Ma Barker’s early years: The search for adventure
Ma Barker, whose real name was Arizona Donnie Clark, was born on October 8, 1873 in the town of Ash Grove Missouri. As a child, she was known to be headstrong and to have a short-fused temper. As with many families growing up in rural areas of that time, Ma and her family spent their free time attending church and playing music-Ma particularly enjoyed singing and playing the fiddle. One day, Ma had the chance to catch sight of Jessie James and his band of outlaws riding through her town. Seeing Jessie and his band ride through town spurred Ma’s wish to have adventures of her own.
In 1892, Ma married tenant farmer George Barker. George was a soft-spoken man who led a quiet life, which did nothing to help Ma’s thirst for adventure. During the next decade, Ma gave birth to her four sons: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. It was also at this time that Ma decided to take her nickname of “Kate.”
All four of the Barker boys were frequently getting in trouble. In 1910, Herman (the oldest son) was arrested for petty theft. By the time the two youngest-Arthur (whose nickname was Doc) and Fred-had reached their teens, all four boys had spent time in reformatories for petty crimes. Any time the boys got in trouble though, Ma refused to discipline them. In fact, she would fly off the handle if anyone even suggested that she punish her boys. After George moved the family to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1915, Ma left George and took her boys with her. One way or another, Ma was determined to fulfill her need for excitement.
Ma Barker and the Barker-Karpis Gang’s crime spree
In the spring of 1931, Fred (the youngest) was paroled from Lansing prison in Kansas. When he left prison, Fred took with him his fellow former prisoner Alvin Karpis. Fred and Karpis had already decided to form their own gang that they would call the Barker-Karpis gang. The two men went to visit Ma at her small shack in Tulsa, and Ma agreed to let them use her shack as a hideout for their gang.
In December of 1931, Fred and Alvin robbed a department store in West Plains, Missouri. In the course of committing the robbery, the two men killed sheriff C.R. Kelly at point blank range. Such an act of pointless violence would become a trademark of the Barker-Karpis gang in the years to come.
Soon, the other boys would become involved in the gang’s activities. In March of the following year, Fred and Alvin along with 3 accomplices, robbed Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis. The men stole $4 million in cash and bonds. In September 1932, Doc was paroled from his own murder sentence, and he joined Alvin and Fred. The three of them plotted another robbery at the 3rd Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis. However, the gang did not plan this robbery as well as the first, and a shootout resulted. This shootout helped to solidify the Barker-Karpis gang’s reputation as a violent group of criminals. This reputation put the FBI and local police on notice, and they hunted the gang with a sense of urgency.
The Death of Ma Barker
After several years of committing crimes, Ma Barker and her son Fred holed up in a shack in Oklawaha Falls, Florida. On January 16, 1935, the FBI raided and soon surrounded the house. They ordered Ma and Fred to surrender and when no response came, FBI officers tossed canisters of tear gas into the house. As the canisters came crashing through the windows, Fred opened fire with his machine, which started a hail of gunfire between the law enforcement on the outside, and the Barkers on the inside.
The resulting shootout left the house riddled with bullet holes. After four hours of gunfire, the FBI agents began to run low on ammunition. However, suddenly, there was no gunfire coming from within the house but only silence. Agents soon stormed the house, where the found the bodies of Ma Barker and her son Fred in an upstairs room. Searching the house soon after, the agents found thousands of dollars and cash along with a stash of weapons.