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Ma Barker


Bloody Mama
When Kate "Ma" Barker (Shelley Winters) robs a bank with her four beloved sons, she's got a great opening line: "We're gonna play Simon Says, and this," she says, pointing to her Tommy gun, "is Simon." You gotta love the ol' broad's moxie, and you gotta love this Roger Corman classic for serving it up so shamelessly. Capitalizing on the impact of Bonnie and Clyde while adding the more perversely exploitative elements of Corman's drive-in fare, this Depression-era shoot-'em-up is prime viewing for its early appearance by Robert De Niro (making his fifth film) and Corman stalwarts like Don Stroud, but it's Winters's over-the-top portrayal of Ma Barker (very loosely based on fact) that gives the movie its rather unseemly edge. Alternately sharing her bed with each of her sons (as if they were teddy bears made for her incestuous pleasure), and twisting morality to suit the needs of her homicidal brood, this gun-toting matriarch is a deviously amusing detour on Winters's weight-gaining road to The Poseidon Adventure.

The nucleus of the Barker-Karpis gang was the Barker family, who came from a part of Ozark backwoods that was isolated from the mainstream of American culture and a longtime breeding ground of desperadoes. Ma Barker's role in the gang is a matter of dispute. Legend based largely on FBI publicity has it that she deliberately groomed her sons as lawbreakers and managed their criminal careers. There's no doubt she knew of her sons' crimes, which necessitated constant moving to elude the police. But she never participated in their robberies or kidnappings, and no member of the gang ever named her as their leader. Alvin Karpis would characterize her as an ignorant old hillbilly who traveled with her sons because they were "family," and she came in handy as camouflage.

A later member of the gang, Harvey Bailey, told author L.L. Edge in Run the Cat Roads: "The old woman couldn't plan breakfast. When we'd sit down to plan a bank job, she'd go in the other room and listen to Amos and Andy or hillbilly music on the radio." Bailey found laughable the idea that the Barkers, Alvin Karpis, Frank Nash and other professionals would depend on Ma Barker to plan their crimes. She may have been overly indulgent, protective and possessive of her sons, and would harbor their friends from the law; in return they treated her regally, kept her in fancy clothes and cars, without her questioning the source of their prosperity. However, the image of Ma Barker as a cunning, ruthless gang leader appears to be as exaggerated as the largely mythical exploits of Belle Starr, to whom she has often been compared.

J. Edgar Hoover's early characterization of her, as "a monument to the evils of parental indulgence," is likely more accurate than the Bloody Mama figure familiar to many moviegoers, comic book fans, and devotees of crime literature, factual and otherwise. The latter image, too, was created by Hoover. Ma Barker's troubles seem rooted in a blind devotion to her sons, whom she chose to believe were driven to crime by hard times and constant police persecution. In this respect, she was similar to the mothers of the Jameses, the Youngers, the Daltons, the Barrows and countless other bandit brothers of the rural Southwest. She probably qualified as a fairly dense and nonjudgmental matriarch of a clannish tribe of Ozark hillbillies whose careers just happened to be in crime instead of oil.

According to an FBI report, dated November 18, 1936, "Ma Barker in the formative period of her sons' lives was probably just an average mother of a family which had no aspirations or evidenced no desire to maintain any high plane socially. They were poor and existed through no prolific support from Ma's husband, George Barker, who was more or less a shiftless individual.... The early religious training of the Barkers ... was influenced by evangelistic and sporadic revivals. The parents of the Barkers and the other boys with whom they were associated did not reflect any special interest in educational training and as a result their sons were more or less illiterate. . . ."

