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.
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".
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." The FBI claimed that George, though not a criminal, was happy to "profit" from his son's crimes, and that he left Ma because she had become "loose in her moral life" and was "having outside dates with other men". 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.
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. 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. After this, she was usually known to gang members as "Kate".
St Paul and Wisconsin
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. 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.
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. While at one hideout, a local resident identified the gang from photographs in True Detective magazine, and told the police. An informant among the police 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. 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. 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. 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.
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 were 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 gun-battle. Allegedly, many local people came to watch the events unfolding, even holding picnics during the gun battle. 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. According to the FBI's account, a Tommy gun was found lying in her hands. Other sources say it was lying between the bodies of Ma and Fred. 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.
Controversy over leadership of Barker gang
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. Many, including Karpis, have suggested that the myth was encouraged by J. Edgar Hoover and his fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to justify his agency's killing of an old lady. After her death, Hoover claimed that Barker was "the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade". He also claimed that she enjoyed the lifestyle that was the fruit of her son's crimes and supposedly had a string of lovers.
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. 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. 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."
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". He concluded that,
The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang. . . . She wasn't a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive . . . she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?
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.
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."
Summary of Barker sons and Barker-Karpis Gang activities
1910—Herman Barker arrested for highway robbery in Webb City, Missouri.
March 5, 1915—Herman Barker arrested for highway robbery in Joplin, Missouri. (Herman and Lloyd Barker reportedly involved with the Central Park Gang of Tulsa, Oklahoma.)
July 4, 1918—Arthur "Doc" Barker involved in US automobile theft in Tulsa, Oklahoma; arrested (#841) (escaped).
February 19, 1920—Arthur Barker arrested in Joplin, Missouri (#1740); returned to Tulsa, Oklahoma.
1921—Lloyd "Red" Barker arrested for vagrancy in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
January 15, 1921—Arthur Barker aka "Claude Dade" involved in attempted bank robbery in Muskogee, Oklahoma; arrested (#822).
January 30, 1921—Arthur Barker aka "Bob Barker" received at the Oklahoma State Prison (#11059); released June 11, 1921.
August 16, 1921—Arthur Barker and Volney Davis involved in killing of night watchman Thomas J. Sherrill in Tulsa, Oklahoma. (According to other sources, Thomas J. Sherrill. was a night watchman at St. John's Hospital in Tulsa.)
January 8, 1922—Central Park Gang involved in attempted burglary in Okmulgee, Oklahoma; shootout results in one burglar dead while police Captain Homer R. Spaulding dies of his wounds on January 19, 1922. One gang member is sentenced to life in prison while another had his sentence overturned.
January 16, 1922—Lloyd Barker received at Leavenworth Prison (#17243) after arrest for robbing mail at Baxter Springs, Kansas and sentenced to 25 years; released 1938.
February 10, 1922—Arthur "Doc" Barker received (#11906) at Oklahoma State Prison for the murder of Sherrill.
1926—Fred Barker robbed bank in Winfield, Kansas; arrested.
March 12, 1927—Fred Barker admitted to Kansas State Prison.
August 1, 1927—Herman Barker cashed stolen bank bonds at the America National Bank in Cheyenne, WY. Sheriff Deputy Arthur Osborn flagged down Barker's car. Barker picked up a gun from the vehicle's seat and shot Osborn. Osborn died as a result.
August 29, 1927—Herman Barker commits suicide in Wichita, Kansas after being stopped at police roadblock. (Wichita Policeman J.E. Marshall had been killed on August 9, 1927 by the Kimes-Terrill Gang that Herman was associated with. Five other policemen were killed by the Kimes gang. See ODMP).
March 30, 1931—Fred Barker released from Kansas State Prison after serving time for burglary; met Alvin Karpis in prison.
June 10, 1931—Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis (alias George Heller) arrested by Tulsa, Oklahoma Police investigating burglary. Karpis sentenced to 4 years but paroled after restitution made; Fred Barker also avoided jail sentence.
November 8, 1931—Fred Barker killed an Arkansas police chief Manley Jackson.
January 18, 1932—Lloyd Barker received at Leavenworth Prison.
April 26, 1932—Body of A.W. Dunlap found at Lake Franstead, Minnesota; killed by Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis.
June 17, 1932—Fred Barker, Karpis and five accomplices robbed Fort Scott, Kansas Bank.
July 26, 1932—Fred Barker, Karpis (with an augmented gang) robbed Cloud County bank at Concordia, Kansas.
August 13, 1932—Attorney J. Earl Smith of Tulsa, Oklahoma found killed at Indian Hills Country Club north of Tulsa; he had been retained to defend Harvey Bailey over the Fort Scott bank robbery, but the man was convicted.
September 10, 1932—Arthur "Doc" Barker released from prison.
April 4, 1933—Fred and Arthur Barker, Alvin Karpis and gang robbed Fairbury, Nebraska bank.
June 1933—William Hamm of the Hamm's Brewery family kidnapped by Barker-Karpis gang; Hamm released June 19, 1933 after ransom paid. It is believed by some that the gang turned over half of the Hamm ransom money to the Chicago Mob under Frank Nitti after Nitti discovered that they were hiding Hamm in suburban Chicago and demanded half the ransom as "rent".
August 30, 1933—Barker-Karpis Gang robs a payroll at Stockyards National Bank of South St. Paul, Minnesota in which one policeman Leo Pavlak is coldly executed and one disabled for life.
September 22, 1933—Two bank messengers held up by five men identified as Barker-Karpis gang; Chicago policeman Miles A Cunningham is killed by the gang after their car crashed during the getaway. (Barker-Karpis gang associate Vernon Miller was allegedly involved in the killing, and reportedly also involved in the Kansas City Massacre in which four lawmen were killed).
