Log Cabin Chronicles

bernard epps

Mother of all mothers


As an antidote to all the recent and past Mother's Day mush, consider Ma Barker, a struggling single mum to four troublesome boys during the Great Depression, a mother who, despite the lack of even a rudimentary education, despite having no marketable skills or training, launched her own small enterprise in middle-age and rose like a rocket to the top of her chosen profession as Queen of the Underworld. She was "a one-woman army against society" with her picture in every post office and newspaper in the country.

She was born to God-fearing hard-working Presbyterian parents in the Ozark Mountains of Missouri and very early in life learned the value of hard work and the rewards of virtue. As a girl, she thrilled to see Jesse James ride past on horseback and wept bitterly when he was murdered.

She read the Bible, played the violin and married for love at the age of 20. George Barker gave her four healthy and active boys: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Freddie. Then he disappeared, leaving her to raise the boys on her own in a succession of tar-paper shacks.

Like all boys, they sometimes got into mischief but Ma often managed to get them off by storming into the police station screaming and cursing, or weeping and wringing her hands as she thought fit.

In 1915, she lived beside the Santa Fe Railroad in Tulsa, Oklahoma and opened her first "cooling off" service for any ex-convicts needing a place to hole up until the heat died down. She offered bed, board and advice. Al Spencer listened carefully, followed her advice and successfully stuck up a crack passenger train, the Katy Limited, for $20,000.

After that, Ma took to planning and organizing the jobs her boys went on for housekeeping expenses and a portion of the take. They did very well in the bank robbery line until Herman was gunned down by G-men after killing a cop in a hold-up.

J. Edgar Hoover declared that tragedy turned Ma Barker from an "animal mother of the she-wolf type into a veritable beast of prey."

Things seemed to go wrong for Ma Barker after that. She snuggled for a while with a billboard painter, Arthur V. Dunlop, but had to shoot him several times for ratting to the cops and dumped his body in a lake.

Lloyd, her second son, was sent up for 25 years only to be killed by his wife when he got out.

Arthur was gunned down by prison guards for trying to escape. But she got Freddie, her youngest, out on parole after pestering the parole board for years until they succumbed.

She also took under her wing an errant lad from Montreal named Alvin Karpis, called "Creepy Karpis" by his cellmates for his spectral appearance made worse by a botched plastic surgery job intended to disguise his looks. Creepy Karpis proved to be a good pupil and led what was left of the gang into the very difficult kidnapping dodge that not only netted them $300,000 but won for Alvin the distinction of being named Public Enemy No. 1 by J. Edgar Hoover - no mean accomplishment in a time featuring such world-class contenders as Al Capone, Baby-Face Nelson, John Dillinger, and Machine Gun Kelly. And he owed it all to a short, dumpy little woman in a shapeless dress and floppy hat - Ma Barker.

Creepy Karpis was sent to Alcatraz for life where his cell is still proudly pointed out to visitors to this day.

Ma Barker's tombstone, Williams Cemetery, Oklahoma. Images courtesty Erick Rohr, www.findagrave.com


Ma and Freddie were finally cornered in a lakeside cottage in Florida by the FBI. She held them off with a machine gun for four hours, then fell under a blizzard of hot lead and tear-gas canisters, Freddie at her side with 14 bullets in his corpse. Ma was found with three bullets in her body and $10,000 in her pocket in crisp, large-denomination bills. Not bad for a dirt-poor girl from the Ozarks.

George Barker turned up to claim the cash.

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Copyright © 1998 Bernard Epps/Log Cabin Chronicles/7.98