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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John Dillinger: A Famous Bandit’s Best Daring Escapes

Last week’s case covered Joseph Christopher. Between September and December 1980, eleven Black men and one boy died in Christopher’s racially motivated attacks. This week, I’m tackling one of my favorite subjects, the infamous depression-era gangster John Dillinger. Dillinger is perhaps America’s most famous bank robber. A proper telling of his saga would take more space than would fit in a single blog post. But he also possessed a talent for getting out of jails and tight spots. So, I will tell you about some of his spectacular escapes instead of the whole story.

The Advent of John Dillinger

The popular image of John Dillinger is a farm boy who became a criminal, but he grew up in the city. He was born in 1903 in Indianapolis, where his father (also John) owned a grocery store. Mollie Dillinger, his mother, passed away before Johnnie’s fourth birthday. Audrey Dillinger, his older sister, helped raise him until the elder Dillinger remarried in 1912. Young John showed a rebellious streak, so John senior decided to move to the rural community of Mooresville, southwest of Indianapolis.

John Dillinger as a young man
John Dillinger as a young man

One of Dillinger’s new pals in Mooresville was an ex-con named Ed Singleton. Together, the two planned to rob Frank Morgan, a local grocer, on Saturday, September 6, 1924. Writer Brian Burrough described the caper as “fueled by stupidity and alcohol,” and both men soon found themselves in jail. Following his father’s advice and the prosecutor’s suggestion, Dillinger entered a guilty plea, expecting leniency. He drew an eye-popping sentence of ten to twenty years instead. His partner hired a lawyer, pleaded not guilty, and served only two years.

John Dillinger mugshot (FBI)
John Dillinger mugshot (FBI)

Dillinger spent nine and a half years incarcerated, many of them in the Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City. His prison pals all happened to be hardened career criminals, and he learned a lot at the feet of these masters. Indiana paroled Dillinger in 1933, and he started forging his path as a bank robber.

John Dillinger at the Indiana State Penitentiary

Dillinger didn’t break out of the Penitentiary himself; he orchestrated the escape of the friends he left behind after his parole. Using stolen money, he procured guns and somehow got them into the hands of his convict buddies. On September 26, 1934, ten inmates used them to overpower guards and run. The escapees included Harry “Pete” Pierpont, Charles Makley, John “Red” Hamilton, and Russell “Boobie” Clark. All later became core members of the Dillinger gang.

Entrance to the grim Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana
Entrance to the grim Indiana State Penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana

Dillinger, however, landed back in jail. Police in Dayton, Ohio, arrested him at a girlfriend’s apartment for robbing a bank in nearby Bluffton. They lodged him in the Allen County Jail in Lima. While his friends enjoyed their newfound freedom, Dillinger appeared to be on his way back to prison.

Allen County, Ohio Jail

Allen County Sheriff Jess Sarber ran the county jail. Kind, roly-poly, and competent, Sarber nevertheless had no previous law enforcement experience. He sold used cars before the Depression forced him out of business.

Allen County, Ohio sheriff Jess Sarber
Allen County, Ohio sheriff Jess Sarber

On Thursday, October 12, Dillinger played pinochle in the jail’s bullpen while Sheriff Sarber read the newspaper. At 6:25 in the evening, the jail’s outer door opened. Three men in suits announced they had come to extradite Dillinger to Indiana. Sarber asked for their credentials, and the first man, Pierpont, shot him in the chest. Dillinger escaped, but Sheriff Sarber died, a murder that would return to haunt Pierpont, Makley, and Clark.

Office of Dr. Charles Eye

By now, Dillinger was a bank robber with a reputation and a pack of lawmen on his trail. Based on a tip, Chicago police planned a raid at the office of dermatologist Dr. Charles Eye. At 7:25 p.m. on November 14, Dillinger drove up in his Essex Terraplane with his girlfriend, Billie Frechette, in the passenger seat.

Emerging from Dr. Eye’s office, Dillinger spotted several cars parked heading the wrong way. Telling Billie to hold on, he slammed the car into reverse and backed into busy Irving Park Boulevard. A short chase followed, but Dillinger eluded his pursuers.

