George ("Machine Gun") Kelly
There was no moon to spotlight them. No streetlights. Not even a light on the porch of the house that was their target. Nothing that might reveal, to anyone out for a late-night stroll, the presence of the two men trying to be invisible in the bushes at 327 N.W 18th Street, a substantial home situated prominently on a large corner lot. Any observer would have been extremely alarmed to see that one of the men now stealthily approaching the porch at the side of the house was carrying a submachine gun and the other a revolver.
Their escape car was positioned for the same kind of fast getaway the two men had made in the numerous small-town bank holdups for which they were wanted in a number of states. This night, however, there was nothing small-time about their undertaking. This was to be a really bigtime job-a spectacular kidnapping that they hoped would produce an enormous sum of money.
In Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on Saturday, July 22, 1933, at 11:45 P.M. the two of them crept, slowly and deliberately, up the four steps to the screen door. In hopes of enticing any hint of a breeze on this hot, muggy summer night, the occupants had conveniently left the inside door open and the screen door unlatched. Thus the gunmen could easily see and faintly hear the two couples huddled around a card table, under a slowly rotating overhead fan, taking turns speaking in soft monosyllables.
Confident from their earlier, if rather perfunctory, surveillance that no guard was on the premises and watching to be certain no one passing by might inadvertently disrupt their plan, the two nervous gunmen waited for the opportune moment to pounce. After checking their weapons one last time to make sure they were ready to use, if necessary, they looked at their watches and saw it was almost midnight. Finally, ready as planned, they nodded to each other. All business, they stepped quietly into the house, brandishing their weapons. "Don't any of you move! Don't make a sound, or we'll blow your heads off!"
It was all over in less than ninety seconds. They made off with the two mute and unresisting men as their prisoners, leaving the petrified women with a stern warning not to notify the police if they ever wanted to see their husbands alive again. This was no isolated small-time crime. Within hours it would explode into an event commanding national, even worldwide, attention for three frenetic months, and then surprisingly resurface intermittently over the next quarter of a century and beyond.
With the abduction of their two wealthy hostages and their carefully calculated flight south to a desolate rural hideout in north-central Texas, the gunmen unwittingly set in motion a chain of events that would have lasting historical and national significance. Their crime conferred instant celebrity or, in truth, infamy on the leader of what was in fact only a three-person team of amateur kidnappers. He is still remembered in criminal lore for pulling off the most lucrative kidnapping of his timea sensational crime that remains unique in the annals of crime solving, jurisprudence, and journalism.
Just as the normally placid, well-to-do neighborhood in this frontier-city-gone-modern of 195,000 citizens would never be quite the same again, neither would the entire country. This high-profile kidnapping would prove to be a major impetus in a wide and suddenly growing mood swing among Americans. Before this crime captured headlines everywhere, ordinary people were rather bemused and entertained by the criminal antics of small-time gangsters. An isolationist; anti-big government view prevailed, opposed to the idea of any kind of national police force.
Kidnapping certainly was by no means new in the United States. The difference was that abductions had mostly been underworld hoodlum-against-hoodlum crimes, gangs capturing members of rival gangs in the name of debt collection or payback. As often as not, the victim was roughed up or killed to send a strong message. Confined to the underworld, such kidnappings rarely aroused the public's anger.
But by the early 1930s, alarmed at the increasing numbers of innocent victims taken for ransom, Americans were beginning to come around to the idea of the necessity for a federal presence to combat kidnappings and other outrages, such as arrogant gangsters skipping back and forth across state or county lines avoiding pursuit. Such a force already existed within the U.S. Department of justice, but on a very small scale and with limited manpower and jurisdiction. J. Edgar Hoover, thirty-eight at the time of the kidnapping, had been with this force since 1917 and had served as its director since 1924. He had reformed a moribund bureaucracy and made it a truly professional force. Yet he was hampered by the fact that his agents would not obtain legal authority to carry arms or even make arrests until 1934.
Even so, Hoover responded immediately to the Oklahoma kidnapping by boldly stepping forward to coordinate what, in 1933, was the biggest, most intensive, and most widely publicized nationwide manhunt in the country's history. The result was a stunningly rapid closeout of this highprofile case through local law enforcement's newfound cooperation with Hoover's emerging agency, soon to be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation, or FBI. Hoover would continue for nearly five decades as its powerfully effective yet aggressively self-promoting crime-busting director.