January 17, 1934—Gang kidnaps Edward George Bremer, Jr.; Bremer released on February 7, 1934 after ransom paid.
January 19, 1934—Gang wounds M.C. McCord of Northwest Airways Company, thinking he was a policeman.
March 10, 1934—Barker gang member Fred Goetz (also known as "Shotgun George" Ziegler, a participant in the Bremer kidnapping) killed by fellow gangsters in Cicero, Illinois.
January 6, 1935—Barker gang member William B. Harrison killed by fellow gangsters at Ontarioville, Illinois.
January 8, 1935—Arthur "Doc" Barker arrested in Chicago; Barker gang member Russell Gibson killed and his colleague Byron Bolton captured at another address.
January 16, 1935—Fred and Ma Barker killed by FBI in Ocklawaha, Florida (Marion County). Ma Barker was discovered by the FBI tracking her letters sent to her other son. She was writing to him to tell him about a large gator in Lake Weir that everyone had called "Gator Joe", which led to the name of the local restaurant known as "Gator Joe's".
September 26, 1935—The supposed body of underworld doctor Joseph Moran found in Lake Erie; believed killed by Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis. (However, Karpis himself said that Moran had been buried.)
November 7, 1935—Karpis and five accomplices robbed an Erie Railroad mail train at Garrettsville, Ohio.
May 1, 1936—Karpis and accomplice Fred Hunter arrested in New Orleans, Louisiana.
October 29, 1938—Lloyd Barker released from prison.
January 13, 1939—Arthur Barker killed trying to escape from Alcatraz Prison.
(Of Barker-Karpis gang/associates: 18 arrested; 3 killed by lawmen; 2 killed by gangsters)
"Ma Barker and Her Boys", an episode of 1959 TV series The Untouchables, pits Federal Agent Eliot Ness against the Barker clan, and depicts Ness as leading the assault on Ma Barker and her sons at their Florida hide-out. In this version, Lloyd, Fred and Doc are all present at the final shootout. Ma was played by Claire Trevor. In real life Ness worked for the Department of Justice, not the FBI, and had nothing to do with the Barker/Karpis case. The FBI objected to the fact that Ness was depicted as the leader of the attack on the gang.
The 1959 movie The FBI Story, starring Jimmy Stewart, portrayed a number of deaths of 1930s-era criminals, including Ma Barker. In the scene, she was shown firing at law officers before finally being shot. (She was portrayed by Jane Crowley, though the role was uncredited.)
Ma was played by Joan Blondell in an episode of the 1961 TV series The Witness, which took the form of a mock-trail of historical individuals before a "committee" of lawyers. Her son Lloyd and various accomplices appear as witnesses.
In the 1966 Batman series, one of the villains in series one was Ma Parker (played by Shelley Winters), a villainous mob boss based on Ma Barker. Ma Parker along with her three sons and one daughter almost managed to defeat the Dynamic Duo in the series.
Barker's story was also adapted in the low-budget film Bloody Mama (1970). The movie starred Shelley Winters as Ma Barker. In this film her criminality follows from childhood sexual abuse by her family.
"The Ma Gantry Gang", featured in the first episode of the 1974 TV series The Manhunter was based on Barker and her sons. Ma Gantry was played by Ida Lupino.
Eileen Heckart played Ma in the 1974 film The FBI Story: the FBI Versus Alvin Karpis, Public Enemy Number One.
The DuckTales version of Disney's Beagle Boys (the series lasted from 1987-1990), a gang of criminals, is led by their mother Ma Beagle, who is based on Ma Barker. She is absent from the original comics by Carl Barks.
Another retelling of the legend occurred in the 1996 movie Public Enemies starring Theresa Russell. As in Bloody Mama, she is depicted as a victim of sexual abuse which brutalizes her.
In the 1985 film The Goonies Ma Fratelli is loosely based on Ma Barker.
Maw Famon and her thug sons who battle it out with Dick Tracy in a December 1935 comic strip are based on Ma Barker and her boys.
In 1977, German disco band Boney M. released a hit single titled "Ma Baker", which was later covered by German Comedy Rock band Knorkator. The song's title and lyrics clearly reference Ma Barker.
The band Maylene and the Sons of Disaster (formed in 2004) are named after the group of criminals and their songs are based on the gang's history. Band member Dallas Taylor has said: "Maylene and the Sons of Disaster is made up of five dudes who play the role of the Barker sons, and in these songs we speak as though we were them, telling any who would listen that a life lived unjustly will meet divine justice on the other side. We also wanted to think of the most crazy backwoods theme possible for this band. Since Ma was backwoods, and we are backwoods, this is the way it had to be."
Former wife of gangsta rap pioneer Kool G Rap and fellow MC also goes under the name of Ma Barker. They had at one point formed a group called 5 Family Click, releasing a collective album and surfacing on mixtapes.
Gator Joe's Beach Bar and Grill in Ocklawaha, Florida was named after a large alligator that lived in Lake Weir. The FBI killed Fred and Ma Barker in Ocklawaha, Florida (Marion County), after the FBI discovered "Ma" by tracking letters she sent to her other son, telling him about "Gator Joe". The restaurant's website displays a wanted poster for the Barker-Karpis gang.
Lake Weir Chamber of Commerce stages an annual "Ma Barker Shootout" on "Ma Barker day" in a building near the actual location of her death.
The Barker deathhouse in Ocklawaha, Florida was listed for sale on August 16, 2012. Offers on the Florida property are being accepted through October 5, with a suggested minimum of $1 million. Furniture is included.