Kathryn and “Machine Gun” Kelly
Kathryn Kelly made a career out of crime. With a lust for danger, she masterminded crimes that took Kathryn, her husband and others, who included her own mother and stepfather, on a spree across Minnesota, Tennessee, Oklahoma and Texas. Starting off with small crimes including bootlegging and smuggling liquor onto an Oklahoma Indian reservation and other petty crimes, she got her husband, George Barnes aka George Kelly, to move up to more serious criminal activity, eventually escalating into bank robberies, kidnapping and extortion.
Kathryn was given the same birth name as Cleo Epps, queen of the Tulsa bootleggers, she who was pitched into the dank darkness of a west-side cistern after asking why she had to die. Cleo Mae Brooks didn’t like that name and became Kathryn in eighth grade to seem more elegant.
And eventually, it worked.
But she started small in 1904 near Saltillo, Mississippi, eight years before Elvis Presley’s mother was born there. After becoming Kathryn, she married at fifteen, divorced after her daughter Pauline was born and moved with her parents, James and Ora (Coleman) Brooks, from Mississippi to Oklahoma, where she was briefly married again.
Kathryn’s mother Ora divorced Brooks, married Robert G. “Boss” Shannon, and moved with Kathryn and Pauline to his place near Palestine, Texas, north of Fort Worth. He was in the hospitality business, catering to gangsters; his rate was fifty dollars a night.
Kathryn’s ticket out of that stark, weather-beaten farmhouse was her third marriage; this time the groom was Texas bootlegger Charlie Thorne.
This marriage was no more successful than her previous attempts as she soon discovered that her latest husband was cheating on her. Shortly afterwards, husband number three, Charlie Thorne, was found dead – shot by Kathryn’s gun.
Incredibly, the coroner ruled that Charlie had shot himself. The ‘evidence’ for this was the fact that a typewritten suicide note had been found.
Despite Thorne’s illiteracy, he left a perfectly typed note lamenting that he could not live with Kathryn, or for that matter without her. “Hence,” Charlie announced, “I am departing this life.” A coroner’s jury shrugged and ruled him a suicide, despite rumours that Kathryn had threatened to kill Charlie.
This ruling was thought to be very suspect for the following reasons, Kathryn had often threatened to kill her husband and he was shot with her gun
And maybe even more tellingly:
- He could not read or write so the suicide note was very suspicious indeed
- It was generally thought locally that Kathryn and the coroner were involved in their own illicit relationship
In her family background, illegal activity was rife. Kathryn’s own mother and a cousin were bootleggers, she had uncles who were serving time for automobile theft and counterfeiting and she had an aunt that was a prostitute. It was therefore almost natural that the now-widowed Kathryn would embark upon her own crime spree.
Soon Kathryn was convicted of robbery as “Dolores Whitney,” but was released on a technicality without giving back the loot.
That stash and Thorne’s money allowed the bereaved widow to improve her wardrobe and spend hours listening to jazz in Fort Worth clubs and bars. One of her suitors there later remembered that in the late 1920s, Kathryn “took me to more speakeasies … bootleg dives [and] holes in the wall than I thought there were in all of Texas. She knows more bums than the Police Department. She can drink liquor like water. And she’s got some of the toughest friends I ever laid eyes on.”
These qualities and Kathryn’s striking looks appealed to yet another Texas bootlegger, who was doing business with a handsome, dark Irish southerner who called himself George R. Kelly, at least until George took his woman. They probably met in Fort Worth, as early as 1928 but perhaps later. Wherever and whenever Kathryn and George first locked eyes, they immediately began a torrid affair.
After the Kellys became famous, bootlegger R.L. “Little Steve” Stephens boasted to the Tulsa World in 1933 that he married Kathryn and employed Barnes for five years, until his pedigreed bulldog disappeared. “I don’t mind [Kelly] taking my wife and my car,” Stevens quipped, “but I wish he’d left that dog.”
