His birth name was George Kelly Barnes, but he was better known as “Machine Gun Kelly.” George was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1895 and lived much of his early life there. He was in his 20s during the years of Prohibition (1920s and 1930s) when it was illegal to make or sell alcohol products. He became a “bootlegger” who trafficked in illegal alcohol products, and this was a major source of income when he was in his twenties. He was briefly married to Geneva Ramsey when he was about 19 years old. Ramsey and Barnes had two sons, but were later divorced.
He changed his name to George L. Kelly, perhaps to get a fresh start outside of Tennessee. After that, his first arrest was in Santa Fe, New Mexico when he was briefly incarcerated for bootlegging. He was released, but again incarcerated in northern Oklahoma, where he was convicted of smuggling liquor into an Indian reservation. For this, he received a sentence of three years in prison in 1928. Kelly qualified for time off for good behavior and did not have to serve his entire sentence. While in prison, he became acquainted with two individuals, Francis Keating and Thomas Holden with whom he reunited after their escape and his release. Kelly, Keating and Holden are thought to have committed a string of bank robberies together in several states. Around this time, Kelly married Kathryn Brooks Thorne, continued his criminal activities and became known for carrying a machine gun, his weapon of choice, giving rise to his nickname.
(Image credit: Findagrave)
On July 22, 1933, Kelly and several cohorts arranged to kidnap an Oklahoma oilman named Charles F. Urschel, for which they collected a $200,000 ransom after holding Urschel hostage for nine days. A second individual, Walter Jarrett, was also kidnapped, but was released shortly afterward. One of Kelly’s Texas connections was revealed when the gang transported the victim Urschel to the seemingly unlikely location of Paradise, Texas. Paradise is a small community in Wise County in North Texas and is about two-thirds of the distance between Rhome and Bridgeport on Highway 114. Their hideout was on a farm from which the kidnappers communicated with Urschel’s family. Nine days later, the ransom was paid and Urschel was returned to Oklahoma, dropped off in Norman and given pocket money to get home. Once Urschel was freed, he was able to help identify the location partly by recalling the regularity of the activity in the area, including an airplane that flew overhead two times each day. He also reportedly had tried to touch as many surfaces as he could, in an effort to leave fingerprints. In addition, the ransom payment was made with marked bills, and much of it was eventually recovered.
Kelly and his wife Kathryn were arrested by the FBI, then known as the United States Bureau of Investigation, and local police in 1933 after they were located again in Memphis, Tennessee. They were transported to Oklahoma, where they were tried, convicted and sentenced to life in prison.
The sensational Oklahoma trial was big news in the Oklahoma City area. Key prosecution testimony was given by eighteen year old Gay Coleman, a relative of Kathryn and the witness who identified Albert L. Bates as the person that he had heard plotting with Kelly and his wife Kathryn to kidnap Urschel. The prosecution was led by United States District Attorney Herbert K. Hyde. Coleman’s testimony placed him in Stratford, Oklahoma visiting his grandparents, Mr. and Mrs. T. M. Coleman, the day before the kidnapping and also implicated his aunt, Mrs. R. G. Shannon, also Kathryn Kelly’s mother, in the crime. Young Coleman’s grandmother Coleman, weak and confined to a wheel chair, also identified the Kellys, Bates and several others as having planned the crime while they were residing at her Oklahoma farm.
The victim Urschel was formerly the brother in law of Thomas Baker Slick, known as “King of the Wildcatters” for his early success in the Oklahoma oil business. Slick had died from complications of a stroke in 1930. Urschel’s first wife and Thomas’ sister Flored Slick had also died the following year. In time, Urschel married the widow of Tom Slick, and their combined wealth was significant. Urschel happened to be in the middle of a game of bridge on the sun porch of his home when he was accosted by two men (allegedly Kelly and Bates) armed with machine guns. Once Urschel was taken, the men drove him to the farm of the R. G. “Boss” Shannon family, an out of the way hideout that happened to be located in Paradise, Texas.
This trial was the first such case to be tried under the “Lindbergh Law,” enacted after the 1932 fatal kidnapping of the twenty month old child of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh and his wife Anne Morrow Lindbergh. The Lindbergh Law provided for a life sentence for a conviction of the crime of kidnapping. J. Edgar Hoover and the Federal Bureau of Investigation were also involved in the investigation from the beginning, and were understandably in favor of pursuing such a case under the new law.
According to newspaper accounts of the trial, prosecutor Hyde’s emotional statements charged that the gang chained Urschel to a bedpost “like a wild beast. ” The prosection built a case against more than a dozen defendants including the Kellys and Bates. Hyde connected the other defendants to the case by setting out a time line for the planning and execution of the crime. The prosecution tried to outline the role of each defendant, such as occasions when the victim was only guarded by members of the Shannon family when the Kellys were not at the hideout. Evidence included telegrams, notes, hotel reservations and other facts and documents. There were various convictions resulting from the case.
The investigation uncovered another Texas connection in which two additional individuals in Coleman, Texas (in Coleman County, south of Abilene) were charged with harboring the Kellys. Around $80,000 of the Urschel ransom money had been buried in a cotton patch on their Texas farm.
Urschel died in 1970 in San Antonio, Texas. After his release by the kidnappers, he had returned to his normal life in Oklahoma. In an interesting aside, it was revealed that Urschel had secretly contributed to the cost of the college education of Pauline Fry, Kathyn Kelly’s daughter by a former marriage.
Kathryn served a number of years of her prison term and was eventually paroled along with her mother Ora in 1958. Kathryn’s mother Ora Shannon died in Bridgeport, Wise County, and was buried in Oklahoma. Kathryn never remarried. She moved to Oklahoma where she lived under the name of Lera Cleo Brooks Kelly. She died in Tulsa, Oklahoma at the age of 81.
George Kelly spent the rest of his life, the next twenty-one years, in prison. During his prison term, he served a number of years in California at the famous Alcatraz offshore facility before being transferred to Leavenworth, Kansas. There Kelly died of a heart attack on the day after his birthday in July 1954. His remains were returned to Texas and the once notorious criminal was buried around ten miles south of Paradise in a small cemetery in Cottondale, Texas, also in Wise County.
(Paul Mosley narrates this post here.)
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