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America’s fascination with the Gangster era: From John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly to their pretty molls

By Barbara Casey for Gangsters Inc.

Plans are being made to exhume the body of John Dillinger from his gravesite at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis. It isn’t the first time the body of a historical figure has been exhumed. Jesse James, Eva Peron, Abraham Lincoln, Christopher Columbus, and Daniel Boone are only a few. There has always been an element of mystique surrounding the death and burial of John Dillinger, however, for he, along with Machine Gun Kelly and his wife Kathryn, Baby Face Nelson, and Bonnie and Clyde, are remembered as some of the most notorious criminals of the last century.

It was the era of Prohibition. Formally known as the Volstead Act and called the “greatest social experiment of modern times” by President Calvin Coolidge, it provided for easy profits to be made by the illegal sale of alcoholic beverages (defined as anything more than one-half of one percent alcohol).

“Dirty Thirties”

It was during this period that the country was just recovering from World War I—the “War to End All Wars”—and there was created the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933 designed to aid farmers in difficult times with federal subsidies and low-interest loans. The Great Depression was devastating for the rich and poor alike; and many across the country were waking up to find themselves in the midst of the Dust Bowl.

Images from that time referred to by historians and journalists as the “Dirty Thirties” included long breadlines, make-shift relief camps, protest marches and severe dust storms sweeping over the western plains. This reality, as stark as the images, was only made worse by the stock-market crash in 1929 and the national income fell by almost half.

Public Enemies

Out of desperation, many turned to activities that were illegal in order to survive. “Public Enemies” such as John Dillinger (right), the Ma Barker gang, and Bonnie and Clyde, just starting to enter into the consciousness of America, were looked upon more as heroes rather than criminals as they traded gunfire with police and agents from a fledgling Federal Bureau of Investigation. It was in this environment that Cleo Lera Mae Brooks, who had changed her name to Kathryn when she dropped out of school, and her recently divorced mother Ora soon joined Ora’s new husband Boss Shannon in his bootlegging operations in order to make ends meet. For additional income, the couple also rented out rooms to the “public enemies” on the run for fifty dollars a night at their ranch near Paradise, Texas.

Gangster Moll

Kathryn found the boasts of criminals who had outwitted the law exhilarating. Wanting to leave the old, weather-beaten farmhouse for a better life, Kathryn left her eleven-year-old daughter, Pauline, behind to be taken care of by Ora and Boss along with his five children and, at the age of twenty-nine, married a Texas bootlegger named Charlie Thorne. This was Kathryn’s third marriage, and, like her mother, she soon got involved in the bootleg business, often making the illegal deliveries.

Not long after they were married, while away visiting relatives, she learned that Charlie was cheating on her. On the way home, she stopped to get gas and told the station attendant that she was on her way to Coleman, Texas, “to kill that God-damned Charlie Thorne.” It wasn’t the first time she had threatened to kill her husband. The next day Thorne was found shot to death with Kathryn’s gun. Even though Thorne was illiterate, he had supposedly left a typed-written note that included his typed signature claiming that he “can’t live with or without Kathryn. Hence, I am departing this life,” the note stated.

At first the coroner ruled that Kathryn (right) had shot Charlie in self-defense. Later, in spite of the rumors that Kathryn had threatened to kill Charlie on numerous occasions, and a general knowledge that Charlie, who couldn’t read or write, had probably never used the word “hence” in his life, a coroner’s jury ruled that Charlie had died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound between the eyes, thereby making it a suicide. The locals believed otherwise, however, claiming that the coroner and Kathryn were “friends.”

Family Business

Criminal behavior ran in Kathryn’s family. In addition to her mother’s bootlegging operation, she had two uncles serving time in Leavenworth, one for stealing automobiles, the other for counterfeiting. Her aunt was a prostitute and her cousin was a bootlegger. Over the next few years Kathryn was arrested several times for various crimes, including robbery in Oklahoma City where she was convicted as Mrs. J.E. Burnell. This was later reversed on appeal. She also spent time in jail for prostitution and for receiving stolen goods. It is reported that in order to avoid arrest for a robbery she was involved in, she disposed of a packet of diamonds worth over ten thousand dollars by flushing them in a hotel toilet. In Fort Worth, Kathryn was convicted of shoplifting as “Dolores Whitney,” but was released on a technicality without returning the money.

