Ma Barker: Expert Criminal or Feeble Old Woman?

This week’s blog post concerns one of my favorite subjects: the Public Enemies era of the early to mid-1930s. You may have heard of my subject before. Her name was Arizona Donnie Clark Barker. She went by Kate, but history remembers her as the infamous Ma Barker. She had a reputation as a bandit queen who masterminded her sons’ numerous criminal activities. J. Edgar Hoover referred to her as “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” But was that the real Ma Barker?

Ma Barker in the Early Years

Ma Barker was born in Ash Grove, Missouri, on October 8, 1873. Ash Grove is in southwestern Missouri, about sixty miles from Joplin and close to Missouri’s borders with Arkansas and Oklahoma. A rumor claimed she saw Jesse James and his gang ride through town as a girl, and this experience sparked a thirst for adventure.

Probably the best-known photo of Ma Barker
Probably the best-known photo of Ma Barker

Whether the bit about Jesse James was fact or legend, “Arrie” Clark didn’t have much adventure in her life. At least not at first. In 1892, she married a tenant farmer named George Barker, a man the FBI described as “shiftless.” Together they had four sons. Neither George nor Arrie paid much attention to their sons’ educations, and all four were, according to the FBI, “more or less illiterate.” But as her boys turned to crime, Arrie would do everything she could to get them off, regardless of what they’d done.

Ma Barker points to an outdoor Christmas tree. Apparently, this was a "thing" in the Ozarks at the time.
Ma Barker points to an outdoor Christmas tree. Apparently, this was a “thing” in the Ozarks at the time.

By 1931, George was gone. Either he left, or Arrie threw him out. It’s not clear which. Arrie herself was living in dire poverty in a dirt-floor shack. By this time, she’d taken up with a jobless man named Arthur “Old Man” Dunlop. But in 1931, things improved, in a manner of speaking, when her son Fred got out of jail and formed the Barker-Karpis gang with prison friend Alvin Karpis. (Side note: the gang took Dunlop for the proverbial “one-way ride” when they thought, incorrectly, that he had ratted them out to police in St. Paul, Minnesota.)

Ma Barker with Arthu "Old Man" Dunlop
Ma Barker with Arthu “Old Man” Dunlop

Ma Barker and the Outlaw Life

Arthur Barker, nicknamed “Dock” and recently released from prison, joined his brother and Karpis in 1932. At first, they robbed banks, but after moving to the infamously corrupt city of St. Paul, Minnesota, they committed two high-profile kidnappings for ransom. In the first, they snatched brewery president William Hamm and got his family to pay a $100,000 ransom. For their encore, they kidnapped banker Edward Bremer and successfully obtained $200,000.

The Bremer caper proved to be the gang’s undoing. FBI agents identified one of Dock’s fingerprints on a gas can the kidnappers left behind near Portage, Wisconsin. A year later, Karpis was the only gang member still free, and he didn’t remain free for long.

Life for the Barker-Karpis gang was one of constant movement. As law enforcement closed in, the gang had to find a new hideout, frequently with little or no warning. Ma Barker, now going by “Kate” instead of “Arrie,” moved along with her sons, Karpis, and their girlfriends. Kate was never too keen on any of the boys’ girlfriends, which sometimes led to considerable tension.

The house in Ocklawaha, Florida where FBI agents killed Freddy and "Ma" Barker. The arrow points to the bedroom where the bodies were found.
The house in Ocklawaha, Florida where FBI agents killed Freddy and “Ma” Barker. The arrow points to the bedroom where the bodies were found.

The End for Fred and Ma Barker

In January 1935, the FBI arrested Dock in Chicago. Searching his apartment, they found a map indicating the gang was lying low in a house near Ocklawaha, Florida. In the early morning hours of January 16, agents surrounded the house. Unknown to the G-Men, only Fred and his mother were inside. When agents demanded the gang’s surrender, Fred opened fire. The FBI returned fire, and guns blazed away for hours.

When gunfire from the house finally stopped, the FBI ordered a local handyman to enter the dwelling wearing a bulletproof vest. The handyman, Willie Woodbury, reported that no one was alive in the house. Fred’s body was riddled with bullets, but only one bullet appeared to have killed Kate. A machine gun lay between the two bodies.

The Legend of Ma Barker as a Criminal Mastermind

Horrified that his agents had killed an elderly woman with their indiscriminate gunfire, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover cranked the Bureau’s publicity machine into high gear. This was the genesis of the utterly bogus myth that Ma Barker had run a “crime school” for her sons when they were boys and planned their robberies. Hoover himself piled on with his fabrication about Ma Barker’s criminal brain.

Hoover’s claim was pure fiction. Bank robber Harvey Bailey, who knew the Barkers, wrote in his autobiography that Kate “couldn’t plan breakfast.” Alvin Karpis, the actual gang leader, described her as having a fondness for “hillbilly” music, jigsaw puzzles, and the radio show Amos ’n’ Andy. He further maintained:

The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang…. She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive…she knew we were criminals, but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?

A good story often subsumes the truth. So it was with Ma Barker. The FBI’s mythmaking set the stage. In films, a machine-gun-toting Lurene Tuttle in Ma Barker’s Killer Brood and a cigar-chomping, wisecracking Shelly Winters in Bloody Mama have continued to do Hoover’s work for him.

Epilogue

Dock Barker and Alvin Karpis wound up in Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary. On January 13, 1939, Barker attempted to escape under the cover of a foggy night along with inmates Dale Stamphill, Henri Young, William “Ty” Martin, and Rufus McCain. Guards spotted them and opened fire, fatally wounding Barker.

Karpis fared better. Paroled in 1969, he was deported to his native Canada. He moved to Spain in 1973 and died there on August 26, 1979.

Bryan Burrough’s excellent book Public Enemies is an entertaining look at Ma Barker, the Barker-Karpis Gang, and their criminal contemporaries.

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