Tuesday, July 18, 2017


7/18/1895 or 7/18/1954 - Depending on the calendar, one of the strangest tales of the Public Enemy era of American history, either begins in a comfortable, middle class home in Memphis, Tennessee, or ends in a hospital room at Federal Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas ... a span of 59 years, the time it takes for George Francis Barnes, Jr. to be born, but die as the infamous outlaw, Machine Gun Kelly.
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Brought up in a good neighborhood, educated at the community's local Catholic schools, George displays a good amount of intelligence growing up, along with a gregarious nature and pleasing personality.  But there are problems behind the mask of normalcy the future public enemy wears ... he is the product of a loveless marriage, where his mother, Elizabeth Kelly, withdraws from intimacy with her children as she is abused by her insurance company executive husband, and dies while George is still in high school (a death he blames on his father for breaking his mother's heart), and his namesake father, who he constantly bumps heads with, to the point that he tracks the old man down to the home of a mistress, and blackmails Senior into giving him a car for keeping quiet to his mother about the affair.  Father a zero in his eyes and mom gone, he uses the car to start making illegal liquor deliveries to the locals (Tennessee had been legally dry since 1909), drops out of high school just short of graduation, then uses the vehicle to flee Tennessee and move to Mississippi ... to go to college (despite not having a high school diploma, he passes an entrance exam and is accepted as a freshman at Mississippi A&M, now Mississippi State).  Matriculating at A&M, George goofs off more than he attends classes, picking up 31 demerits his first semester, 24 demerits his second semester, and earning a best glass grade of only a C- for a Physical Hygiene course before dropping out before the term ends (he gets a Zero in woodworking, and an "incomplete" for military science). Most of his time is spent providing booze to co-eds before he pulls up stakes and returns to Memphis ... and falling in love with the daughter of a successful Memphis businessman, Geneva Ramsey.
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Married despite the initial disapproval of the Ramsey's (they spend much of their honeymoon at the home of the daughter of the governor of Mississippi, a friend of Geneva's), George makes several attempts at gainful employment ... he opens a used car business, tries his hand at goat farming, attempts to sell insurance for his father's company, and even works briefly as a checker in a grocery store.  All failures, when he reverts once more to bootlegging, and now sampling the products he is moving, Geneva pulls the plug on their relationship (despite the pair having two sons together) and divorces George.  Making a comfortable living running booze, George takes minor arrests in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1927, and in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1928 ... his problems truly begin though, and his path into criminality becomes fixed when he makes the mistake of taking a Federal bust for selling alcohol on an Indian reservation and is sent off to Leavenworth Penitentiary to fulfill his sentence of three years behind bars.
Leavenworth From The Southwest

Math and accounting skills not common to the typical Leavenworth convict, George is assigned a easy job in the prison's records office, and soon becomes the friend of a trio of bank robbing hard cases serving heavy time ... Francis Keating, Thomas Holden, and Frank "Jelly" Nash.  Tit-for-tat, the foursome come to an exchange of services agreement ... for forged documents that will get Holden and Keating out of the prison (Nash will take care of his own release), the threesome will pass on their bank robbing knowledge to the rookie crook, and even include him on jobs once everyone is out from behind bars (George is to meet them all at the corrupt nightclub, The Green Lantern, of St. Paul, Minnesota underworld figure Harry Sawyer).  And so it is that on 2/28/1930, with the prison authorities none the wiser, holding bogus work papers, Keating and Holden leave the prison with a work crew of lightly sentenced convicts, change into civilian clothing, and vanish (Nash, appointed the warden's general handyman, is sent outside the prison on an errand and just doesn't come back on 10/19/1930).
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Holden & Keating
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Sawyer And His Wife Gladys

