“My family are good people. Only I turned out to be a heel.”
— Machine Gun Kelly to Alcatraz Warden James A. Johnston
George Kelly Barnes, better known as “Machine Gun” Kelly was a notorious Prohibition-era criminal, whose crimes included bootlegging, armed robbery, and, most prominently, kidnapping. He spent some time in Alcatraz Prison in California before dying of a heart attack at Leavenworth Federal Prison in Kansas on July 18, 1954.
George Kelly Barnes was born on July 18, 1895, in Memphis, Tennessee to insurance executive George Frederick Barnes Jr. and Elizabeth Kelly Barnes. He was raised in a respectable neighborhood and attended Central High School. In September 1917, he enrolled at Mississippi A&M (later Mississippi State University), at Jackson, to study agriculture. However, he was a poor student and was in constant trouble with the faculty. In his first semester alone, he was given 31 demerits and in the first few weeks of the second semester, was given another 24 demerits. He left college on January 27, 1918. While he was in college he met Geneva Ramsey, also of Memphis and the two married in 1919. Afterward, he went to work as a taxi driver and the couple had two children. His wife soon divorced him and would later say that she divorced him “because he was running in bad company.” In fact, she had to advertise notice to get a divorce because she didn’t know where to reach him.
In the meantime, George began to operate as a small-time criminal, involved in moonshining and bootlegging. After a few arrests, he headed west and adopted the alias of George R. Kelly. He was again arrested for bootlegging in Santa Fe, New Mexico on March 14, 1927. Convicted, he spent a few months in the New Mexico State Penitentiary. After his release, he went to Tulsa, Oklahoma where he was arrested for vagrancy on July 24th. He was arrested again in Tulsa for bootlegging on January 12, 1928.
Kelly then drifted to Oklahoma City where he hooked up with bootlegger “Little Steve” Anderson. There, he also met Kathryn Thorne, Anderson’s attractive mistress. George and Kathryn soon developed a romance and ran off together, allegedly, in Anderson’s Cadillac.
Kathryn, who had been married several times, was also involved in bootlegging and had a record of her own including prostitution and theft. She was said to have been a “tough” woman, who often frequented speakeasies, could “drink liquor like water”, and ran with a crowd of other tough women. It was Kathryn who is said to have bought Kelly his first Thompson sub-machine gun, from which he earned the nickname “Machine Gun” Kelly. He became so proficient with the gun that could write his name in lead and knock walnuts off a fence at 25 paces.
On January 13, 1928, Federal Prohibition agents caught Kelly smuggling liquor onto an Indian reservation and Kelly was tried in Federal Court in Tulsa, Oklahoma and sentenced to three years in the Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas. It was here that he made his first real connections with the criminal underworld, such as Texas bank robber, Charlie Harmon; Frank “Jelly” Nash, who was serving time for train robbery; and Francis Keating and Thomas Holden who were also imprisoned for train robbery.
On February 28, 1930, Keating and Holden escaped prison and fled to Minneapolis, Minnesota. That same year, Kelly and Charlie Harmon were released and joined Keating and Holden. Also making her way north was Kathryn Thorne and she and George Kelly were married in Minneapolis in September 1930.
The four men, along with several others, including Frank “Jelly” Nash and Harvey Bailey all became part of the Keating-Holden Gang. The gang then began a spree of robberies. They first robbed a bank William, Minnesota on July 15, 1930, making away with $70,000. After a dispute led by Vern Miller, three of the gang members — Mike Rusick, Frank “Wennie” Coleman, and Samuel “Jew Sammy” Stein, were found shot to death at White Bear Lake. The gang then robbed a bank in Lincoln, Nebraska on September 9, 1930, making off with $4,000,000. The gang continued to rob banks in Nebraska, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Harmon would be was killed on November 19, 1931, following a $100,000 bank robbery with Holden and Keating at Menomonie, Wisconsin. Francis Keating and Thomas Holden joined with the Alvin Karpis-Barker Gang to rob a bank in Fort Scott, Kansas on June 17, 1932. Keating and Holden were arrested a month later.
