested --- still carrying $17,000 in cash from the robbery. He was convicted of robbery and murder and sentenced to a life term at Stillwater. Three years later, he was transferred to the St. Peter Hospital for the Criminally Insane and escaped with 15 other inmates in June 1936. After a series of crimes, he was killed a month later during a gun battle with police in Enid, Oklahoma.
The gang wintered in Reno and San Francisco and spent most of their time making good contacts in the Reno gambling rackets and other places. It was during this time that Karpis met Illinois prison escapee Lester Gillis, who would become better known under his alias of George “Baby Face” Nelson. Karpis sometimes had dinner with Nelson, his wife, Helen, and their children, Ronald and Darlene, at their apartment in Reno. Both men had grown up in the same part of Chicago and became good friends. Nelson introduced Karpis to the ex-convict owner of a private hospital in Vallejo, California, Thomas “Tobe” Williams. His staff performed illegal abortions and treated Nelson’s wife, Helen, as a regular patient. They also took care of any sick and wounded fugitives under any alias they wanted to use. Karpis had his tonsils removed there in February 1933, just before the gang returned to the Midwest. Another useful contact was Frank Cochran, a Reno airplane mechanic and garage owner who serviced cars for outlaws. He had fitted Nelson’s car with a siren to help him escape from close calls.
In return for the favors that he had done for the gang, Karpis connected Nelson with an experienced gang of bank robbers who were headquartered near Long Beach, Indiana. In the summer of 1933, he joined Eddie Bentz, a semi-retired collector of old books and coins and several younger men, including Tommy Carroll and Homer Van Meter, a prison friend of Dillinger’s, who, along with Dillinger, had recently gotten out of the Michigan City, Indiana prison. It was during this time that Nelson and Dillinger first became acquainted.
The Barker-Karpis Gang returned to St. Paul in February but a month later, moved to Chicago when some of Harry Sawyer’s police contacts informed him that the gang’s apartment was about to be raided. Running low on money, they planned another bank robbery. On April 4, Karpis, Fred and Doc Barker, Frank Nash, Volney Davis, Earl Christman, Jess Doyle and Eddie Green robbed the First National Bank in Fairbury, Nebraska, and managed to get away with $151,350 in cash and bonds. They narrowly escaped after a violent gun battle that left a sheriff’s deputy and two civilians wounded. Earl Christman was also wounded and was taken to Verne Miller’s home in Kansas City. Miller contacted an underworld doctor but Christman died before he could be treated. He was buried by the gang in an unmarked grave outside the city.
Soon after the gang returned to St. Paul, Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis were contacted by bootlegger Jack Peifer and asked to come to a meeting at his Hollyhocks nightclub. Peifer introduced them to two friends, Fred Goetz and Byron “Monty” Bolton, who worked for the Capone Outfit in Chicago and who had allegedly been involved in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. Goetz claimed to be one of the gunmen and Bolton was a lookout for the hit. The two occasionally did freelance work and had a proposition for the Barkers and Karpis. They were hiring help for a kidnapping that Jack Peifer had arranged in St. Paul and wanted the gang in on the job. Barker and Karpis agreed to go along and were joined by Doc and Charles Fitzgerald when they kidnapped William A. Hamm, Jr. on June 15, 1933. Hamm was blindfolded and driven to the Chicago suburb of Bensenville to wait for his family to raise his ransom of $100,000. Hamm later reported that he and the gang spent the next week cooking and playing cards and that he never feared for his life in their presence. In fact, he added, they got along quite well.
On the same day as the Hamm kidnapping, Frank Nash was captured by the FBI in Hot Springs, Arkansas. Two days later, as he was being returned to Leavenworth, Nash and his captors were ambushed at the Union Station in Kansas City. In a release attempt gone wrong, Nash, a federal agent and three other officers were shot to death in what became known as the Kansas City Massacre.
On August 30, 1933, the Barker-Karpis Gang robbed the South St. Paul post office and made off with the Stockyards National Bank payroll, which amounted to $33,000. During the heist, one police officer was killed and another was wounded. A few weeks later, on September 22, the gang pulled another job, this time using a car that had been equipped with smoke-screen and oil-slick devices. They robbed messengers for the Federal Reserve Bank in Chicago, killing another policeman and wrecking their tricked-out automobile in the process. They managed to escape, only to discover that the bags they took contained useless checks. The car was traced to the shop of Joe Bergl at 5346 West Cermak Road in Cicero, right next door to the Cotton Club, which was owned by Ralph Capone. Bergl’s partner in the business turned out to be Gus Winkeler, whose customers, the FBI later learned, included members of the Capone mob and visiting outlaws like “Machine Gun” Kelly. Some had steel plates installed in their cars to protect them from gunfire, while the economy versions of the “bulletproof” car had their trunks and backseats stuffed with thick Chicago telephone directories.
