In the early 1930s banks in the United States were terrorized by a bunch of high profile armed robbers who roamed the mid-west. One of these notorious men was Tennessee, Mississippi-born “Machine Gun” Kelly. Starting out as a bootlegger, he switched careers after a stint in prison and became a fulltime bank robber feared throughout the country.
He did so with help of his loving wife Kathryn who did much more than just stand by her man. In Barbara Casey’s soon-to-be-released book Kathryn Kelly: The Moll Behind “Machine Gun” Kelly readers get the full story behind Kathryn and her husband. The following is an exclusive excerpt of that book.
Kathryn Kelly: The Moll Behind “Machine Gun” Kelly
After getting married, George and Kathryn Kelly returned to Fort Worth and quietly set up house-keeping on Mulkey Street in the house that Kathryn’s late husband, Charlie Thorne, built.
Neighbors later recalled seeing the Kellys drive around in their big sixteen-cylinder Cadillac and how well dressed the couple were. George was to lament years later that this was the turning point in his career, and that he should have stayed in Tulsa bootlegging.
Also in September of that year, George helped rob a bank in Ottumwa, Iowa, with a group of bandits that included Holden, Keating, Bailey, Miller, Fred Barker and Larry DeVol, an associate of the Barkers and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, given the nickname “Creepy” because of his sinister smile and called “Ray” by his gang members.
Concentrating in the “crime corridor,” which stretched from Texas to Minnesota, and focused especially in the three states of Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, on April 8, 1931, Harvey Bailey, Frank Nash, Verne Miller and “Dutch Joe,” who had participated in the Willmar Bank robbery a few months earlier, robbed the Central State Bank at Sherman, Texas, of forty thousand dollars. They escaped in a black Buick to Caddo Lake, near the Louisiana state line, where Kelly met them with a second getaway car—a Cadillac.
In September 1932, Kelly, Albert Bates, and Eddie Bentz, a seasoned bank robber, traveled to Colfax, Washington, near the eastern edge of the state, where, on September 21, they robbed the First Trust & Savings Bank of Colfax of seventy-seven thousand dollars. Within weeks, police raided the Kellys' home in Fort Worth, but the couple had already fled. Bentz was arrested a short time later in a Dallas post office. He admitted to knowing Kelly and Bates, and acknowledged they had a hideout on a ranch somewhere in Texas, but denied any involvement in the Colfax robbery. When Bentz was able to make bail, he fled the state.
A short time later, Kelly struck a bank nearby at Denton. Then on November 30, 1932, he along with Bates and Chicago hoodlum Eddie Doll, robbed the Citizen’s State Bank near Kathryn’s birthplace at Tupelo, Mississippi, stealing close to forty thousand dollars. After the robbery the bank's chief teller would say of Kelly: “He was the kind of guy that, if you looked at him, you would never have thought he was a bank robber.” All total, Kelly was involved in six bank robberies between March 1930 and November 1932.
Bruce Barnes writes that his father felt superior to the bank robbers he befriended in Leavenworth. “It wasn’t just the money that appealed to him. It was the image of himself going into a bank holding a gun, knowing that he had complete power over those he was robbing.” Barnes also writes that Kathryn not only helped in the planning of these robberies, but that she dressed like a man and participated as an armed getaway driver during some of them.
Kathryn also had an image of her husband, and she began spreading the word among her bootlegging customers and associates that her man was a brutal, efficient bank robber. To prove the point, she gave him a second-hand Thompson machine gun, model 1921, serial number 4907, and insisted that he practice with it while visiting at the Shannon farm near Paradise, Texas. She bought it from J. Kar, a pawnbroker at the Wolfe & Klar Pawn Shop in Fort Worth that was the southwest distributor for Colt’s Arms Manufacturing Company, and paid two hundred fifty dollars for it. According to William Helmer, author of Public Enemies: America’s Criminal Past, 1919-1940, “Wolfe & Klar was also the source of guns for Hyman Lebman in San Antonio who was converting them into full automatics for bank robber and murderer Baby Face Nelson, a name given to him because of his youthful appearance and small stature, and his partner, John Dillinger, known for having robbed twenty-four banks and four police stations.” Both would be named on FBI Director Hoover’s “Public Enemy No. 1“ list.
Kathryn was an expert shot with most types of guns, according to the FBI, including the hand guns, shot guns, rifles, and the “Tommy” gun. It has been reported that George could also handle the “chopper” (or “Chicago typewriter,” as the big city mobsters called it), and named his Tommy gun “the Little Stenog“ because he could “write his name on the side of a barn” by shooting bullets.