Years later, J. Edgar Hoover would write that "over the backyard fence Ma boasted to neighbors: `I got great days ahead of me, when my children grow up. Silk dresses. Fur coats and diamond rings.' " This hardly sounds like someone without aspirations to wealth, but by then the mythmaking was in full swing and J. Edgar its leading propagator. Had she not died with her son Fred in battle with the FBI, Ma Barker might have gotten off with a short jail sentence for harboring her murderous offspring, as did the mothers of Bonnie and Clyde. But once the Bureau ended its siege of their hideout in January 1935 and discovered it evidently had killed an old lady who would turn out to be Ma, she had to be instantly villainized. And if Americans had found something almost romantic in a boy-and-girl bandit team despite their murderous ways, the notion of a mother-and-son bandit team also appealed to the country's streak of rebellion against duly constituted authority, especially when most police of the day were regarded as only a cut above the crooks they were supposed to catch.

Ma was born Arizona Donnie Clark near Ash Grove, Boone Township, northwest of Springfield, in "about" 1872, instead of 1875. When she married George Elias Barker, some 13 years older, at Aurora, Missouri, on September 14, 1892, she listed her name on the marriage license as "Arrie Clark" but adopted the name Kate. They made their home in Aurora, where her first pregnancy resulted in a miscarriage, according to relatives. Between 1893 and 1902 they had four sons, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (called "Doc" or "Dock") and Fred, before moving to Webb City, near Joplin. There George reportedly found work in the area's lead and zinc mines and left the child-rearing to Ma.

In 1935, crime reporter Harrison Moreland interviewed Webb City residents who remembered the Barkers' early years. One of Herman's favorite antics, said Moreland, was riding a pinto pony into the town's saloons, in imitation of his hero, Jesse James, who was supposed to have ridden into saloons, shooting. The Barker boys soon went beyond mere rowdyness, however, acquiring reputations as petty thieves. They, especially Freddie, also associated closely with an older boy. Herbert Allen Farmer, who would likewise develop an extensive criminal record. Legend has it that neighbors who complained to George Barker about his sons' activities were shrugged off with, "You'll have to talk to Mother. She handles the boys." Ma Barker would then rage at the accusers, call them liars, and send them packing. A widespread impression was that she had an almost paranoid belief that the community had singled out her sons as scapegoats.

On March 5, 1915, Herman Barker was arrested by Joplin police for highway robbery. Reportedly, Ma got him released, then declared that she could no longer abide living in such an intolerant town. The whole family soon moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, setting into a two-room shack at 401 North Cincinnati Avenue, at least according to FBI files and most popular accounts. Strangely, census records show that George and Ma were residing in 1920, without the boys, in Stone County, Missouri. Either the move to Tulsa occurred later than commonly supposed, or George and Kate returned to Missouri for a time, leaving their sons in Oklahoma.

The boys soon ingratiated themselves with other young hellions who hung around Old Lincoln Forsythe School and the Central Park district. The result was an aggregation of delinquents called the "Central Park Gang," which in time reportedly numbered some 22 young thieves and hoodlums. Alleged members included Volney "Curley" Davis, Harry Campbell, Sam Coker and Russell "Rusty" Gibson (later important members of the Barker-Karpis gang), William "Boxcar" Green and Ray Terrill. Terrill would join Matt and George Kimes on a series of spectacular bank robberies, shootings and jailbreaks in the late twenties. Green would play a leading role in a 1931 mass breakout from Leavenworth, and then commit suicide to avoid recapture.

Herman Barker left the Tulsa area during the 1915-20 period and traveled around the country as a small-time robber and swindler. Sentenced in 1916 to two years for burglary and larceny, Herman escaped from the Greene County Jail at Springfield, Missouri, before he could be transferred to the penitentiary. He was arrested several more times, in Montana, Iowa, Minnesota and Tennessee, and served sentences for burglary in Montana and grand larceny in Minnesota. He remained in contact with the family, probably sending home some of his criminal earnings. Fred Barker also left home for a time, returning to Joplin to visit Herb Farmer, a former Webb City neighbor. Herbert Allen Farmer, also known as Black, Snyder, "Deafy" Farmer, Harry J. Garner, William Hilary Baker, etc., was a confidence man and pickpocket with a long record of arrests. He had just been released from McAlester, Oklahoma, state prison, after receiving a five-year sentence for assault with intent to kill. Herb had long been a close friend of the Barkers, particularly