Although fascinating and unique in their own right, the kidnapping, the ensuing nationwide manhunt, and the legal outcome were really a microcosm of this bleak period in American history. July 1933 was the midpoint of a brief and intense crime-ridden period in which the country seemed to be cursed with a series of titanic natural, economic, and social catastrophes. So great was the onslaught of bad news that many demoralized citizens feared that the American dream of democracy and capitalism was in danger of crumbling. This iconic case, breathlessly followed by a fascinated public, was so quickly and effectively concluded that it was largely instrumental in bringing about the end of the shortlived but intriguing time in America known as the Gangster Era.
The identity of at least one of the kidnappers was fairly well established, thanks first to Walter Jarrett's tentative mug shot identification and then to some other unexpected and helpful clues. As a result, the FBI and other authorities were all but certain who the two main perpetrators were: George ("Machine Gun") Kelly and his wife and partner in crime, Kathryn (aka Kate or Kit). Pending the outcome of rescue efforts, and in keeping with the attorney general's advice and the standard FBI policy of controlling publicity (and doing nothing contrary to the wishes of kidnap victims' families), the FBI and the local police didn't immediately share this information with the press.
George Kelly, who'd been referred to breathlessly by a local officer as "one of the most vicious and dangerous criminals in America," would shortly be branded by one overly dramatic and embarrassingly inaccurate newspaper reporter as "a former convict and known killer ... a ruthless slayer." A former convict he was, yes. But vicious and a killer? Neither. Kathryn Kelly, meantime, would earn begrudging recognition from none other than J. Edgar Hoover himself. In Persons in Hiding, a book bearing his name as the author (but widely known to have been ghostwritten by his publicist, Courtney Ryley Cooper), he referred to her as "a woman of superior intelligence" and "one of the most coldly deliberate criminals of my experience."
The boy who would become the criminal Machine Gun Kelly came into the world supposedly on July 17, 1900, as George Francis Barnes Jr., the son of respectable middle-class parents who were temporarily residing in Chicago. (Some other records, including his FBI and prison files, indicate earlier purported birth years, and while in the penitentiary at Leavenworth in 1930, he told the federal census enumerator he was thirty-two and that his occupation was "baker," apparently reflecting his duties at the time.) Nothing in his early formative years in Memphis, where his parents moved when he was two, would give any indication of his future career in crime. George and his older sister Inez had a not especially strict Catholic upbringing. He attended public schools, caddied at a country club, and had a newspaper route to pick up spending money to supplement his allowance. The Barnes family was by no means poor, nor what could be called well-to-do. George Sr. had held several jobs in his careerrailroad engineer, insurance agent, proprietor of a dry goods store-that kept the family reasonably well cared for, so Mrs. Barnes (Elizabeth) did not have an outside job, seeing instead to bringing up the two children.
Growing up in this rather placid environment, George adored his mother but had an ever-increasing intense dislike, bordering on outright hatred, of his father. In perhaps the first hint of the boy's antisocial behavior to come, when George discovered his father was having an affair, he employed blackmail. He confronted his father, threatening to disclose the tryst to Mrs. Barnes unless given a substantial increase in his allowance and unlimited use of the family car. Panicked, his father hastily caved. But rather than endearing him to his fifteen-year-old son, the cover-up actually exacerbated George's contempt for him. It was, in no uncertain terms, a mutual loathing. Another turning point in George's life, a severe blow, followed with the death of his mother while he was a high school student of sixteen. Somewhere in his teen years he discovered that with his father's car at his disposal he could slip out of state - to nearby Arkansas or Mississippi, since Tennessee had its own prohibition law before the federal one went into effect - and acquire alcohol to sell to his classmates for a tidy profit. With this newfound source of income, he became the school fashion plate and a ladies' man, even getting reprimanded at least once by the principal for necking in a stairwell.
Restless and bored with book learning (which in reality he was rather good at, even with little effort), he dropped out of high school prematurely but then managed to be accepted as a conditional college freshman, purportedly majoring in agriculture. Quitting college after little more than a single semester, doubtless due at least in part to the fifty-five demerits he was hit with for various rules violations, he eloped at the age of nineteen with seventeen-year-old society belle Geneva Ramsey. Her father considered George a ne'er-do-well and had forbidden her to see him. In what might have been an omen of the future, their car broke down on the way to the justice of the peace, and the couple had to hitch a ride across the border to Clarksdale, Mississippi, for the ceremony.
