Machine Gun Kelly
George "Machine Gun" Kelly became a household name across much of America in the 1930's yet his reputation has not fared as well as his name. His career has been largely undocumented. Historians and crime buffs today regard Kelly as a criminal buffoon, a harmless comic relief figure who blundered his way onto the nation's public enemy roster. In contrast, newspapers of the day pictured him as a brazen killer, leader, or a leading member, of a ruthless outlaw gang, including the likes of Verne Miller and Wilbur Underhill, responsible for numerous murders and bank robberies. The real truth lies somewhere in between.
His real name was George Kelly Barnes and he was born in Memphis, Tennessee, July 18, 1895, the son of an insurance executive. His early life seems to give no indication that he would become one of America's most wanted criminals. He lived at 2080 Linden, in the respectable Cowden-Rembert District, and attended Central High School. In September 1917, Barnes enrolled at Mississippi A&M (later Mississippi State University), at Jackson, to study agriculture.
His college career was brief and unspectacular. Enrolled as a probationary student, George Barnes picked up thirty-one demerits in the first semester and twenty-four more in the first few weeks of the second. His highest grade was a 79, or C-plus, in physical hygiene, and he recieved a zero in woodwork and "incomplete" in military science. He reportedly once climbed the flagpole and repaired a pulley, to erase demerits. Barnes left the school on January 27, 1918.
It was at the college that Barnes met Geneva Ramsey, also of Memphis. They were married in 1919. George had two children by Geneva but she divorced him soon afterward. He went to work as a cabdriver for the 784 Taxi Cab Company in Memphis but soon quit. With Prohibition in force, moonshining and bootlegging were more profitable. In 1933, Geneva, still in Memphis but by then Mrs. F. X. Trimbach, told reporters she had divorced George seven years earlier "because he was running in bad company." "George and I were married in Clarksville, Mississippi fourteen years ago", she said. "He was a student at A & M College and I was just graduated from Columbia Institute at Columbia, Tennessee. I was only 17 and George was 19. I had to advertise notice to get a divorce because I didn't know where to reach him."
After a few arrests for bootlegging, George Kelly Barnes abandoned Memphis and headed west. He also adopted the alias of George R. Kelly, apparently to preserve the good name of the family. (Years later, at Alcatraz, Kelly would tell Warden James A. Johnston: "My family are good people. Only I turned out to be a heel").
Kelly was arrested for bootlegging at Santa Fe, New Mexico, March 14, 1927, tried and convicted, and spent a few months in the State Penitentiary. After his release, he went to Tulsa and was arrested there, July 24, for vagrancy. The Sheriff's Office at Tulsa picked him up on a bootlegging charge on January 12, 1928.
Kelly drifted to Oklahoma City and found employment with bootlegger "Little Steve" Anderson. He also met Kathryn Thorne, Anderson's attractive mistress, and romance developed. George and Kathryn soon ran off together. Legend has it they also stole Anderson's sixteen cylinder Cadillac and prize-winning English bulldog.
Kathryn was born Cleo Brooks in Saltillo, Mississippi in 1904, the daughter of James Emery and Ora Brooks. She was married at fifteen to a laborer named Lonnie Frye, by whom she had a daughter, Pauline. They were soon divorced and the daughter stayed with Cleo, who adopted the more glamorous name of Kathryn. She was reportedly also briefly married to a man named Allie Brewer. Kathryn's parents were also divorced and Ora married Robert K. G. "Boss" Shannon, a Democratic political boss in Wise County, Texas. Ora took up bootlegging and Shannon later rented his ranch to criminals as a hideout, for $50 a night. Kathryn's next husband was a bootlegger named Charlie Thorne, whom she is alleged to have assisted in his business. Thorne was later found shot to death. A coroner's jury called it suicide, though Kathryn had allegedly told a gas station attendant on the day before, "I'm bound for Coleman, Texas, to kill that god-damned Charlie Thorne." One of Kathryn's uncles was in Leavenworth on an interstate car theft charge, another was a suspected counterfeiter. An aunt was a prostitute. A cousin was a bootlegger. Kathryn herself had been arrested by Fort Worth police in 1929, under the alias of Dolores Whitney, charged with shoplifting. She was convicted in Oklahoma City, as Mrs. J. E. Burnell, of robbery but this was reversed on appeal. She reportedly also had been arrested for prostitution and receiving stolen goods.
She was working in Fort Worth as a manicurist when a local businessman, impressed with her innocent nature, supposedly asked her for a date. J. Edgar Hoover later quoted the man as telling a friend: "Remember that innocent little girl I was going to show a good time ? She took me to more speakeasies, more bootleg dives, more holes in the wall than I thought there were in all Texas. She knows more bums than the Police Department. She can drink liquor like water. And she's got some of the toughest women friends I ever laid eyes on !"
Legend also has it that Kathryn "created" George "Machine Gun" Kelly. She's said to have bought Kelly his first Thompson sub-machine gun, made him practice with it, and passed out the spent cartridges to her relatives and friends as souvenirs from "Machine Gun" Kelly, a desperate criminal wanted in three states for murder, kidnapping, and bank robbery. Supposedly, Kelly had been a machine gunner in the World War (he had actually been a college student and, anyhow, would not have been a tommy gun expert because the Thompson didn't go into production until war's end, by which time the Army wasn't interested) and was so proficient with a "chopper" that he could write his name in lead and knock walnuts off a fence at twenty-five paces. Kathryn may have spread stories to that effect - the FBI wanted poster on Kelly, dated August 14, 1933, describes him as an "Expert machine gunner" - but it seems to have had little effect on George's underworld stature. He was still just a small-time bootlegger and the nickname "Machine Gun" was not to appear in the nation's press until after the Urschel kidnapping.
On January 13, 1928, Federal Prohibition agents caught Kelly smuggling liquor onto an Indian reservation. At the Federal Court in Tulsa, he was sentenced to three years in Leavenworth and was received there, February 11, as George Kelly, #29362. It seems to have been here that Kelly made his first connections with the big-time underworld.
