The villainous deeds of Kate ‘Ma’ Barker and her violent sons are probably known to more people around the word due to the Roger Corman movie ‘Bloody Mama’ and the 1977 hit song ‘Ma Baker’ by popsters Boney M. However, the dance floor ditty failed to recount the extent of the crimes perpetrated by her and the four gun-toting sons in an era that also witnessed the height of gangster crime with the likes of Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger.
It is claimed that Ma Barker, who never actually murdered anyone, was used as a scapegoat by the notorious J Edgar Hoover and, as a consequence, was shot and killed by FBI agents on his instruction. Ma Barker was born in the Ozark Mountains near Springfield in 1872. From an early age she was familiar with crime, particularly as one of her greatest thrills was seeing the outlaw Jesse James as he rode past her. She was devastated when he was shot and killed in 1882.
Ma’s upbringing could be termed ‘trailer trash’ today as her folks and neighbours were well versed in outlaw mentality and survival at its most basic in what was then the Wild West. Kate, as she was known then, never a beauty and leaning towards the plump side, married farm labourer George Barker. They had four sons who were to make up one of the most notorious crime families, the Barker-Karpis Gang.
Ma’s own contribution to the gang’s infamous robberies and kidnappings has never been documented with accuracy. Many believe she simply acted as a motherly support to her villainous sons and travelled around the country with them. There is no evidence that she actually killed anyone herself. There were four boys, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur ‘Doc’and Freddie, the baby of the quartet and Ma’s favourite.
The family lived in an impoverished tar-paper shack in Missouri and from an early age the Barker boys began to cultivate their criminal careers, becoming known to the local police. Ma would often use her acting skills by playing the distraught mother in order to get her sons out of jail. The bond between mother and sons was extremely strong and no doubt Ma wore the trousers in the family and was the greatest influence on her boys.
By 1927, a somewhat emasculated husband George Barker, left the family home feeling that he had no authority over his own offspring.
Key Dates 22/3/1934: Barker gang kill George Ziegler 8/1/1935: Arthur ‘Doc’ captured 16/1/1935: Ma and Freddie Barker tracked down and killed 1/5/1936: Karpis apprehended by J. Edgar Hoover
The Key Figures
Key Figures Kate ‘Ma’ Barker: Mother of Barker gang sons George Barker: husband of Kate ‘Ma’ Barker Ma Barker’s sons - Herman, Lloyd, Arthur ‘Doc’, and Freddie Alvin Karpis: Barker-Karpis gang member George Ziegler: gang member killed by BarkersKidnap victims William Hamm: Minnesota brewer Edward Bremer: Minnesota bankerJ Edgar Hoover: Director of the FBI.
The Crimes: 1931-35 Despite Ma’s boys starting out committing petty crime it wasn’t long before they moved on to more serious escapades, such as bank robberies. It was with the addition of member Alvin Karpis, when they became known as the Barker-Karpis gang, that things turned serious. Already a hardened criminal, Karpis met Ma’s favourite son, Fred when they both serving time at the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kansas. At the time Fred Barker was in prison for killing a policeman during a car theft.The Karpis-Barker gang became one of the most notorious and prolific criminal gangs of the 1930s. They did not hesitate to kill anyone who got in their way, even innocent bystanders. They began robbing banks and hijacking mail deliveries, but with the influence of Karpis in the criminal equation, they turned to the more lucrative field of kidnapping.In 1933 they carried out their first kidnap. The unfortunate victim, William Hamm, was a wealthy Minnesota brewer and was ransomed for a startling $100,000. Shortly afterwards, Minnesota banker Edward Bremer, Jr., was also kidnapped and his ransom brought the gang even greater money at around $200,000.By this time a myth was circulating that Ma Barker was the matriarchal leader, ruling the gang with an iron fist. This was the era of Bonnie and Clyde and John Dillinger and newspapers loved to sensationalise and brand the criminals with monikers and personality traits that would become ingrained in the public’s collective memory.However, there is little evidence to support the claim that Ma Barker did anything more than live with her sons, no doubt enjoying the spoils of her brood’s criminal activity, but nevertheless contributing little more than a motherly support. According to Karpis himself in his memoirs she did not possess the attributes needed to plan bank robberies and kidnappings."Ma was always somebody in our lives. Love didn't enter into it really. She was somebody we looked after and took with us when we moved city to city, hideout to hideout. It is no insult to Ma's memory that she just didn't have the know-how