The heat garnered from this attempted robbery sent the gang on another vacation to Reno. When they returned to St. Paul, they were met by an annoyed Harry Sawyer, who felt that he had been shortchanged on the Hamm kidnapping. He convinced the gang to pull another kidnapping, which would be more profitable for him. Their victim was Edward G. Bremer, president of the Commercial State Bank of St. Paul, against whom Sawyer had a personal grudge. Bremer was taken on January 17, 1934 and was also transported to Bensenville, where he was held for nearly a month until his family raised a ransom of $200,000. Things do not go as smoothly as they had with the Hamm kidnapping. Gasoline cans used by the gang were found along the route of the ransom drop and one of them bore the fingerprints of Doc Barker. Flashlights used by the gang as signals at the payoff location were traced to a store in St. Paul, where a clerk recognized Karpis as the man who bought them. Doc Barker and Alvin Karpis were added to the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list. The money from the kidnapping was so hot that the Barkers’ Reno gambling connections wouldn’t launder it, as they had the money from the Hamm abduction. Instead, the money starting turning up in Chicago and several people, including corrupt politician John J. “Boss” McLaughlin, were arrested.
In March 1934, Barker and Karpis paid a visit to Dr. Joseph Moran, Chicago’s leading underworld surgeon. Moran had offices at the notorious Irving Hotel on Irving Park Boulevard, near where the police had failed to trap Dillinger on his way to another doctor’s office the previous November. Once a prominent physician, Moran had served time for one or more botched abortions and, in prison, met some powerful gangsters who set him up as the city’s number one doctor for wounded gangsters, particularly for members of the Outfit. Moran tried to alter the faces of Karpis and Barker through plastic surgery, but didn’t have much success. However, he did manage to remove Karpis’ fingerprints during a painful operation using a scalpel. Moran later came to a bitter end. When he was drunk, which was often, he tended to brag about some of the clients that he worked on and unwisely suggested to some members of the criminal community that his talents were indispensable. As a result, he was taken on a traditional “one-way ride” and his body was buried somewhere in the Chicagoland region.
It was in April of that year that the FBI first really learned about the organized gang that was operated by the Barkers and Alvin Karpis. A former member of the Barker-Karpis gang, who had taken up with Dillinger, named Eddie Green was shot by FBI agents in St. Paul. Before he died, he babbled in delirium for eight days in the hospital, giving details of past crimes as federal agents took notes. His wife, Bessie, who was captured at the same time, also gave up a lot of information to save herself. The Greens gave the FBI the first detailed knowledge of the gang. From Bessie Green, they learned that Karpis and the Barker brothers traveled with a dowdy old woman who (according to FBI notes) “posed” as their mother. This was when Ma Barker entered the picture for the Feds.
By the end of the year, the Barker-Karpis gang was scattered all over the country, trying to stay away from the FBI and still attempting to pass their share of the Bremer ransom. Various gang members were captured and Bremer money turned up as far away as Havana, where Karpis lived for a brief time with his pregnant girlfriend, Dolores Delaney. Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson – the most famous “public enemies” in America – were all gunned down and killed in 1934, leaving only the Barker-Karpis Gang on the loose.
J. Edgar Hoover was desperate to bring these bandits to justice and the FBI’s desperation had led tragic mistakes in the past, especially at Little Bohemia when Melvin Purvis was trying to track down the Dillinger gang. On January 8, 1935, they almost made another terrible mistake in Chicago. On that morning, an army of agents raided a courtyard apartment building at 3920 North Pine Grove, without alerting the Chicago police. They caused such a commotion with gas and gunfire that city cops rushed to the scene, unaware of what was going on. A general bloodbath was narrowly averted by the arrival of the cops, who discovered that the feds had lobbed tear-gas shells into the wrong apartment. When their mistake was realized, the agents launched an assault on the right place and Byron Bolton, Clara Fisher Gibson, and Ruth Heidt, widow of a recently murdered gang member, surrendered as soon as they could. However, Clara’s husband, Russell Gibson, chose to fight. He put on a bulletproof vest, armed himself with an automatic rifle and a .32-caliber pistol and tried to escape out the back of the building. Gibson barely made it onto a fire escape before an FBI agent with a Winchester rifle put a bullet into his chest. He died a short time later. Gibson, who had joined the gang as a money-passer after the Bremer kidnapping, had been wanted since 1929 for a bank messenger robbery in Oklahoma City.
Earlier on the same day as the battle on Pine Grove Avenue, which angered the Chicago police along with the newspapers, Doc Barker and his girlfriend, Mildred Kuhlman, were arrested by FBI agents outside their apartment at 432 Surf Street. Inside, agents found a map of Florida with the region around Ocala circled. Doc refused to say what the mark on the map meant but Byron Bolton later told his interrogators that Ma and Fred Barker, and possibly other gang members, were living next to a lake in Florida.