His new friends included a Texas bank robber, Charlie Harmon, and three notorious bank and train robbers. Frank "Jelly" Nash, a former member of the Al Spencer gang, was serving a 25-year sentence for a $20,000 train robbery at Okesa, Oklahoma in 1923. Francis Keating and Thomas Holden were doing a similar stretch for a $135,000 train robbery at Evergreen Park, Illinois in 1926. On February 28, 1930, Keating and Holden walked out of Leavenworth, using forged trusty passes. It was later suspected that Kelly and Harmon, who worked in the photography section of the prison records room, supplied the passes. After his own parole, also in 1930, Kelly joined the pair in the Twin Cities. Frank Nash escaped the same year and also headed in that direction. So did Charlie Harmon, after his relase (Harmon would be killed on November 19, 1931, following a $100,000 bank robbery with Holden and Keating at Menomonie, Wisconsin; his widow, Paula "Fat-Witted" Harmon, was later the mistress of Fred Barker).
Kathryn Thorne journeyed north from Texas at about this time. She and George Kelly were married in Minneapolis in September 1930.
Kelly probably got together with Holden and Keating at Harry Sawyer's Green Lantern saloon, at 545-1/2 Wabasha in St. Paul. Sawyer was a local bootlegger who rented hideouts to the many criminal gangs visiting St. Paul, a notorious "safe town", and delivered payoffs to police officials, assuring the gangsters immunity from arrest. Under the reign of his predecessor, Dan Hogan, there had been the added stipulation that the gangs could commit no crimes within the city limits. This part of the arrangement had fallen apart when Hogan was killed by a car bomb in 1928. Holden and Keating were linked to Harvey Bailey and his associates, Verne Miller, Bernard "Big Phil" Phillips, and Lawrence DeVol.
Kelly was accepted into the gang for occasional robberies. Between jobs, he and Kathryn lived in fair luxury at a Mulkey Street house in Fort Worth, built by the late Charlie Thorne. The others, known variously as the Holden-Keating gang, Bailey gang, or Nash-Bailey gang, gravitated between St. Paul, Kansas City, where Verne Miller lived and had Pendergast-Lazia mob connections, and Chicago, where they associated with Louis "Doc" Stacci, Gus Winkeler, Fred "Killer" Burke, Joe Bergl and others in and around the Capone organization.
On July 15, 1930, Kelly joined Bailey, Holden and others in robbing the Bank of Willmar, at Willmar, Minnesota, getting $70,000. One gang member, "Jew Sammy" Stein, was fatally shot during the getaway, probably by police bullets, though there was speculation that his associates killed him. Stein, found in a roadside wooded area near White Bear Lake, was wanted for killing a policeman in a 1928 bank robbery in Kansas City.
On April 8, 1931, Harvey Bailey, Frank Nash, Verne Miller and "Dutch Joe", who had also taken part in the Willmar job, robbed the Central State Bank at Sherman, Texas of $40,000. They fled in a black Buick to Caddo Lake, near the Louisiana line, where Kelly met them with a second getaway car, a Cadillac.
Kelly's list of underworld associates grew. He became acquainted with members of the "Kid Cann" syndicate in Minneapolis, with Chicago mobsters, with Alvin Karpis and the Barkers. His accomplices on various crimes included Eddie Bentz, Eddie Doll and Albert Bates.
Edward Wilhelm (or Wilheim) Bentz, a safecracker turned daylight bank robber, had been a career criminal for two decades. Born in Minnesota, his father, a hostler, was killed by a runaway horse when Eddie was nine. He then moved, with his mother, five sisters and four brothers, to Tacoma, Washington. As a teenager, he was sentenced to a year and a half for larceny at the State Training School at Chehalis, Washington. He escaped. He was arrested fourteen more times in the next twenty-six years but often released. Twice, he broke jail and he was paroled or released from prison on five occasions. Eventually he teamed with Eddie Doll and Avery Simmons (alias Dan or Jim Ripley), a pair of Chicago bank robbers known as the "Gold Dust Twins." Under their tutelage, Bentz allegedly became a master at casing banks. By the early 1930's, according to J. Edgar Hoover, Bentz was semi-retired from active robbery, having accumulated a fortune in bank bonds. He was suspected of planning the $2,000,000 robbery of the Lincoln National Bank and Trust Company at Lincoln, Nebraska, carried out by the Bailey gang on September 17, 1930. He would later boast to the FBI of having robbed between "fifty and a hundred banks" in his life.
Edward Doll, alias Eddie "Blackie" LaRue or "Burlington Eddie", born and raised in a Chicago slum, orphaned as a boy, had begun his criminal career as a teenage car thief, then progressed to bootlegging, bank robbery and kidnapping. He was a member of an interstate ring of professional car thieves at one time and allegedly also was a "spot killer" for Chicago mobsters. Doll's other associates included the likes of Al Capone, Gus Winkeler and Theodore "Handsome Jack" Klutas. He was also wanted for the Lincoln bank job and was later linked to the "College Kidnappers", an Illinois gang headed by Klutas which specialized in kidnapping underworld figures for ransom. Doll was married to a respectable girl he had met in Chicago. He had conned her into believing he was both a wealthy oilman and cattle dealer and a federal agent, explaining his frequent out-of-state trips as criminal investigations.
Albert L. Bates, whose aliases included George Bates, George L. Davis, George Harris and J. B. King, was Kelly's most regular partner. As J. B. King, Bates was sentenced to the state penitentiary at Carson City, Nevada, on March 28, 1916, for 1-to-15 years for burglary. He was paroled on November 13, 1917. He received six months in jail at Salt Lake City for petty theft. On August 3, 1921, Bates was received at the Utah State Penitentiary on another burglary sentence. He escaped on October 27, 1926. On May 10, 1927, Bates was received at the Canon City, Colorado state penitentiary, to serve 3-to-5 years for burglary, and was released on July 15, 1930. State police picked him up on a minor charge at Paw Paw, Michigan and he spent thirty days in jail. Bates had a silver plate in one shoulder, reportedly from a wound received in an old robbery, and was wanted across the country for bank robbery. Denver police also wanted him for a 1926 burglary and suspected him of murdering his accomplices, J. E. "Mike" Conway and Frank "Frisco Whitey" Carroll.
