Ma Barker

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Arizona Barker
Ma Barker.jpg
Barker c. 1932
BornArizona Donnie Clark
(1873-10-08)October 8, 1873
Ash Grove, Missouri, U.S.
DiedJanuary 16, 1935(1935-01-16) (aged 61)
Ocklawaha, Florida, U.S.
Cause of death
Gunshot by federal law enforcement.
Spouse(s)George Barker; Arthur Dunlop (common law)
ChildrenHerman, Lloyd, Arthur, Fred
AllegianceBarker-Karpis gang
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For other people named Kate Barker, see Kate Barker (disambiguation).
Arizona Barker
Ma Barker.jpg
Barker c. 1932
BornArizona Donnie Clark
(1873-10-08)October 8, 1873
Ash Grove, Missouri, U.S.
DiedJanuary 16, 1935(1935-01-16) (aged 61)
Ocklawaha, Florida, U.S.
Cause of death
Gunshot by federal law enforcement.
Spouse(s)George Barker; Arthur Dunlop (common law)
ChildrenHerman, Lloyd, Arthur, Fred
AllegianceBarker-Karpis gang

Arizona Donnie Barker (October 8, 1873 – January 16, 1935) better known as Ma Barker, and sometimes as Kate Barker, was the mother of several criminals who ran the Barker gang from the "public enemy era", when the exploits of gangs of criminals in the U.S. Midwest gripped the American people and press. Under various pseudonyms, she traveled with her sons during their criminal careers.

After she was killed during a shoot-out with the FBI she acquired a reputation as a ruthless crime matriarch, who controlled and organized her sons' crimes. J. Edgar Hoover described her as "the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade". Because of this, Ma Barker has been presented as a monstrous mother in films, songs and literature. However, her personal acquaintances insisted she had no active role in criminal activity and "couldn't plan breakfast", as one gang associate said.

Family life[edit]

Born Arizona Clark, in Ash Grove, Missouri, she was known as "Arrie". In 1892 she married George Barker, in Lawrence Co., MO. The couple had four boys, named Herman (1893-1927), Lloyd (1897-1949), Arthur (1899-1939) and Fred (1901-1935). It appears from the 1910 to 1930 censuses and the Tulsa City Directories from 1916 to 1928 that George was regularly employed in a variety of low-level jobs. From 1916 to 1919, he worked for the Crystal Springs Water Co. In the 1920s, he was variously employed as a farmer, watchman, station engineer, and clerk. An FBI document describes him as "shiftless", and says that the Barkers paid no attention to the education of their sons, who were all "more or less illiterate".[1]

Police mugshot of Herman Barker

George and Arrie's sons started committing crimes from at least 1910, when Herman Barker was arrested for highway robbery. Over the next few years he and his brothers Lloyd, Fred and Arthur were repeatedly involved in crimes, of increasing seriousness culminating in major robberies and murder. They were inducted into serious crime by the Central Park gang. Herman died on August 29, 1927, in Wichita, Kansas, after a robbery and confrontation with police that left one officer dead. He shot the officer at point blank range in the mouth. Shortly thereafter he killed himself to avoid capture when seriously wounded after crashing his car. In 1928, Lloyd was incarcerated in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, Arthur "Doc" Barker was in the Oklahoma State Prison, and Fred was in the Kansas State Prison.

George is last listed living with Arrie in the 1928 Tulsa city directory. Whether he was thrown out by Arrie, as some claim, or he left on his own accord when life with a criminal family became intolerable, is not known. According to writer Miriam Allen deFord, it was after Herman's death and the imprisonment of his other sons, that George "gave up completely and quietly removed himself from the scene."[2] The FBI claimed that George left Ma for other reasons: because she had become "loose in her moral life" and was "having outside dates with other men". They noted that though George was not a criminal, he was willing to "profit" from his son's crimes after their deaths by claiming their assets as next of kin.[1] However, a family friend recalled that George and Arrie argued about their children's "dissolute life". While Arrie "countenenced their wrongdoings", George refused to accept them. The crunch came when George refused to support Lloyd after his arrest, insisting he should be punished for his crime. Arrie did everything she could to get her sons off, no matter what they had done.[3]

From 1928 to 1931 Ma lived in "miserable poverty" in a "dirt-floor shack" with no husband and no job, while all her sons were in jail. This may have been when she became "loose" with local men, as the FBI suggested.[3] By 1930 Arrie was living with a jobless man named Arthur W. Dunlop (sometimes spelled "Dunlap"). She is described as his wife on the 1930 census of Tulsa, Tulsa County, Oklahoma. Things improved for her in 1931 after her son Fred was released from jail. He joined former prison-mate Alvin Karpis to form the Barker-Karpis gang. After a series of robberies, Fred and Karpis killed sheriff C. Roy Kelly in December 1931, an act that forced them to flee the territory. Ma and her lover Dunlop traveled with them, using various false names during their itinerant crime career. A wanted poster issued at this time offers $100 reward for the capture of "Old Lady Arrie Barker" as an accomplice.[4] After this, she was usually known to gang members as "Kate".

