Kate “Ma” Barker (born Arizona Donnie Clark; October 8, 1873 – January 16, 1935) was the mother of several criminals who ran the Barker gang from the “public enemy era” – when the exploits of gangs of criminals in the U.S. Midwest gripped the American people, and the press.
In the 1996 Mark L. Lester film “Public Enemies”, Theresa Russell played Ma Barker.
Video comes courtesy of YouTube:
Hollywood glamorized the story, that way.
History tells us this:
Arizona Donnie Clark (nicknamed Arrie) was born on October 8, 1873 in Ash Grove, Missouri, in the Ozark Mountains near Springfield. From an early age she was familiar with crime – particularly as one of her greatest thrills was seeing the outlaw Jesse James as he rode past her. She was devastated when he was shot and killed in 1882.
Kate, as she was also known then – never a beauty and leaning towards the plump side – married farm laborer George Barker.
George and Arizona had five boys named Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, Fred and Willmer.
The family lived in an impoverished tar-paper shack in Missouri, and from an early age the Barker boys began to cultivate their criminal careers, becoming known to the local police. Ma would often use her acting skills by playing the distraught mother in order to get her sons out of jail.
The bond between mother and sons was extremely strong – and no doubt Ma wore the trousers in the family, and was the greatest influence on her boys.
Some accounts claim that George Barker was an alcoholic.
It appears from the 1910 to 1930 censuses and the Tulsa City Directories from 1916 to 1928 that he was regularly employed. From 1916 to 1919, he worked for the Crystal Springs Water Co.
In the 1920s, he was variously employed as a farmer, watchman, station engineer, and clerk.
George is last listed with Arrie in the 1928 Tulsa city directory. Whether he was thrown out by Arrie (as some claim), or left on his own accord when life with her and the family became intolerable, is not known – but it is clear that he did not desert his family when the boys were young.
George and Arrie’s son Herman committed suicide on August 29, 1927, in Wichita, Kansas. He shot himself after a shootout with police that lasted hours.
In 1928, Lloyd was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, Arthur “Doc” Barker was in the Oklahoma State Prison, and Fred was in the Kansas State Prison.
Miriam Allen deFord, in her 1970 biography titled “The Real Ma Barker”, wrote, “This was the period when George Barker gave up completely and quietly removed himself from the scene.”
Though her children were undoubtedly murderers, and their Barker-Karpis Gang committed a spree of robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes between 1931 and 1935, the popular image of Kate as the gang’s leader and its criminal mastermind has been found to be fictitious.
Ma Barker certainly knew of the gang’s activities, and even helped them before and after they committed their crimes.
This would make her an accomplice – but there is no evidence that she was ever an active participant in any of the crimes themselves, or involved in planning them. Her role was in taking care of gang members, who often sent her to the movies while they committed crimes.
However, she did battle the FBI to the death with a Tommy gun on January 16, 1935.
Alvin Karpis, the gang’s second most notorious member, later said that:
“ The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang. . . . She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive . . . she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent? ”
This view of Ma Barker is corroborated by notorious bank robber Harvey Bailey, who knew the Barkers well. He observed in his autobiography that Ma Barker “couldn’t plan breakfast”, let alone a criminal enterprise.
Many (including Karpis) have suggested that the myth was encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to justify his agency’s killing of an old lady.
Activities of the Barker Boys, and the Barker-Karpis Gang
In 1910, Herman Barker was arrested for highway robbery in Webb City, Missouri.
On March 5, 1915, Herman Barker was arrested again, for highway robbery in Joplin, Missouri. (Herman and Lloyd Barker were reportedly involved with the Central Park Gang of Tulsa, Oklahoma.)
On July 4, 1918, Arthur “Doc” Barker was involved in an automobile theft in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He was arrested, but escaped custody.
In January 1921, Lloyd “Red” Barker was arrested for vagrancy in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
On January 15, 1921, Arthur Barker (a.k.a. “Claude Dade”) was involved in an attempted bank robbery in Muskogee, Oklahoma, and subsequently arrested.
On January 30, 1921, Arthur Barker (a.k.a. “Bob Barker”) was received at the Oklahoma State Prison. He was released on June 11, 1921.
Arthur Barker and Volney Davis were involved in the killing of night watchman Thomas J. Sherrill in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on August 16, 1921. (According to some sources, Thomas J. Sherrill. was a night watchman at St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa.)
On January 8, 1922, the Central Park Gang was involved in an attempted burglary in Okmulgee, Oklahoma. A shootout resulted in one burglar dead, while police Captain Homer R. Spaulding died of his wounds on January 19, 1922. One gang member was sentenced to life in prison, while another had his sentence overturned.
Lloyd Barker was received at Leavenworth Prison on January 16, 1922, after his arrest for robbing mail at Baxter Springs, Kansas. He was sentenced to 25 years, and released in 1938.
February 10, 1922 saw Arthur “Doc” Barker received at Oklahoma State Prison, for the murder of Sherrill.
In 1926, Fred Barker robbed a bank in Winfield, Kansas – an offence for which he was arrested. He was admitted to Kansas State Prison on March 12, 1927.
