“A prisoner cannot help being haunted by a vision of life as it used to be and, at such times, I pay with a delicious sense of melancholy, my tribute to life as it once was.” – Gangster and Alcatraz inmate George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly.
Born in Memphis, Tennessee on July 18, 1895, George Barnes (to give him his proper name) was one of the most notorious outlaws of the ‘Crime Wave’ that engulfed America during the 1920’s and 30’s. With the Great Depression and Prohibition a new breed of outlaws strode forth. Al Capone ruled Chicago with an iron fist. Rival Mafiosi shot it out for control of New York. In the Mid-West, along the legendary ‘crime corridor’ states once ravaged by Jesse James, Crawford ‘Cherokee Bill’ Goldsby and a host of others, the new breed wore sharp suits and straw boaters instead of Stetsons and cowboy boots. Instead of Colt revolvers and Winchester rifle, they carried .45 automatics, Browning Automatic Rifles and, naturally, the gangster favourite; the tommy gun.
Kelly was promoted by both law enforcement and his malevolent, scheming wife Kathryn, as deadly with a tommy gun. Reputedly, he could even write his own name in bullet holes. When he wasn’t involved in major bank robberies, rubbing shoulders with the likes pf Alvin ‘Old Creepy’ Karpis or kidnapping millionaires for enormous ransoms he was, supposedly, one of the worst of the worst.
Only he wasn’t.
He started out as a small-time bootlegger until he drew three years in 1928 for smuggling liquor onto a Native reservation (a Federal crime). Federal crime meant Federal prison which, for Kelly, meant a stretch in the notorious Leavenworth in Kansas. It was there that he rubbed shoulders with big-timers like Harvey Bailey and Frank Nash and started on robbing banks.
His fellow bank robbers didn’t despise him, but he soon found his involvement more tolerated than admired. A nervous man when it came to violence, Kelly usually vomited with fear before robbing a bank and it soon became apparent to the big boys that Kelly was far more style than substance. He had the image of the gangster down perfectly, but wasn’t really cut out for big-time crime.
Not that his boosters cared. Kathryn Kelly, as self-interested and selfish as a gangster’s moll has ever been, took great pains to promote her affable, friendly crook who never actually fired his tommy gun in anger and sold him as a lethal, cold-blooded killer. Kathryn Kelly loved the material benefits of being a notorious gangster’s wife. Provided, that is, her husband was taking almost all of the risks. It wouldn’t be long before her self-interest built Kelly into far more than he really was and, when he drew a stretch worthy of one of the worst of the worst, also told her to distance herself from him as completely as possible.
The press bought into the Kelly myth as well. Not because he made Jesse James look civilised or Herman Lamm seem technically deficient. Their reasoning was simpler and more venal. True crime was a burgeoning part of American entertainment and Kelly’s image sold papers, far more than the real George Kelly ever would have.
J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI didn’t mind the Kelly myth, either. In the same way as Kelly’s name and infamy sold papers, it helped Hoover sell his new FBI to the American public. After the terrible Kansas City Massacre in June, 1933 when recaptured robber Frank Nash was killed along with FBI agents and members of Kansas City’s police, Hoover used people like Kelly to sell his Federal Bureau of Investigation to a sceptical American public along with his personal ‘War on Crime.’ Wars need victories and Hoover, aided by his publicity people, trumpeted Kelly’s capture as the beginning of the end of the great American ‘Crime Wave.’
All in all, possibly the biggest victim of the ‘Machine Gun Kelly’ myth was Kelly himself. But that’s for later…
From small-time bootlegging to the occasional big-time bank job (and a fair few smaller ones as well) Kelly’s informal publicity machine rumbled on. Despite never having been proved to fire his beloved tommy gun in anger and certainly never having actually killed anybody, Kelly found himself at first noticed and then rocketing to front-page banner headlines and national infamy for his part in the kidnapping of Oklahoma City oil millionaire Charles Urschel.
That two men abducted Urschel off his own doorstep one evening in July, 1933 isn’t in doubt. Nor was the $200,000 ransom, a huge amount for the time and coming soon after the tragic events of the Lindbergh kidnapping. In fact, it was the Lindbergh case that caused kidnapping to become a Federal crime which allowed the publicity-minded Hoover to shoehorn the FBI into the Urschel case. Urschel’s abduction needed to be solved and those responsible brought to justice, preferably with plenty of media attention if Hoover was to really get his FBI into the top levels of American law enforcement. Hoover needed a scalp hanging from the Bureau’s belt and Kelly, with a reputation far scarier than his actual career merited, fit the bill perfectly.
