“Machine Gun” Kelly’s Last Hooray

The hardships of the Great Depression led to desperate times and spawned a number of desperadoes, many who operated in Texas.  In addition to most notorious of the bunch, Bonnie and Clyde, George “Machine Gun” Kelly was also a thorn in the side of Texas lawmen. Kelly was a relatively minor criminal until the kidnapping of an Oklahoma City businessman moved him up to the big top of crime. Here, in a letter to Lovecraft (ca. September or October 1933), Howard mentions the crime and the various members of Kelly’s gang. He also makes mention of Rita Kirkpatrick who graduated from Brownwood High School in 1923, the same year he did. She was the Class Secretary and served on the staffs of the newspaper and yearbook.

… [I]t might be realized that for every Texan who leads a life of outlawry, there are thousands of quiet, honest people who go about their business and never kill anybody, rob a train or stick up a bank. Take this recent business of the Urschel kidnapping; how many of the outlaws are Texans? Bailey is a Missourian; Machine Gun Kelly is a Tennessean; Bates is, so far as I know, a native of Colorado; Kelly’s wife is an Oklahoman; and the Shannons are also Oklahomans, originally at least, to the best of my knowledge.

I see most of them were pronounced guilty, and probably will get all that’s coming to them, as is right. It’ll be a relief, I imagine, to Kirkpatrick and his family; Kirkpatrick, as you know if you’ve followed the affair any, was the man who took the money to the thugs, and identified them at the trial. I understand the Kirkpatricks have lived in fear of his daughter Rita’s young child being kidnapped by gangsters in revenge. Rita was in my class the year I graduated; I remember the first time I ever saw her, it was a class election of some sort, and I voted for her simply because she had a Celtic name. That was before her father got all his dough; he worked for T.B. Slick, and when old T.B. retired, he made Kirkpatrick [a] present of a million dollars, just for a gift. But T.B. could spare it; he was worth hundreds of millions. The richest man that ever came to Cross Plains, which is saying plenty, because during the booms millionaires were thicker than flies. I was thrown among them in my daily work, and maybe that’s why I have no great love for the ultra-rich to this day.

At the time of the July 22, 1933 kidnapping, Kelly and his wife Kathryn lived at 857 E. Mulkey Street in Fort Worth. Kathryn, the mastermind behind the plot, oversaw the scouting and pre-planning of the crime. Once they were ready, the Kellys and their fellow would be kidnapper Albert L. Bates traveled to Oklahoma to kidnap millionaire Charles F. Urschel.

Wielding his namesake machine gun, Kelly along with Bates, burst into Urschel’s home in Oklahoma City, abducting Urschel and his guest Walter Jarrett at gunpoint in the middle of a Saturday night bridge game, while their wives looked on helpless and terrified. This startling kidnapping case evoked the new Lindbergh kidnapping laws, leading to twenty-one convictions, coined a new nickname for FBI agents, and culminated in one of the first filmed trials.

A widower, Urschel, had married Berenice Slick, the widow of wealthy oil man Tom Slick and was a trustee to his estate. Slick’s widow and Urschel combined their fortunes, creating one of the wealthiest couples in Oklahoma City.

Howard states in his letter that Slick had retired. However, truth be told, he never had a chance to truly retire, dying at age 46 after suffering a massive stroke following surgery in 1930. Ironically, his biggest oil strike came a week after he died. Slick’s Campbell #1 Well in Oklahoma City came in, producing 43,000 barrels a day. Also, Slick’s net worth at his death was around $75 million — a sizable sum to be sure, but not quite the “hundreds of millions” Howard claimed Slick was worth.

Kelly was a criminal of relative obscurity born George Kelly Barnes in Memphis, Tennessee on July 18, 1895. He married Kathryn Thorne in 1930 and she has been credited for creating Kelly’s underworld persona. Kathryn bought him his first Thompson sub-machine gun and gave him the nickname “Machine Gun.” Before the infamous Urschel kidnapping, George Kelly had an undistinguished career consisting mainly of bootlegging and bank robbery. Many believe the FBI overinflated Kelly’s reputation in order to garner public support for their fight against crime, aiding Kathryn in her efforts to bolster her husband’s reputation as a dangerous outlaw. Conversely, his kidnapping partner, Albert Bates, had far more street cred with a long criminal career of burglary and bank robbery.