Eight days later, on January 16, 1935, a small army of federal agents surrounded a house that was located on Lake Weir in Ocklawaha, Florida, and ordered the occupants of the place to surrender. The only reply they received was a hail of machine gun fire, so the agents opened up on the house. During what became a prolonged battle, the feds poured more than 1,500 rounds into the two-story house. About 45 minutes after all return fire had ceased, Inspector J.E. Connelly sent Willie Woodbury, the Barkers’ black handyman (whom the Barkers would presumably spare) into the house to see if any of the occupants were still alive. After cautiously going inside, Woodbury found Fred Barker dead in an upstairs bedroom with 14 bullet holes in his body. Ma Barker was found nearby, also dead. She had been shot three times.
The bodies of Fred Barker and his mother, Kate
According to J. Edgar Hoover’s publicity machine, a Thompson machine gun was found on the floor between Ma and Fred (although it would later be claimed that it was planted there by FBI agents to justify the murder of Ma Barker). The newspapers, using Hoover’s account, embellished the story and armed Ma with a “smoking machine gun.” Hoover stated that Fred had given her the Thompson and kept another for himself. Agents also found two shotguns, two .45 automatics, a .380 automatic, a Winchester rifle, a large quantity of ammunition, several bulletproof vests and $14,293 in cash in the house. The arsenal was carefully arranged on the front steps so that newspaper photographers and reporters would be able to get a good look.
The bodies of the Barkers remained in the Ocala morgue until October, when George Barker was finally able to get together enough money to have them shipped home. Later, he successfully sued for the recovery of the cash seized after the battle, because the government could not prove that any of it was ransom money.
Doc Barker and other members of the gang were convicted for the Bremer kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison, partly on the testimony of Byron Bolton, who took a deal for the Bremer and Hamm abductions and received concurrent sentences of three to five years. Doc was sent to Leavenworth and then Alcatraz. On Friday, January 13, 1939, he was shot to death by guards as he attempted to escape from the island prison using a crude raft. He was buried at Olivet Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, California, identified by only his prison number. He remains there today, even though a marker with his name on it can be found in the Barker plot at Williams Timberhill Cemetery in Oklahoma.
After the killing of Ma and Fred Barker, Alvin Karpis and Harry Campbell fled to Atlantic City. They were cornered by police at the Dan-Mor Hotel on January 20, 1935, but managed to shoot their way out and escape. Their girlfriends, Dolores Delaney and Wynona Burdette, were captured and sentenced to five years in prison for harboring fugitives. Dolores gave birth to a son while in prison, named him Raymond Alvin Karpis, and gave him to Karpis’ parents in Chicago to take care of.
Karpis and Campbell kidnapped a doctor in Pennsylvania and stole his car, releasing him unharmed in Ohio and dumping the car in Michigan. They later organized a new gang and committed several mail robberies in Ohio before the FBI finally caught up with Karpis. He was staying in a rooming house in New Orleans when he was finally arrested by J. Edgar Hoover himself. Stung by the criticism that he lacked police experience and let his men take all of the risks, the FBI director rushed to New Orleans by airplane and took personal credit for arresting Karpis on May 1, 1936. Karpis later remarked that Hoover stayed safely out of range until agents were holding him at gunpoint, then he took charge for the benefit of the newspapers. Since no one remembered to bring handcuffs for Hoover’s “big arrest,” Karpis’ hands were bound together with Agent Clarence Hurt’s necktie. As he was led away, Karpis jokingly offered to give agents directions to the federal building, claiming that he had planned to rob the post office there. Hoover was not amused.
Alvin Karpis was flown to St. Paul, where he entered a guilty plea for the Hamm kidnapping and received a life sentence. He spent the next 33 years in federal prisons, mostly Alcatraz, before he was paroled in 1969 and deported to Canada. He later moved to Spain and died there in April 1979 from an overdose of sleeping pills that was probably accidental.
Karpis was the last outlaw of the period to be captured and his trial marked the end of what most Americans thought of as the era of the “public enemy.” For at least one unquiet spirit, though, the era of the depression bandits had never really come to an end – it continues on today as the events from a fatal day in 1935 replay themselves over and over again at a small house in Florida.
According to local legend, the ghost of Ma Barker still maintains a presence at the bullet-riddled house on Lake Weir in Ocklawaha. Not only have an old woman’s cries of desperation been reported coming from inside the house, but some curiosity-seekers claim they have actually seen Ma’s face as she peers out the windows, perhaps frantically still watching for the scores of FBI agents who ended her life and that of her beloved son on that January day. Those who report that they have seen this shadowy figure behind the glass initially believe that someone is inside the house, perhaps a fellow tourist or macabre souvenir-seeker. Once they realize that no one ever comes out the door, they slowly realize that the person they have seen is an otherworldly occupant of the dwelling.
And she is one who will likely remain here for many years to come.