The Legend of Ma Barker: America’s Most Wanted Mother

Her name was Kate Barker, but she was notoriously known as “Ma” Barker, a Midwestern woman who became the FBI’s most wanted mother of the 1930s. J. Edgar Hoover called her “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.”

Ma Barker / Alvin Karpis, Arthur Barker, Herman Barker / The Barkers / The Barker House.
Source: Getty Images

What did she do to deserve such a harrowing description? Well, she was said to be the mastermind of the Barker-Karpis gang. She orchestrated robberies, kidnappings, and murders, and helped her four sons commit the acts. What led her to lead such a life – one that would end in a four-hour gun battle with the FBI in Ocklawaha, Florida, in 1935?

This is the story of Ma Barker.

A Farm Girl From the Ozarks

While some people thought of her as an everyday hillbilly, others know Ma Barker as the mastermind behind the entire Barker-Karpis Gang, who apparently stole more money than famed criminals John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Vern Miller combined.

A portrait of Ma Barker.
Ma Barker. Photo by New York Times Co./Getty Images

The gangster matriarch – a ruthless mother of four of the country’s most dangerous Depression-era criminals − started out as a simple farm girl. She was born in 1873 and raised in the boondocks of the Missouri Ozarks, specifically in Ash Grove – a makeshift sort of town. Her actual birth name was Arizona Donnie Clark, but she never liked the name and changed it to Kate.

Daddy Dies, and a Lawman Takes His Place

Her parents, Emeline and John Clark, were a modest pair of Scottish-Irish immigrants trying to make ends meet on their small farm with their four children. Little Kate adored her father, but he passed away when she was seven, after which her mother remarried.

An exterior shot of the Barker home.
Source: Pinterest

The man who took her father’s place, Reuben Reynolds, was a lawman with whom the young girl just didn’t get along. He brought along his two biological children and treated Kate and her siblings worse than his own. Barker became a rebellious child, getting hooked on the Midwest outlaws of the time.

Jesse James Was Her Idol

Little Kate would hide out in her room and read magazine articles about the bank and train robberies of the Dalton Gang and the infamous Jesse James. Historian John Koblas declared: “You can’t talk about Ma Barker without talking about Jesse James.”

A portrait of Jesse James.
Jesse James. Photo by Universal History Archive/Getty Images

During her childhood, James and his brothers were robbing banks throughout Missouri, making headlines in newspapers. The gang even rode through her town of Ash Grove during one of their getaways. The sight ignited in her a desire for adventure. When James was killed in 1882, Kate was devastated. Her idol was gone.

Little Kate Grows Up, Becomes a Spitfire

While many considered outlaws like Jesse James as immoral and terrifying, there was a whole population of poor folk who looked at them as underdog heroes who represented the idea of the commoner taking a piece of the pie. Kate was one of them.

A portrait of Ma Barker.
Ma Barker. Source: YouTube

With her red hair, plump figure, and eyes that were said to show both her intelligence and cold heart, Kate was a spitfire. As she got older, standing at 5-feet 4-inches, she would make a lasting impression on those who met her. Hot-headed, emotional, and stubborn, she managed to get men to listen to her.

J. Edgar Hoover Warned the Public About Her

Edna Murray, the girlfriend of the Dillinger Gang’s Everett “Curly” Davis, wrote once that the men of the gang couldn’t help but follow Kate’s orders. According to historian Courtney Ryley Cooper, Barker was able to make herself seem mild and even-tempered, but it was a guise.

A portrait of J. Edgar Hoover.
Source: Wikipedia

FBI leader J. Edgar Hoover agreed, telling the public in 1935 that the woman’s eyes were “queerly direct, penetrating, with some strongly smoldering flame, yet as hypnotically cold as the muzzle of a gun.” One particular gang member, Alvin Karpis of the Barker-Karpis Gang, knew her quite well…

She Married Farmer George Barker

Karpis saw Ma Barker in a different light, describing her as “an old-fashioned homebody from the Ozarks… superstitious, gullible, simple, cantankerous, and, well, generally law-abiding.” It’s all a matter of perspective, really.

A view of Fred and Ma Barker's bungalow.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Kate married a man 10 years older than her in 1892, when she was 19, and he was her complete opposite. Her parents weren’t happy with George Barker, but that only fueled the rebellious young woman to marry the man. George was a farmer at the time, but Kate felt he was promising – that he would make money if she stuck with him.

The One Wearing the Pants in the Marriage

George was short with blue eyes and dark features. He was quiet and didn’t show much ambition, which naturally made her the dominant one in the relationship. Even Hoover described George as one who lacked motivation.

