By Tim Bean
In the film Bloody Mama‘s climactic scene, Ma Barker (played by Academy-Award winning actress Shelley Winters) leans out of the window of a Hudson Super Six, cackling at and cursing the pursuing police. Massive Colt 1911’s blaze in each of her hands. Winters’ 1970 portrayal is memorable, dramatic, and entirely fictitious.
Bloody Mama faded into cinema limbo for its fast and loose (and low-budget) depiction of Kate “Ma” Barker. Fifty years later, the film’s most significant legacy is being an early vehicle for a young Robert DeNiro.
The tale of Ma Barker’s rampage through the 1930s Midwest—an era sometimes known as the “Public Enemy Era”—didn’t emerge until after her death in 1935. The legend’s chief author was controversial FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. While Hoover’s work shaped today’s FBI, his adherence to the truth was patchy at best, and Hoover’s willingness to brighten his own reputation by burning the lives of others IS well-known.
The FBI had pursued the notorious Barker-Karpis Gang for four years, an eternity when compared to other rampaging gangs of the 1930s (Bonnie and Clyde’s Barrow Gang lasted only two years, and Dillinger’s Gang just a year). The Barker-Karpis Gang had raged through Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri, not only robbing banks, but also kidnapping victims for ransom.
In 1935, FBI arrested Arthur Barker in Chicago and discovered the location of the gang’s temporary Florida hideout, where the remnants of the gang were holed up. A week later, agents surrounded the Florida home, ordering the gang to surrender. Only two people—Ma Barker and her son Fred—remained in the house.
Knowing capture meant life in prison or worse, Fred opened fire on agents and igniting a six-hour gunfight. The exchange lasted so long locals came out to watch, even enjoying lunch while the cops and robbers sniped at each other.
Eventually the house grew silent. When agents entered, they discovered the lifeless bodies of Fred and Ma Barker stretches across a bedroom floor. Bullet holes riddled the walls and furniture, and Fred himself had dozens of gunshot wounds. Ma Barker had only one lethal gunshot wound and a few scraps. When the FBI emerged from the home, they were pale and rattled. Under the direction of Hoover, the Bureau had worked hard to carve out an image of an efficient and modern crime-fighting unit. And they had just killed a 61-year-old woman.
That…did not look good.
It was here, in the greenery of 1935 Florida, that the legend of Kate “Ma” Barker began in earnest. The FBI reported that Ma Barker had been found with an emptied Tommy gun clutched in her hands and had died furiously firing at agents after watching her son die. Other eyewitnesses, including the handyman who discovered the bodies, insisted the Tommy gun had rested on the ground by Fred, and there was NO evidence Ma barker had fired a shot.
Hoover worked hard to preserve the FBI’s image by painting Ma Barker in the harshest colors possible. Not only was she an active member of the gang, but she led the gang itself. Hoover insisted greed was her central motive, and she used the stolen money to drape herself in jewels, furs, and assorted finery. As if needing to pound a nail into the coffin of her life, Hoover added she was also a known sexual deviant—a “loose” woman in the parlance of the day (oddly, Hoover himself possessed one of the largest collections of pornography in the nation at the time which he stockpiled for blackmail and his personal use).
Hoover’s FBI is not the FBI of today, and in Hoover’s defense, Ma Barker could never be described as “innocent.” She knew full well her sons were career criminals sporting a laundry list of felonies, but according to those that knew Ma. Barker, her sons limited her involvement to keeping house, cooking meals, and arranging living accommodations for the gang. This unorthodox disguise helped the gang elude law enforcement for so many years. The disguise worked so well because it wasn’t much a disguise.
Fellow bank robber and family friend Harvey Bailey described Ma Barker as a nice woman, but not particularly bright or cunning. He considered the entire family a collection of hillbilly burglars who had a few helpful connections and were mostly lucky.
Ma Barker’s biggest contribution was as a respectable smokescreen for the gang. Her sons seemed obvious criminals, but her kind and somewhat aloof performance quelled suspicion for years, until the FBI headlined the gang as public enemies. Alvin Karpis, likely the gang’s true leader, grew incensed at Ma Barker’s maligned memory. His proof was the most persuasive of all. In four years of kidnapping, robbery, theft, and murder, not one shred of evidence supported Hoover’s assertion that Ma Barker lead the gang or even committed a violent act.
The real Kate “Ma” Barker was likely just an average Midwestern woman who got caught up in the momentum of her kids’ lives, as dangerous as they were. The 1930s weren’t an easy time for anyone in the United States; even Ma Barker’s life had to be filled with trepidation, watching and waiting for Hoover’s agents to break down their door, guns blazing. It was her choice, but when your own children are involved, NO choice is an easy one.
Want to Know More?
The Public Enemy Era is one of the most fascinating in the history of America, not as much for its criminal violence as for its ability to capture the attention and imagination of the American public for almost a century. Here’s everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, the FBI had on the Barker-Karpis Gang, available in pdf form at the FBI Vault. Get ready to lose a few hours!