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’ Ziegler
The 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.