Like Kathryn, George had a troubled past. He was born George Francis Barnes and grew up Catholic in an upper-middle class Memphis family. During his second and final college semester, he met and eloped with the daughter of a wealthy Memphis contractor. George worked for her father, later drove a cab, and even started a goat farm financed by his mother-in-law. But soon he turned his high-school bootlegging hobby into a full-time profession, causing his wife to file for divorce. After a few Memphis arrests, he changed his name to George R. Kelly, drifted west, and eventually landed in Santa Fe, where he was convicted of bootlegging March 14, 1927.
After several months in the New Mexico penitentiary at Santa Fe, George moved to a wide-open Oklahoma boom town that in its earliest years was overshadowed in booze, gambling and prostitution only by Catoosa, the hell-hole of Indian Territory. “The biggest mistake I ever made,” he regretted later, “was leaving Tulsa.”
George lived for a time at 1208 S. Quaker Ave., one block east of Peoria. “I got my start in ‘28,” he recalled, perhaps off the mark a year. “I was the king of the rumrunners,” crowed George, perhaps forgetting Little Steve. “I had the town, a good clientele and made a good living.”
Despite these late-life boasts of prosperity as a bootlegger, George did other things in Tulsa to make ends meet.
He became a prime suspect in a Saturday night robbery near Fourth and Main streets, July 23, 1927. The next evening, George was arrested for vagrancy, pending other charges, but was eventually released for lack of evidence. He was not so lucky the next year. In February 1928, he walked out of the Federal court at Third and Boulder convicted of bootlegging, bound for a Kansas lockup.
His Leavenworth stretch has often been described as a two–year tutorial in bank robbing, since many criminal luminaries of that age were also housed there. His mentors included Harvey Bailey, the “King of the Heist Men,” and Frank “Jelly” Nash, who helped stage the last Oklahoma train robbery in August 1923 near Bartlesville.
George was released in 1930 and eventually traveled north to plan jobs with Bailey. A few years earlier, crooked law enforcement helped local gangsters create the Silicon Valley of America’s criminal elite and a second home for several Tulsa gangsters.
“Of all the Midwest cities,” reminisced sometime Tulsan Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, decades later, “the one I knew the best was St. Paul, and it was a crook’s haven. Every criminal of any importance in the 1930s made his home [there] at one time or another.”
George helped rob a bank at Willmar, some one hundred miles west of St. Paul, July 15, 1930, taking $70,000, in cash—worth about $900,000 in modern money—and as much in securities. The St. Paul Pioneer Press called it “one of the most daring bank holdups since the days of the Younger Brothers and Jesse James gangs.” Even so, the James-Younger gang had been shot to pieces forty miles to the south in Northfield.
St. Paul homeboy Sammy Silverman grabbed an oversized share of the loot after the Willmar robbery. A month later, Silverman and two Kansas City racketeers were found dead high in the willow trees at White Bear Lake, fourteen miles northeast of St. Paul. The killings remained unsolved until George Kelly told authorities in 1934 that yet another Willmar accomplice had killed them all. George had used his own undersized share of the money dazzling Kathryn into marriage.
George later called this the turning point in his career. He should have just returned to bootlegging in Tulsa but, “No,” George remembered, mixing up the timeline somewhat, “that wasn’t enough. I had to go to Fort Worth and into that honky-tonk. Kathryn was pretty, the prettiest redhead I ever saw.” A Minneapolis preacher married them in September 1930.
George helped steal $40,000 from the Central State Bank in Sherman, Texas, on April 3, 1931. Ten months later, he struck a bank nearby at Denton and scored almost another forty at a Tupelo, Mississippi, near Kathryn’s birthplace on November 30, 1932. Since banks often ran out of cash during this, the third year of the Great Depression, Kathryn and George had begun to look for other opportunities.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly is probably considered one of the most famous “gangsters” from the prohibition era. “Machine Gun” was born George Kelly Barnes on July 18, 1895, to a wealthy family living in Memphis, Tennessee. Kelly’s early years as a child were essentially uneventful and his family raised him in a traditional household. His first sign of trouble began when he enrolled into Mississippi State University to study agriculture in 1917. From the beginning, Kelly was considered a poor student with his highest grade (a C plus) awarded for good physical hygiene. He was constantly in trouble with the faculty and spent much of his academic career attempting to work off the demerits he had earned.
