The Barker-Karpis Gang was one of the longest-lived criminal gangs during the Depression Era, spanning from 1931 to 1935. The gang got its start when Alvin Carpis and Fred Barker met while incarcerated in a Kansas prison. Both were released in 1931 and soon hooked up to commit nighttime burglaries in jewelry and clothing shops. When Arthur Barker was released from prison in 1932, he joined the others, and soon they were adding bank robbery to their list of crimes. Also joining them in the crime spree were brothers Herman and Lloyd Barker. Barker and Karpis were meticulous in their planning and often added additional individuals who had specific types of hold-up skills or other criminal experience needed for a job. In 1932, Karpis could name 11 banks they had robbed, but the number was probably higher. By rotating their members, this caused greater difficulty for the FBI in apprehending them.
The gang soon added kidnapping to their long list of crimes, starting with William Hamm, heir to the Hamm Brewery, in June 1933. After receiving the $100,000 ransom, they returned Hamm safely. The gang next kidnapped Edward Bremer, a bank president and son of Adolf Bremer, president of the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company, in January 1934. For this crime, they received $200,000 ransom. Bremer, who had significant political connections, soon brought the FBI down in force.
One of the gang’s major undoings was when they killed their own gang member, George “Shotgun” Ziegler. Ziegler, who had been one of the Bremer kidnapping masterminds, began to brag about the kidnapping to several underworld associates, telling them that he was the genius behind the kidnapping. As a result, his fellow gang members shot four slugs into Ziegler as he was coming out of his favorite restaurant in Cicero, Illinois, on March 22, 1934. The corpse was left, and FBI agents found names, aliases, addresses, and other valuable information in Ziegler’s pockets, soon leading to the deaths or capture of the main members of the gang.
Arthur Barker was captured on January 8, 1935, and sent to Alcatraz, where he was killed in an escape attempt in 1939. Just one week later, agents tracked down Ma and Fred Barker in Lake Weir, Florida. On January 16th, and in the gunfight that ensued, both Ma and Fred were killed. A short time later, Alvin Karpis nearly met his death when the FBI tracked him down in Atlantic City, New Jersey. However, Karpis and Harry Campbell managed to shoot their way to an escape. Alvin Carpis continued his crimes with others and managed to rob a train in Garrettsville, Ohio, of $27,000. He was eventually captured and sent to Alcatraz, where he served the longest sentence ever at the notorious prison (25 years, 1 month.) He was eventually released on parole in 1969, wrote a book, and moved to Spain in 1973. He died there on August 26, 1979.
By Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated March 2021.