Although anything but pleased with this turn of events, Geneva's loving father reluctantly set up his new son-in-law with a job as a clerk in his contracting business. It didn't take long for the truly charming and easygoing George to win over Mr. Ramsey, whom he greatly admired, by working hard and doing far better than expected on the new job. He was a good and caring husband as well, and the couple would have two sons, George Jr. ("Sonny") and Bruce; another child was stillborn. But then Geneva's father was killed in a tragic industrial accident. This second untimely death of a loved one almost devastated George (who would pathetically tell Bruce years later, "If your Granddad Ramsey had been my father, my life would have been entirely different"). Absent Ramsey's leadership, the business soon folded. Out of work and financed by his widowed mother-in-law, George tried his hand with little success at some shaky endeavors in Memphis - operating a garage and a used car lot, even running a forty-acre goat farm. The only trouble with that agricultural effort was that despite George's enthusiastic hustling and promotional efforts, how many people in Tennessee were ready to drink goat's milk or eat goat cheese? Not enough, as it turned out.
Frustrated by these failures, he turned first for a short time to what he found to be a stiflingly humdrum life of trying to peddle insurance as a traveling salesman. Next it was driving a cab-but supplementing his fares by returning to the practice of surreptitiously running a little liquor on the side in defiance of the Volstead Act (Prohibition). Somehow, smooth talker that he was, he was able to keep this little illegality, this dual personality of his, barely concealed from Geneva and her mother for about a year; they wondered between themselves how he could make so much money driving a hack. It didn't take long for the marriage to start to fall apart because of his long unexplained absences secretly doing liquor runs and his increasingly frequent heavy drinking bouts when he was home. The tangled situation came to a head with a phone call late one night. He asked his surprised wife to please take a train to Jackson, Tennessee, eighty miles away, and bring enough cash to bail him out on a "phony" bootlegging charge. Tearfully, she did so, but that was just about the last straw. She took the boys and moved out soon after. In despair, George apparently attempted suicide by overdosing on drugs but recovered after emergency room treatment.
After that, and now alone, instead of even continuing to pretend to be legitimate, George decided to take what appeared to be minimal risks and turn, full-time, to the promised easy rewards of crime. Prohibition, although on the way out, still offered him the instant opportunity. He became known around Memphis as the "Society Bootlegger," selling liquor that was smuggled across the border from Canada to speakeasies and pharmacists. However, big-time strong-arm competitors and several more arrests made it imperative for him to beat a hasty retreat out of town, all the way to New Mexico, as it turned out. Some months thereafter - it was now June 1, 1926 - Geneva was granted her divorce, remembering later that "he was running in bad company" and that "I had to advertise notice to get a divorce because I didn't know where to reach him." It had been six years since their ill-fated elopement.
Dropping the name Barnes to try to forget the father he detested and now calling himself George R. Kelly (the "R" standing for Geneva Ramsey's father's name and Kelly his mother's maiden name), he was arrested in short order in his new domicile for a Prohibition violation, fined $350, and dispatched to the state prison in Santa Fe for a couple of months in 1927. Relocation to the Kansas City area, and a brief second marriage (to a Bess Williamson of Wichita, Kansas, who reportedly couldn't put up with his long absences while on his bootleg runs) followed.
So did yet another arrest, this one resulting in an $850 fine and a sentence to the dreaded federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, the "Big House;" for "possession of liquor in Indian Country" (attempting to sell liquor on an Oklahoma reservation). The ensuing three-year term for that ill-conceived plan introduced him to some notorious big-time cons: murderers Wilbur ("Mad Dog") Underhill and Verne Miller, safecracker Morris ("Red") Rudensky, bank robber Charlie Harmon, and bank /train robbers Frank ("Jelly") Nash, Francis ("Jimmy") Keating, and Tommy Holden. Kelly easily ingratiated himself with them and won their appreciation by forging counterfeit trusty passes that some of them (but not Kelly) used for a 1930 jailbreak. More important, he got a first-class education, an insight, about many tricks of the criminal trade from these veteran experts.
For a change, Kelly proved to be an attentive and adept pupil. Upon his release for good behavior shortly after the jailbreak (his forgery handiwork unknown by the warden), he quickly put to good use the lessons he'd learned. He joined and sometimes even led various roving hit-and-run holdup gangs plucking money from banks in small towns over a range of at least ten states. His weapon of choice was a .38-caliber revolver, which he favored as a persuasive method of obtaining cooperation, but never to kill or even wound (the machine gun and the nickname would come later). As a matter of fact, a teller at a Mississippi bank Kelly and others heisted described Kelly to police as "the kind of guy, that, if you looked at him, you would never have thought he was a bank robber." Freely spending his takes from these holdups, Kelly turned again into a clotheshorse and paid cash for a string of expensive custom-made luxury Cadillacs and Buicks. Exuding charm and pseudo-respectability, he impressed listeners by saying he was in the "banking business."
