One of the fiercest of the 1930s criminal bands, the Barker-Karpis gang ranked at the top of the Federal Bureau of Investigation's (FBI) famed War on Crime, alongside John Dillinger, George "Baby Face" Nelson, George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd. The Barker gang is rooted in the family of Arizona "Ma" Clark Barker (1873?–1935) and her four sons, Herman (1894–1927), Lloyd (1896–1949), Arthur "Dock" (1899–1939), and Fred (1902–35). In 1927 Herman Barker apparently committed suicide after being wounded by Kansas police. In 1932 Lloyd began serving a twenty-five-year term for mail robbery at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Herman and Lloyd were never part of the later gang that earned the family's notoriety.
The FBI villainized Ma Barker after they gunned her down in 1935. There is confusion about her role in the gang's activities. Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (1907–79), who, along with Freddie Barker, seemed to be the group's main ringleader, later wrote that Ma Barker was somebody that they looked after, but that it would not have occurred to her to get involved in their business. This is in contrast to the FBI's "Bloody Mama" image, which pictured her as the brains that controlled the gang with an iron fist. Born in Missouri, Arizona "Kate" Donnie Clark married George Barker in 1892, and they had four sons in Missouri. Circa 1910 the family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. Here, the boys continually found trouble, with Dock and Freddie joining a number of juvenile criminals known as the Central Park gang.
By 1923 all four Barker boys were either in jails or reformatories. Ma Barker worked tirelessly to get them out, which was an endless job, as the brothers were constantly in and out of prison all of their short lives. While doing his time, Freddie Barker met Karpis, and they reunited upon their separate releases to begin a legendary crime spree. In 1932 Oklahoma Gov. William "Alfalfa Bill" Murray pardoned Dock from his life sentence for the murder of a security guard. Dock's acquaintance, Volney Davis, was also soon released. Several experts on crime history have speculated that Barker and Davis benefited from the bribery of Oklahoma politicians, probably a state senator. The Barker-Karpis gang robbed several banks throughout the Midwest and committed numerous murders, but two high-profile kidnappings elevated their status with the FBI. In 1933 they abducted William A. Hamm, Jr., a Minnesota brewery owner, earning $100,000 in ransom. In 1934 they netted $200,000 after kidnapping Minnesota millionaire Edward Bremer.
Several notable gangsters joined the Barkers in various crimes, including Harvey Bailey, Harry Campbell, Frank Nash, Fred Goetz ("Shotgun" George Ziegler), Charles Fitzgerald, and Dr. Joseph Patrick Moran. In January 1935 the FBI arrested Dock and a week later trapped and killed Ma and Freddie Barker in a house on Lake Weir in Florida. The shootout lasted four hours, and it has been speculated that Ma shot herself. In 1936 the FBI arrested Karpis in New Orleans, with Director J. Edgar Hoover on the scene; his role in the operation has been debated. In 1939 guards killed Dock Barker in an escape attempt from the federal prison on Alcatraz Island, off the coast of California. In 1947 Lloyd Barker gained his freedom, but two years later his wife shot and killed him. Arizona, Herman, and Freddie Barker are buried near Welch, Oklahoma. The FBI characterization of Ma Barker has persisted with movies such as Bloody Mama (1970) and Public Enemies (1996). Records do not indicate that she was ever arrested or charged with a crime.
"Barker, Arizona Clark 'Kate' or 'Ma'" and "Barker Brothers," in Carl Sifakis, The Encyclopedia of Crime, 2 vols. (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2001).
Bryan Burrough, Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933–3 4 (New York: Penguin Press, 2004).
Robert Winter, Mean Men: The Sons of Ma Barker (Danbury, Conn.: Rutledge Books, 2000).
The following (as per The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition) is the preferred citation for articles:
Larry O'Dell, “Barker Gang,” The Encyclopedia of Oklahoma History and Culture, https://www.okhistory.org/publications/enc/entry.php?entry=BA038.
© Oklahoma Historical Society.