On August 1, 1927, Herman Barker cashed stolen bank bonds at the America National Bank in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Sheriff’s Deputy Arthur Osborn flagged down Barker’s car. Barker picked up a gun from the vehicle’s seat, and shot Osborn – who died as a result.
On August 29, 1927, Herman Barker committed suicide in Wichita, Kansas after being stopped at a police roadblock.
On March 30, 1931, Fred Barker was released from Kansas State Prison after serving time for burglary. Fred met Alvin Karpis, while in prison.
On June 10, 1931, Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis (alias George Heller) were arrested by Tulsa, Oklahoma Police investigating a burglary. Karpis was sentenced to 4 years, but paroled after restitution was made; Fred Barker also avoided a jail sentence.
On November 8, 1931, Fred Barker killed an Arkansas police chief, Manley Jackson.
On December 19, 1931, Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis robbed a store in West Plains, Missouri and were involved in the killing of Howell County, Missouri Sheriff C. Roy Kelly.
Lloyd Barker was received at Leavenworth Prison on January 18, 1932.
The body of A.W. Dunlap was found at Lake Franstead, Minnesota, on April 26, 1932. Dunlap was killed by Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis.
Fred Barker, Karpis and five accomplices robbed the Fort Scott, Kansas Bank, on June 17, 1932.
On July 26, 1932, Fred Barker, Karpis and an augmented gang robbed Cloud County bank at Concordia, Kansas.
Arthur “Doc” Barker was released from prison on September 10, 1932.
On December 16, 1932, Fred and Arthur Barker, Alvin Karpis and a gang robbed Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis, killing policemen Ira Leon Evans and Leo Gorski, and one civilian.
April 4, 1933 saw Fred and Arthur Barker, Alvin Karpis and the gang robbing a bank in Fairbury, Nebraska.
William Hamm of the Hamm’s Brewery family was kidnapped by the Barker-Karpis gang, in June 1933.
Hamm was released June 19, 1933, after a ransom was paid. It is believed by some that the gang turned over half of the Hamm ransom money to the Chicago Mob under Frank Nitti, after Nitti discovered that they were hiding Hamm in suburban Chicago, and demanded half the ransom as “rent”.
On August 30, 1933, the Barker-Karpis Gang robbed a payroll at Stockyards National Bank of South St. Paul, Minnesota – a caper in which one policeman (Leo Pavlak) was coldly executed, and another one disabled for life.
Two bank messengers were held up by five men identified as the Barker-Karpis gang on September 22, 1933. Chicago policeman Miles A Cunningham was killed by the gang, after their car crashed during the getaway.
On January 17, 1934, the gang kidnapped Edward George Bremer, Jr.
Bremer was released on February 7, 1934 after a ransom was paid.
On March 10, 1934, Barker gang member Fred Goetz (also known as “Shotgun George” Ziegler; a participant in the Bremer kidnapping) was killed by fellow gangsters in Cicero, Illinois.
“Doc” Barker and associate Volney Davis get a surprise visit from John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter in April 1934, helping them bury their comrade John “Red” Hamilton, after Hamilton died from gunshot wounds sustained in a shootout in St. Paul, Minnesota.
January 6, 1935 saw Barker gang member William B. Harrison killed by fellow gangsters at Ontarioville, Illinois.
Two days later (January 8, 1935), Arthur “Doc” Barker was arrested in Chicago. Barker gang member Russell Gibson was killed, and his colleague Byron Bolton was captured at another address.
Death Comes Calling
FBI Agents discovered the hideout of Ma Barker and her son, Fred, after Arthur “Doc” Barker was arrested in Chicago on January 8, 1935.
A map found in his possession indicated that the other gang members were in Ocklawaha, Florida.
Ma Barker was discovered by the FBI tracking her letters sent to her other son. She was writing to tell him about a large gator in Lake Weir that everyone had called “Gator Joe”, which led to the name of the local restaurant known as “Gator Joe’s”.
Agents surrounded the house at 13250 East Highway C-25 on the morning of January 16, 1935.
Ordered to surrender, Fred opened fire. Both he and his mother were killed by federal agents after an intense, hours-long gun-battle.
According to the FBI, a Tommy gun was found lying in the hands of Ma Barker.
Their bodies were put on public display, and then stored unclaimed, until October 1, 1935, when relatives had them buried at Williams Timberhill Cemetery in Welch, Oklahoma – next to the body of Herman Barker.
Arthur Barker was killed while trying to escape from Alcatraz Prison on January 13, 1939.
Lloyd Barker was killed by his wife on March 18, 1949. Lloyd by then was manager of Denargo Market in Denver, Colorado. His wife was sent to Colorado State Insane Asylum.
Of the known Barker-Karpis gang and its associates, 18 were arrested, 3 killed by lawmen, and 2 killed by other gangsters.
The Barker deathhouse in Ocklawaha, Florida was listed for sale on August 16, 2012. Offers on the Florida property were being accepted with a suggested minimum of $1 million, furniture included.
Nice work, if you can get it.
I’m out of here.
See you soon, I hope.