A picture of Ma Barker standing next to a Christmas tree.
Source: Pinterest

But that wasn’t necessarily true, considering he kept up several steady jobs, low-paying but stable. He farmed corn and beans and worked in local mines. He was a working man and Kate could rely on him. The couple’s first home was “a dilapidated miner’s shack,” a far cry from the luxury Kate hoped for.

Raising Four Sons, She Wanted More

George promised her that he would turn the shack into a real homestead. In the meantime, they started a family. They had their first son, Herman, in 1894, and, soon enough, he had three little brothers: Lloyd in 1896, Arthur (“Doc”) in 1899, and Fred in 1903.

A picture of Arthur Barker facing legal issues in court.
Arthur Barker. Photo by Bettman/Getty Images

Kate did the raising of the boys while George worked. But he wasn’t an absent father; he took the boys on fishing trips and taught them how to shoot. As much as George worked to provide for the family, it wasn’t enough for Kate, aka Ma Barker.

She Never Disciplined Her Brood of Wild Boys

Barker went to church every Sunday and took the boys with her. She also carried a Bible with her at all times. But the boys were described, by the FBI, as illiterate. They ran wild. What started as small hooliganry, like throwing rocks through windows, developed into minor crimes, like stealing wallets from pockets at church.

A mugshot of Fred Barker.
Fred Barker. Photo by Associated Press/Denver Post/Getty Images

Over time, the boys went from petty thieves to utter criminals. Their father wanted to reprimand his sons, but apparently Barker didn’t want to discipline them – to the point that she would become furious if any type of discipline was mentioned.

The Barker Brothers Were Town Criminals

The Barker boys were known around town as criminals, even while they were still school-aged. In 1910, teenage Herman fled the scene of a robbery in a getaway car, running over a child in the process. The boys were constantly on the police’s radar.

An image of two officers at a police station.
Photo by Los Angeles Examiner/USC Libraries/Corbis/Getty Images

All the while, their mother always maintained their innocence. She once told a police chief, “All these boys would be good if you cops would just let them alone.” The way she saw it, she never needed to punish her sons because they hadn’t done anything wrong.

She Always Tried to Get Them Out of Jail

It all goes back to her idolization of outlaws like Jesse James. She consequently taught her boys that criminals were heroes. Hoover attributed the Barker boys’ criminal activities to their mother spoiling them.

A photo of Ma Barker with a close friend.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

All four of the Barker boys spent a considerable time in jail, and Ma Barker used every trick in the book to try to get them out. She yelled, cried, wrote letters to parole boards, but Hoover claimed they were bribes to the police to destroy evidence. And the truth is her efforts paid offI; she succeeded in getting their sentences terminated or greatly reduced.

She (Probably) Helped Her Son Escape

In 1918, Arthur “Doc” Barker and his associates stole some cars, which got him arrested and locked up in Tulsa County Jail. On Valentine’s Day in 1920, they escaped. A group of prisoners, including Arthur, broke out by using a small saw and sulfuric acid to erode their cell’s bars.

An exterior shot of the Barker house.
Photo by Hazel Teuton

They then climbed up to the roof, where a rope was waiting for them to climb down. It’s believed that Ma Barker was involved, most likely providing the rope and other tools for escape. She was also reported to have visited Arthur in jail a short time before his escape.

In Tulsa, They Turned It Up a Notch

In an attempt to make a fresh start, the Barker family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Well, you can take the family out of trouble, but you can’t take trouble out of the family. It didn’t take long for the law to catch up with them.

A wanted poster by the FBI of the Barker family.
Source: Pinterest

The sons joined the Central Park Gang and took to more serious crimes. Between 1915 and 1927, the four brothers were arrested for robbery, car theft, and even murder. In 1927, Herman shot and killed a sheriff deputy who had seen him cashing stolen bank bonds.

Forgive Him, Ma

Herman got away with it for nearly a month before finally getting caught. Rather than be captured, the Barker son took his own life. Legend has it that his last words before pulling the trigger were, “Forgive me, Ma.”

A mugshot of Herman Barker.
Source: Wikipedia

The tragic loss of their son affected Barker and her husband deeply. They just handled it differently. Ma Barker continued to encourage her three other boys in their crimes, and soon enough the family home became a criminal hangout. Turns out Barker enjoyed the company a little too much…

George Leaves and Never Comes Back

According to the FBI, Barker cheated on her husband often, which really comes as no surprise given their wildly opposing personalities and values. She would go to speakeasies and nightclubs with all kinds of seedy men who showered her with gifts.