Fred, and an FBI report would later note that "it is safe to assume that Fred Barker received considerable education in the school of crime from Farmer." The chicken ranch near Joplin, where Farmer lived with his wife, Esther, was used as a contact place by numerous ex-cons. Fred reportedly met many of these men, inviting them to drop by any time at the Barker home in Tulsa. Herb Farmer continued his association with the Barkers for years afterward. He harbored many southwestern outlaws, including Bonnie and Clyde. Farmer would eventually serve two years at Alcatraz as one of the Kansas City Massacre conspirators.

The formation of the Barker-Karpis gang as such might be dated to December 31, 1931. Karpis and Fred Barker attended a gala New Year's Eve party at Harry Sawyer's Green Lantern saloon, 5451/2 Wabasha, where they met some of the elite of the Midwest underworld. These included Minneapolis crime boss Isadore "Kid Cann" Blumenfeld, Capone gangster Gus Winkeler and several leading bank robbers, including Harvey Bailey, Tommy Holden and 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 Tulsa days. Nash has escaped from Leavenworth on October 19, 1930.

In April, Dillinger gangster Eddie Green, formerly a member of the Barker-Karpis mob, was shot by FBI agents in St. Paul. He died eight days later in a hospital, after deliriously bobbling the details of past crimes while agents took notes. His wife, Bessie, captured at the same time, also provided much information. The Greens gave the FBI its first real knowledge of the Barker-Karpis gang as a cohesive group. From Bessie Green, the Bureau learned that Karpis and the Barker brothers usually traveled in the company of a dowdy old woman who at least "posed" as their mother. Enter Ma Barker, so far unimportant and mentioned only in passing by the police.

By the end of the year, the Barker-Karpis gang was scattered across the country, dodging the FBI while trying to pass the Bremer ransom. Various gang members were captured and Bremer money was recovered as far away as Havana, where Karpis lived briefly with his pregnant girlfriend ("paramour" was the Bureau's favorite term), Dolores Delaney. Dolores was one of three sisters with similar tastes in men. One was married to Albert "Pat" Reilly, a St. Paul hoodlum employed by Harry Sawyer. Another was the girlfriend of Tommy Carroll, then identified with Dillinger, whose Crown Point escape and worldwide name recognition had robbed Nelson of credit for forming the gang originally.

Dillinger, Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde and Nelson - the most publicized public enemies - were all killed in 1934, leaving only the Barker-Karpis gang. On January 8, 1935, an army of agents raided a courtyard apartment building at 3920 North Pine Grove, without telling the police. They created such a commotion with gas and gunfire that city cops rushed to the scene without knowing what to expect. A G-man waving credentials prevented a general bloodbath, and the cops joined the spectators, who were rooting for both sides after agents had thoroughly terrified residents and lobbed tear-gas shells into wrong apartments. Byron Bolton, Clara Fisher Gibson and Ruth Heidt, widow of a recently murdered gang member, surrendered as soon as they could, but Clara's husband, Russell Gibson, alias Roy "Slim" Gray, chose to fight. He donned a bulletproof vest, armed himself with a Browning Automatic Rifle and.32 automatic pistol and tried to escape out the back. Gibson barely made it onto a rear fire escape before an FBI agent with a high-velocity .351 Winchester rifle sent a slug through Gibson's chest that flattened against the inside back of his vest. He died a short time later, a Bureau report stated, "with a curse on his lips for all law enforcement officers." Gibson was an old pal of the Barkers from their Tulsa days, and had been wanted since 1929 for a $75,000 bank messenger robbery in Oklahoma City. He had also been arrested for possession of stolen jewelry, but Chicago police, who had long since streamlined the local criminal justice system, told his distraught wife to give her bail-bond cash to Louie Piquett, the designated fixer and future Dillinger attorney, who cleared the matter up without any bothersome paperwork.