Kelly's first venture into kidnapping occurred at South Bend, Indiana on January 27, 1932. Howard Woolverton, a local manufacturer and banker's son, was driving home from a theatre with his wife, when another car forced them to the curb. A gunman heaped onto their runningboard and said "this is a stickup", and told Woolverton to "follow orders." He then got into their car and ordered Woolverton to drive out of town. The Woolvertons were instructed not to look around. The gunman's accomplice followed in the other car. Two miles outside town, the gunman removed Woolverton's spectacles, replacing them with smoked glasses, and took him from the car. Mrs. Florence Woolverton was given a note demanding $50,000 ransom and released. The kidnappers were Geroge Kelly and Eddie Doll.
Woolverton was blindfolded and driven around northern Indiana for two days but finally convinced his kidnappers he was unable to pay the ransom. He was relased on the outskirts of Michigan City, on his promise to raise the money later. He reportedly later received threatening letters and phone calls demanding the money but ignored them.
Kelly reverted to bank robbery. On September 21, 1932, the First Trust and Savings Bank at Colfax, Washington was robbed of $77,000. Warrants were subsequently issued for the arrest of George Kelly, Albert Bates and Edward Bentz. At the request of Tacoma police, Fort Worth police raided the Kelly's Mulkey Street address in November 1932. The Kellys and Bates were gone. Eddie Bentz was arrested at the Dallas Post Office, admitted knowing Kelly and Bates but denied participating in the Colfax robbery. He told police that Kelly and Bates often hid on a Texas farm but claimed not to know the location. Bentz was relased on bond and later fled.
On November 30, 1932, Kelly, Bates, Eddie Doll and another man robbed the Citizens State Bank at Tupelo, Mississippi of $38,000. Kelly carried a .38 pistol on this robbery, not a machine gun. Homer Edgeworth, the bank's chief teller, would later say of Kelly: "he was the kind of guy that, if you looked at him, you would have never thought he was a bank robber." But Kelly was still an unknown. Numerous witnesses wrongly identified the leader of the gang as Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd. The Memphis Commercial Appeal later received and published a letter of denial, signed "Charles Floyd", which may or may not have been genuine.
Kelly and his friends were also linked to bank robberies in Denton and Blue Ridge, Texas. Kelly and Bates were invited to participate in a bank robbery at Clinton, Iowa but declined after seeing the bank, feeling the prospects for a getaway were slim.
Returning to Fort Worth, the Kellys made plans for another kidnapping. The intended victim was Guy Waggoner, son of a Fort Worth oil magnate. In the latter part of February 1933, Kathryn visited the Wolf & Klar pawnshop and bought a Thompson submachine gun for $250. At a party at her Mulkey Street home, Kathryn approached two of the guests, Ed Weatherford and J. W. Swinney and invited them to take part in the job. Weatherford and Swinney were local police detectives. They had befriended Kathryn, hoping to cultivate her as an informant. She knew they were cops but believed them to be corrupt. The two officers begged off, saying it was too risky to get involved in any local crimes. Apparently suspecting nothing, Kathryn then asked for a favor: if George, or his partner, Albert Bates should ever be arrested in another state, would the detectives send a wire that they were wanted in Texas for bank robbery ? "And you boys come and claim them. Is that a go ?" Swinney and Weatherford agreed, then made an excuse to leave the party and warn the FBI.
Guy Waggoner was placed under constant police surveillance. The Kellys and Bates postponed their plans but apparently never suspected where the tip came from.
As their next victim, the Kellys and Bates selected Charles F. Urschel, a millionaire oilman who had married the widow of legendary oil magnate Tom Slick. In the meantime, a series of related events transpired.
On May 30, 1933, eleven convicts, led by Kelly's friend Harvey Bailey, escaped from the state penitentiary at Lansing, Kansas, kidnapping the warden and two guards. After releasing the hostages, Bailey and some of the escapees fled into the Cookson Hills of eastern Oklahoma, to launch a series of southwestern bank robberies.
On June 17, the Union Station massacre was committed in Kansas City by Verne Miller and "Pretty Boy" Floyd, in a botched attempt to deliver Frank Nash from federal custody. For a long time, this crime would be attributed to Harvey Bailey and his gang. "Machine Gun" Kelly, partly because of his past association with Nash and Bailey, would also be named as a suspect but only after his new notoriety in the Urschel kidnapping.
Shortly after 11 p.m., July 22, 1933, George Kelly and Albert Bates entered the front porch of Charles Urschel's mansion at 327 N.W. 18th Street in Oklahoma City. Kelly (and also Bates, by some accounts) was armed with a tommy gun. Mr. Mrs. Urschel were playing bridge with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Jarrett, on the porch when their game was interrupted.
Mrs. Urschel cried out and raised her hands. "Stop that !" Kelly ordered. "Keep quiet or we'll blow your heads off. Which one's Urschel ?" Neither man spoke up, so both were taken. Urschel and Jarrett were forced into the back seat of a sedan and covered by Bates. Kelly drove out of town a few miles, then stopped. Both men were searched for identifications. Jarrett was robbed of $51 and released. He later said that the "tall man" (Kelly) was constantly addressed by his companion as "Floyd" and guessed that this was a subterfuge to make them think the kidnap leader was "Pretty Boy" Floyd.
After her husband's abduction, Bernice Urschel called the police, then phoned J. Edgar Hoover at National 7117 in Washington, D. C. The FBI, then known as the Division of Investigation, entered the case immediately.
Urschel was taken to the Shannon ranch in Texas, where he was guarded part of the time by "Boss" Shannon and his son Armon, known as "Potatoes" and noted the seeming father-son relationship between these two men. He noted that twice each day an airplane would pass overhead, except for one day when there was a severe thunderstorm. He would then wait about five minutes, to ask his captors the time. The plane flew over each day at about 9:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. He noticed a distinct mineral taste in the water, given to him in a tin cup, and heard the creaky old pump from which the water was drawn. He planted his finerprints wherever possible. He engaged his captors in conversations and listened intently to anything that was said, noting that the area had recently suffered a severe drought.