Meeting Machine Gun Kelly

With her good looks, free spirit, and taste for the “better things” in life, Kathryn never lacked for male companionship. She became involved with another bootlegger, R.L. “Little Steve” Anderson, known as “Tulsa’s leading bootlegger,” who was doing business with a dark Irish southerner who called himself George R. Kelly. There is some speculation that Kathryn was responsible for “Little Steve” hiring George, and that she had first met George at Leavenworth while he was serving time on a conviction of bootlegging and she was at the prison visiting her uncles.

Other accounts have Kelly meeting her for the first time at a Fort Worth speakeasy where he was meeting with his new rum-running partner “Little Steve” Anderson. Kathryn was “Little Steve’s” girlfriend. Whether it was at Leavenworth or through his association with “Little Steve” that Kathryn first met George, it wasn’t long before they fell in love. Kelly used his undersized cache of bootleg and bank robbery money and oversized exaggerations of his business activities to dazzle Kathryn into accepting his proposal of marriage; and on September 30, 1930, after taking “Little Steve’s” Cadillac and pedigreed bulldog, they drove to Minneapolis where they were married by a Methodist minister.

They seemed well suited for one another. Kathryn took pride in her husband’s criminal activities, and the material things they could afford as a result, including Chanel gowns, expensive furs, and diamond jewelry. In 1933, after the Kellys became famous criminals, a story published in The Tulsa World stated that Tulsa businessmen who bought illicit liquor from the affable Kelly joked with him about the risks he took by selling liquor from his briefcase. The “society bootlegger,” he was called.

Married with robberies

After getting married, George (right) and Kathryn returned to Fort Worth and quietly set up house-keeping on Mulkey Street in the house that Kathryn’s late husband, Charlie Thorne, built. Neighbors later recalled seeing the Kellys drive around in their big sixteen-cylinder Cadillac and noticed how well dressed the couple were. George was to lament years later that this was the turning point in his career, and that he should have stayed in Tulsa bootlegging.

In September of that year, George helped rob a bank in Ottumwa, Iowa, with a group of bandits that included Holden, Keating, Bailey, Miller, Fred Barker and Larry DeVol, an associate of the Barkers and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, given the nickname “Creepy” because of his sinister smile and called “Ray” by his gang members. Concentrating in the “crime corridor,” which stretched from Texas to Minnesota, and focused especially in the three states of Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas, on April 8, 1931, Harvey Bailey, Frank Nash, Verne Miller and “Dutch Joe” robbed the Central State Bank at Sherman, Texas, of forty thousand dollars. They escaped in a black Buick to Caddo Lake, near the Louisiana state line, where Kelly met them with a second getaway car—a Cadillac.

In September 1932, Kelly, Albert Bates, and Eddie Bentz, a seasoned bank robber, traveled to Colfax, Washington, near the eastern edge of the state, where, on September 21, they robbed the First Trust & Savings Bank of Colfax of seventy-seven thousand dollars. Within weeks, police raided the Kellys' home in Fort Worth, but the couple had already fled. Bentz was arrested a short time later in a Dallas post office. He admitted to knowing Kelly and Bates, and acknowledged they had a hideout on a ranch somewhere in Texas, but denied any involvement in the Colfax robbery. When Bentz was able to make bail, he fled the state.

A short time later, Kelly struck a bank nearby at Denton. Then on November 30, 1932, he along with Bates and Chicago hoodlum Eddie Doll, robbed the Citizen’s State Bank near Kathryn’s birthplace at Tupelo, Mississippi, stealing close to forty thousand dollars. After the robbery the bank's chief teller would say of Kelly: “He was the kind of guy that, if you looked at him, you would never have thought he was a bank robber.” All total, Kelly was involved in six bank robberies between March 1930 and November 1932.

Bruce Barnes writes that his father felt superior to the bank robbers he befriended in Leavenworth. “It wasn’t just the money that appealed to him. It was the image of himself going into a bank holding a gun, knowing that he had complete power over those he was robbing.” Barnes also writes that Kathryn not only helped in the planning of these robberies, but that she dressed like a man and participated as an armed getaway driver during some of them.