It was during this time that Kelly met a young woman by the name of Geneva Ramsey. Kelly quickly fell in love with Geneva and made an abrupt decision to quit school and marry. Kelly fathered two children with Geneva, and to make ends meet, took a job as a cab driver in Memphis. He worked long hours with little reward for his time. Kelly and Geneva were struggling financially, as the job was failing to provide enough money to support their family. Distressed and broke, Kelly left his job with the cab company to seek other avenues to make ends meet. The strain proved to be overwhelming and at 19 years old, he found himself without steady work and separated from his wife. It was about this time when Kelly took up with a small time gangster and started a new venture as a bootlegger. Kelly began to enjoy the financial rewards of his new trade along with the notoriety.
Along with the new success also came the quandaries of working in the underground. After being arrested on several occasions for illegal trafficking, Kelly decided to leave Memphis along with a new girlfriend and head west. He adopted the new alias of George R. Kelly to help preserve the respect and name of his upstanding family back home. Kelly’s luck continued to saw tooth with great monetary scores and several unfortunate predicaments. By 1927, Kelly had already started to earn his reputation in the underground world as a seasoned gangster, having weathered several arrests and serving various jail sentences. In 1928 he was caught smuggling liquor into an Indian Reservation and was sentenced to three years at Leavenworth Penitentiary.
After serving-out another long sentence at the State Penitentiary in New Mexico in 1929 for another similar conviction, Kelly gravitated to Oklahoma City where he hooked up with a small time bootlegger named Steve Anderson. Kelly soon fell for Anderson’s attractive mistress Kathryn Thorne, a seasoned criminal in her own right.
Kathryn always dreamed of better, brighter things and never-ending nightlife. George may have planned his first kidnapping during the 1931 Christmas season just to keep the peace. There is little or no evidence that Kathryn was involved.
George pulled young Howard Woolverton and his wife out of their car and into the cold evening air at South Bend, Indiana, the next January, demanding $50,000. Howard was the son of a local bank president who lived large, but was cash poor, due to Depression-era reversals. After three days, the young man gave his captors a face-saving yet totally worthless promissory note and was released. George and Kathryn sent notes demanding payment for months, but the family never even answered.
Kathryn knew what to do next.
She drove into Fort Worth, in February 1933, purchased a second-hand Thompson machine gun at a pawn shop and announced that from now on, the daily cocktail hour at the Shannon ranch would not begin until George finished target practice. She bragged about “the Big Guy” in Fort Worth dives, dumps, and hangouts, and soon began calling George “Machine Gun Kelly,” even though George didn’t care much for guns when he wasn’t robbing banks.
Many historians (and fellow inmates of Kelly) believe that Kathryn was the creator of the “Machine Gun Kelly” image and became known as the mastermind behind several of the successful small bank robberies Kelly pulled off throughout Texas & Mississippi. In August of 1933, the FBI published Wanted Posters describing Kelly as an “Expert Machine Gunner” and created a public frenzy that would later place Kelly into the history books.
Tulsa’s Barker-Karpis gang abducted beer baron William A. Hamm at St. Paul, in June 1933. When they demanded a $100,000 ransom and got it, George, Kathryn, and their partner Albert Bates decided to try kidnapping again, despite a second failed effort.
Kathryn worked with George and Albert, planning the intricate details.
Silent, taciturn Charles Urschel started as an Ohio farm boy, served in the stateside Army during World War I, and put together enough cash to try his luck in the Oklahoma oil fields. He became the trusted business partner of Tom Slick, the wonder boy of Oklahoma wildcatters. Urschel married Slick’s widow Berenice,and moved into her Oklahoma City mansion. Later, they fired their armed bodyguard because he slept too much.
On July 22, 1933, Urschel probably wished he’d found a replacement.
In July of 1933, Kathryn and Kelly had plotted a scheme to kidnap wealthy oil tycoon & businessman Charles Urschel. Kelly, carrying his trademark Tommy Gun, and two other men carrying pistols entered the Urschel’s mansion in Oklahoma City. The Urschels were playing a game of bridge with friends when Kelly stormed in threatening to “blow everyone’s head off.” Kelly’s new hostages were non-cooperative and he was unable to determine which man was Urschel. The two men were forced into a sedan, covered with a tarp and searched for identification. Once they found the ID on Urschel’s friend, a man by the name of Walter Jarret, they robbed him of $51 and left him on the side of a deserted road. Urschel was taken into hiding on a rural ranch in Texas and the Kelly Gang made demands for a $200,000 ransom.