An image of a car traveling along the highway.
Photo by Doreen Spooner/Getty Images

Eventually, George left her, but it isn’t clear whether it was over his wife’s unfaithfulness, the loss of his son, or to escape the family’s life of crime. In 1928, George moved to Joplin, Missouri, to manage a gas station and never came back.

She Was Never Arrested for a Crime

There’s no question that the Barker brothers were bona fide criminals, but the same can’t officially be said about Ma Barker. There is no evidence to incriminate her as anything more than a glorified accomplice. Furthermore, she was never arrested for any crime.

A photo of prison cells.
Photo by FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alvin Karpis claimed that Ma Barker was not a criminal. He wrote in his memoir, “It’s no insult to Ma’s memory that she just didn’t have the know-how to direct us on a robbery.” He explained how they would leave her at home when arranging a job or send her to see a movie.

The Perfect Ruse

“Ma saw a lot of movies,” he added. Harvey Bailey was another gangster who knew Barker but wasn’t as delicate as Karpis was with his recollection. Ma Barker “couldn’t plan breakfast,” Bailey wrote. She may not have had a physical part in the crimes, but she indeed played role in the gang’s activities.

A portrait of Alvin Karpis.
Alvin Karpis. Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Over the years, she used at least five aliases and is thought to have helped stash goods and launder money. Karpis said her motherly character was a huge asset – it was the perfect ruse. “When we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?”

Ma’s New Boyfriend Was a Mooch

From 1927 to 1930, Barker lived alone in a “dirt-floor shack” in Tulsa, as one author put it. She was jobless, her sons were in jail, and her husband was gone. In 1930, met an older man named Arthur Dunlop, who was well-dressed but unemployed.

A photo of Ma Barker and Arthur Dunlop.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

Dunlop moved in with her, and not long after, her son Fred was released from prison. He brought home with him his former cellmate, Alvin Karpis. It was the beginning of the Barker-Karpis Gang. The way Karpis recalled it, Ma Barker let Dunlop mooch off her.

Her Son Got Rid of Him

Dunlop was a “pain in the ass” and a heavy drinker who liked to talk. And gangs don’t like loudmouths. When their hideout at Barker’s was nearly discovered, Fred and Karpis assumed Dunlop had tipped off the police.

An image of a Brandy bottle and a glass.
Photo by Archive Photos/Stringer/Getty Images

And so, they disposed of him. They told Ma Barker that they sent him to Chicago. What really happened was they paid off a goon, named Jack Peifer, to shoot him. In 1932, Dunlop’s naked body was found, with three bullet wounds, by a lake in Wisconsin.

Becoming a Wanted Woman

Fred and Karpis soon robbed a store in West Plains, Missouri, killing a sheriff in the process. It was only then that Barker became a wanted woman. Wanted Posters with her photo offered an $100 award for her capture.

A photo of Ma Barker under a title that reads Wanted.
Source: Pinterest

Barker wasn’t safe anymore and needed to lay low for a while. At the time, St. Paul, Minnesota, was perfect for such underground living. In St. Paul, there was a general understanding that gangsters were safe if they knew to lay low. Why? Because the local police were in on it. In other words, they were dirty.

New Year’s at the Green Lantern Saloon

It was a time when Al Capone could be seen at the local pub. As for the Barkers, they liked to frequent the Green Lantern Saloon, and on New Year’s Eve, there was a party with a guest list of top mobsters, including Capone’s associates and Isadore “Kid Cann” Blumenfeld.

An interior shot of the Green Lantern Saloon.
Source: MHS

Historians believe it was this party that brought the Barker-Karpis Gang into the big-leagues of crime. Karpis claimed that on that night, “there was probably never before as complete a gathering of criminals in one room in the United States as there was on New Year’s Eve in 1931.”

From Robbing Banks to Kidnapping the Wealthy

In 1932, brothers Fred and Arthur and Karpis robbed banks across the Midwest, killing more officers and even a civilian. The gang was becoming one of the deadliest in America. By 1933, they were kidnapping the rich.

A photo of the backdoor at the Green Lantern Saloon.
Source: MHS

They abducted William Hamm Jr., the president of the Hamm Brewery Company. The point was to get a heavy ransom ($100,000) in return for his release. And they succeeded. A year later, the gang kidnapped Edward George Bremer Jr., the Commercial State Bank’s president. This time they made $200,000.

Finally Living a Life of Luxury

Whether or not Barker was involved in the kidnappings, directly or indirectly, she certainly enjoyed the profits. The FBI reported that she was living a life of luxury, purchasing expensive clothes and furniture. Her sons would also buy her gifts, like fur coats, jewelry, and silverware.