St Paul and Wisconsin[edit]

Fred Barker
Arthur "Doc" Barker

When Arthur was released in 1932, he joined Fred and Karpis. The core gang was also supplemented by other criminal associates. The gang moved first to Chicago, but decided to leave because Karpis did not want to work for Al Capone. Racketeer Jack Peifer suggested that they should come to St. Paul, Minnesota, a town which had a reputation at the time as a haven for wanted criminals.[4] The Barker-Karpis gang's most infamous crimes were committed after the move to St. Paul, during their residency in a string of rented houses in and around the town. In St. Paul, the gang operated under the protection of the city's corrupt police chief, Thomas "Big Tom" Brown, and under his guidance, graduated from bank robbers to kidnappers.[5]

Ma's common-law husband Arthur Dunlop was said to be loose-lipped when drunk, and was not trusted by members of the gang. He was described as a "pain in the ass" by Karpis.[6] While at one hideout, a local resident identified the gang from photographs in True Detective magazine, and told the police. Brown tipped off the gang, and they escaped. Wrongly believing that Dunlop's loose lips had given them away, they apparently murdered him while traveling. His naked body, with a single bullet wound to the head, was found near Webster, Wisconsin.[6] Though Tom Brown's involvement in the gang's escape could not be proved, he was demoted to the rank of detective and was later dismissed from the police force.[7] For a time the gang relocated to Menomonie, Wisconsin.

During this time, Fred Barker stashed Ma Barker in a variety of hotels and hideouts. The purpose was to keep her from learning much about the gang's crimes, as well as to separate her from the gang's girlfriends, with whom she did not get along. Indeed the FBI later claimed that Ma would try to break up any relationships, so that "other women in the gang" did their best to avoid Ma.[6] By 1933 most of the gang were back in St. Paul, where they planned and carried out two kidnappings of wealthy local businessmen. After successfully obtaining $100,000 ransom after abducting William Hamm, they then arranged the kidnapping of Edward Bremer, from which they netted a $200,000 ransom. This brought the gang to the FBI's attention, so they left St. Paul, renting a series of Chicago apartments for Ma Barker while they tried to launder the ransom.[8]


FBI Agents discovered the hideout of Barker and her son, Fred, after Arthur "Doc" Barker was arrested in Chicago on January 8, 1935. A map found in his possession indicated that other gang members were in Ocklawaha, Florida. The FBI soon located the house at which the gang was staying after identifying references to a local alligator named "Gator Joe", mentioned in a letter sent to Doc. They had rented the property under the pseudonym "Blackburn", claiming to be a mother and sons wanting to vacation in a country retreat.

Agents surrounded the house at 13250 East Highway C-25 on the morning of January 16, 1935. Unknown to the FBI, Karpis and other gang members had left three days before, leaving only Fred and Ma in the house. Ordered to surrender, Fred opened fire; both he and his mother were killed by federal agents after an intense, hours-long shootout. Allegedly, many local people came to watch the events unfolding, even holding picnics during the gunfire.[9] After gunfire ceased coming from the house, the FBI ordered local estate-handyman Willie Woodbury to enter the house wearing a bullet-proof vest. Woodbury reported that there was no one inside alive.

Both bodies were found in the same front bedroom. Fred's body was riddled with bullets, but Ma appeared to have died from a single bullet wound.[9] According to the FBI's account, a Tommy gun was found lying in her hands.[10] Other sources say it was lying between the bodies of Ma and Fred.[11] Their bodies were put on public display, and then stored unclaimed, until October 1, 1935, when relatives had them buried—at Williams Timberhill Cemetery in Welch, Oklahoma—next to the body of Herman Barker.[12]

Controversy over leadership of Barker gang[edit]

The popular image of her as the gang's leader and its criminal mastermind, portrayed in films such as Ma Barker's Killer Brood (1960) and Public Enemies (1996), is widely regarded by historians as fictitious. The suggestion that she participated in the shoot-out in which she died has also been treated with skepticism.[10] Many, including Karpis, have suggested that the myth was encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover[13] and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to justify his agency's killing of an old lady.[14] After her death, Hoover claimed that Barker was "the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade".[6] He also claimed that she enjoyed the lifestyle that was the fruit of her sons' crimes and supposedly had a string of lovers.[6]

