Just before dawn on September 26, 1933, a dozen men armed with shotguns and machine guns crept up to a small brick house in South Memphis. Inside was a ruthless killer who had slaughtered four policemen in Kansas City, a man so skilled with a machine gun that he could stitch his name in .45-caliber slugs.
The FBI agents kicked in the front door and burst inside. Cowering in a corner of the living room was their quarry, his face white with fear, his raised arms trembling. "Don't shoot, G-men," he pleaded. "Don't shoot." Without firing a shot, the agents had captured the man feared throughout America as Machine Gun Kelly.
At least that's the story most people have heard -- the stuff of legends and grade "B" movies. What a shame that very little of it is true. Here's the real story of Machine Gun Kelly, the Memphis boy who grew up to become Public Enemy Number One.
The gangster era brings to mind today frightening scenes of smoke-filled speakeasies, blazing machine guns, gangland massacres, and hoodlums like Baby Face Nelson, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Al Capone. But the notorious outlaw who became known as Machine Gun Kelly -- the guy with the toughest-sounding nickname of them all -- was in reality George Francis Barnes Jr., the son of a well-to-do Memphis insurance agent.
Barnes was born in Chicago in 1900 (some sources say 1896). When the boy was 2, the family moved to Memphis and bought a pleasant two-story home, still standing today at the corner of Rembert and Cowden in Central Gardens. He attended Idlewild Elementary School, then Central High School, but he could hardly be called a model student. His teachers, who talked to reporters about him years afterward, felt he never "applied himself," as they put it.
After graduating from Central, Barnes briefly studied at Mississippi A&M College in Starkville, where he met a pretty coed named Genevieve Ramsey. They eloped and were married in Clarksdale in 1919. The young man's new father-in-law, a wealthy levee contractor, gave Barnes a good job as commissary clerk with his company. Barnes' respectability, however, was short-lived. His father-in-law died in an accidental dynamite explosion, and his marriage ended in divorce a few years later.
Barnes came back to Memphis and drifted from job to job -- selling used cars, driving a cab with the 784 Taxi Company, even running a goat farm out on Poplar Pike. But he soon discovered a more lucrative means of making a living, and one day in 1923 he was caught operating a still near present-day Ridgeway and sentenced to six months in the county workhouse. He turned up a few years later in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where he was arrested for bootlegging and fined $250. Another arrest in Tulsa for selling liquor on an Indian reservation sent him to the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, for a three-year term.
The Birth of Machine Gun Kelly
It was after his release from Leavenworth that Barnes met his second wife, Kathryn Thorne, an attractive brunette with a quick wit and friendly smile. Kathryn had actually been born Cleo Brooks in Saltillo, Mississippi, but decided "Kathryn" sounded more glamorous. She had been married three times before she met Kelly. According to Stanley Hamilton, author of Machine Gun Kelly's Last Stand, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover liked to cite a man who dated Kathryn a few times, describing her like this: "She took me to more speakeasies, more bootleg dives, more holes in the wall than I thought were in all of Texas. She knows more bums than the police department. She can drink liquor like water." And as we'll see, she could play fast and loose with the truth.
About this time, stories began to surface around the Southwest of a fearless robber calling himself "Machine Gun Kelly," a deadly master of the tommygun, who "signed" his holdups by blasting his name across billboards and bank walls.
It's true that after one bank job in Texas, Barnes -- who by now was calling himself George Kelly -- used a machine gun to shoot his last name on a signpost as he and Kathryn raced out of town, but this lone act of bravado would hardly account for his widespread reputation. And he certainly didn't look or act very menacing. After the robbery of a bank in Tupelo, the teller tried to describe Kelly as "the kind of guy, that, if you looked at him, you would never think he was a bank robber."
No, it was Kathryn who bought Kelly his first machine gun, picking up a .45-caliber Thompson at a pawnshop, and coached him to shoot walnuts off fence posts. (She would later smile sweetly in court and protest, "Why, if I'd ever seen a machine gun, I'd be afraid of it.") It was she who passed out used cartridge cases in underworld haunts, saying, "Have a souvenir of my husband, Machine Gun Kelly, who's off robbing banks somewhere." And police say it was Kathryn -- not Kelly -- who had the necessary underworld connections, and the brains, to pull off a really bold stunt that would make them the most wanted couple in America.
The Urschel Kidnapping
On the night of July 22, 1933, Kelly and an accomplice calmly walked into the living room of millionaire oilman Charles F. Urschel while he and his wife were playing cards with friends at their Oklahoma City mansion. They blindfolded him, dumped him in the back seat of their roadster, and roared off into the night. A few days later, the Urschel family received a ransom demand for $200,000, the largest ransom ever demanded up to that time. Among other things, the typed note explained: "Remember this -- if any trickery is attempted you will find the remains of Urschel and instead of joy there will be double grief -- for someone very near and dear to the Urschel family is under constant surveillance and will likewise suffer for your error." The money was dropped off outside a hotel in Kansas City, per the instructions, and nine days later Urschel was back with his family, unharmed.