An exterior shot of the Barker home.

While the rest of America was scraping the floor for pennies during the Great Depression, Barker was dining at high-class restaurants and drinking sherry at nightclubs. She was finally living the life she hoped her husband would provide. But it was her sons who saved the day.

On the Hunt for the “Bloody Barkers”

By the mid-‘30s, the FBI was in hot pursuit of the Barker-Karpis Gang. By then, they already had the other public enemies in prison, so all their energy and resources were devoted to catching the “Bloody Barkers” and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis.

An interior shot of a room in the house after the shooting with the FBI.

The gang was aware and reacted by splitting up and going into hiding. On January 8, 1935, Arthur Barker was arrested in Chicago. A search of his apartment uncovered a map of Florida and a letter that mentioned a man-eating alligator named “Old Joe,” of all things.

A Letter About Old Joe Led the Feds to Their Doorstep

Random, perhaps. But the FBI used these clues to locate the men they were after. They found a lake in Florida with an alligator that was indeed nicknamed Old Joe. They also learned that Ma Barker and her son Fred were living at a cottage on Lake Weir.

A view of the Barker home from the forester area.

They spent their days fishing for Old Joe and wrote to Arthur about it. They never expected that that letter would lead the FBI to their doorstep. On January 16, the feds surrounded the cottage and shouted at Barker and her son to come out and surrender.

A Final Four-Hour Shootout

What went down was a four-hour shootout that began when Fred stuck a machine gun out the window. By the end, both Ma Barker and Fred were dead. According to J. Edgar Hoover’s report, Barker fought to her death. She was found with a worn-out Tommy gun by her hand.

An interior shot of the house full of bullet holes on the walls after the shootout.

Still, there are details that don’t really add up. Research has obviously been done, and it’s been noted that the first photograph taken of the crime scene doesn’t show Barker her with a gun. Others don’t believe the small, then elderly Barker was capable even holding a machine gun, let alone fire it for hours.

Hoover Goes to Town on Ma

Nevertheless, Hoover went straight to the press, condemning Barker in every way possible. He called her a “she-wolf” and “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” Historians believe Hoover was simply trying to save face.

Hoover sits at a table, speaking into several microphones.
Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

It was his way of justifying the killing of an unarmed elderly woman. Karpis has said in 1979 that he finds the “most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Barker-Karpis Gang.” He said she wasn’t a leader of criminals nor was she a criminal herself.

What Happened to Arthur Barker?

With two remaining sons still alive, the question is what happened to Arthur and Lloyd Barker? A year after the shootout, Arthur and Karpis were captured. Arthur was sentenced to life in prison and was later sent to Alcatraz in San Francisco.

A mugshot of Arthur / A mugshot of Karpis.
Source: FBI / Photo by Bettmann, Getty Images

On the night of January 13, 1939, Arthur, along with prisoners Henri Young and Rufus McCain, tried to escape from Alcatraz. The plan failed and Arthur was shot and killed by guards. Young and McCain were sent to solitary confinement.

And then there was one…

What About Lloyd Barker?

Lloyd was the second oldest of the four sons. In 1922, he was found guilty of participating in a train robbery in Baxter Springs, Kansas. He got 25 years in prison as a result. While behind bars, he followed his brothers’ crimes in the newspapers.

A mugshot of Lloyd Barker.
Source: U.S. National Archives

After 10 years, he was eligible for parole, but at that point – in 1934 – his brothers Arthur and Fred had become Public Enemies. The authorities decided not to take the risk and release the third brother. He was finally paroled in 1938.

Moving Back in With His Father

When Lloyd was released, it had been 16 years since he saw his family. By then he had only one brother left, who was in jail (and going to get shot and killed a year later). With nowhere to go, Lloyd traveled to Joplin, Missouri to live with his father, George.

An interior shot of the Barker house.

The father and son realized they were the last surviving members of the family after hearing of Arthur’s death in prison. Two years later, in 1941, George died. The only law-abiding member of the Barker family, he was the only one to die of natural causes, too.

Just as Things Were Looking Up…

Lloyd buried his father next to Ma, Herman and Fred in Welch, Oklahoma. After his father’s death, Lloyd drifted. By all accounts, he no longer had run-ins with the law. In 1942, he moved to Colorado and settled in Denver with his wife, Jean, who had a son and daughter from a previous marriage.

