The Life and Times of George “Machine Gun” Kelly Barnes

George “Machine Gun” Kelly Barnes was born on July 18, 1895 in Memphis, Tennessee. Like most criminals, he did not start out as one. However, Prohibition proved to be too much for him to stay on the straight and narrow.

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In this paper, I will be exploring the life and times of the infamous gangster Machine Gun Kelly. George went to Central High School in Memphis, followed by Mississippi State University from September 1917 to January 27, 1918 (Genealogy.com). According to the Alcatraz History website, he attended MSU in order to study agriculture, but his academic career was plagued by being “… constantly in trouble with the faculty…” and “… spent much of his academic career attempting to work off the demerits he had earned.”

George earned himself thirty-one demerits in his first semester, and twenty-four in the first few weeks of his second semester. An example of this being “… his highest grade (a C plus) awarded for good personal hygiene.” As one can see, Mr. Kelly wasn’t suited for the agricultural profession. Nevertheless, things weren’t all bad for Machine Gun, it was during this time he found love for the first time. In 1919, George was nineteen, he married Geneva Ramsey and had two sons with her.

When he married Ms.Ramsey, her father hired him as a commissary clerk for her father’s company as a levee contractor. Unfortunately for the new couple, Geneva’s father died in a dynamite explosion (Michael Finger). Presumably, George’s employment with his father-in-law’s ended with the father-in-law’s death. George began working odd jobs in order to provide for himself and his family. The various sources consulted conflict as to whether or not Geneva had divorced him by this time. Fortunately, most of the sources do agree that Machine Gun had worked as a cab driver for the 785 Taxi Cab Company in Memphis, Tennessee.

George also worked selling used cars at some point during this period (Genealogy.com, Memphis Flyer). After Geneva’s father died, George’s struggles to find work often separated him from his family. Eventually, George turned to an “easy” trade: bootlegging. Previously, George had made moonshine when he was a teen; but now that Prohibition had been passed, the market for illegal booze was booming. This marked the beginning of the end for George’s first marriage as he began, in Geneva’s words “running in bad company” therefore, she decided to end their marriage by around 1925 (Biography.com).

After his divorce, Kelly was arrested for smuggling alcohol onto an Indian Reservation and sent to Leavenworth prison, where he met and became friends with some bank robbers. After his release in 1931, Mr.Kelly Barnes began robbing banks to fill his pockets. It was around this time that George met Kathryn Thorne, his future wife. Ms. Thorne was the one who purchased ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly’s infamous machine gun and also made sure he practiced extensively with the weapon. Later, Machine Gun found a bigger fish to fry in the form of kidnapping the rich and powerful. His most infamous crime, and the crime that eventually got him caught was the kidnapping of millionaire Charles Urschel. Planned by Machine Gun, Kathryn Kelly, and Albert Bates. They kidnapped Mr.Urschel on Saturday, July 22, 1933 from his home while Mr. Urschel and Mrs. Urschel were playing bridge with some of their friends.

From the FBI file on the incident: “After warning the women against calling for help, they marched Urschel and Jarrett to where they had driven their car, put them into the back of the Chevrolet sedan, and drove rapidly away. Mrs. Urschel, in accordance with the attorney general’s advice to the public, immediately telephoned J. Edgar Hoover, Director of the FBI. Special agents were sent to Oklahoma City, where an extensive investigation commenced. At 1:00 a.m., Sunday, July 23, 1933, Jarrett made his way back to the Urschel residence… After the kidnapping became known, numerous letters, telephone calls, and other leads were received… All had to be followed, although few were of value. Leads of this nature were developed simultaneously in all parts of the United States. Several days elapsed before word was received from the kidnappers. On July 26, J.G. Catlett, a wealthy oil man of Tulsa, Oklahoma and an intimate friend of Mr. Urschel, received a package through Western Union. It contained a letter written to him by Mr. Urschel, requesting Mr. Catlett to act as an intermediary for his release… a typewritten note directed to Mr. Catlett, demanding that he proceed to Oklahoma City immediately and not communicate by telephone or otherwise with the Urschel family from Tulsa.

The package also contained a typewritten letter addressed to Mr. E. E. Kirkpatrick of Oklahoma City, which read in part. “Immediately upon receipt of this letter you will proceed to obtain the sum of TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS ($200,000.00) in GENUINE USED FEDERAL RESERVE CURRENCY in the denomination of TWENTY DOLLARS ($20.00) Bills.