By present-day standards, that doesn't seem enough cause for newspapers of the day to proclaim Kelly "the most dangerous man in America." But in the 1930s, gangs had discovered that kidnapping was a profitable business. Such enterprises may have continued relatively unchecked but for the abduction and murder of famed flyer Charles Lindbergh's baby, an atrocity that shocked the nation. The resulting Lindbergh Law, enacted in 1933, made kidnapping a federal offense, punishable by death or life imprisonment More importantly, the law no longer restricted kidnapping investigations to local police agencies. Now the feds could be called in.
It was simply bad timing for Kelly. The Urschel case was the first gangland kidnapping under the Lindbergh Law, and police officials were determined to set an example. FBI director Hoover announced he was taking personal charge of the case and promised to catch the "dirty yellow rats" responsible.
A nationwide manhunt began immediately, but it was actually Urschel's excellent memory that led authorities to his captors. Although blindfolded much of the time, he had noticed the sound of oil pumps working in a nearby field, and he recalled that a twin-engine airplane had flown directly overhead, except for one day when it rained. A quick check of all flight schedules around Oklahoma City, combined with other details Urschel provided, led detectives to a lonely farmhouse outside Paradise, Texas. The arrest of the farmhouse occupants provided the cops with their first link to a major suspect. The farm was owned by Robert and Ora Shannon -- the parents of Kathryn Kelly.
Kathryn and her husband had fled, but the net was fast closing around them, and they knew it. Their only hope was to lay low for a while. After burying their split of the ransom money on other farms nearby, they drove for weeks throughout the Southwest. Kelly died his dark hair blond, Kathryn wore a red wig, and to complete their disguise, they even "borrowed" 12-year-old Geraldine Arnold from a friend, to pose as their daughter. But time was running out, and they both knew they needed a safe place to stay.
The Memphis Hideout
Early in September 1933, the Kellys turned up in Memphis and contacted Langford Ramsey, Kelly's brother-in-law from his first marriage. Ramsey directed them to a bungalow at 1408 Rayner owned by John Tichenor, a used-car salesman, and Seymour Travis, a grocery clerk. There, on this quiet street off South Parkway, the Kellys would hide until -- well, they would think of something.
But Kelly could run no farther without money, and lots of it. His only hope was to retrieve the thousands of dollars they had left behind, buried in Thermos jugs at different farms and ranches in Texas. He persuaded Ramsey to fetch it, taking along the Arnold girl, who could show him the location.
It was a desperate gamble that failed. Federal agents had already traced the money to one farm and dug it up. When Ramsey heard this, he sent the girl back to her parents in Oklahoma. How was he to know that the authorities were waiting for the girl as soon as she stepped off the train? She innocently told them what they wanted to hear: Machine Gun Kelly was stranded in Memphis.
FBI director Hoover instantly dispatched special agents here with a federal arrest warrant charging Kelly with "kidnapping and massacre." Since the Urschel kidnapping, four policeman had been slain in Kansas City while transporting a gangster to jail, and another officer was killed in Chicago during a bank robbery. Machine guns were used in both crimes, and authorities concluded that only one man in America could be responsible -- Kelly. Hoover went so far as to say that "Kelly and his gang of desperadoes are regarded as the most dangerous ever encountered."
Ramsey's failure to get the money meant Kelly was trapped, and radio reports told him the dragnet was closing swiftly. It was but a matter of time before a showdown, so he sent Travis out to buy a pistol. Kelly, it seems, had left his machine gun behind in Texas. As he ruefully admitted later, "I didn't think I would need it here."
A Morning Raid
On the night of September 25, 1933, Kelly stayed awake by reading a Master Detective magazine. He was halfway through "My Blood-Curdling Ride With Death" when a soft thump outside startled him. Peeking through the windows, he saw the noise was only the newspaper tossed onto the porch by the paper boy. Kelly stepped outside in his underwear and picked up the paper. When he came back inside, he walked down the hallway to the bathroom -- and forgot to lock the door behind him.
At that moment, two cars pulled up quietly outside the house. Special agents from the FBI leapt out, followed by Sergeant William J. Raney and other detectives from the Memphis Police Department. Raney gingerly tried the front door. To his surprise, it was open. Sawed-off shotgun at the ready, the detective stepped into the living room and found it empty. Through an open doorway he could glimpse Tichenor and Travis asleep in a front bedroom. But where was Kelly? Would he come out shooting?
Raney moved quietly down the hallway. Just then, Kelly stepped out of the bathroom, the pistol in his hand. With a shotgun aimed at his heart, he knew the game was up. "Okay, boys," he said, dropping the gun to the floor. "I've been waiting all night for you." The other men entered the house and found Kathryn asleep in a back room. The hunt was over.