Bates was one of the most conversive of Urschel's captors. He expressed disdain for the Barrow brothers, notorious Texas outlaws who had just been involved in wild gun battles with police in Missouri and Iowa: "They're just a couple of cheap filling station and car thieves. I've been stealing for twenty-five years and my group doesn't deal in anything cheap. I wouldn't hesitate to rob the Security National Bank." He freely admitted that he and his partner had committed several bank robberies and also mentioned declining the invitation to help rob a Clinton, Iowa bank.
Letters were soon received by Mrs. Urschel and by family friends E. E. Kirkpatrick and John G. Catlett, some written by Urschel, giving the kidnappers' demand of $200,000 in $20 bills as ransom for Urschel's safe return. The money was delivered to Kelly by Kirkpatrick near the LaSalle Hotel in Kansas City on July 30. The following night Urschel was released near Norman, Oklahoma. He walked to a barbecue stand and called a taxi.
From the clues Urschel provided, it was relatively easy to locate the place of his confinement. Airline schedules confirmed that an American Airways plane pased over Paradise, Texas each day between 9:40 and 9:45 in the morning and 5:40 and 5:45 in the evening. It would be a marvelous detective story except that the FBI already had a good idea who the kidnappers were, and would have gotten around to checking out the Shannon ranch anyhow. Both Mrs. Urschel and the Jarretts had identified a photo of George Kelly as resembling one of the kidnappers. On the day after the kidnapping, Kathryn herself had inadvertently drawn more suspicion in an apparent attempt to establish an alibi. She met one of her supposed detective friends in Fort Worth, saying she had just come from St. Louis. The detective noticed red dirt on the car tires, however, and Oklahoma newspapers in the seat. Remembering Kathryn's earlier invitation to help with a kdinapping, the detective immdeiately suspected the Kelly's involvement in the Urschel snatch. As soon as she left, he called the FBI. (In Spain in 1978, Alvin Karpis told former FBI agent Tom McDade a different version of how the Urschel case was cracked: .".....there were two local cops in on it and when they didn't get their split, they blew the whistle"; presumably, he was referring to Weatherford and Swinney.)
In the meantime, Harvey Bailey had shown up at the Shannon ranch. He borrowed Kelly's machine gun, used it to rob a bank in Kingfisher, Oklahoma on August 9, then returned to the ranch. After splitting the $200,000 ransom, Kelly and Bates each gave Bailey $500 of the ransom bills, in payment of Kelly's old debt, and advised him to "beat it" as the place was "hot." His two companions left, as did the Kellys and Bates, but Bailey, suffering from a leg wound sustained during his recent prison break, elected to remain awhile.
The Kellys and Bates headed for Minneapolis, where they split up, after selling part of the ransom. George and Kathryn left the Twin Cities on August 5. The Urschel bills, whose serial numbers had been recorded, had drawn the FBI to the area. On the same day, Isidore "Kid Cann" Blumenfeld, Minneapolis crime boss, and his men Sam Kronick, Sam Kozberg, Edward "Barney" Berman and Clifford Skelly were arrested for passing ransom money. Only Berman and Skelly would be convicted of this.
On August 12, the Shannon ranch was raided. A party of FBI agents, Dallas and Fort Worth officers, including Weatherford and Swinney, and Charles Urschel himself, swooped in and arrested Robert and Ora Shannon, Armon and Oleta Shannon and Harvey Bailey. Bailey was caught sleeping on a porch, with a .351 Winchester, a .45 automatic and Kelly's Thompson at his side, by Special Agent Gus Jones, who headed the investigations of both the Urschel kidnapping and the Kansas City Massacre. Jones considered Bailey a prime suspect in both. $700 of the Urschel money was taken from Bailey.
Gus Jones later testified that Bailey told him he'd only had the machine gun four days but knew that it had previously been used by Kansas City gangsters in the murder of a hoodlum named Ferris Anthon. The FBI subsequently traced the gun to the Fort Worth pawnshop where Kathryn had bought it.
There were later allegations that Kathryn bought several machine guns. These were allegedly shipped to Chicago and stored for the Kellys at the Janitors' Union run by Louis "Two-Gun" Alterie, a notorious mobster. At any rate, the newspapers began calling George "Machine Gun" Kelly at this time. Justice Department press releases described him as a "desperate character" who had served "several prison sentences", an "expert machine gunner", and as leader of one of the most feared gangs in the Southwest.
"Boss" Shannon admitted guarding Urschel at the ranch but claimed that Kelly had threatened to kill him if he refused.
The Kellys had left the Shannon ranch in Kathryn's 16-cylinder Cadillac, confident they were not suspected. The arrests of the money-changers and the Shannons changed this and panic began to set in. The Kellys fled to Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, Davenport, Des Moines, back to Chicago, trading cars along the way and adopting disguises. Kathryn wore a red wig. Kelly dyed his hair, first red, then bright yellow. Both were drinking heavily.
The scene now shifted to Colorado. Guy Waggoner, the Fort Worth oilman's son, had a summer home in Broadmoor, a suburb of Colorado Springs. Police received a tip about another kinap plot against him. Waggoner was again placed under guard. The plotters were alleged to be George Kelly, now known as "Machine Gun" Kelly, Albert Bates and Verne Miller, the actual perpetrator of the Kansas City Massacre.
In Chicago, a man named Frank Kristoff was arrested with several hundred dollars worth of stolen money orders. The money orders had been taken in the 1932 Tupelo, Mississippi bank robbery. Kristoff claimed to have gotten them from a man named "Joe" at a restaurant in Denver. He identified "Joe" from a mug shot as Albert Bates. On the same day the Shannons were arrested in Texas, Bates was picked up at a hotel run by ex-convict Herman Herbert at 19th and Arapahoe in Denver.
Bates at first gave his name as George L. Davis but later admitted his identity. He had $660 on his person which he requested be given to his attorney, Ben Laska. Police took the money, which would prove to be part of the Urschel ransom. Chief Albert T. Clark and Captain Armstrong also strongly suspected that Bates had been involved in several past bank robberies in the Denver area. One was the $12,000 robbery, by a lone gunman, of the National Bank at Louisville, Colorado on January 20, 1932. Four witnesses viewed Bates and positively identified him as the robber. Amazingly, Bates admitted the crime, which convinced the Denver police he was wanted for something more serious.
