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Oklahoma Memories

Urschel Kidnapping

2010-07-19

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"It is the judgment of the court that George R. Kelly be sentenced to the federal penitentiary for the term of his natural life.""

That was federal district judge Edgar S. Vaught sentencing Machine Gun Kelly for the kidnapping of Oklahoma City oil man Charles Urschel in 1933.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Memories. I'm Michael Dean.

It was a quiet Saturday night, July 22, 1933, as Mr. and Mrs. Charles Urschel were hosting their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Jarrett, for a bridge match on their back porch. The Urschels were a well-to-do family living on NW 18th Street in Oklahoma City in what is now known as Heritage Hills. Urschel had made a fortune in the oil business and was married to the daughter of another prominent Oklahoma oil man, the late Tom Slick. Their friends, the Jarretts, were also a wealthy oil family. All was quiet until 11:15 p.m. that Saturday when suddenly two men, one armed with a machine gun, the other with a pistol, burst through the screen door and asked which man was Urschel. Receiving no reply, they remarked, "Well, we will take both of them." 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, and drove rapidly away. Mrs. Urschel telephoned J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, and reported the kidnapping. Special agents were dispatched to the home.

At 1:00 a.m., Sunday, Jarrett made his way back to the Urschel residence. The victims had been driven to the outskirts of Oklahoma City. After crossing a small bridge and arriving at an intersection, they put Jarrett out of the car after they had identified him. Several days elapsed before word was received from the kidnappers. On July 26, J.G. Catlett, a wealthy Tulsa oil man and close friend of Urschel, received a package through Western Union. It contained a letter written to him by Urschel, requesting Catlett to act as an intermediary for his release, a personal letter from Urschel to his wife, and a typewritten note directed to Mr. Catlett, demanding that he drive to Oklahoma City immediately. The package also contained a typewritten letter addressed to E. E. Kirkpatrick of Oklahoma City, which said 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 DOLLAR ($20.00) bills.""

The money was collected and a week went by before arrangements were made for the exchange of the money for Urschel. Finally at about 11:30 p.m. the evening of July 31, Urschel returned home exhausted. FBI agents questioning Urschel about his ordeal were surprised to learn that Urschel had been able to keep track minute by minute of every move the kidnappers made, and eventually agents were able to pinpoint a house near Paradise, Texas, where Urschel had been chained to a chair for just over a week. Even before Urschel was released the FBI learned that George Kelly, Machine Gun Kelly, and his wife Kathryn, along with many others, were responsible for the kidnapping.

The first six who were arrested were tried in federal court in Oklahoma City before Judge Edgar S. Vaught. On October 7th, Judge Vaught read the jury's verdict.

""The defendants, Albert L. Bates, Harvey J. Bailey, R.G. Shannon, Ora L. Shannon, Armon Crawford Shannon, Edward Berman, and Clifford Skelly will please stand. Now in this case, the jury has returned a verdict of guilty. The court is of the opinion that this verdict is fully sustained by the evidence."

Now the government was ready to try Machine Gun Kelly and his wife, and on October 12th Judge Vaught issued his verdict in their case.

"It is the judgment of the court that George R. Kelly be sentenced to the federal penitentiary for the term of his natural life.""

Altogether, twenty-one persons were convicted in the case. On July 17, 1954, his 54th birthday, Machine Gun Kelly died of a massive heart attack at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas.
One obituary quoted an FBI agent who captured Machine Gun Kelly in Memphis "He was cowering in a corner with no gun handy," the FBI man said. ""His face twitched and he got white. He was whimpering. He lost his bravado. He reached his hands toward the ceiling, trembled and said, 'Don't shoot, G-Men, don't shoot.'"

You can learn more about the Urschel kidnapping and view the newsreel film about the crime at the Oklahoma History Center, NE 23rd Street just east of the state capitol in Oklahoma City. Oklahoma Memories is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state's past. I'm Michael Dean.