Dock Barker and his girlfriend Mildred Kuhlman were arrested by the FBI outside their apartment at 432 Surf Street. Inside, agents found a Florida map with the Ocala region circled. Dock had no comment, but Byron Bolton told his interrogators that Ma and Fred Barker, and possibly other gang members, were living on a lake in Florida, where Fred had been using his submachine gun to hunt a huge alligator nicknamed Old Joe by the locals.

Eight days later, on January 16, 1935, a small army of federal agents surrounded a house on Lake Weir, at Oklawaha, Florida, and called on the occupants to surrender. They were answered by machine-gun fire. During a prolonged battle the G-men poured more than 1,500 rounds into the two-story structure. Some 45 minutes after the return fire had ceased, Inspector E.J. Connelly sent Willie Woodbury, the Barkers' black handyman (whom the Barkers presumably would spare as a noncombatant), into the house to see what was left of any residents. Woodbury found Ma and Fred Barker dead in an upstairs bedroom. Fred had 14 bullets in him. Nearby lay Ma, dead of a single gunshot wound, which may or may not have been self-inflicted, or fired by Fred when capture seemed imminent.

According to FBI reports, a Thompson was found on the floor between her and Fred. The newspapers, using Hoover's account, embellished this considerably, arming her with a "smoking" submachine gun. Hoover would later declare that her gallant son Fred had given her the Thompson with a 100-round drum, making do himself with one whose magazine held only 50 cartridges. Agents also found two shotguns, two .45 automatics, a .380 automatic, a Winchester rifle, a large quantity of ammunition, several bulletproof vests and cash totaling $14,293. The arsenal was carefully arranged on the front steps of the house for the benefit of photographers.

The bodies of Ma and Fred were allowed to mummify in the Ocala morgue until October, when George Barker could afford to bring his wife and son home for burial. George had successfully sued for recovery of the cash seized at Oklawaha. George Barker died on February 28, 1941, at his home at 1201 East Seventh Street in Webb City, Missouri. He also was buried at Timberhill, leaving no one to bring Lloyd home. George, Kate, Herman, Dock and Fred Barker lie today in the isolated northwest corner of Timberhill Cemetery. Only Herman's grave has a monument.

Dock was sent to Leavenworth, then Alcatraz. On Friday, January 13, 1939, guards killed him with rifle fire in what prison officials called an escape attempt, though some witnesses said he was merely trying to retrieve an errant baseball. In any case, his last words were, "I'm all shot to hell!" Dock first was buried at Olivet Memorial Park Cemetery in Colma, California, identified only by his prison number. His father later moved his body to the family plot at Timberhill Cemetery.

Following the killing of Ma and Fred Barker, Alvin Karpis and Harry Campbell fled north to Atlantic City. Cornered by police at the DanMor Hotel, on January 20, 1935, they shot their way out and escaped. Their girlfriends, Dolores Delaney and Wynona Burdette, were captured and later sentenced to five years for harboring federal fugitives. Dolores gave birth to a son while in prison, named him Raymond Alvin Karpis, and gave him to Karpis's parents in Chicago to raise.

Karpis and Campbell kidnapped a doctor in Pennsylvania and stole his car, releasing him unharmed in Ohio and abandoning the car in Michigan. They later organized a new gang, robbed a mail truck of $72,000 in Warren, Ohio, on April 24, 1935, and a mail train at Garrettsville, Ohio, of $34,000 the following November. One member of the new but unsung gang was the Barkers' old friend Sam Coker, whose parole from the Oklahoma state prison was allegedly bought by Karpis.

William J. Helmer with Rick Mattix. Public Enemies: America's Criminal Past, 1919-1940. Facts on File. September 1998.


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