Bates got word to his wife, Clara, through another prisoner being released. Mrs. Bates, a.k.a. Mrs. George Davis or Clara Feldman, paid the man $200 for the information, then left their Pearl Street apartment and sent a wire to Fort Worth detectives Weatherford and Swinney before leaving town: "GEORGE L. DAVIS HELD IN DENVER WANTED IN BLUE RIDGE, TEXAS, BANK ROBBERY. WILL WAIVE EXTRADITION. COME AT ONCE. ADVISE COMING BY AIRPLANE.....GEORGE L. DAVIS"
The Fort Worth detectives turned the wire over to the FBI, who took Bates into custody, along with the money.
In Oklahoma City, the federal government began preparations to try the Shannons, Bates, Bailey and the Minneapolis money-changers in the first major "Lindbergh Law" case. Assistant Attorney General Joseph B. Keenan was assigned to personally prosecute the case. On August 18, he received the following letter, written by Kathryn Kelly:
"The entire Urschel family and friends, and all of you will be exterminated soon. There is no way I can prevent it. I will gladly put George Kelly on the spot for you if you will save my mother, who is innocent of any wrong doing. If you do not comply with this request, there is no way in which I can prevent the most awful tragedy. If you refuse my offer I shall commit some minor offense and be placed in jail so that you will know that I have no connection with the terrible slaughter that will take place in Oklahoma City within the next few days."
The Kellys were then in Des Moines. They also sent a telegram to Louise Magness, who lived at Kathryn's Fort Worth home. Louise flew to Des Moines, picked up the Kellys, then drove them to Brownwood, Texas. Posing as George's sister, she bought them a 1928 Chevrolet sedan. According to an FBI report, "Louise Magness has a long criminal record, has practiced prostitution and has been an associate and companion of desperate gangsters."
On Labor Day, September 4, Harvey Bailey escaped from the "escape-proof" Dallas County skyscraper jail. He bribed a jailer, Thomas L. Manion to smuggle him a pistol and two saws. Manion even helped saw the bars when Bailey was tired. Bailey was recaptured the same day in Ardmore, Oklahoma. Manion and a civilian, Grover C. Bevill, who had furnished the hacksaws, were later convicted of aiding Bailey's escape and sentenced to two years and fourteen months, respectively. (There are other versions of the escape: Bailey would claim in later years that Manion brought him the gun and saws of his own accord, probably planning to shoot Bailey during the break and claim a reward; Dallas County Deputy Ted Hinton would write, in his sometimes erroneous book Ambush, that Kelly bribed Manion and Bevill on Bailey's behalf.)
On the same day, Mr. and Mrs. Luther William Arnold and their twelve year old daughter Geraldine were hitchhiking near Hillsboro, Texas. The Arnolds were unemployed nomads, victims of the Depression. They were picked up by a red-haired woman in a blue gingham dress who drove a Model-A Ford light truck. She drove them to Cleburne, Texas, bought their meals, and rented them a cabin for the night. The next morning she bought clothes for Mrs. Arnold and Geraldine and said, "I can fix it so you can make some money. Can I trust you ?" The Arnolds agreed and the woman said, "I'm Kathryn Kelly." She then gave Luther $50 and instructed him to go to Fort Worth, contact her lawyer, and find out why the Government hadn't yet agreed to release her mother in exchange for George's arrest.
The Government wasn't about to consider any such deal, as Arnold soon learned. He returned to Cleburne and told Kathryn so. She then sent him to Oklahoma City, with instructions to keep her posted on details of the trial. In Oklahoma City, Arnold called at the General Delivery window of the Post Office and received a letter from Kathryn, telling where to meet her in San Antonio. Arnold went to the San Antonio address (160 Mahncke Court), found his wife and daughter there with Kathryn, who was now accompanied by George Kelly. George stayed one night and left.
Kathryn requested another favor. She wanted to take Geraldine on "a little trip of 250 miles." The Arnolds consented and Kathryn gave Arnold a letter to deliver to her father, James Emery Brooks, in Oklahoma City. The letter instructed Mr. Brooks to give the bearer her pistol and any cash which he might send. With a child for cover, Kathryn picked up George and headed for Chicago. Along the way, the Kellys stopped at the farm of Cass Coleman, one of Kathryn's uncles, near Coleman, Texas. Here, the Kelly's buried $73,250 of the ransom money. Mrs. Arnold later received a letter from Kathryn advising her that the trip had been extended and telling her to join her husband in Oklahoma City, to await the return of their daughter.
On September 19, Charles Urschel received a bloodcurdling letter from Chicago: "Just a few lines to let you know that I am getting my plans made to destroy your so-called mansion, and you and your family immediately after this trial. And young fellow, I guess you've begun to realize your serious mistake. Are you ignorant enough to think the Government can guard you forever. I gave you credit for more sense than that, and figured you thought too much of your family to jeopardize them as you have, but if you don't look out for them, why should we. I dislike hurting the innocent, but I told you exactly what would happen and you can bet $200,000 more everything I said will be true. You are living on borrowed time now. You know that the Shannon family are victims of circumstances the same as you was. You don't seem to mind prosecuting the innocent, neither will I have conscious qualms over brutally murdering your family. The Shanons have put the heat on, but I don't desire to see them prosecuted as they are innocent and I have a much better method of settling with them. As far as the guilty being punished you would probably have lived the rest of your life in peace had you tried only the guilty, but if the Shannons are convicted look out, and God help you for he is the only one that will be able to do you any good. In the event of my arrest I've already formed an outfit to take care of and destroy you and yours the same as if I was there. I am spending your money to have you and your family killed - nice - eh ? You are bucking people who have cash - planes, bombs and unlimited connection both here and abroad. I have friends in Oklahoma City that know every move and every plan you make, and you are still too dumb to figure out the finger man there."
"If my brain was no larger than yours, the Government would have had me long ago, as it is I am drinking good beer and will yet see you and your family like I should have left you at first - stone dead."
"I don't worry about Bates and Bailey. They will be out for the ceremonies - your slaughter."
