Saturday, August 5, 2023

Ma Barker and Sons - America's Most Wanted

 By Mary Dodge Allen

Ma Barker (Public Domain)

FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover described Ma Barker as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” She and two of her boys were part of the violent Barker-Karpis gang. They allegedly stole more money than gangsters John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde, combined.

How did this farm girl from the Missouri Ozarks become one of the most notorious criminals in America?

Arizona Donnie Clark was born in Ash Grove, Missouri, on October 8, 1873, the daughter of Scottish-Irish immigrants, John and Emaline Clark. Her parents and three siblings initially called her “Arrie.” But she grew to hate that name and later insisted on being called Kate.

Kate adored her father. But he died when she was only seven-years-old, and she was heartbroken. Her mother remarried a stern lawman, Reuben Reynolds. He came into the marriage with two children of his own, and he treated Kate and her siblings badly. She rebelled against her cruel stepfather by idolizing famous outlaws such as Jesse James and the Dalton Gang. Kate considered Jesse James a true underdog hero. When he was killed in 1882, she lost her favorite idol.

Jesse James (Public Domain)

Kate had red hair and a stubborn, fiery temper. It was said her cold brown eyes could stare right through a person. At the age of 19, she married a man ten years older - George Barker. He was a quiet, passive man who never stood up to Kate. He worked a series of low-paying jobs, and they lived in a dilapidated shack, but Kate had dreams of escaping her life of poverty. George and Kate (Ma Barker) had four sons: Herman, born in 1894; Lloyd in 1897; Arthur (“Doc”) in 1899; and Fred in 1901. After Fred was born, they moved to Webb City, Missouri. 

Ma Barker reportedly took the boys to church every Sunday, but she refused to discipline them, and she wouldn’t allow George to discipline them, either. As a result, the boys ran wild, skipped school and grew up functionally illiterate. Ma Barker also instilled in the boys her core belief that outlaws were heroes. Their criminal acts progressed from property destruction (throwing rocks through windows) to petty theft (stealing wallets from church members) and finally escalated to robbery and violence. Despite the evidence of their crimes, Ma Barker always insisted her boys were innocent. She once said, “All these boys would be good if you cops would just let them alone.”


L-R: Herman Barker, Lloyd Barker, Arthur "Doc" Barker, Fred Barker (Public Domain)

In 1910, when Herman was still a teenager, he killed a child with his getaway car as he sped away from the scene of a robbery. To make a new start, the Barker family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. But the boys fell into their old ways and joined the Central Park Gang. From 1915 – 1927, the Barker boys were arrested several times for robbery, car theft and murder. Each time they were jailed, Ma Barker did everything she could to get them released. 

In 1920, Arthur “Doc” Barker and a group of prisoners broke out of the Tulsa County jail, using a small saw and sulfuric acid to weaken the cell bars. Ma Barker had visited Arthur just before his escape, and it’s believed she smuggled in the tools they used.

In 1927, Herman shot and killed a deputy during a robbery in Wichita, Kansas. He evaded the law for a few weeks. But then, just before he was captured, he killed himself using his own gun.


By 1928, the remaining three brothers, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred Barker were all incarcerated in separate prisons in Oklahoma and Kansas. George Barker had been badly shaken by his son Herman’s suicide. He was also disgusted by his family’s criminal activities and Ma Barker’s unfaithfulness to him, so he left her and moved to Joplin, Missouri to open a gas station. George never came back.

Ma Barker and Arthur Dunlop (Public Domain)

After this, Ma Barker lived alone, dirt poor, in their shack in Tulsa. It is said she spent a lot of time in speakeasies, meeting men who could give her money or gifts. In 1930, she met Arthur Dunlop, and he moved in with her. Weeks later, Fred Barker was released from prison, and he went home to Ma in Tulsa with his former cellmate, Alvin Karpis. They created the Barker-Karpis Gang and went on to commit several robberies. When Arthur "Doc" Barker was released from prison, he joined the gang. 

In 1932, they killed a sheriff during a robbery in West Plains, Missouri. The photos of Arthur and Fred Barker and Alvin Karpis were placed on wanted posters, along with Ma Barker’s photo.

Wanted Poster after West Plains shooting (Public Domain)

To avoid capture, the gang moved to St. Paul, Minnesota. At that time, St. Paul was a haven for criminals because the police were corrupt all the way to the top. The city’s police chief, Thomas “Big Tom” Brown, offered to provide the Barker-Karpis Gang protection, as long as they didn’t commit their crimes within the city limits. The gang made headlines as they robbed a series of Midwest banks, killing civilians and law officers. 

Gang Hideout House in St. Paul, MN - on S. Robert Street (MN History)

The Barker boys had never liked Ma Barker’s common-law husband Arthur Dunlop, because he was an alcoholic and a loudmouth. One day while drinking, Dunlop gave away the location of the gang’s hiding place. “Big Tom” Brown tipped off the gang, and they avoided capture. Shortly after this, Fred Barker hired St. Paul racketeer Jack Peifer to kill Dunlop and dump his body in Wisconsin. 