Kelly participated in some of the robberies and at other times lived with his wife Kathryn in Fort Worth, Texas. His list of underworld associates grew as he made his way from Texas to Kansas City, Chicago, and Minneapolis. He became acquainted with members of the “Kid Cann” syndicate in Minneapolis, with Chicago mobsters, with Alvin Karpis and the Barkers. His accomplices on various crimes included Eddie Bentz, Eddie Doll, and Albert Bates.
Machine Gun Kelly’s first venture into kidnapping occurred at South Bend, Indiana on January 27, 1932. When Howard Woolverton, a local manufacturer and banker’s son, was driving home from a theater with his wife, they were forced off the road by another car. Two gunmen then entered their car and Howard Woolverton was ordered to drive out of town. Following the two gunmen was another vehicle. Two miles outside of the city, one of the gunmen took Woolverton back to the vehicle that had followed and left his wife, Florence, with a note demanding $50,000 ransom. The kidnappers were George Kelly and Eddie Doll. After driving a blindfolded Woolverton around northern Indiana for two days, the victim finally convinced his kidnappers he was unable to pay the ransom. He was released on the outskirts of Michigan City, on his promise to raise the money later. Though Woolverton later received threatening letters and phone calls demanding the money, he ignored them.
Kelly then reverted back to bank robbery. On September 21, 1932, Kelly along with Albert Bates and Edward Bentz robbed the First Trust and Savings Bank at Colfax, Washington of $77,000. Warrants were issued for the trio and Kelly’s home in Fort Worth was raided in November, but no one was at home. Eddie Bentz was arrested at the Dallas, Texas Post Office and admitted knowing Kelly and Bates but denied participating in the Colfax robbery. However, he told the police that Kelly and Bates often hid on a Texas farm but didn’t know the location. Bentz was released on bond and later fled.
On November 30, 1932, Kelly, Bates, Eddie Doll and another man robbed the Citizens State Bank at Tupelo, Mississippi of $38,000. Kelly and other criminals were also linked to bank robberies in Denton and Blue Ridge, Texas.
Next, George Kelly, along with his wife Kathryn and fellow outlaw Albert L. Bates, hatched a plan to kidnap wealthy Oklahoma oilman Charles F. Urschel. This would become Kelly’s most famous crime. It would also end his criminal career.
At 11:15 p.m., on Saturday, July 22, 1933, Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Urschel were playing bridge with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Walter R. Jarrett, on a screened porch of the Urschel residence at Oklahoma City. Two men, one armed with a machine gun and the other with a pistol, opened the screen door and inquired which of the two men was Mr. Urschel. Receiving no reply, they remarked, “Well, we will take both of them.” After warning the women against calling for help, they marched Urschel and Jarrett to their car and drove rapidly away. Mrs. Urschel immediately telephoned the FBI and special agents were sent to Oklahoma City, where an extensive investigation commenced.
In the meantime, the victims had been driven to a point about 12 miles northeast of the city and after the captives were identified, Jarrett was released. At 1:00 a.m., Sunday, July 23, 1933, Jarrett made his way back to the Urschel residence.
Several days elapsed before word was received from the kidnappers. Kelly and his gang wanted $200,000 for the oil tycoon and set up an elaborate system for the handling of their captive and the delivery of the ransom. The money was to be delivered to a hotel in Kansas City on July 30th, which it was. The next day, the kidnappers let Urschel go. Urschel arrived home exhausted at about 11:30 p.m. on July 31. He was unharmed and, although blindfolded some of the time, he was able to provide a number of clues to authorities. From his descriptions, the FBI determined that he was held for days in two homes near Paradise, Texas. During this time Urschel heard the voices of two men — one older and one younger, and a woman, as well as those of his captors.