"Now say - it is up to you; if the Shannons are convicted, you can get another rich wife in hell, because that will be the only place you can use one. Adios, smart one. Your worst enemy, GEO. R. KELLY I will put my fingerprints below so you can't say some crank wrote this."
In Chicago, the Kellys were harbored by Abe and Charles Caplan (Kaplan), owners of a Michigan Avenue tavern. A former friend of Kelly's, Joe Bergl, a Cicero garage owner, wanted nothing more to do with them, but did provide the Kellys with a Chevrolet car, $200, and a quart of whiskey to get rid of them. On September 21, the Kellys, still accompanied by Geraldine Arnold, drove to Memphis.
On the following day, Federal Reserve bank messengers were robbed in Chicago by five bandits, driving an armor-plated Hudson equipped with a police siren and a smoke-screen device. At Jackson and Halsted, they collided with another car and the armored Hudson overturned. Two traffic cops approached the accident and gangsters opened fire with machine guns, killing Patrolman Miles A. Cunningham. They commandeered a passing car and escaped with their loot, mostly sacks of worthless mail.
"Machine Gun" Kelly was known to have been in Chicago recently, as was Verne Miller, and they became prime suspects, especially after the car was searched. Joe Bergl's address was found in the car. He had equipped the Hudson with the armor and other accessories. Also found in the vehicle were several license plates, some stolen, from different states. One set of 1933 Illinois plates (699-493) was issued to J. J. Rosenburg, of 3818 West Roosevelt Road, Chicago. J. J. Rosenburg was an alias of George Kelly's. Roadmaps of Texas and Oklahoma were also found in the car. "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Adam Richetti and one Clifford "Kip" Harback would later also be named as suspects.
Nearly a month earlier (on August 30), a gang of machine gunners had staged a similar, but more successful raid in St. Paul. Stockyards National Bank messengers were robbed on the steps of the South St. Paul Post Office of $33,000. One policeman was killed and another wounded. Police theorized that both robberies were the work of the same gang, the "Southwestern gang of Verne Miller and Machine Gun Kelly", who were raising funds to set their cohort Harvey Bailey free.
Newspapers erroneously reported that ballistic tests had proved the same guns were used in both the Chicago and St. Paul killings and also the Kansas City Massacre. In fact, the St. Paul and Chicago crimes were both committed by the Barker-Karpis gang (a machine gun stolen from the murdered St. Paul officer would be recovered by the FBI from Arthur "Doc" Barker's Chicago apartment after his arrest in January 1935).
In Memphis, the Kellys holed up at the home of John C. Tichenor, at 1408 Raymer, celebrating, as best they could, their third wedding anniversary. Tichenor bought a Model 1911 Colt .45 automatic from a Memphis auto dealer for $10, then sold it to Kelly for $17.50.
Kelly next contacted attorney Langford Ramsey, a former brother-in-law, entrusted him with the Chevrolet, and instructed him to drive to Texas and pick up some of the ransom money from Cass Coleman's ranch. Ramsey took Geraldine along as a guide and for identification as Kelly's representative.
Coleman was already under FBI surveillance and refused to dig up the money. Ramsey wired Kelly that the "deal fell through", then put Geraldine on a train to Oklahoma City and wired Luther Arnold that his daughter was coming home. Unknown to Ramsey, the Arnolds had already been arrested and were talking. The FBI intercepted the wire and met Geraldine at the station. She told everything.
At dawn, September 26, 1933, Memphis police, accompanied by a few FBI agents under Special Agent in Charge William A. Rorer, surrounded the Tichenor house. Armed with a sawed-off shotgun, Memphis police sergeant William Raney burst into the Kelly's room. Kelly, hung over and wearing his pajamas, was standing, holding the .45 automatic. Kathryn was asleep on the bed. They had consumed six quarts of gin during the night. Raney thrust his shotgun into Kelly's stomach and ordered him to drop his gun. Kelly dropped the gun on his foot and said, "I've been waiting for you all night." The Kellys were quickly taken into custody, along with John Tichenor and his brother-in-law, Seymore E. Travis.
In a masterpiece of public relations propaganda, the FBI later conjured up the myth which they still circulate, that Kelly cried, "Don't shoot, G-men !", at the time of his arrest. Supposedly, Kelly coined the term as an abbreviation for "Government Men." At any rate, "G-Men" fit much more nicely into the headlines than "Division of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice", which was the Bureau's official title until July 1, 1935.
FBI agents next visited the Coleman farm, arrested Cass Coleman, and dug up the buried money. Later, Albert Bate's wife, Clara Feldman, would tell the FBI where she had hidden another $36,450 of the ransom. Clara's brother-in-law, Alvin H. Scott, would be caught with $1,360 in Urschel money after an auto accident at Roseburg, Oregon and would disclose the location of another $6,140.
In Oklahoma City, the trial of the original defendants was drawing to a close. On September 30, Harvey John Bailey, Albert Bates, Robert and Ora Shannon, Armon Shannon and the two money-changers, Edward Berman and Clifford Skelly, were convicted of conspiracy to violate the federal kidnapping law. On October 7, Bailey, Bates, and the elder Shannons were sentenced to life, while Armon Shannon, who impressed the court as a dimwitted but loyal son, got ten years probation. Berman and Skelly were each sentenced to five years.
Flown to Oklahoma City under heavy guard, the Kellys were expected to plead guilty but surprised everyone by doing the opposite and forcing another trial out of the Government. George, who had admitted his own guilt at the time of his arrest, was willing to take all the blame and tried to shield Kathryn. Nevertheless, on October 12, both were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kathryn, who had proclaimed innocence thoughout the proceedings, commented, "My Pekingnese dog would have got a life sentence in that court."
Kathryn claimed to be an innocent victim of her "marriage to a gangster." Her father supported her claim of innocence: "About three years ago last Fall she married Kelly. My understanding was that Kelly owned a garage in Chicago. She was never in any trouble so far as I know up to the time she met Kelly. Kelly was her downfall. You know the woman usually does what her husband says."
