Ma Barker: mythical mastermind?

The Depression-era Midwestern crime gangs have captivated us since the 1930s. Names like Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde, and Pretty Boy Floyd have permeated popular culture for 80 years. One of the most indelible characters from this time was Arizona “Ma” Barker. The Barker-Karpis gang sustained one of the longest criminal runs of the era, terrorizing the Midwest from 1931-35 and giving us one of the greatest myths from the period—the matriarchal criminal mastermind.

The Barker-Karpis gang began like most others, with petty crimes and prison connections. Like most driven people honing their craft, the group continued to up the ante on their crimes, seeking more riches each time. After a string of robberies, the gang began venturing into kidnapping schemes. Their kidnapping of Minnesota banker Edward Bremer in January 1934 for the sum of $200,000 would be both their largest caper and the crime that would set the FBI’s sites squarely on their mother.

I’d like to point out that much of the information that follows comes from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s reports. It is necessary to point out that Hoover is a controversial figure and that motives should always be questioned.

On Jan. 17, 1934, Edward Bremer, the son of Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company part-owner Adolph Schmidt, drove his usual route from his daughter’s school to his office at the bank. While sitting at a routine traffic light, two men with pistols approached his car, one on the driver’s side door, and one on the passenger side. Both men got into the car, sandwiching the banker. Bremer was bludgeoned in the head repeatedly and pushed to the floor, where blinding goggles were placed over his eyes.

Approximately two hours later, Walter Magee received a call at the bank. He was informed by the caller of Bremer’s kidnapping and instructed to go outside, where he would find a note. The note he found directed him to alert no one, pay $200,000 in $5 and $10 denominations with no consecutive number and a wide variety of issues. He was told to place a personal ad in the Minneapolis Tribune that read “We are ready Alice,” at which point Magee would receive his final instructions.

Police were notified immediately, but given the Barker gang’s influence in the police department, they caught wind of the involvement of the “coppers.” This led the gang to send several notes to several people. A secretary was visited by a man at her back door with a note. A man found a coffee can that contained a note left on his porch. A priest was visited.

Magee was instructed to travel to Farmington, Minn., then follow a bus to another town before heading down a gravel road where he deposited the ransom money. A car approached him and flashed its lights five times. With the money left, Bremer was released.

Though the Barker gang felt that police involvement had ceased, the serial numbers on the ransom bills had been recorded.

The FBI spent the next year tracking the various members of the gang, who had scattered across the country, eventually apprehending or killing them. After arresting Doc Barker, letters written by Ma Barker that referenced Gator Joe were found by agents. Using this information, the FBI tracked Ma to a house in Ocklawaha, Fla., where they found both she and her son Fred residing under pseudonyms. There, sometime during an hours-long shootout, Ma Barker died from a single bullet wound. There is a dispute about the placement of a Tommy gun found in the bedroom. Some sources claim it was found between the bodies of Fred and Ma. The official FBI record states that it was found in Ma’s hands.

Alvin Karpis, former Public Enemy Number 1 and namesake of the gang, stated that the greatest myth in all of criminal history is the idea that Ma was the puppeteer behind the scenes of the gang’s crimes. He wrote that the lady was “superstitious, gullible, simple, cantankerous and, well, generally law abiding.” Crime associate Harvey Bailey wrote in his autobiography that she “couldn’t plan breakfast,” let alone a crime.

It has been proposed that to justify her shooting death, the case supporting her involvement in the crimes was built in retrospect by the FBI.

Given the attention given to police shootings today, I think this tale has room for modern consideration.

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