Though her children were undoubtedly murderers and their Barker-Karpis Gang committed a spree of robberies, kidnappings, and other crimes between 1931 and 1935, there is no evidence that "Ma" was their leader, or was even significantly involved.[6] Barker certainly knew of the gang's activities, and even helped them before and after they committed their crimes. This would make her an accomplice, but there is no evidence that she was ever an active participant in any of the crimes themselves or involved in planning them. Her role was in taking care of gang members, who often sent her to the movies while they committed crimes.[6] According to Claire Bond Potter, "Her age and apparent respectability permitted the gang to hide out 'disguised' as a family. As 'Mrs. Hunter' and 'Mrs. Anderson' she rented houses, paid bills, shopped, and did household errands. Age made Kate more socially invisible than a moll."[4]

Alvin Karpis, the gang's second most notorious member, later said that Ma was just "an old-fashioned homebody from the Ozarks...superstitious, gullible, simple, cantankerous and, well, generally law abiding".[6] He concluded that,

This view of Ma Barker is corroborated by notorious bank robber Harvey Bailey, who knew the Barkers well. He observed in his autobiography that Ma Barker "couldn't plan breakfast" let alone a criminal enterprise.[6]

Writer Tim Mahoney argues that the real force behind the gang was the corrupt St. Paul law-enforcement system, especially under police chief Tom Brown. Before they met him they were nothing more than a "bumbling band of hillbilly burglars" who would have been captured or killed long before becoming nationally notorious. "Had the Barker gang never come under Brown's protection, Ma Barker might have died lonesome in the Ozarks, an impoverished obscure widow."[16]

Summary of Barker sons and Barker-Karpis Gang activities[edit]




(Of Barker-Karpis gang/associates: 18 arrested; 3 killed by lawmen; 2 killed by gangsters)


Popular culture[edit]

In film and television[edit]

In literature[edit]

In music[edit]

Other contexts[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Hoover, J. Edgar, "The Kidnapping of Edward Bremer", November 19, 1936
  2. ^ eFord, Miriam Allen, The Real Ma Barker: Mastermind of a Whole Family of Killers, 1970 Ace, New York
  3. ^ a b Mahoney, Tim, Secret Partners, p.15.
  4. ^ a b c Claire Bond Potter, War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, 1998, p.175
  5. ^ Mahoney, Timothy, Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang, Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2013, passim.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i Paul Maccabee, John Dillinger Slept Here: A Crooks' Tour of Crime and Corruption in St. Paul, 1920-1936, Minnesota Historical Society, 1995, p.105.
  7. ^ Mahoney, Tim (2013). Secret Partners. Minnesota Historical Society Press. p. 244. 
  8. ^ Mahoney, Tim (2013) Secret Partners Minnesota Historical Society Press, St. Paul;
  9. ^ a b c Stuart B McIver, Touched by the Sun, Pineapple Press, 2008, pp.71ff.
  10. ^ a b Burrough, Bryan (2004). Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-1934. Penguin Press, New York, p.508-509;
  11. ^ Jack Powell, Haunting Sunshine, Pineapple Press Inc, 2001, p.54.
  12. ^ 36°52′51″N 95°00′14″W / 36.880831°N 95.004009°W / 36.880831; -95.004009 (Williams Timberhill Cemetery in Welch,Okla.)
  13. ^ Jones, Ken (1957) The FBI in Action Signet, New York;
  14. ^ Gentry, Curt (1991) J. Edgar Hoover: The Man and the Secrets W. W. Norton, New York, ISBN 0-393-02404-0
  15. ^ Karpis, Alvin with Trent, Bill (1971) The Alvin Karpis Story Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, New York;
  16. ^ Mahoney, p.4.
  17. ^ a b "History". Retrieved July 2, 2012. 
  18. ^ [1]
  19. ^ a b c d e f g Hardy, Philip (ed), The BFI Companion to Crime, British Film Institute, 1997, p.42.
  20. ^ a b Woodiwiss, Michael, Organized Crime and American Power: A History, University of Toronto Press, 2001, p.238.
  21. ^
  22. ^ Bloody Mama (1970)
  23. ^ Dick Tracy, Philly
  24. ^ Ma Barker at G. Schirmer
  25. ^ "Maylene and the Sons of Disaster". PureVolume. Archived from the original on November 12, 2007. Retrieved December 2, 2007. 
  26. ^ Gator Joe's

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