Kathryn continued promoting “the Big Guy” in Fort Worth dives, dumps, and hangouts, bragging that “Machine Gun Kelly“ was so expert with his weapon that he could pop walnuts off the top of a fence at thirty feet, and passing out his spent brass shell casings as souvenirs.
Machine Gun Kelly (right) would make his own self-serving statements, saying that he “liked to use a machine gun at close range without the stock, with the butt against his hip.” He also bragged that he “spent twenty-five to thirty dollars a week on slugs so he could practice.” He was known for carrying a large bag with him that concealed two machine guns, the one Kathryn bought for him, and another one, also a 1921 model, 45 caliber, serial number 4685.
There is little doubt that these stories have been embellished over the years. For one thing, Kelly was never keen on fire arms. For another, it has been pointed out that pecan trees are dominant in the area rather than walnut trees. There is also some question as to whether it was Kathryn who actually came up with the name “Machine Gun Kelly.” The FBI had its own ubiquitous public relations arm which cleverly played up the frightening nickname while seeking Kelly; thereby painting Hoover and his agents as heroic and courageous in their pursuit of this extremely dangerous, heavily armed public enemy. The FBI’s wanted poster warned that Kelly was an “expert machine gunner,” while at the same time some of the bureau’s press releases labeled him “a desperate character.”
Other stories spread around the Southwest of the fearless robber calling himself “Machine Gun Kelly,” a deadly master of the Tommy gun, who “signed” his holdups by blasting his name across billboards and bank walls. There was one incident where, following a bank robbery in Texas, Kelly used his machine gun to shoot his last name on a signpost as he and Kathryn raced out of town, but this one act wouldn’t justify newspapers of the day proclaiming Kelly “the most dangerous man in America.” More than likely it was just bad timing for Kelly. The fact is, Kelly never killed anyone—or, as far as anyone knows, even fired his weapon in anger.
Kelly’s list of underworld associates continued to grow. He became acquainted with Chicago mobsters and “Kid Cann,” operated by Isadore Blumenfeld, a Jewish-American organized crime figure based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Kelly’s accomplices on various crimes included Eddie Bentz, who would 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,” known for bootlegging, bank robbery, and kidnapping, and alleged to be a “spot killer” for Chicago mobsters; and Albert L. Bates, whose aliases include George Bates, George L. Davis, George Harris and J.B. King, wanted for bank robberies across the country and suspected of murdering his accomplices, J.E. “Mike” Conway and Frank “Frisco Whitey” Carroll.
Kelly continued to work with Keating, Holden and others until early 1932 when he began working with Albert L. Bates. Bates had an arrest record dating back to March 1916 when he was convicted of burglary and sentenced from one to fifteen years in the state penitentiary at Carson City, Nevada.
Paroled a year and a half later, his next sentence was a six-month stretch for petty theft in Salt Lake City. In August 1921, Bates received another sentence for burglary in the Utah State Penitentiary.
He escaped in October, 1926, but less than seven months later he was serving a three-to-five year burglary sentence in Colorado. After his release in July 1930, Bates made his way to the Midwest and spent thirty days in jail on a minor charge in Michigan. Bates and Kelly would work together for more than a year.
According to Allan May, author and organized crime historian, Kelly’s first kidnapping occurred in 1930 with a former Cicero, Illinois police officer named Bernard “Big Phil” Phillips. “Tall, husky, and slowspoken, Phillips had been fired as a traffic cop for extortion. During the kidnapping, one of the victims taken by Phillips was killed when Phillips’ gun accidentally discharged.”
Later, Phillips asked Kelly to join him in another kidnapping, but Kelly declined, concluding that the proposed victim did not have enough money to pay the ransom. Phillips went ahead with the abduction but soon discovered that Kelly’s assessment had been correct. Phillips then released the victim with the ridiculous order to bring his own ransom to a meeting. In attempting to collect the ransom, he borrowed Kelly’s Cadillac, thus making Kelly the suspect for Philips’ crime. Because he was being hunted, Kelly had to flee to Chicago with his Cadillac coupe loaded into the back end of a truck. Kelly’s second kidnapping attempt, along with his partner, bootlegger and car thief Eddie Doll, took place on January 27, 1932. Howard Woolverton, a South Bend, Indiana, banker, was returning home with his wife when a gunman jumped on the running board of their car and forced his way into the automobile. After ordering Woolverton to drive out of town, they stopped two miles outside the city where Woolverton was forced into another car that had been following them. Mrs. Woolverton was then given a ransom note demanding fifty thousand dollars. After driving Woolverton around the northern part of Indiana for two days, the victim was finally able to convince Kelly and Doll that he didn’t have the money to pay the ransom. He was released just outside Michigan City, Indiana, on his promise to raise the money. Calls and letters to his home demanding the money were ignored, however, and eventually his kidnappers stopped trying to contact him.