Once the kidnappers left with their victims, the two women ran to Elizabeth’s bedroom and telephoned police. Mrs. Urschel was told immediately to call J. Edgar Hoover in Washington D.C. Within the hour local police and federal agents, as well as the press, flooded the Urschel home. By Monday morning the story went nationwide, with newspapers across the country plastered with front-page stories about the kidnapping. Urschel was a friend of newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would take a personal interest in the case.

Both men were hustled into a waiting car and they sped away. Neither man would admit to being Urschel, but a quick search of the men’s wallets revealed which of them was the oil baron. At the edge of town, Jarrett was robbed of $51 and left on the side of the road – he then made his way back to Urschel’s house.

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover took special interest in this case due to the attention given to the Lindbergh kidnapping, his agency’s floundering reputation and the president’s interest in the case. The new Lindbergh Law defined kidnapping as a federal offense punishable by death. Hoover, eager to impress the public in the first high-profile crime regulated by the new law, pulled one of his best agents, Gus Jones, off of the Kansas City Massacre investigation and made the kidnapping an agency priority.

After snatching Urschel, the criminals took him to a farmhouse in Paradise, Texas owned by R. G. “Boss” Shannon, Kathryn Kelly’s stepfather and held him there blindfolded and bound for over a week. During his captivity, Urschel, although blindfolded most of the time, memorized many details about his location, including the passing of an airplane overhead at the same time every day. This and other information that the FBI had collected helped locate the hideout and some of the co-conspirators.

The kidnappers demanded that Urschel’s wife pay them two hundred thousand dollars in ransom. Family friend E. E. Kirkpatrick (and father of Howard’s classmate) was picked to deliver the money. Of course, the FBI inventoried the serial numbers on the bills prior to giving them to Kirkpatrick. After a failed delivery attempt, the money was handed over to Kelly in Kansas City, Missouri.

With the ransom paid, the kidnappers released the oil baron on July 30, 1933 somewhere around Norman, Oklahoma. After a quick trip to Minneapolis where they sold off a portion of the ransom for clean bills, Bates and the Kellys split up. While Kelly and his bride went on the lam, moving from city to city, with stays in a couple of Howard haunts – Brownwood and Coleman – Bates headed west to Colorado. However, he was arrested on August 12th in Denver for passing stolen checks. That same day local authorities and FBI agents, led by Special Agent Gus Jones, swooped in on the farmhouse where Urschel was held, arresting “Boss” Shannon and his wife Ora, along with accomplice Harvey Bailey. Bailey was using the farm as a safe house after committing a bank robbery in Kingfisher, Oklahoma with Kelly’s machine gun. He also had some of the Urschel money in his possession. Eventually over half of the ransom money was recovered, with the biggest chunk ($73,000) being dug up on a farm near Coleman.

Justice came swiftly for Bates and the others involved in the Urschel kidnapping as all were convicted in an Oklahoma City federal court on September 30, 1933 and sentenced to life imprisonment a week later.

Feeling the FBI breathing down their necks, the felonious couple lit out for Memphis, arriving on September 21, 1933. They were captured five days later at the residence of J. C. Tichenor. When cornered, the FBI claimed that an unarmed Kelly yelled, “Don’t shoot, G-Men,” thus christening FBI agents with a nickname that would stick with them forever. The couple was immediately removed to Oklahoma City.

Soon the pair went to trial and basked in the notoriety. Witness after witness, including the Urschels and Kirkpatrick, testified against the pair and it was no surprise when both were found guilty. On October 12, 1933, the judge pronounced both George and Kathryn guilty and sentenced them to life in prison. In a packed courtroom, with newsreel cameras rolling, the trial joined the likes of the Lindbergh kidnapping trial of Bruno Hauptmann and the John Scopes trial as major judicial milestones that were filmed.

Kelly served his time in Leavenworth until October 1934 when he was transferred to Alcatraz. He was returned to Leavenworth in 1951 and died in prison on July 18, 1954 of a heart attack on his 59th birthday. The bold boast Kelly made after his conviction that he would be out of jail by Christmas never materialized.