It will be useless for you to attempt taking notes of SERIAL NUMBERS MAKING UP DUMMY PACKAGE, OR ANYTHING ELSE IN THE LINE OF ATTEMPTED DOUBLE CROSS. BEAR THIS IN MIND, CHARLES F. URSCHEL WILL REMAIN IN OUR CUSTODY UNTIL MONEY HAS BEEN INSPECTED AND EXCHANGED AND FURTHERMORE WILL BE AT THE SCENE OF CONTACT FOR PAY-OFF AND IF THERE SHOULD BE ANY ATTEMPT AT ANY DOUBLE XX IT WILL BE HE THAT SUFFERS THE CONSEQUENCE. RUN THIS AD FOR ONE WEEK IN DAILY OKLAHOMAN. ‘FOR SALE —- 160 Acres Land, good five room house, deep well.

Also Cows, Tools, Tractor, Corn, and Hay. $3750.00 for quick sale. . TERMS. . Box # _____’ You will hear from us as soon as convenient after insertion of AD.” The ad was inserted. On July 28, an envelope addressed to the “Daily Oklahoman,” Box H-807, was received. It was from Joplin, Missouri. A letter to Kirkpatrick read in part: “ . . . You will pack TWO HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS ($200,000.00) in USED GENUINE FEDERAL RESERVE NOTES OF TWENTY DOLLAR DENOMINATION in a suitable LIGHT COLORED LEATHER BAG and have someone purchase transportation for you, including berth, aboard Train #28 (The Sooner) which departs at 10:10 p.m. via the M. K. & T. Lines for Kansas City, Mo. You will ride on the OBSERVATION PLATFORM where you may be observed by some-one at some Station along the Line between Okla. City and K. C. Mo.

If indication are alright, somewhere along the Right-of-Way you will observe a Fire on the Right Side of Track (Facing direction train is bound) that first Fire will be your Cue to be prepared to throw BAG to Track immediately after passing SECOND FIRE. REMEMBER THIS — IF ANY TRICKERY IS ATTEMPTED YOU WILL FIND THE REMAINS OF URSCHEL AND INSTEAD OF JOY THERE WILL BE DOUBLE GRIEF — FOR, SOME-ONE VERY NEAR AND DEAR TO THE URSCHEL FAMILY IS UNDER CONSTANT SURVEILLANCE AND WILL LIKE-WISE SUFFER FOR YOUR ERROR. “If there is the slightest HITCH in these PLANS for any reason what-so-ever, not your fault, you will proceed on into Kansas City, Mo. and register at the Muehlebach Hotel under the name of E. E. Kincaid of Little Rock, Arkansas and await further instructions there.

THE MAIN THING IS DO NOT DIVULGE THE CONTENTS OF THIS LETTER TO ANY LAW AUTHORITIES FOR WE HAVE NO INTENTION OF FURTHER COMMUNICATION. YOU ARE TO MAKE THIS TRIP SATURDAY JULY 29TH 1933 . . . ” The Bureau’s first concern in all kidnapping cases is the safe return of the kidnapped victim. Accordingly, no effort was made on the part of the Bureau to identify the writer of these letters or to interfere in any way with the negotiations until after Urschel was returned. As a result of the above letters, $200,000 in used $20 notes of the Federal Reserve Bank, Tenth District, was obtained and the serial numbers recorded. They were placed in a …leather Gladstone bag… Upon arrival at Kansas City, Kirkpatrick and Catlett proceeded to the Muehlebach Hotel. Kirkpatrick registered under the name of E. E. Kincaid and waited in his room, where he received a telegram from Tulsa, Oklahoma, as follows: “Owing to unavoidable incident unable to keep appointed. Will phone you about six. Signed, C. H. Moore.”

About 5:30 p.m., on Sunday, July 30, Kirkpatrick received a telephone call from a party who asked if this was “Mr. Kincaid,” and upon being advised that it was stated, “This is Moore. You got my telegram?” to which Kirkpatrick replied in the affirmative. Kirkpatrick was then instructed to leave the Muehlebach Hotel in a taxicab and proceed to the LaSalle Hotel and walk west a block or two… He walked west. After proceeding no more than half a block, he observed a man approaching him who, upon reaching Kirkpatrick, said, “Mr. Kincaid, I will take that bag,” and reached out and took it. Kirkpatrick then stated, “I want some instructions. I must telephone someone who is very interested immediately.”

The man who had taken the bag told Kirkpatrick to return to the hotel and Urschel would be returned within the specified time. Kirkpatrick then returned to the hotel and from there, proceeded to Oklahoma City. Catlett returned to Tulsa.” As one can see, the kidnapping proceeded without much interference from the authorities, not even to help find Kelly and his conspirator. However, once Urschel was returned home and given some time to rest, the case began to gain traction. The FBI interviewed Urschel and obtained information including everything that happened during his time in captivity.

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