Kathryn deeded her Fort Worth home and other expensive property to her fourteen year old daughter, Pauline Frye, who was sent to live with an aunt in Oklahoma. She bade farwell to George, telling him, "be a good boy", as he departed for Leavenworth. She was sent to a federal prison in Cincinnati and later transferred to Milan, Michigan. George Kelly, arrogant in the limelight of captivity, boasted he would escape by Christmas and Kathryn asserted her belief in this. Proclaiming that she still loved "Machine Gun", she told reporters, "George will see me Christmas. He told me he will break out Christmas and get me out. He always does as he says he will."
It never happened. Kelly remained in Leavenworth until October 1934, when he was transferred to Alcatraz, along with Bates and Bailey. There, they would be joined by many of their old associates from the outside: Holding and Keating, Eddie Doll, Eddie Bentz, Herb Farmer, Alvin Karpis and "Doc" Barker. On "the Rock", Kelly became a Bible student and wrote remorseful letters to Urschel, begging his forgiveness and asking his kidnap victim to intercede on his behalf. Remembering the cold death threats, Urschel was in no mood to forgive and forget. At the same time, Kelly gloried in his reputation as a "big shot" public enemy, boasting to other inmates of his crimes, including some he hadn't committed. Alvin Karpis was particularly irritated at Kelly's claim of participating in the Jackson Boulevard mail robbery and cop killing in Chicago in 1933.
Albert Bates, who also corresponded with Urschel, died on Alcatraz, July 4, 1948. Harvey Bailey was paroled in 1961, re-arrested by Kansas authorities who still wanted him for his 1933 prison break, paroled from the Kansas penitentiary in 1965 and spent his last years in Joplin, Missouri, working as a cabinet maker. He died on March 1, 1979, at the age of 91. Gus Winkeler, Verne Miller, Louis Alterie and, reportedly, Joe Bergl were all murdered. Bernard Phillips, alias Phil Courtney, a former policeman and sometime member of the Barker-Karpis gang, disappeared and the FBI later heard that he had also been murdered. Thomas Holden was released from Alcatraz in 1948, murdered his wife and her two brothers in a drunken brawl in Chicago, and was elevated to the FBI's new "Ten Most Wanted" list in 1950. He was subsequently captured in Beaverton, Oregon and spent his remaining years in the State Penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. Francis Keating reportedly lived peaceably in the years following his release from Alcatraz and is said to have died in recent years in Minneapolis. Robert "Boss" Shannon was pardoned by President Roosevelt in 1944, owing to ill health. He returned to Paradise, Texas and died at a Bridgeport, Texas hospital on Christmas Day, 1956.
Louis Magness, John C. Tichenor, Langford Ramsey, Cass Coleman, Bate's attorney Ben Laska, Clara Feldman and her son Edward, and Alvin H. Scott were all convicted of either harboring the Kellys or knowingly accepting ransom money and sentenced to varying terms in federal penitentiaries.
George "Machine Gun" Kelly was returned to Leavenworth in 1951. He died there of a heart attack on July 18, 1954. It was his fifty-nineth birthday.
Kathryn Kelly turned to writing and became assistant editor of a prison newspaper, the Terminal Island Gull. In December 1940, she wrote of the futility of a life of crime: "We realize that every 'feminine fluff' beneath our roof carries within her heart a full quota of loneliness, grief and mental suffering. None of us like to do 'time'. It isn't play, it is sapping three hundred and sixty-five days filled with golden opportunities slipping away year by year, each day gone forever from the span of life. The drabness, the necessary discipline attached to an institution pulls at the vital organs of living twenty four hours each day. The Government can never fashion from steel and stone a prison that will mean 'home' to any of its inmates."
She also dabbled in poetry. She may have been thinking of George when she penned these lines: "In groping for cheerful words a poem to write - I find I cannot grasp the gay in life tonight - Years loom so long, fate is a devil, mad with glee, Tossing prison arrows into the soul of me - My heart is numb, yet aching with the need of you. Grim, stark sadness dims everything I try to do, That banner in courage I carried fell apart - The want of you is like no other thing, dear heart ."
In June 1958, Kathryn and her mother, Ora Shannon, were released from prison on $10,000 bond, pending an appeal. Kathryn's attorney, James J. Laughlin, maintained that the Government's case against Kathryn was based mainly on the testimony of its handwriting expert, D. C. Patterson, who testified that Kathryn had written some of the ransom notes and threatening letters to Urschel, and that this might have been disputed by the testimony of another expert. In granting a new trial, Judge W. R. Wallace ordered the FBI to produce its files on the Urschel case.
The FBI chose to let the case lapse, rather than release its files. Among the files was a suppressed report by another FBI handwriting expert, Charles A. Appel, who stated that "the handwriting on the letters to the Oklahoman and to Urschel is not identical with that of Mrs. Kelly.....A comparison of the signatures of George R. Kelly on three fingerprint cards with those on these letters indicates that he may have written these letters...." The report would be published in 1970 by William W. Turner, a former FBI agent who had been fired after ten years service.
The "G-Men" woudn't produce their twenty-five year old records on one of their most legendary cases, so Kathryn Kelly went free after all. Her mother was institutionalized at the Oklahoma County Home and Hospital in Oklahoma City and Kathryn was given a job there as a bookkeeper. She was still working there, and living on the premises as a virtual recluse, in 1970.
Cooper, Courtney Ryley: Ten Thousand Public Enemies. Little, Brown, Boston, 1935.
Cooper, Courtney Ryley: Here's To Crime ! Little, Brown, Boston, 1937.
Enright, Richard T.: Capone's Chicago. Northstar Maschek Books, Lakeville, Mn., 1987 (brief mention of Sam Stein's death on Willmar, Mn. bank job).
Federal Bureau of Investigation: FBI files on Urschel kidnapping, Kansas City Massacre, Barker-Karpis gang.
Finnegan, James: "Machine Gun Kelly." Master Detective, April 1970.
Gish, Anthony: American Bandits. Haldemann-Julius, Girard, Ks., 1938.
Haley, Jay Evetts: Robbing Banks Was My Business. Palo Duro Press, Canyon, Tx., 1973.
Helmer, William J.: The Gun That Made the Twenties Roar. Macmillan, New York, 1969.