Propaganda machine

Kathryn also had an image of her husband, and she began spreading the word among her bootlegging customers and associates that her man was a brutal, efficient bank robber. To prove the point, she gave him a second-hand Thompson machine gun, model 1921, serial number 4907, and insisted that he practice with it while visiting at the Shannon farm near Paradise, Texas. She bought it from J. Kar, a pawnbroker at the Wolfe & Klar Pawn Shop in Fort Worth that was the southwest distributor for Colt’s Arms Manufacturing Company, and paid two hundred fifty dollars for it. Wolfe & Klar was also the source of guns for Hyman Lebman in San Antonio who was converting them into full automatics for bank robber and murderer Baby Face Nelson, a name given to him because of his youthful appearance and small stature, and his partner, John Dillinger, who would later become known for having robbed twenty-four banks and four police stations. Both would be named on FBI Director Hoover’s “Public Enemy No. 1” list.

Kathryn continued promoting “the Big Guy” in Fort Worth dives, dumps, and hangouts, bragging that “Machine Gun Kelly” was so expert with his weapon that he could pop walnuts off the top of a fence at thirty feet, and passing out his spent brass shell casings as souvenirs. Machine Gun Kelly would make his own self-serving statements, saying that he “liked to use a machine gun at close range without the stock, with the butt against his hip.” He also bragged that he “spent twenty-five to thirty dollars a week on slugs so he could practice.” He was known for carrying a large bag with him that concealed two machine guns, the one Kathryn bought for him, and another one, also a 1921 model, 45 caliber.

Facts versus fiction

There is little doubt that these stories have been embellished over the years. For one thing, Kelly was never keen on fire arms. For another, it has been pointed out that pecan trees are dominant in the area rather than walnut trees. There is also some question as to whether it was Kathryn who actually came up with the name “Machine Gun Kelly.” The FBI had its own ubiquitous public relations arm which cleverly played up the frightening nickname while seeking Kelly; thereby painting Hoover and his agents as heroic and courageous in their pursuit of this extremely dangerous, heavily armed public enemy. The FBI’s wanted poster warned that Kelly was an “expert machine gunner,” while at the same time some of the bureau’s press releases labeled him “a desperate character.” The fact is, Kelly never killed anyone—or, as far as anyone knows, even fired his weapon in anger.

Kelly’s list of underworld associates continued to grow. He became acquainted with Chicago mobsters and “Kid Cann,” operated by Isadore Blumenfeld, a Jewish-American organized crime figure based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Kelly’s accomplices on various crimes included Eddie Bentz, who would boast to the FBI of having robbed between “fifty and a hundred banks” in his life; Edward Doll, alias Eddie “Blackie” LaRue or “Burlington Eddie,” known for bootlegging, bank robbery, and kidnapping, and alleged to be a “spot killer” for Chicago mobsters; and Albert L. Bates, whose aliases include George Bates, George L. Davis, George Harris and J.B. King, wanted for bank robberies across the country and suspected of murdering his accomplices, J.E. “Mike” Conway and Frank “Frisco Whitey” Carroll.

Kelly continued to work with Keating, Holden and others until early 1932 when he began working with Albert L. Bates. Bates had an arrest record dating back to March 1916 when he was convicted of burglary and sentenced from one to fifteen years in the state penitentiary at Carson City, Nevada. Paroled a year and a half later, his next sentence was a six-month stretch for petty theft in Salt Lake City. In August 1921, Bates received another sentence for burglary in the Utah State Penitentiary. He escaped in October, 1926, but less than seven months later he was serving a three-to-five-year burglary sentence in Colorado. After his release in July 1930, Bates made his way to the Midwest and spent thirty days in jail on a minor charge in Michigan. Bates and Kelly would work together for more than a year.

Kidnapping

Kelly’s first kidnapping occurred in 1930 with a former Cicero, Illinois police officer named Bernard “Big Phil” Phillips. “Tall, husky, and slow-spoken, Phillips had been fired as a traffic cop for extortion. During the kidnapping, one of the victims taken by Phillips was killed when Phillips’ gun accidentally discharged.” Later, Phillips asked Kelly to join him in another kidnapping, but Kelly declined, concluding that the proposed victim did not have enough money to pay the ransom.