While Urschel was missing, former frontier lawman Charles Colcord offered a $10,000 reward for Machine Gun Kelly, dead or alive; the Kellys became the first major FBI targets under the new Lindbergh law, giving the FBI the lead in most American kidnappings.
The Urschel’s family friend E.E. Kirkpatrick made drop arrangements and delivered the ransom in denominations of $20 bills. The money was delivered near the LaSalle Hotel in Kansas City on July 30th, ending the eight-day ordeal. The following day Urschel was released near Norman, Oklahoma, and casually walked into a restaurant to call for a cab. Urschel was sharp, and though blindfolded throughout the ordeal, made sure that his fingerprints were spread everywhere, counted his footsteps to various areas when blind folded, and audible sounds of his surroundings were mentally cataloged, all of which would later become useful in the FBI’s investigation.
After splitting the ransom money with their accomplices, Kathryn and “Machine Gun” started state hopping trying to stay two steps ahead of law officials. From the several clues that Urschel was able to provide, the FBI raided the ranch and made an arrest of one of the other conspirators. The bills that had been used for payment in the ransom, had traceable serial records and the Centre Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) started a nationwide search for whom they now suspected was George R. Kelly.
George and Kathryn bounced around different states with Chicago becoming their main hub. Both dyed their hair to conceal their identities and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. After several weeks in hiding, the couple finally made their way back to Memphis to stay with longtime friend John Tichenor. On the morning of September 26, 1933, Memphis police, along with FBI Agents, surrounded the Tichenor house and then made a violent forced entry. It was said at that moment, that Kelly coined the phrase: “G-Men, please don’t shoot.” Kelly was found badly hung over from the prior evening’s drinking binge (still in his pajamas) and Kathryn was in bed still asleep.
Ora, Boss, and his son Armon “Potatoes” Shannon, were found guilty of kidnapping with Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey September 30, 1933. They were sentenced the next day, but not until George and Kathryn were escorted into the same courtroom four days after their capture to plead not guilty in a separate case. During their jury trial later, Kathryn blamed George for everything, when she wasn’t posing for newspaper photographers on the witness stand in black satin, as the gallery clucked. Kathryn’s own relatives sealed her fate by describing her involvement in the smallest details of the abduction.
Thirteen days after their first appearance before Judge Vaught, he gave Kathryn and George life sentences. “Be a good boy,” Kathryn said as George was led away.
Kelly was transferred to Leavenworth in Kansas, and Kathryn was transferred to a federal prison in Cincinnati. Kelly was arrogant towards prison officials, and bragged to the press that he would escape, break out his wife and they would spend Christmas together. It was decided that these threats should be taken seriously and in August of 1934, Kelly along with his accomplices Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey, were transferred from Leavenworth by train to Alcatraz. Arriving on September 4, 1934, they would be among the first groups of prisoners. Kelly became AZ#117.
She never saw him again. Machine Gun Kelly died on his 59th birthday at Leavenworth in 1954. Charles Urschel, of all people, anonymously financed the college education of Kathryn’s daughter Pauline, with Judge Vaught acting as intermediary, despite the many times the Kelly gang threatened to kill him.
Kathryn Kelly and her mother Ora were released from prison in mid-June 1958 when the FBI refused to release files revealing that George probably wrote certain Urschel threat letters that the government had attributed to Kathryn.
Elderly patients living at the county poor farm—the Oklahoma City nursing home of last resort a few years later—probably didn’t know that kindly nurse Ora was a convicted big-time kidnapper. Perhaps she even gave shots and handed out pills. Kathryn worked there too, but as a bookkeeper.
When contacted in 1962, Kathryn was worried. “Why can’t they just leave us alone? I’m afraid I’ll lose this job if this constant barrage of publicity keeps up … I was just a young farm girl when I met Kelly back in 1930,” she dissembled. “I wasn’t used to all the money, cars and jewelry George offered me … Any farm girl would have been swept off her feet same as I was.”