John Dillinger’s Famous Escape at Crown Point

After spending Christmas 1933 in Florida, Dillinger’s gang headed west to Tucson, Arizona. Clark and Makley booked into the Hotel Congress downtown. Things went well until a fire in the hotel led suspicious firefighters to tip off the police. The entire gang soon found themselves under arrest.

Dillinger at the Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Sheriff Lillian Holley is at left. In the center, is prosecutor Robert Estill, who hoped to send Dillinger to Indiana's electric chair. This photo of Estill cozying up to the famous gangster derailed his ambition to become Indiana governor (Getty Images)
Dillinger at the Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana. Sheriff Lillian Holley is at left. In the center, is prosecutor Robert Estill, who hoped to send Dillinger to Indiana’s electric chair. This photo of Estill cozying up to the famous gangster derailed his ambition to become Indiana governor (Getty Images)

Makley, Clark, and Pierpont went to Ohio to stand trial for the murder of Sheriff Sarber in Lima. Dillinger went to the Lake County Jail in Crown Point, Indiana. There he faced a murder charge related to the death of a policeman killed during a robbery in East Chicago. Lake County Sheriff Lillian Holley claimed her jail was “escape proof.” It wasn’t. Dillinger escaped using a pistol he managed to acquire. He claimed he used a fake gun made of wood; jailers contended it was real. Whatever the truth, Dillinger bolted.

The Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, immediately after Dillinger's escape. The building at left is the courthouse. A walkway between buildings is visible in the center of the picture (Chicago Tribune)
The Lake County jail in Crown Point, Indiana, immediately after Dillinger’s escape. The building at left is the courthouse. A walkway between buildings is visible in the center of the picture (Chicago Tribune)

Lincoln Court Apartments

In March 1934, Dillinger and Billie, posing as Mr. and Mrs. Carl Hellman, moved into Apartment 303 of the Lincoln Court Apartments in St. Paul, Minnesota. Soon after the pair moved in, the suspicious landlady tipped off the Bureau of Investigation (precursor to the FBI). Two agents staked out the apartment. On March 31, they recognized and traded shots with Dillinger associate Homer Van Meter.

The Lincoln Court Apartments in 2016 (Author's Photo)
The Lincoln Court Apartments in 2016 (Author’s Photo)

Hearing the shooting, Dillinger let loose a machine gun volley through the door and ran down the stairs and out the back door. One of the agents’ bullets hit him in the left calf, but Dillinger escaped again.

John Dillinger and the Battle of Little Bohemia

Dillinger and his new gang planned a quiet weekend holiday for April 20-22, 1934. They chose a remote lodge in the North Woods of Wisconsin called Little Bohemia. On Sunday morning, the nervous owner’s wife smuggled a message to the BI field office in Chicago. By evening, a posse of federal agents led by Hugh Clegg and Melvin Purvis gathered outside the lodge.

Three men came out of the lodge while agents prepared their raid. The men got into a car and started to drive off. Agents shouted for them to stop, but the car’s radio drowned out the order. The assembled lawmen opened fire, killing one of the men and wounding the others. The men all worked at a nearby Civilian Conservation Corps camp. None knew John Dillinger.

Little Bohemia Lodge after the Bureau of Investigation raid (Wikimedia Commons)
Little Bohemia Lodge after the Bureau of Investigation raid (Wikimedia Commons)

The gunfire alerted the gangsters, and they fanned out from Little Bohemia. Dillinger fled from Little Bohemia’s unguarded back side, hidden by a ridge separating the lodge from Little Star Lake.

FBI mugshot of John Dillinger (FBI)
FBI mugshot of John Dillinger (FBI)

During his getaway, Lester “Baby Face Nelson” Gillis shot and killed BI agent W. Carter Baum and wounded another agent and a local officer.

Epilogue

Dillinger’s luck finally ran out on the night of July 22, 1934. Dillinger and two women went to the movies. The three picked the Biograph Theatre on Lincoln Avenue, showing Manhattan Melodrama starring Clark Gable. Tipped off by one of his companions, the so-called “Woman in Red,” BI agents and East Chicago police gunned down the outlaw as he exited the theater.