An image of a road in Colorado.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The two had their own child, though – a daughter. Lloyd got a real job as an assistant manager at Charlie Klien’s Denargo Grill. In 1949, Lloyd came home one day and was trying to unlock the back door to his home.

His Wife Shot and Killed Him

On the other side of the door was Jean, holding a double-barrel 20-gauge shotgun. She fired the gun through the window of the door, hitting her husband in the neck. Lloyd was killed instantly. He was 51 years old. It was the end of the Barkers.

A photo of an officer.
Photo by DARLENE PFISTER/Star Tribune/Getty Images

Jean Barker was immediately arrested for the murder of her husband and sent to the jail at the Colorado Psychopathic Hospital in Denver. She pleaded “not guilty by reason of insanity.” She was sentenced to the Colorado State Insane Asylum for life.

What Happened to Karpis?

As for Alvin Karpis, he served 26 years at Alcatraz – the longest sentence served by an inmate in the prison’s history. Alcatraz was closed in 1962, and Karpis was transferred to McNeil Island Penitentiary in Washington to serve the rest of his sentence.

A photo of Alvin Karpis arriving at a federal building after his capture.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

He was paroled in 1969, deported to his birthplace of Canada, and settled in Montreal. In 1973, he moved to Spain. In 1979, at the age of 72, he died of an overdose of sleeping pills. Of course, being an ex-con there was speculation whether his death was a suicide or an accident.

Making It to Pop Culture

Back to Ma Barker: Whether she was a mastermind or not, Ma Barker has made an impression on the country, that has entered into pop culture.

A promotional poster for the film Bloody Mama.
Source: Copyright: American International Pictures

She’s inspired many movies, comic books, and songs. Actress Shelley Winters played a fictionalized version of her in 1966’s Batman TV series, as well as 1970’s Bloody Mama, starring a young Robert DeNiro as Lloyd Barker. She also inspired the character of Ma Beagle in DuckTales and Mama Fratelli in The Goonies.

Boney M’s Ma Baker

In 1977, the disco band Boney M came out with the song Ma Baker (missing the R), which features lyrics about Barker’s life. The song starts with a country woman saying, “Freeze! I’m Ma Baker. Put yer hands in the air and gimme all yer money.”

Boney M poses for a studio portrait.
Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns/Getty Images

The lyrics describe her as “the meanest cat from ol’ Chicago town.” More recently, Lady Gaga sampled the song in her own track Poker Face. Those “ma ma ma ma”s are referencing our dear old Ma Barker.

On Public Display

After their deaths, Ma Barker and Fred were put on public display at Sam Pyle’s Funeral Home in Ocala for eight months in 1935. You better believe there were tons of people who came to have a look. Eight decades later and the Barker/FBI shootout still makes people raise their heads.

An image of the workers at Sam Pyle’s Funeral Home.
Photo by Bettmann/Getty Images

The two-story house sits about 15 miles east of Ocala on Lake Weir. For decades, the home was owned by the Bradford family, who had rented it to the Barkers. The cottage was kept intact after the shooting.

The Bullet-Ridden Home

But the Bradfords didn’t allow the public inside the bullet-riddled cottage until the shootout’s 50th anniversary. The home still contained furniture from the time, some with bullet holes in them. The home was eventually sold, however, and a local developer moved the house to a permanent site on Carney Island.

An interior shot of the Barker house today.

The county began offering tours of the home, sparking renewed interest. A man named Jo Voge has lived in Ocala since 1956 and had a lifelong interest in the shootout. He held a lecture about it, in fact, where he spoke of the worn-out funeral home carpet at Barker’s and her son’s funeral.

14 Agents and 950 Bullets

Voge also revealed details of the shootout, which involved 14 agents who tried using tear gas at first but were unsuccessful. About 950 shots were ultimately fired in the gun battle that began started at around 7 am, although some accounts mark the number of shots higher.

An interior shot of the walls filled with bullet holes.

Fred Barker was said to have run from window to window, firing shots to make it seem like there were more people firing from the house. At about 11 am, the firing stopped and Barker and Fred were found dead in an upstairs bedroom.

Is the Home Haunted?

Some of the ransom money found had been converted by the gang’s associates in Cuba from small US bills to $1,000 US bills. Some were found in a money belt on Fred’s waist. And Barker’s purse had $10,000 in it.

An exterior shot of the Barker house today.
Source: Pinterest

Of course, the rumors still persist, and some like to think the cottage is haunted. “Everybody was interested in it,” said Bruce Andrews, whose family moved to Ocala in 1958. A woman named Kristy Sumner, from Soul Sisters Paranormal, conducted paranormal research at the home.