Hinton, Ted with Larry Grove: Ambush, The Real Story of Bonnie & Clyde. Shoal Creek Publishers, Bryan, Tx., 1979 (contains inaccurate chapter on Kelly and Harvey Bailey).
"His College Days Were Criminal" (AP), Chicago Tribune, December 26, 1986.
Hoover, J. Edgar: Persons In Hiding. Little, Brown, Boston, 1938.
Johnston, James A.: Alcatraz Island Prison. Charles Scribner's Sons, NY, 1949.
Karpis, Alvin, with Robert Livesay: On The Rock. Musson/General, Don Mills, Ontario, 1980.
Kirkpatrick, E. E. : Crimes' Paradise. The Naylor Company, San Antonio, 1934.
Kirkpatrick, E. E. : Voices From Alcatraz. The Naylor Company, San Antonio, 1947 (Revised Crimes' Paradise, including letters to Urschel from Kelly and Bates on Alcatraz).
Louderback, Lew: The Bad Ones. Fawcett Publications, Greenwich, Ct., 1968.
McDade, Thomas M. : "Karpis Recalls His Crime Spree of 1930's In Talks With McDade." Grapevine, May 1980 (magazine of the Society of Former Special Agents of the FBI; McDade, who took part in the killings of Ma and Fred Barker, became a close friend of Karpis, during the outlaw's final years; they were contemplating collaborating on a TV special at the time of Karpis' death in 1979).
Messick, Hank, and Burt Goldblatt: Kidnapping: The Illustrated History. Dial Press, New York, 1974.
Moreland, Harrison: "The Untold Mystery Behind the Urschel Abduction Horror."True Detective Mysteries, March-May 1934.
Opsahl, Ross: "South St. Paul Machine Gun Raid." Thompson Collectors News, August 15, 1991.
Purvis, Melvin: American Agent. Doubleday, Doran, NY, 1936.
Quimby, Myron J. : The Devil's Emissaries. A. S. Barnes, Cranbury, N. J. , 1969.
Schneck, Stephen, and William W. Turner: "Mrs. Machine Gun Kelly." Scanlan's Monthly, May 1970.
Toland, John: The Dillinger Days. Random House, New York, 1963.
Turner, William W. : Hoover's FBI. Sherbourne Press, Los Angeles, 1970.
Wallis, Michael: Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd. St. Martin's Press, New York, 1992.
Whitehead, Don: The FBI Story. Random House, NY, 1956.
Contemporary accounts from various newspapers, too numerous to mention.
Special thanks and honorable mention to the following:
Mike Ballard, University Archivist, Mississippi State University, Jackson, Ms.
Robert E. Bates
William J. Helmer
Joe Pinkston, Curator, John Dillinger Historical Museum, Nashville, In.
Keith White, Re-Enactments E.T.C., whose remarkable insights on the gangster era serve to keep me on my toes.
Avoid this book (except for laughs): Machine Gun Man: The True Story of My Incredible Survival Into the 1970's by George "Machine Gun" Kelly, as told to Jim Dobkins and Ben Jordan. "Kelly" is a pseudonym of John H. Webb, in this fraudulent "autobiography" by an ex-con claiming to be the real George "Machine Gun" Kelly; mostly fiction but Webb apparently was a former cellmate of Kelly, according to Alcatraz researcher Bob Bates.
Copyright 1998 OKLAHOMBRES, INC.
Machine Gun Kelly
Chronology of Events:
July 18, 1895: George Kelly Barnes was born in Memphis, Tenn.
Sept. 1917 - Jan. 1918: Barnes attended Mississippi A & M college.
1919 - 1925: Barnes was married to Geneva Ramsey.
Mar. 14, 1927: Barnes, a.k.a. George R. Kelly, arrested for bootlegging in New Mexico and served a few months in prison.
Jan. 13, 1928: Kelly was caught smuggling liquor onto an Indian reservation in Oklahoma. Sentenced to 3 years at Leavenworth prison.
1930: Kelly paroled from Leavenworth.
July 15, 1930: Kelly joined the Harvey Bailey gang in robbing the bank at Willmar, Minn.
September 1930: Kelly married Kathryn Thorne.
April 8, 1931: The Bailey gang robbed the bank at Sherman, Texas. Kelly met them with a getaway car near the Louisiana state line.
Jan. 27, 1932: Kelly and his partner Eddie Doll kidnapped a banker's son in South Bend, Indiana.
Sept. 21, 1932: Kelly, Albert Bates, & Edward Bentz robbed the bank in Colfax, Wa.
Nov. 30, 1932: Kelly, Bates, Eddie Doll, and another outlaw robbed the bank at Tupelo, Ms.
July 22, 1933: Kelly and Bates kidnapped Charles Urschel in Oklahoma City.
July 30, 1933: The Urschel ransom money was delivered in Kansas City. Urschel was released the following night.
August 5, 1933: Minneapolis outlaws were arrested for passing some of the ransom money. Kelly and Kathryn fled Minneapolis.
August 9, 1933: The Bailey gang robbed the bank in Kingfisher, Oklahoma using Kelly's machine gun. Harvey Bailey returned the gun to the Shannon ranch in Texas.
August 12, 1933: Lawmen raided the Shannon ranch. The Shannons and Harvey Bailey were captured.
August 12, 1933: Albert Bates was arrested in Denver, Colorado.
August 18, 1933: Urschel recieved threatening letter from Kathryn Kelly.
Sept. 19, 1933: Urschel received another threat from the Kellys.
Sept. 21, 1933: The Kellys fled from Chicago to Memphis, Tn. in a car provided by Joe Bergl.
Sept. 22, 1933: Outlaws in an armor-plated Hudson robbed Federal Reserve bank messengers in Chicago. Found later in the Hudson were Bergl's address and license plates issued to J. J. Rosenburg, an alias of Kelly.
Sept. 26, 1933: Lawmen captured the Kellys in Memphis, Tn.
October 12, 1933: The Kellys were convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
October 1934: George Kelly was transferred from Leavenworth to Alcatraz.
1951: Kelly was returned to Leavenworth.
July 18, 1954: Kelly died in prison of a heart attack.