Initially Urschel didn’t think he could help much, having been blindfolded almost the entire duration of his confinement. FBI agents managed to jog his memory and get him to remember much more about where he’d been held than even Urschel himself expected. He remembered the strange mineral taste of the water and the sound of it being drawn from a well. He recalled the plane that flew overhead regularly, a check of aircraft flight plans and timetables narrowed the search area considerably. Urschel also told agents that, even if his captors had been wearing gloves, he hadn’t. If they did find the right place then his fingerprints would be all over it.
When FBI agents finally narrowed it down to a farm near Paradise, Texas owned by ‘Boss’ Shannon (who just happened to be father of Kathryn Shannon, now Kathryn Kelly, the prime suspect was obvious. An unexpected bonus when they raided the farm was arresting Harvey Bailey. Bailey had escaped from prison and was merely hiding out on the farm but, when agents found some of the ransom money in his pockets, Bailey went back to jail with an extra stretch for being involved in Urschel’s abduction. It’s highly unlikely that he actually was, but he probably had ample time to discuss the matter with Kelly himself the next time they met.
That would be as fellow inmates.
With the aid of solid police work and information from informers (the price on Kelly’s head was big enough to make risking dropping a dime very worthwhile) ‘Machine Gun Kelly and his moll were caught in Memphis, Tennessee on September 26, 1933. Their arrest, much to Hoover’s annoyance, were somewhat overshadowed by the escape of ten hard-timers (including all the members of John Dillinger’s first gang) from the Indiana State Penitentiary at Michigan City. True to his real form, not his public image, Kelly surrendered without a shot fired. He also, allegedly, gave FBI agents a nickname that’s still commonplace today. According to legend (possibly with a little help from Hoover’s publicists) Kelly shouted;
“Don’t shoot, G-Men!”
They remain ‘G-Men’ or ‘Feds’ to this day.
It wasn’t long before the Kellys heard their fate, Kathryn’s relatives in Paradise, Texas now being lodged in prisons that were anything but paradise. On October 12, 1933 their trial ended only two weeks after their arrest. Both were found guilty. Both were sentenced to life imprisonment.
The Urschel case had been a publicity bonanza for Hoover. It was also the first major American case where defendants were transported by plane and the first kidnapping case since the Lindbergh laws made kidnapping a Federal crime. Granted, the arrest of the Kellys was somewhat overshadowed by the Michigan City embarrassment but, all in all, it was a gigantic success for the fledgling FBI. Hoover couldn’t have been happier.
Kathryn Kelly, however, could have been happier. To shorten her own sentence and those of her relatives she soon turned on the husband she’d worked so hard to build into one of America’s Most Wanted. She also worked as a prison snitch to further improve her chances of early release. It didn’t work. Kathryn Kelly remained behind bars until 1958. After her release she went to Oklahoma, living out her days in relative obscurity under the alias Lera Cleo Kelly’ until her eventual death in 1985 aged 84.
George wasn’t so lucky. Initially sent to his old alma mater of Leavenworth, he found himself among the first batch of inmates to sample the dubious delights of the newly-opened super Bastille at Alcatraz. There, as Inmate 117, he found himself among friends. Harvey Bailey was there. So was Albert Bates for passing some of the Urschel ransom. Alvin ‘Old Creepy’ Karpis, a sometime partner on a bank job or two before joining Ma Barker and her boys, was also there. It was on The Rock that Kelly, according to Karpis, proved how Kellymania had distorted even Kelly’s own memory. With a mixture of amusement and wry irritation, Karpis recalled how Kelly described a job that he, Kelly, had taken a leading role in. Which amused Karpis no end because remembered that particular crime very well. Especially that Kelly hadn’t had the slightest involvement in it while he, Karpis, definitely had.
Kelly served 17 years on Alcatraz before being quietly returned to Leavenworth in 1951. On July 18, 1959, his own 59th birthday, George Barnes AKA George Kelly, AKA George ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly, drew his final breath before suffering a fatal heart attack. He lies beneath a discreet headstone in the Cottondale Cemetery in Texas under the name ‘George B. Kelley.’
Perhaps he was indeed the biggest victim of his own public image. It certainly seems as though Kelly himself thought so. When asked what he felt about his criminal career and the results thereof, Kelly replied:
“Maybe you have asked yourself ‘How could a man of even ordinary intelligence put up with this kind of life?’ What is this life of mine like? To begin with, these five words seem written in fire on the walls of my cell: NOTHING CAN BE WORTH THIS.”