Released early for "model conduct" and reunited with Holden and Keating, George's first bank job with his friends almost becomes his last when the citizens of Willmar, Minnesota protest their money being stolen from the town's financial establishment and get into a gun battle with the gang that includes Harvey Bailey (considered the "Dean" of American bank robbers at the time with takes adding up to over a million dollars) and Verne Miller (a WWI hero and sheriff turned robber and hit man) ... a robbery that sees three citizens wounded, an outlaw killed, and afterwards, one of the robbers (and two of his friends) being killed by Miller for taking more than his cut when the $142,000 in cash and securities from the job is divvied up.  After Willmar, working with a revolving cast of outlaws that includes all three of the Leavenworth cons, Miller, Bailey, Fred Barker, Larry DeVol,  Alvin Karpis, and ace "yegg" Eddie Bentz, George participates on bank jobs in Akron, Ohio, Ottumwa, Iowa, Sherman, Texas, Colfax, Washington, and Tupelo, Mississippi.  He also finds time to marry for a second time.
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While at Leavenworth, George is introduced to Cleo Mae Brooks (she starts Kathryn in the 8th grade because it sounds more elegant), a pretty brunette there to visit her incarcerated uncle (the family she comes from is full of thieves and con artists) and both become smitten with the other, becoming pen pals.  Out, and with money in his pockets from the robberies, George visits Kathryn in Fort Worth Texas, and soon wedding bells are ringing (it will be her fourth, the first taking place when she is 15). And at first, it appears Kathryn is the perfect companion for George ... she is passionate in bed, does not find fault in his line of business, is proud of her catch (touting his shooting prowess with a Thompson sub-machine gun to members of the underworld, and undercover cops, George Barnes morphs into Machine Gun Kelly, despite his inability to write his name with a machine gun as his wife proclaims he can), and encourages her husband to think bigger by abandoning robbery for the huge payoffs of kidnapping.  Risk versus reward, remembering how close he came to having his head blown off at Willmar, George is soon planning a kidnapping with his newest associate, Albert Bates (an Army deserter turned burglar turned bank robber).
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Albert Bates mugshot 1934.jpg

On the hot Saturday evening of 7/22/1933, carrying his now trademark Thompson, George and Bates interrupt a bridge game on the side screened sun porch of oilman Charles Urschel's Oklahoma City mansion (playing along with Urschel are Urshel's wife, and their good friends, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Jarrett), and after identifying their target (both men at first refuse to say which is Urschel), drive away with their victim.  The drive takes them all the way down into Texas, to an isolated farm near the town of Paradise belonging to Ora Shannon (Kathryn's mother) and R.G. (Robert Green) Shannon" where Urschel is kept in captivity for nine days while George and Bates work out ransom plans. $200,000 in used $20 notes from the Federal Reserve Bank given to George on a street in Kansas City, Missouri after a failed first attempt involving signal fires and a train, Urschel is released to make his way home with $10 in his pockets, while George, Kathryn, and Bates immediately go on the run with their ill-gotten gains.
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The Urschels
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The Shannons
Victim snatched and then ransom safely received, George's biggest success instead turns into his biggest nightmare due to the memory of Urschel, the motor mouth of Kathryn, the tenaciousness of J. Edgar Hoover's fledgling FBI, and a little girl named Geraldine.  Called the night of the kidnapping, Hoover assigns ace agent Gus Jones to the case (pulling him off the Kansas City Massacre investigation), and in the many interviews the agent has with Urschel, clues come out of the victim's blindfolded recollections involving smells, sounds (the sound of a plane passing overhead daily becomes an essential clue), and time estimates between events that enables the agent to hone in on the Shannon ranch.  Raid launched on August 11th, from three cars (fourteen men, and the party includes Urschel), Jones finds places Urschel has described, ransom money buried on the farm, and in an added bonus, using the site as a rest stop, bank robber Harvey Bailey with ransom money in his pocket given to him by the Shannons (though not involved in the kidnapping whatsoever, Bailey will be found guilty of the crime and receive a life sentence).  No hardened desperadoes clamming up, to save their own skins, the Shannons start talking and soon the entire country is looking for Albert Bates (leaving Paradise as soon as he receives his cut of the ransom, he is recognized on a train by an American Express agent and arrested in Dallas) and the Kellys.
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Hiding in a nation already stirred up (and it doesn't help that George writes threatening letters to Urschel for cooperating with the authorities) by the recent kidnappings of the Lindbergh baby and Denver millionaire Charles Boettcher II, the couple begins a mad run, sometimes apart (there are many fights, with Kathryn incensed that Urschel was released instead of killed), of 56 days that takes them to St. Paul (where Kathryn goes on a spending spree with some of the loot), Cleveland, Des Moines, tourist motel hideouts in Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, Madison, Wisconsin, back to Texas, Mississippi, New Orleans, Biloxi, and Memphis with lawmen only steps behind them thanks to letters and phone calls from Kathryn (she is willing to make a deal to give up George if authorities will release her mother and stepfather) ... over 20,000 miles of American heartland.  Hoping to relieve some of the heat, Kathryn gives money to a homeless couple she meets on the road, Luther and Flossie Mae Arnold (they have all of six lonely dollars in their possession when they meet Kathryn), to run errands for her, and "borrows" the couple's 12-year-old daughter for traveling since authorities aren't looking for a couple with a child. Daughter eventually released, after being reunited with her parents, Geraldine spills her guts about her time with the Kellys to the FBI, and gives them the location in Memphis where they can be found.  Electrified by the information, FBI Assistant Director Harold "Pop" Nathan, now running the manhunt for the Kellys, puts together an early morning raid for 9/26/1933 that consists of more than 60 Federal agents and hundreds of police officers.
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Wanted Poster