Not discouraged, Kathryn and George made plans for still another kidnapping, this one involving Guy Waggoner, the son of a Fort Worth oil magnate.
Kathryn had a party at their Mulkey Street home and invited Fort Worth police detectives K.W. Swinney and Ed Weatherford. Believing they were corrupt, Kathryn talked to them about taking part in the kidnapping. Swinney and Weatherford, however, knowing of the Kellys’ criminal history, were trying to cultivate Kathryn into becoming an informant. They declined, telling her it was too risky. Before the detectives left, she asked them for a favor: If Kelly or his partner Bates were ever arrested in another state, could the detectives be counted on to contact that authority and claim they were wanted in Texas for bank robbery? “And you boys come and claim them,” meaning the detectives would then allow them to escape from custody. “Is that a go?” she asked. Swinney and Weatherford assured her they would. The detectives then contacted the FBI who placed the oilman’s son under constant police surveillance. With so many police around the young man, the Kellys dropped their plan to kidnap him.
Kelly, like a number of other criminals during that era of Prohibition, saw kidnapping as a relatively safe, easy way to get a lot of money fast. Basically, it involved identifying a wealthy victim, finding a safe, hidden place to keep the victim, and working out a plan to collect the ransom. A kidnapping was less dangerous than robbing a bank, Kathryn and George reasoned, and they could collect whatever they demanded. Whereas, in a bank robbery, the take was uncertain, especially since they were in the midst of the Great Depression when even the banks occasionally ran short of cash. While the Kellys considered their next move, several unrelated events occurred which the FBI and law enforcement agencies in the Midwest would incorrectly tie into the Kelly legend.
First, Kelly's former Leavenworth associate and onetime bank-robbing partner, Harvey Bailey, had been arrested and incarcerated in the state penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas. On May 30, 1933, Bailey, Wilbur Underhill and nine others, using guns allegedly smuggled into the prison by Frank Nash, kidnapped the warden and two prison guards in a daring escape. The hostages were later released unharmed.
After regrouping in the Cookson Hills of eastern Oklahoma, Bailey and Underhill would lead a gang which pulled off several bank robberies in that state.
The second event was the June 17, 1933, Kansas City Massacre—also referred to as the Union Station Massacre. Verne Miller, a freelance Prohibition gunman, bootlegger, bank robber, and former sheriff in Huron, South Dakota, and two unidentified accomplices attempted to free Nash from a group of federal agents and law enforcement officers. Nash, who had been arrested by federal agents in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the day before, was being transferred back to Leavenworth. During this ill-fated rescue attempt five people—four law officers and Nash—were killed. Years later it would be revealed that Nash and at least two of the law officers died from friendly fire.
Although the FBI would incorrectly name gangsters “Pretty Boy” Floyd, a bank robber who operated primarily in the Midwest and West South Central States, and Adam “Eddie” Richetti, bank robber and kidnapper, as the accomplices months later, initial suspects included Kelly, Bailey and Underhill.
In that same month, Tulsa’s Barker-Karpis gang, comprised of Ma “Arrie” Barker and her sons and the gang of Alvin Karpis, abducted beer baron William A. Hamm at St. Paul. They demanded a one hundred thousand dollar ransom. Hamm was taken to Wisconsin, where he was forced to sign four ransom notes. Then he was moved to a hideout in Bensenville, Illinois, and held prisoner until the kidnappers had been paid. Once the money was handed over, Hamm was released unharmed near Wyoming, Minnesota. Albert Bates would later claim that Ma Barker couldn’t even organize breakfast, much less “a job.” However, history would prove otherwise.
While the search had gone on for Hamm’s abductors, other prominent citizens fell victim to kidnapping:
An Atlanta banker was taken in an unsuccessful effort to get forty thousand dollars in ransom; John J. O’Connell, Jr., the twenty-four-year-old son and nephew of several New York politicians, was kidnapped and two hundred fifty thousand dollars demanded for his return of which only forty thousand dollars was paid; August Luer, an Alton, Illinois banker, was abducted and then released without receiving the demanded one hundred thousand dollars.
On learning of these kidnappings and some of the successful payoffs, despite their own lackluster track record in kidnapping, the Kellys and Bates soon decided on yet another attempt. This one was destined to firmly set George Ramsey Kelly's name—aka George Barnes, George Kelly, J.J. Rosenburg, and George Celino Barnes—into the annals of crime history.
This was an excerpt of Barbara Casey’s soon-to-be-released book Kathryn Kelly: The Moll Behind “Machine Gun” Kelly. You can pre-order the book at amazon.com or at a store near you. You can follow Barbara Casey at her website and blog: www.barbaracaseyagency.com.
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