A crowd gathers outside Chicago's Biograph Theatre after Bureau of Investigation agents killed John Dillinger in what amounted to an assassination
A crowd gathers outside Chicago’s Biograph Theatre after Bureau of Investigation agents killed John Dillinger in what amounted to an assassination

Several excellent books chronicle the John Dillinger story. The best is Public Enemies by Bryan Burrough. The Dillinger Days by John Toland and Dillinger: The Untold Story by Russell Girardin and William J. Helmer are also excellent.

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Public Enemies

Public Enemies

This week I review one of my favorite true crime books, Brian Burrough’s Public Enemies: America’s Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34.

Instead of looking at a single crime like I did in last week’s blog, the book I review this week covers many crimes and many criminals over a two-year period.

I have always found the so-called public enemies era of the 1930s fascinating and Burrough serves up the whole period in one readable book.  Although it is not a new book (it came out in 2004), it is both detailed and authoritative.

The Public Enemies Era

American in 1933 was in the depths of the Great Depression.  While most people plodded along trying to eek out a living, a flamboyant few who turned to crime became celebrities because of the daring nature of their deeds and the creativity of newspaper writers.  Bank robbers like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, kidnappers like the Barker-Karpis gang and Machine Gun Kelly, and gunmen like Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd all became famous—and infamous.  Audacious robberies and thrilling escapes were fodder for newspapers eager to boost circulation.  The stories were also cheap entertainment for a public short on money for recreation.

Public Enemy: John Dillinger mugshot
John Dillinger

When the new administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt took office in March 1933, Attorney General Homer S. Cummings launched a War on Crime that lasted until 1936.  Cummings may have wanted to use crime-busting to boost his own popularity, but J. Edgar Hoover outmaneuvered him and focused attention–and credit–on himself and the FBI (it was just the Bureau of Investigation until 1935).

The Book

Previous books on this subject tended to focus on one outlaw or group of outlaws rather than the entire period.  Also, until relatively recently, the FBI’s files on this period were not available to researchers.

Burrough states his central aim in writing this book was to “reclaim the War on Crime for the lawmen who fought it.”  He does an excellent job of this, while not whitewashing Bureau’s early mistakes.  He begins by recounting the Kansas City Massacre, the killing of one Bureau agent, three other lawmen, and a prisoner in front of the Kansas City, Missouri train station in June 1933.

The FBI’s first foray into the War on Crime was not promising.  Inexperienced in real criminal law enforcement, agents’ early efforts were amateurish and prone to bone-headed mistakes, some of them deadly.  For example, agents missed several chances to capture John Dillinger, who seemed to have no trouble eluding them.  In one instance, a botched raid on a Wisconsin hunting lodge resulted in the deaths of an innocent civilian and one of the Bureau’s own agents.

Public Enemy: Lester Gillis a.k.a. George "Baby Face" Nelson mugshot
Lester Gillis a.k.a. George “Baby Face” Nelson

Slowly, over the course of three years, the FBI learned from its mistakes and began to evolve into a truly professional crime-fighting organization.  This evolution didn’t happen overnight, but as one reads through the book, the progress is plain to see.  One by one, the marquee gangsters fall, often to FBI bullets.

By 1936, only one major gangster remained at large: Alvin Karpis, the brains of the Barker-Karpis gang.  The FBI arrested him in New Orleans in May 1936, and he went on to spend more time in Alcatraz than any other prisoner on “The Rock.”

Public Enemy: Alvin "Old Creepy" Karpis mugshot
Alvin “Old Creepy” Karpis

Incidentally, of the first four men the FBI designated Public Enemy Number One, Karpis is the only one captured alive.  He went on to outlive many of the 1930s gangsters and lawmen, including J. Edgar Hoover himself.

Recommendation

Public Enemies is both informative and entertaining.  At times, it reads more like an adventure novel than history.  Burrough also does a commendable job of keeping the large cast of major and supporting characters straight.  He also corrects some misinformation that arose either from FBI distortions or highly exaggerated newspaper accounts.

The result is a period-piece snapshot of the lives of Depression-era gangsters and lawmen.

Public Enemy: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd mugshot
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd

As I said at the outset, Public Enemies is one of my favorite true crime books.  I’m probably prejudiced because I have a strong interest in the period and subject matter. But I think any true crime fan will enjoy this book.  I highly recommend it.

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