Sneaking into the home identified as the Kelly's latest hideout, a hung over Kelly, his hair dyed yellow, a .45 in hand, wearing only his underwear, is confronted by FBI agent William Rorer and local Memphis detective William Raney.  Seeing a shotgun trained on his midsection, tired of the manhunt, George states, "I've been waiting for you all night" and surrenders, while Kathryn, weaing green silk pajamas throws a fit in which she cries, "The G-men won't ever give us a break.  I've been living in dread of this."  Arrests that somehow morph into a legendary moment in criminal history that gives the FBI a new nickname when a surprised and frightened George, awoken from slumber by shotguns being shoved in his face, screams "Don't shoot G-men!  Don't Shoot!"  And the G-men don't, instead returning the couple to Texas for trial on kidnapping charges.
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Under Custody With Armed Escorts

Evidence of guilt massive and damning, the trial of the Kellys begins on 10/9/1933, and is the first time in history, that sound picture equipment is allowed to film inside a Federal courtroom.  The proceedings do not last long, and taking the jury less than an hour to reach a verdict, on 10/12/1933, Kathryn and George are both convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to life in prison (disparaging her former husband until her dying day, Kathryn will spend 25 years behind bars before dying after being released from prison in 1985 in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the age of 81).
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Kathryn Before Being Found Guilty

Sent to Alcatraz to serve out his life sentence, George becomes reflective at Alcatraz (he enters at the age of 34), feeling remorse for his criminal activities while following the rules of the prison, and refusing to participate in any of the escape attempts he is offered parts in (he does however, for ego and show, often brag about his criminal exploits, weaving fantasies about events that never took place or he wasn't a part of).  On the Rock, surrounded by former friends and associates like Bailey, Keating, Bates, and Holden, George spends time playing cards and dominoes, reads constantly from materials borrowed from the prison library (taking a psychological evaluation upon arriving at Alcatraz, Kelly is scored "highly intelligent" by the prison doctor, who also states George is not "psychotic in any way"), takes correspondence classes from the University of California, holds down a prison industries job, and plays drums in a prison band featuring Al Capone on mandolin and banjo, and Alvin Karpis playing guitar (an instrument he will one day teach Charlie Manson how to play). Transferred back to Leavenworth in 1951, George spends his time in a six man cell, works as clerk, writes letters to Kathryn, listens to music on the radio, and continues to read.  On 7/17/1954, suffering from shortness of breath and chest pains, he checks himself into the prison hospital.  There, he is given a shot of morphine, but after midnight his pains increase and he begins to vomit and suffocate ... 20 minutes later he is dead of a heart attack on his birthday at the age of 54.
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Kelly - Alcatraz
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Hatless Individual On Right - Playing Cards
At Alcatraz

Happy Birthday George ... and rest in peace!
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Machine Gun Kelly

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