Kelly, like a number of other criminals during that era of Prohibition, saw kidnapping as a relatively safe, easy way to get a lot of money fast. Basically, it involved identifying a wealthy victim, finding a safe, hidden place to keep the victim, and working out a plan to collect the ransom. A kidnapping was less dangerous than robbing a bank, Kathryn and George reasoned, and they could collect whatever they demanded. Whereas, in a bank robbery, the take was uncertain, especially since they were in the midst of the Great Depression when even the banks occasionally ran short of cash.

It was with this logic that Kathryn convinced George that their next kidnapping victim should be wealthy Oklahoma business tycoon, Charles Urschel. This was their undoing. It was the crime that was destined to firmly set George Machine Gun Kelly along with his “moll” Kathryn into the annals of crime history. It was also the crime that made FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover write of Kathryn as “a woman of superior intelligence” and “one of the most coldly deliberate criminals of my experience.” Ironically, as Kathryn and Machine Gun Kelly were being arrested, ten inmates, including all of the members of the future Dillinger gang, escaped from the penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana.

Gangster Era

So much has been written about Kathryn’s involvement in the Charles Urschel kidnapping and the subsequent trials, most of it speculation. In order to understand Kathryn and her motivation, one must also remember the times in which she lived. It was the age of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the Dirty Thirties. It was the “Gangster Era.”

No one was left untouched by the poor state of the economy, not only in this country but around the world. For most, they got by. But for a few, it created an intangible driving need for excitement that couldn’t be explained, and was only satisfied by what would become known as the Mid-West Crime Wave. Although the period itself lasted just a few short years, it left behind a legacy of personalities—the “Public Enemies“ sometimes viewed as notorious, other times seen as tragic victims, and even heroes—that would be recorded in American criminal history forever: John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Alvin Creepy Karpis, Ma Barker and the Barker Gang, Bonnie and Clyde—as well as Machine Gun Kelly and his wife, Kathryn.

The participants of the Mid-West Crime Wave gave J. Edgar Hoover the impetus to propel his fledgling Bureau of Investigation, then a small division of the U. S. Justice Department, into the Federal Bureau of Investigation we know today. In addition, the Mid-West Crime Wave allowed Hollywood to produce gut-wrenching action motion pictures of the era with the criminals being romanticized by some of the biggest names in the motion picture industry such as Warren Beatty, Faye Dunaway, James Cagney, Shelly Winters, Robert DeNiro, Mark Harmon, Warren Oates, Martin Sheene, Mickey Rooney, and Richard Dreyfuss. This interest in the Gangster Era continues as the body of John Dillinger being exhumed will be filmed for a documentary on The History Channel.

In early 1934 while in prison, Kathryn wrote what was purported to be her life story: History of My Checkered Career by Mrs. Kathryn “Machine-Gun” Kelly Barnes. In this autobiography, she tried to explain her feelings:

… as I grew older it became harder for me to be content. I longed for new faces, for a larger city. I was restless and discontented….

Then she talks about the joy she felt—for a while—after her child was born. Using a fictitious name:

… but when June was a little past a year old, the old unrest and discontentment began to haunt me. I fought many and many a battle in the depths of my heart then. Something seemed to be calling and calling to me from outside my little world. I grew unhappier as the days passed on. I began finding fault with every little thing… so at last I just had to get away.

Things seemed to change for Kathryn once she met George. She felt she had at last found the fulfillment and joy in life that had for so long been missing:

Months flew by into years – years of gay luxurious fun – to Florida and Cuba in the winter and one gay resort after another – something amusing constantly. We never settled down but always had money and spent it daily and freely. [I see us] now as pawns of an inverted environment and fate, just like two bits of seawood [sic] tossing about so busily engaged in guzzling down gulps of pleasure. We never thought of a tomorrow, a butterfly existence; we never had time to be serious, eternally gay.

Just like the others who fell victim to the call of danger, excitement, and a life that was more thrilling than what was available in reality, Kathryn pursued that butterfly existence with an energy and determination that matched even the most desperate of criminals. For a while, she had it in her grasp. In the end, however, she would discover that the life she so vigorously sought was just as ephemeral as the life of a butterfly.

Barbara Casey is the author of several award-winning novels for both adults and young adults, as well as book-length works of nonfiction true crime, and numerous articles, poems, and short stories. Her nonfiction true crime book, Kathryn Kelly: The Moll behind Machine Gun Kelly, has been optioned for a major film and television series.

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