Kidnappings in the news (

In 1933, the gang began kidnapping rich men. They received a $100,000 ransom for William Hamm, Jr. (president of Hamm’s Brewing Co.); and a $200,000 ransom for kidnapping Edward Bremer (president of Commercial State Bank). The FBI identified the gang’s participation in these kidnappings through latent fingerprints. They began a manhunt for “Doc” and Fred Barker - the “Bloody Barkers” – and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. For several months, the gang moved to different hideouts in the Chicago area, while they laundered the ransom money. 


Barker-Karpis Gang Hideout near Lake Weir, FL (Public Domain)

In 1934, Ma Barker, Fred, Alvin and the other gang members decided to move to Florida, to evade the FBI. But Arthur “Doc” Barker stayed in Chicago. The gang found a secluded two-story house on the shore of Lake Weir in Ocklawaha, Florida. They offered the owner a great deal of cash up front, to rent it for several months. Ma Barker posed as “Mrs. Kate Blackburn” – a sweet little old lady who wanted to live in a warm climate with her grown sons.

In early January 1935, Arthur “Doc” Barker was arrested in Chicago by FBI agents. They found a map of Florida in his possession, along with a letter from Ma Barker that mentioned a huge man-eating alligator named “Old Joe” living in a nearby lake. The FBI used this information to determine that the Barker-Karpis Gang were living in a rental home on Lake Weir – which was famous for its alligator named “Old Joe.”

Lake Weir, FL House surrounded after Shootout (Public Domain)

On January 16, 1935, agents from the FBI surrounded the rental house and ordered the gang to surrender. They were unaware that Alvin Karpis and other gang members had left the state three days earlier, leaving only Ma Barker and Fred in the house. When Fred stuck a Tommy gun (machine gun) out an open window, a four-hour shootout began. At the end, Ma Barker and Fred were found dead in the front bedroom.

Alvin "Creepy" Karpis (Public Domain)

The following year, Alvin Karpis was arrested. Both he and Arthur “Doc” Barker were sentenced to life in prison and sent to Alcatraz. In 1939, Arthur “Doc” Barker was killed by an Alcatraz guard as he tried to escape.

Meanwhile, Lloyd Barker had remained in prison during his family’s crime sprees. He was finally paroled in 1938. He moved to Joplin, Missouri and lived with his father, until George Barker’s death in 1941. (George was the only member of the Barker family to die of natural causes). 

Years later, Lloyd Barker got married and settled in Denver with his wife, Jean. One day in 1949, as Lloyd was entering their house, Jean killed him with a double-barrel shotgun. She was found “not guilty by reason of insanity,” and she was sent to the Colorado State Insane Asylum for life.

Alvin Karpis was paroled in 1969 and then deported to Canada. In 1971 he wrote a book of memoirs, published in the U.S. as: The Alvin Karpis Story. He moved to Spain in 1973, and he died in 1979 of an overdose of sleeping pills.

Memoirs of Alvin Karpis (Public Domain)

In his memoirs, Alvin insisted that Ma Barker was not the gang’s criminal mastermind. He wrote, “It’s no insult to Ma’s memory that she just didn’t have the know-how to direct us on a robbery. She knew we were criminals, but her participation in our careers was limited.”

Harvey Bailey, another gangster who knew Ma Barker, was quoted as saying, “She couldn’t plan breakfast.”

At an early age, Ma Barker adopted the misguided attitude of admiring outlaws and criminals. She passed this attitude along to her sons, with tragic results. They not only wasted their lives committing violent crimes, they also killed many innocent people. 

J. Edgar Hoover called Ma Barker “the most vicious... criminal brain of the last decade.” And yet, members of the criminal gang disagreed. Ma Barker definitely supported the gang's criminal acts, but was she the mastermind? What do you think?

Mary Dodge Allen is the winner of a 2022 Christian Indie Award, a 2022 Angel Book Award, and two Royal Palm Literary Awards (Florida Writer's Association). She and her husband live in Central Florida, where she has served as a volunteer with the local police department. Her childhood in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes, sparked her lifelong love of the outdoors. She has worked as a Teacher, Counselor and Social Worker. Her quirky sense of humor is energized by a passion for coffee and chocolate. She is a member of the Florida Writer's Association, American Christian Fiction Writers and Faith Hope and Love Christian Writers. 

Mary's novel: Hunt for a Hometown Killer won the 2022 Christian Indie Award, First Place - Mystery/Suspense; and the 2022 Angel Book Award - Mystery/Suspense.

Click the link below to buy Hunt for a Hometown Killer at

Link to Mary's Spotlight Interview:   Mary Dodge Allen Author Spotlight EA Books


  1. Wow! Very interesting, but very sad that their life was all about "bad" things. What a waste!

    1. Yes, I agree. Their life of crime was such a waste.

  2. Thank you for posting today. I wonder what her life might have been like if her dad had lived, or whether it would have still turned into the dark path.