to direct us on a robbery. It would not have occurred to her to get involved in our business, and we always made it a point of only discussing our scores when Ma wasn't around. We'd leave her at home when we were arranging a job, or we'd send her to a movie. Ma saw a lot of movies."Karpis continued: “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?"So if this was the truth, as alleged by one of the gang members themselves, then where did the headline grabbing view of Ma Barker as the mastermind behind her sons’ crimes come from?One theory is that the tyrannical J. Edgar Hoover was responsible for disseminating such information. Hoover was the founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in its present form and its director from 1924 until 1972. It is claimed that he needed a ruse to eliminate the gang and the ‘old lady’, without the deed appearing controversial.At the time, kidnappings had become a serious issue, especially after the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping which involved the abduction and murder of toddler Charles Lindbergh III, son of Charles Lindbergh Jr. and Anne Morrow.In addition to this, what had perhaps helped sealed the Barker-Karpis fate was the fact that the father of one the kidnap victims, Edward Bremer Jr., was a friend of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The president was keen to see these kind of crimes dealt harshly by the FBI.Soon after, FBI agents stepped up their procedure and initiated highly skilled ‘flying squads’ with agents like Melvin Purvis – who brought in John Dillinger - and who specialised in hunting down the leading criminals and public enemies of the day.Now that other hoodlums had been brought to justice, or assassinated as in the case of Bonnie and Clyde, Hoover now believed it was time to deal with the Barker-Karpis gang.Assassination of George ‘Shotgun’ ZieglerThe main turning point for the FBI and possibly the biggest mistake of Ma’s gangland sons, was to eliminate one of their own. George Ziegler had been one of the masterminds behind the planning and kidnap of Edward Bremer. But he had become a loose cannon, boasting about his exploits and drawing attention to himself. The Barker boys decided that he needed to be silenced.On 22 March 1934, Karpis and the Barker men shot Ziegler as he was coming out of his favorite restaurant in Cicero, Illinois. The attack, according to documents, nearly decapitated him. But Ziegler’s corpse, that was left for the police to investigate, held important information on the gang’s names including other valuable details. The agents could use this information to pick each member off, one by one.
The first to be apprehended was Arthur ‘Doc’ Barker, who was captured on 8 January 1935 by FBI hero, Melvin Purvis himself. Despite being taken alive, Doc was eventually sent to Alcatraz where he was shot and killed by guards as he attempted to escape from the infamous San Francisco prison.On 16 January 1935, agents then tracked down Ma and favourite son Fred when they were renting a cottage in Lake Weir, Florida. Ma was manning a machine gun and during a four-hour shoot out both were shot and killed by the FBI. Ma Barker ended up with one to three fatal bullets in her, although another version has Ma committing suicide after she witnessed Freddie’s death.In shootouts with the other gang members, Herman Barker who was wounded after a gun battle, shot and killed himself with his gun. Lloyd, who was captured and eventually served 25 years was later, ironically, killed by his own wife.Karpis, who maintained that it was always J. Edgar Hoover who had created the myth of Ma Barker as ‘Bloody Mama’ to serve his purpose, vowed to kill Hoover in the same manner that the FBI had dealt with Ma and Freddie. He even sent a letter to the burly FBI director promising such a fate. At one stage the psychopathic mobster was nearly killed by the FBI when they located him in Atlantic City, but he managed to shoot his way to freedom despite his pregnant girlfriend getting shot in the thigh.Hoover was intent on arresting Karpis himself and on 1 May 1936 he had that pleasure granted when the last of the Enemy Number Ones was located in New Orleans. A dozen agents swarmed over Karpis’ car and Hoover himself went up to the vehicle and declared that he was under arrest.George Barker, Ma’s estranged husband buried her and his son Freddie in Welch, Oklahoma. Of his wife and sons he said: "She never would let me do with them what I wanted to."
The myth of Ma Barker has inspired movies, TV shows, books and music. A 1970 low budget film ‘Bloody Mama’ starring Shelley Winters and a young Robert De Niro as Freddie was directed by horror maestro Roger Corman. The film depicts Ma as a corrupt mother who encourages and organises her children's criminality. The story is also the inspiration for the 1977 Boney M music single 'Ma Baker', and countless screen characters including actress Anne Ramsey’s Mama Fratelli in the 1985 film, ‘The Goonies’.