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Arkansas included in Barker-Karpis Gang’s crime swath

July 30, 2023 at 2:44 a.m.
Police mug shot of Fred Barker (Public Domain)

The Barker-Karpis Gang, later known as the "Ma Barker Gang," was a famous criminal group of the Depression era. Led primarily by Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (1907–1979) and Fred Barker (1903–1935), the gang consisted of many different individuals over the course of its exploits.

Some of the core members besides Karpis and Barker were Arthur "Doc" Barker (brother of Fred), Lawrence DeVol, Harvey Bailey, Frank "Jelly" Nash, Bernard Phillips, Harry Sawyer, Volney Davis, Harry Campbell and Verne Miller. Although most well known for committing crimes throughout the Midwest, the gang's first murder was of a town marshal in Pocahontas, and members later holed up in Hot Springs.

Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis became acquainted while they were incarcerated at Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing, Kan. Shortly after their release, they were arrested again in June 1931 in Tulsa for the theft of some jewelry. Barker later escaped from jail, and after Karpis was released, he joined Barker in Thayer, Mo., where Fred's mother, Kate "Ma" Barker, lived with Arthur W. Dunlop on a rented farm.

Before daylight on Nov. 8, 1931, Fred Barker, William Weaver, and quite possibly Alvin Karpis were driving around the town of Pocahontas looking for places to rob. Their vehicle stopped to allow Weaver to answer a call of nature while the night marshal of the town, Manley Jackson, began jotting down the car's license plate number. Seeing this, Fred Barker summoned Jackson into the car at gunpoint. The gang drove him several miles outside of Pocahontas, and Barker shot him numerous times in the back. His body was later found by local residents.

The following month, Barker, Karpis and Weaver were involved with the murder of Sheriff C. Roy Kelly of West Plains, Mo., after they burglarized stores in that town. After leaving a trail in Missouri, they went to the criminal haven of the gangster era – St. Paul, Minn., where the gang began to take shape. One of the seasoned criminals they met during this time was Frank "Jelly" Nash, a former Arkansas resident and experienced bank robber. Nash would accompany the gang on several bank heists.

Between 1932 and 1935, the Barker-Karpis Gang robbed dozens of banks and committed two kidnappings. Some of their most successful bank robberies amounted to $250,000 and up. On June 15, 1933, the gang kidnapped William A. Hamm Jr., a wealthy St. Paul beer brewer, and held him for a $100,000 ransom. On Jan. 17, 1934, they kidnapped the president of the Commercial State Bank of St. Paul, Edward George Bremer. They were able to ransom $200,000, but the fingerprints of "Doc" Barker were found on a gas can left at the scene of the ransom exchange. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) was soon on the gang's trail.

The members of the gang scattered and hid out in areas across the country after the Bremer kidnapping. On Jan. 16, 1935, federal agents fired about 1,500 rounds of ammunition into a house located on Lake Weir in Ocklawaha, Fla., killing Fred and "Ma" Barker.

At this time, Alvin Karpis was still on the run, and in June 1935, he was in the resort town of Hot Springs. He used the town for his hideout off and on for the next several months. In the latter part of 1935 and early 1936, Karpis and his accomplice Fred Hunter stayed at two different cottages on Lake Catherine and Lake Hamilton. Karpis and Hunter moved frequently in the Hot Springs area, as they knew the FBI and U.S. postal investigators were in the area looking them.

In March 1936, Karpis rented a house between Malvern and Hot Springs. On March 30, 1936, the FBI raided the house only to find that Karpis had already fled to New Orleans. He continued to evade the FBI for another month until, on May 1, 1936, Karpis and Hunter were finally apprehended. On July 27, Karpis pleaded guilty to charges from the Hamm kidnapping and was sentenced to life imprisonment. He served nearly 33 years of his life sentence and was released from prison in December 1968. Karpis died Aug. 26, 1979, from an overdose of sleeping pills while living in Spain.

The 1970 movie "Bloody Mama" was loosely based on the exploits of the Barker-Karpis Gang. Directed by Roger Corman and starring Shelley Winters and Robert De Niro, it was filmed in the Arkansas Ozarks and Little Rock. – Will Walker

This story is adapted by Guy Lancaster from the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, a project of the Central Arkansas Library System. Visit the site at

  photo  Portrait of Kate "Ma" Barker; circa 1932 (Courtesy of Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)
  photo  Wanted photo for Arthur "Doc" Barker (Courtesy of the Federal Bureal of Investigation)
  photo  Police mug shot of Alvin Karpis (Public Domain)
  photo  A poster advertises the 1970 film "Bloody Mama," loosely based on the exploits of the Barker-Karpis Gang. (Courtesy of Ron Robinson)

Print Headline: Arkansas included in Barker-Karpis Gang’s crime swath


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