He was born in 1895 as “George Frances Barnes Jr.” in Memphis, Tennessee (the age “9” listed on the 1910 census is incorrect):
He died in 1954 as “Machine Gun Kelly” in Leavenworth federal penitentiary:
And in between those two dates, Prohibition-era bootlegger, bank robber, and kidnapper Machine Gun Kelly (his mother’s maiden name) and his wife Kathryn on occasion holed up at 857 East Mulkey Street in the Morningside neighborhood in a house owned by Kathryn’s mother, Mrs. Robert G. “Boss” Shannon. Boss Shannon owned a farm at Paradise in Wise County, where he provided discreet accommodations to outlaws. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
George Frances Barnes Jr. married Kathryn Thorne (born “Cleo Mae Brooks”) in 1930, much smitten by “the prettiest redhead I ever saw.” Kathryn, who herself had a history of bootlegging, shoplifting, robbery, prostitution, and receiving stolen goods, was the widow of Coleman County rancher and bootlegger Charles Thorne, who allegedly had committed suicide after leaving behind a perfectly typed suicide note despite the fact that he was illiterate.
During the first two years after George and Kathryn married, George took part in four bank robberies and one failed kidnapping.
But Kathryn believed in George. She just knew he could do better.
Then came 1933. As the old saying goes, “Behind every successful man is a woman . . . with a Tommy gun”: Kathryn bought George a used Thompson submachine gun for $250 from Wolf & Klar pawnshop downtown. She insisted that George practice his marksmanship with the gun each day up at the Boss Shannon farm.
Living with the Shannons on the farm at Paradise in 1930 was Pauline Fry, Kathryn’s daughter by an earlier marriage to the teenage son of a minister.
While Kelly practiced with the Tommy gun at the farm, Kathryn began to talk up her husband in the criminal stratum of Fort Worth, referring to him as “Machine Gun Kelly.” She is said to have presented Kelly’s spent .45-caliber cartridges to people as souvenirs and to have bragged that he could write his name in lead with the gun.
In 1930 Kathryn was listed at the Mulkey Street address. Also listed was James E. Brooks, her father, whom Kathryn’s mother Ora divorced to marry Boss Shannon.
That’s the day when Kelly and colleague Albert Bates burst into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles F. Urschel, one of Oklahoma’s wealthiest couples, in Oklahoma City. Kelly was armed with his Tommy gun and no doubt was ready to sign his name on something or someone. Kelly and Bates kidnapped Urschel and Walter Jarrett. Kelly and Bates soon freed Jarrett but took Urschel south to the Boss Shannon farm in Wise County. Clip is from the July 23, 1933 Dallas Morning News.
Despite being blindfolded and handcuffed while being held hostage by Kelly’s gang at the Shannon farm, Urschel paid attention to details. He listened to background sounds and counted footsteps. He peeked under his blindfold when he dared. He also overheard conversations among the members of the gang, who talked about crimes they had committed. Urschel even left his fingerprints on surfaces.
After nine days Urschel was released unharmed after his family paid a ransom of $200,000 ($3.5 million today). Clip is from the August 2, 1933 Dallas Morning News.
Charles Urschel’s presence of mind while being held hostage proved to be a great aid to the “G-men” of the Division of Investigation (later Federal Bureau of Investigation) in their investigation of the kidnapping. Based on clues provided by Urschel, G-men concluded that he had been held at the Boss Shannon farm at Paradise.
On August 14 federal agents, accompanied by Urschel, raided the Boss Shannon farm, arresting suspect Harvey Bailey (Bailey and Kelly had met in Leavenworth during Kelly’s first stay there in the late 1920s) and four members of the Shannon family. Bailey was also a suspect in the ambush murder of four lawmen and a convict in Kansas City in June. Meanwhile Albert Bates had been jailed in Denver. Clip is from the August 15, 1933 Dallas Morning News.
Machine Gun Kelly and wife Kathryn remained at large.
Oklahoma capitalist Charles F. Colcord offered a reward for their apprehension: $5,000 ($92,000 today) for Kathryn, $10,000 for Kelly. Dead or alive.
These photos appeared on page 1 of the Dallas Morning News on August 15. Kelly’s photo is to the left of the photo of guns seized from Bailey in the raid at Paradise.
This Division of Investigation bulletin is from August 14, the day of the raid on Paradise. (Image from FBI archives.)
This photo of the Mulkey Street hideout appeared on the front page of the Star-Telegram after most of the Kelly gang had been jailed.
Machine Gun Kelly had become the Justice Department’s “public enemy number 1.” Meanwhile, George Frances Barnes Jr. had gone “back home”: to Memphis. On September 26, 1933 G-men of the Division of Investigation captured George and Kathryn in Memphis. (The FBI says that Kelly was the first person to refer to its agents as “G-men.”)
The couple was tried and convicted under the Lindbergh Law, which makes kidnapping a federal offense. Mrs. Shannon—Kathryn’s mother—said son-in-law Machine Gun had shattered her belief that he was an honest businessman. Nonetheless, Mr. and Mrs. Shannon also served time in prison for their roles in the kidnapping. Clip is from the September 27 Dallas Morning News.
Kelly and Kathryn were given life sentences. Kelly went to Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas, Kathryn went to a women’s correctional institute in West Virginia. Kathryn left behind her daughter Pauline. Years later it was discovered that Pauline’s education had been paid for, through an intermediary, by Charles Urschel.
By the time George Frances Barnes Jr. died at Leavenworth, “Machine Gun Kelly” was known in the prison as “Pop Gun Kelly.” Kelly died on July 18, 1954, his fifty-ninth birthday. Clips are from the July 19-21 Dallas Morning News.
Kathryn Kelly, the woman behind the man, was released from prison at age fifty-four in 1958. She resumed a life of freedom in Oklahoma as “Lera Cleo Kelly.”
The wife of Machine Gun Kelly died in 1985 and was buried beside her mother in Oklahoma.
Machine Gun Kelly was buried in Wise County in a country cemetery not far from where kidnap victim Charles F. Urschel had been held in 1933. Boss Shannon donated the cemetery lot.
On his tombstone Kelly’s last name is misspelled. (Photo from Wikipedia.)
Coming soon: Bonnie and Clyde (Part 1): Death in the Devil’s Back Porch