Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alvin Karpis: Pursuit of the Last Public Enemy

Running Wild

Wide view of the arrest intersection (Paul Taylor Photography - New Orleans)
Wide view of the arrest intersection
(Paul Taylor Photography - New

The intersection of Jefferson Davis Parkway and Canal Street in New Orleans is a busy one; the auto traffic passing through is supplemented by people walking, especially on one corner occupied by a modern drug store and its parking lot.

Yet, amidst all the present-day business rush, there are two monuments on the parkway commemorating the past.

And there should be another.

For a few years in the early and mid 1930s there were several outlaws, and outlaw gangs, running wild in the American Midwest. Memories of the Wild West were vivid enough to frequently refer to them as desperadoes. Some of these Depression-day criminals became infamous nationwide through both media and law enforcement attention to their crimes. It was the era of the Public Enemies; they robbed banks with machine guns, kidnapped rich people for ransom , engaged in furious shootouts with lawmen, and when apprehended, often made spectacular jail breaks. Everything they did was considered newsworthy by prominent publications like the New York Times down to pulp magazines such as Startling Detective. It was exciting, escapist cops & robbers entertainment for the public of the grim 1930s - unless the innocent people being shot, robbed, and killed were friends or family members.

A few of these criminals are still known today by their colorful names: Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly, Bonnie & Clyde, Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Barker- Karpis Gang.

Young J. Edgar Hoover (CORBIS)
Young J. Edgar
Hoover (CORBIS)

The Barker-Karpis gang was not the least of these. FBI Director J.Edgar Hoover, in the book The FBI In Action said, Ma Barker and her sons, and Alvin Karpis and his cronies, constituted the toughest gang of hoodlums the FBI ever has been called upon to eliminate...Looking over the record of these criminals, I was repeatedly impressed by the cruelty of their depredations...murder of a policeman ...murder of two policemen ....machine gun murder of an innocent citizen who got in the way during a bank robbery ...kidnapping and extortion...train robbery...mail robbery ...the protection of high police officials bought with tainted money...paroles bought.

Hoovers statement is true except for including Ma Barker in these activities. Although the gang is largely remembered today because of her criminal reputation, it probably never happened that way. Alvin Karpis wrote in his autobiography, The Alvin Karpis Story, many years later, The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis-Barker gang...the legend only grew up after her justify how she was slaughtered by the FBI...She wasnt a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself. There is not one police photograph of her or set of fingerprints taken while she was alive...she knew we were criminals but her participation in our careers was limited to one function: when we traveled together, we moved as a mother and her sons. What could look more innocent?

Ma Barker and son Fred Barker in the morgue (CORBIS)
Ma Barker and son Fred Barker in
the morgue (CORBIS)

Furthermore, when Hoover writes about Ma Barker, he uses accusatory but not lawbreaking wording, it has been said that Ma Barker trained her sons in crime and certainly she became a monument to the evils of parental indulgence and there is hot-eyed, hard featured Ma Barker in a jealous rage berating her boys. Then she is the motherly individual smoothly settling details of the rent with an unsuspecting landlord for an apartment hideout. An FBI internal memo summarizing the history of the Barker-Karpis gang up to early 1936, contains the statement, Kate Barker was killed for resisting arrest. This should be amended to killed while her son was resisting arrest.

Harvey Bailey, a veteran bank robber that sometimes worked with the Barker-Karpis group, said of the issue, the old woman couldnt even organize breakfast.

There is no controversy about her four sons being outlaws. And two of them survived to the advanced phase, or career criminals - Fred & Doc (Arthur), who along with Alvin Karpis formed the nucleus of the Barker-Karpis gang in the years 1931-1935.

Karpis described Fred Barker as a natural killer and said about his brother Doc, Doc Barker didnt look dangerous, but he was a lethal operator. One childhood acquaintance of the Barkers recalled them as violent and unmerciful.

Alvin Karpis (CORBIS)
Alvin Karpis (CORBIS)

The two Barkers and Karpis might have looked physically incongruous to the people they encountered during their robberies; both Fred & Doc were just a few inches over 5 tall, and Karpis was about 510, weighing only 128lbs. But wielding machine guns and forty-five automatics made their unimposing physical appearances only a factor insofar as helping victims or eyewitnesses identify them to law enforcement officers.

Sources vary as to why Karpis was nicknamed Old Creepy. J.Edgar Hoover said it was a reaction to the way other mobsters felt when he turned his cold, fishy stare upon them.


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