As for Kathryn Kelly, she was christened Cleo Mae Brooks when born in 1904 in Saltillo, up the road from Tupelo in northeast Mississippi. Her parents were James Emory Brooks and Ora (nee Coleman) Brooks; Ora divorced Brooks and became the wife of Boss Shannon in 1927. Changing her name from Cleo to Kathryn, which she considered more stylish, she dropped out of school after the eighth grade, was married at fourteen or fifteen to a nondescript fellow by the name of Lonnie Frye and had his child. Divorced and remarried to an Allie Brewer while still a teenager, she lived in rural Oklahoma where her parents had relocated. She then divorced and married still again before hitching up with Kelly, who would become husband number four. Her bootlegger third husband "officially" killed himself, but under extremely mysterious circumstances after one of his frequent vocal and alcoholic disagreements with Kathryn. Found dead of a gunshot wound, alongside his body with the weapon was a precisely typed, error-free note: "I can not live with her or without her. Hence I am departing this life." Even his "signature;" Charlie Thorne, was typed. Although the deceased had little book learning, no known typing ability, and probably wouldn't have had a clue what "hence" meant, a coroner's jury in Coleman County, Texas, ruled his shooting a suicide.
The paths of the flamboyant, strikingly comely brunette and the tall and handsome George seemed almost destined to converge. It happened one night in a Fort Worth speakeasy where George was meeting with his new rum-running partner who happened, until that moment, to be Kathryn's beau. This encounter led to a torrid whirlwind fling for Kathryn and George and the forming of a conspiratorial liaison, one that was interrupted only by George's spell in Leavenworth. When he got out, in September 1930, the two were married forthwith by a Methodist minister in Minneapolis. From that point on, the stories of these partners in crime conflict in some instances, even to their roles in the Urschel case. The generally accepted version-even reported in a sympathetic book Kelly's older son would privately publish years later after a number of visits with his father in prison and lengthy correspondence with Kathryn-is that she was without question the dominating impetus, the plotter, the instigator, the brains behind the entire Urschel scheme, as Hoover also always asserted. She would vehemently deny to her grave, however, having had anything more than an unwanted, forced, but entirely passive role in the crime, notwithstanding a mass of convincing factual and circumstantial evidence to the contrary.
Kathryn, began devising a more grandiose plan. As a start, she invested $250 at a pawnshop in February 1933 for what was to become George's trademark submachine gun, even if he would never by any account fire it in anger. She demanded that her reluctant husband delay starting his customary evening drinking bouts and instead target practice for hours on end at the Paradise ranch, her mother and stepfather's property. He did so, and in fact supposedly became a rather proficient marksman with his new "chopper" (or "Chicago typewriter," as the big city mobsters called it).
During her late-evening social jaunts in and around Forth Worth,. Kathryn spread the story that George - who she'd taken to admiringly calling "The Big Guy" - was so expert with his new weapon that he could pop walnuts off the top of a fence at thirty feet. There is no question that Kathryn did purchase the weapon from a Fort Worth pawnshop. But although George's purported shooting skills with it were repeated and embellished as fact over the years, this claim should probably be viewed with more than a little skepticism. First, George wasn't at all keen on firearms and, second, pecan orchards were and are dominant in the area. Whatever the case, the vivacious Kathryn took to carrying handfuls of spent machine gun cartridge cases when she cruised her various social haunts, passing the brass shells out as souvenirs with the pronouncement that the fearsome "Machine Gun" Kelly had fired the bullets in the course of pulling off one of his latest jobs. Thus it was Kathryn who created and promoted the name by which George would forever be known. The FBI itself cleverly played up the frightening nickname while seeking Kelly after the kidnapping, subliminally painting Hoover and his agents as heroic and courageous in their pursuit of this dangerous, heavily armed, trigger-happy, sharpshooting public enemy. The FBI's wanted poster would warn ominously that Kelly was an "expert machine gunner;" while at the same time some of the bureau's press releases labeled him "a desperate character."
Poring over newspapers later for other possibilities, Kathryn must have experienced a quickened pulse when she spied the information about Tom Slick's huge estate. And the fact that one wealthy trustee of the millions and Slick's widow, herself another of the "council of three," were now husband and wife and living not so far away in Oklahoma.