A Sensational Capture
Memphians were astonished by the Press-Scimitar's banner headline that afternoon: "MACHINE GUN KELLY CAPTURED IN MEMPHIS." Kelly and Kathryn were taken to the county jail and charged with kidnapping. Bond was set at $100,000 apiece. At a news conference that morning, chief of police Will D. Lee gave reporters the details of the capture, adding, it seems, a few points of his own: "When Kelly looked into the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun in the hands of a Memphis detective sergeant, there was a thin yellow fluid that began to rise up the canal of his spinal column, in much the fashion that mercury rises in a thermometer on an exceedingly hot day, and he immediately dropped his revolver and submitted quietly to arrest."
(The story always told by J. Edgar Hoover, that Kelly was the first to use the term "G-Man" when he shouted, "Don't shoot, G-Men!" is certainly false. For one thing, Kelly recognized Raney from earlier run-ins with him, and the term had already been in use for some years. Besides, Kelly himself always denied saying it: "No, I never said that, but if they say I did I won't argue about it.")
Kathryn's public-relations campaign had certainly succeeded. She had made her husband into one of the most famous criminals in America. Both she and Kelly seemed to relish their notoriety when first arrested. He even joked with his guards ("Say, lend me that machine gun for just a minute, will you") and complained lightheartedly about the jail accommodations: "This cell's not big enough to swing a cat in. But that doesn't matter; I won't be in here long."
Kathryn cheerfully smiled and posed for newsreel cameramen from Fox, Paramount, and other agencies, who had flown to Memphis, eager for just a glimpse of the fugitives.
Within days, though, the Kellys' attitude changed. Kathryn grew tired of the relentless questioning and whined that she was just an innocent victim. "I don't want to say anything about that guy Kelly," she told reporters, "but he got me into this terrible mess and I won't want to have anything more to do with him."
Kelly was disgusted with the incessant photo sessions and was outraged by the leg shackles placed on him: "What do they have to put these things on for? Do you think I'm going anywhere, with these guards watching me and these bars?"
Memphis authorities hoped not. Elaborate security precautions were taken. Kelly was moved to the top floor of the jail, where he was the sole prisoner, watched around the clock by machine-gun-toting guards. There was also great fear of a gangland reprisal -- someone shooting Kelly to keep him from testifying -- so no reporters or visitors were allowed near him.
In the meantime, the Urschel kidnapping trial was already under way in Oklahoma City, with the Shannons and other minor figures in the case in the courtroom. The authorities had decided that the Kellys would remain in Memphis until it was time for them to testify, for fear that their presence at the trial would intimidate potential witnesses. The newspapers, including The Commercial Appeal, helped strengthen this fear: "Kelly is a ruthless killer in any light in which he is viewed. If he has ever shown the slightest degree of mercy for the victims of his criminal records, it is not on record."
But it was on record. Charles Urschel, the kidnapping victim himself, testified that he was treated "with consideration" before being released unharmed. And Kelly, though confessing to the kidnapping charge, strongly denied taking part in any murders. Ballistics tests proved him right, eventually linking the Chicago policeman's murder and the Kansas City "massacre" to others. In The Encyclopedia of American Crime, author Carl Sifakis notes, "The fact is that Kelly never fired a shot at anyone and he certainly never killed anyone, a remarkable statistic for a public enemy dubbed 'Machine Gun.'"
It didn't matter. The newspapers had their story, and they didn't worry about the facts. The police "had their man." When the Kellys finally arrived at their own trial, Kathryn testified briefly, again claiming that she knew nothing about any kidnapping, but Kelly remained silent. The prosecution summed up the feelings of the nation: "Shall we have a court of law and order, or shall we abdicate to a reign of machine-gun gangsters?" The jury responded with the expected verdict: guilty. The Kellys and Shannons, in the first conviction under the Lindbergh Law, were sentenced to life imprisonment on October 9, 1933.
According to author Hamilton, "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 short-lived but intriguing time in America known as the Gangster Era."
Kathryn Kelly and her mother were shipped to the Women's Federal Prison in Alderson, West Virginia. She remained there until she was paroled in 1958 and faded into obscurity. She worked for a nursing home in Oklahoma before dying in Tulsa in 1985.
Kelly served his sentence at Leavenworth, then became one of the first prisoners transferred to the brand-new federal prison at Alcatraz. He was always considered extremely dangerous, though his easy-going ways earned him the nickname "Pop-Gun Kelly." When he first arrived at prison, he bragged, "I'll be out by Christmas." But that Christmas came and went, as did many others, and he stayed behind bars for the rest of his life. In the early 1950s, he was returned to Leavenworth. There, he complained to one writer, "How the hell did I ever get myself into this fix? I should've stayed with what I knew how to do best -- robbing banks."
Machine Gun Kelly died in prison on July 7, 1954, on his 59th birthday. His father-in-law, paroled from prison a few years earlier, brought his body back to Texas. A simple poured-concrete gravestone marks his final resting place in Cottondale Cemetery, close to the Shannons' old farm. More than half of the ransom money -- some $100,000 -- was never recovered. It may still be buried on a lonely ranch somewhere in the Southwest.
Sources: Machine Gun Kelly's Last Stand, by Stanley Hamilton; The Encyclopedia of American Crime, by Carl Sifakis, and Memphis Press-Scimitar and Commercial Appeal files.