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Ma Barker: The Most ‘Vicious, Dangerous, and Resourceful Criminal Brain’ of the ’30s

Rosemary Giles
Photo Credit: 	American International Pictures / Skinny / MovieStillsDB
Photo Credit: American International Pictures / Skinny / MovieStillsDB

In the annals of American crime, the name Ma Barker looms large as an enigmatic figure shrouded in mystery and controversy. Born as Arizona Clark in 1873, she would go on to become one of the most infamous alleged criminal masterminds. Alongside her four sons, she orchestrated a string of daring bank robberies and violent crimes that struck fear into the hearts of law enforcement and captivated the public. Yet, some believe that her role was entirely made up. Keep clicking through to learn more.

Arizona Clark, aka Ma Barker

Barker was raised in Missouri by her parents, John and Emaline. An FBI report compiled after one of her family’s later alleged crimes detailed her early life. Supposedly her childhood was ordinary, and in 1892 she married George Barker, with whom she had all her sons. The pair remained in Missouri – first Aurora, then Webb City – in the early years of their marriage before eventually moving to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Close up of Ma Barker staring intensely at the camera.
Headshot of Ma Barker, c. 1930s. (Photo Credit: New York Times Co. / Getty Images)

The Barkers had four sons: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. The FBI also claimed in their report that the family had almost nothing to their name. Perhaps this is what pushed the Barker brothers into a life of crime. It’s unknown exactly when they first began, but Herman, as the eldest, was the first son to be arrested for highway robbery in 1915. It didn’t take long for their criminal behavior to spiral when they all joined the Central Park Gang.

A life of crime

According to many sources, Ma Barker, then going by the name Kate, didn’t try to move her sons away from a life of crime. Among the four of them, their crimes included both attempted and successful bank robbery, murder, and burglary. This spree ended in Herman’s death on August 29, 1927, when he took his own life rather than face the repercussions of a robbery that ended with a dead police officer.

Mug shot of Arthur Barker from the front and side.
Mug shot of Arthur Barker, n.d. (Photo Credit: United States Department of Justice / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Simultaneously, the other three brothers had been arrested and were set to serve prison sentences around the United States. By this point, Barker was living alone. Reports vary as to whether she kicked George out or whether he left of his own accord, but by 1929, it was just her. The most common interpretation, however, is that she stood by her sons even after their crimes, while George did not. Without his measly income, she lived in absolute poverty.

The Barker–Karpis Gang

This changed when she moved in with Arthur Dunlop, who was listed as her common-law husband, in 1930. Things continued to improve for Barker once Fred was released from jail. He and Alvin Karpis, a former prison mate, formed the Barker-Karpis Gang. While the men committed crimes, Barker and Dunlop traveled the country alongside them, with “Old Lady Arrie Barker” being pinpointed as an accomplice to their crimes.

Headshot of Alvin Karpis in a suit and glasses from the front and side.
Alvin Karpis, one of the lead members of the Barker-Karpis Gang, n.d. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Arthur joined the gang in 1932 when he was released from prison, and the group eventually found its way to St. Paul, Minnesota, which became the hub of their operations. This was thanks in part to police chief Thomas Brown protecting them from the law. While there, the gang operated as bank robbers and kidnappers. They also murdered Dunlop as they believed he had given them up to the police, moving to Menomonie, Wisconsin shortly after.

Identified by law enforcement

This didn’t last long, and they soon moved back to St. Paul, where they abducted two wealthy men: William Hamm and Edward Bremer. Between the two, they earned $300,000 in ransom money. These two crimes also allowed the FBI to finally catch up with them using the still-new technology of fingerprinting. The gang was smart enough to know they were close to getting caught, so they fled to Chicago, hoping to evade police.

Ma Barker and Arthur Dunlop posing together in a dress and suit.
Ma Barker alongside Arthur Dunlop, who was eventually killed by her sons, 1935. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Instead, Arthur was arrested on January 8, 1935. On his person was a map identifying the house in Florida where many of the other gang members were hiding. On January 16, 1935, the FBI arrived on location, surrounding the house and giving orders for those inside to surrender. They thought they had apprehended the entire gang, yet the only people inside were Ma and Fred; the others had left three days earlier.

FBI shootout

Fred, however, refused to go down without a fight. Instead of turning himself over, he began a shootout that lasted hours. When the gunfire finally stopped, the FBI sent someone inside. They said that both Ma and Fred were dead. Numerous bullet wounds had killed the latter, while the former died from only one. The bodies of the mother and son were publicly displayed after their death and buried next to Herman on October 1, 1935.

Distanced view of a house surrounded by police and palm trees.
The house where Fred and Ma Barker were slain after a shootout with the FBI, 1935. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

Following her death, J. Edgar Hoover said Ma Barker was “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade,” who enjoyed a lawless lifestyle. She is credited as the mastermind behind the Barker-Karpis Gang’s crimes. Yet many historians who have studied her and the gang refute this. They believe that the narrative arose as a way of justifying the death of an elderly woman at the hands of law enforcement.

Was Ma Barker falsely accused?

There’s no doubt that Ma Barker was knowledgeable of the crimes committed by her sons, as she happily traveled around the country with their gang. She was certainly guilty as an accomplice, but being the gang’s mastermind is a whole different accusation. This is how she has been portrayed in the many movies about her life, including Bloody Mama and Ma Barker’s Killer Brood, even though there is little evidence to prove this.

Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, Robert Walden as Fred Barker, Don Stroud as Herman Barker, Clint Kimbrough as Arthur Barker, and Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker pose with a car and guns for a movie still.
Shelley Winters as Ma Barker, Robert Walden as Fred Barker, Don Stroud as Herman Barker, Clint Kimbrough as Arthur Barker, and Robert De Niro as Lloyd Barker in a publicity still for Bloody Mama. (Photo Credit: Esamuel / MovieStillsDB)

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In fact, even fellow gang member Karpis disagreed with public sentiment. He said, “The most ridiculous story in the annals of crime is that Ma Barker was the mastermind behind the Karpis–Barker gang (…) She wasn’t a leader of criminals or even a criminal herself (…) 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?”

Rosemary Giles

Rosemary Giles is a history content writer with Hive Media. She received both her bachelor of arts degree in history, and her master of arts degree in history from Western University. Her research focused on military, environmental, and Canadian history with a specific focus on the Second World War. As a student, she worked in a variety of research positions, including as an archivist. She also worked as a teaching assistant in the History Department.

Since completing her degrees, she has decided to take a step back from academia to focus her career on writing and sharing history in a more accessible way. With a passion for historical learning and historical education, her writing interests include social history, and war history, especially researching obscure facts about the Second World War. In her spare time, Rosemary enjoys spending time with her partner, her cats, and her horse, or sitting down to read a good book.

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