Then, two days after Urschel's abduction, Kathryn blundered into the next of the Kelly errors. Fueling the Fort Worth detectives' suspicions even further by insinuating herself into the picture, she inadvisably sought them out again to inquire rather awkwardly what they knew about any leads in the case. She claimed she'd been "back east" visiting friends in St. Louis and was inquiring merely out of idle curiosity. One of the detectives became suspicious, though, when he spotted on her car seat an Oklahoma newspaper headlining the kidnapping. And he noted that her car's tire sidewalls were caked with the red soil common to the farmland in that area. He passed on his observations and suspicions to his superiors, who in turn quickly relayed them to the FBI.
Then, came the most-awaited development of all, the big breakthrough the nation (and most especially Hoover) had been nervously awaiting: Memphis, Tenn., Sept. 26 (International News Service)-George "Machine Gun" Kelly, America's no. 1 desperado, sought for a series of abductions, bank holdups and massacres that have terrorized the nation, fell into the clutches of the law today. The man who had sent the organized forces of law of the 48 states and the federal government on the greatest manhunt in history, taunting his pursuers with scornful, threatening letters, surrendered meekly to Department of Justice agents who trapped him in a Memphis hideout.
The Kellys' flight was finally grounded after fifty-six remarkable days on the lam with every reward-seeking person in the country in search of them. The tip-off was supplied by Geraldine Arnold, the girl who had traveled with them. She mentioned that "Tich" was the unusual nickname of an acquaintance of Kelly's who gave them shelter in Memphis. Police puzzled over this for awhile, until one Memphis officer turned to the telephone directory. There he found a listing for a John Tichenor, a motor car dealer. On the premise that this might possibly be their man, police quickly put his house under round-the-clock surveillance.
In a couple of days of observation, they determined that a couple who seemed to be the fugitive Kellys were inside the Tichenor bungalow, almost in a sort of self-imposed exile. So a squad of lawmen executed a dawn raid September 26 and got the drop on Kelly, entering through an unlocked front door. Surprised at being awakened at 6:45 A.M. by the eight-man raiding party and finding a sawed-off shotgun embedded firmly in his navel by a nervous young Memphis police sergeant, a hungover Kelly, clad only in his underwear, surrendered meekly and with no fuss, mumbling, "I've been waiting all night for you." To which the officer replied, "Well, here we are."
Surrounded by empty beer and gin bottles and ashtrays overflowing with cigarette stubs, Kelly even put the cuffs on himself, reported the sergeant, who boasted to reporters, "Kelly was never nearer death than he was at that time. If he had raised one finger I would have blown him in two. When I shoved my gun into his stomach, he dropped his .45 as meekly as a lamb." A quick search of the premises and Kelly's automobile turned up no ransom bills or anything of value except a loaded Colt .45 automatic. Were George's and Kathryn's Miranda rights to remain silent until obtaining an attorney read to them? That legal doctrine was thirty-three years in the future. A search warrant to storm into the house in Memphis? What warrant? Kelly was Public Enemy No. 1; forget the protective niceties that are today's legal standards. And besides, they indicated they would accept extradition to Oklahoma and would plead guilty.
That version of Kelly's capture wasn't the one the expectant, eager public heard, though. In pure hyperbole, the FBI publicity mill put out as factual a much more dramatic version: that Kelly had cowered, groveled even, before the arresting FBI/Justice agents (Memphis police were not even mentioned, nor was the fact that the FBI had no power to make arrests) and had desperately whimpered, "Don't shoot, G-Men! Don't shoot!"
It made no difference that the several local policemen who were present verified the sergeant's account. Hoover had a national publicity machine that, in those days, was trusted implicitly by an overwhelming majority of the press and the public. And for the rest of his life, Hoover would repeat the "Don't shoot, G-Men" canard as truth. Furthermore, it is to this day still contained in an official bureau public handout about Machine Gun Kelly: "First criminal to call FBI agents 'G-Men.' The term, which had applied to all federal investigators, became synonymous with FBI agents." Hoover would later brag, correctly, that because of the capture of Kelly, "along the grapevine of the powerful empire of crime passed whispered words of warning about the G-Men."
Kelly would later smirk about supposedly originating "G-Men" and comment that if it made Hoover feel tough and heroic, so be it. A straightfaced Hoover would say of the "G-Man" myth a decade later, "These words became the subject matter of many headlines as they typify the cowardice of this boastful Kelly."
It might be noted that at the time of Kelly's booking in Memphis, a Justice Department official told the press Kelly had confessed to him, "You got me on the Urschel kidnapping but not on the Chicago robbery or the Kansas City Union Station job." So why, the puzzled chief of police asked Kelly, had he returned to Memphis, to Shelby County? "Oh, any old port in a storm, you know. It's my old home town and it's natural for me to stop off for awhile."
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