Birthday: October 8, 1873
Died At Age: 61
Sun Sign: Libra
Also Known As: Kate Barker (née Clark), Arizona Donnie Barker
Born Country: United States
Born in: Ash Grove, Missouri, United States
Notorious As: Matriarch of the Barker Family
Spouse/Ex-: Arthur Dunlop, George Barker (m. 1892 – 1924)
father: John Clark
mother: Emaline Clark
children: Arthur Barker, Fred Barker, Herman Barker, Lloyd Barker
Died on: January 16, 1935
place of death: Ocklawaha, Florida, United States
Who was Ma Barker?
Kate Barker (née Clark), better known as Ma Barker and sometimes referred to as Arizona Donnie Barker, was the matriarch of the Barker family, several members of which were career criminals that ran the Barker-Karpis gang during the "public enemy era". The level of her involvement in the criminal activities of her children is a matter of debate. After her death in a shootout with the FBI, then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover called her "the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade”. However, people who were acquainted with her claim that she was innocent and that Hoover made the accusations to justify the FBI killing her. A native of Missouri, she exchanged wedding vows with George Barker in 1892, and they went on to have four children, Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Fred. All of her four sons became criminals, but Arthur and Fred garnered the most notoriety. She travelled with the Barker-Karpis gang all across the United States, and a myth soon developed, according to which she was the criminal mastermind behind the gang. After her death, Barker has been portrayed as a monstrous mother in films, songs, and literature.
Childhood & Early Life
Born Arizona Donnie Clark on October 8, 1873, in Ash Grove, Missouri, USA, Barker was the daughter of John and Emaline (Parker) Clark. She was nicknamed “Arrie” by her family.
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Marriage & Children
In 1892, she tied the knot with George Barker in Lawrence County, Missouri. The couple’s four sons were Herman (1893–1927), Lloyd (1897–1949), Arthur (1899–1939), and Fred (1901–1935).
According to the 1910 to 1930 censuses and the Tulsa City Directories from 1916 to 1928, George Barker generally held low-skilled jobs. Between 1916 and 1919, he was employed at the Crystal Springs Water Co. In the 1920s, he worked as a farmer, watchman, station engineer, and clerk.
An FBI document calls George Barker “shiftless” and states that the Barkers showed little interest in educating their children and that all four of them were basically illiterate.
Later Life & Exposure to the World of Crime
Barker’s sons became involved in the world of crime sometime around 1910. That year, her oldest, Herman, was apprehended for highway robbery after hitting a child with the getaway car.
In the next few years, Herman and his brothers were part of several crimes with growing seriousness. They regularly committed robberies and murders and were introduced to major crime by the Central Park gang. On August 29, 1927, Herman committed suicide in Wichita, Kansas, after he killed a police officer during a robbery.
Even if Barker was not involved in criminal activities, she never actively did anything against her children. That was not the case with George, who, by all accounts, despaired over the choices his children had made.
The last time George was registered residing with his wife in the Tulsa City Directory was in 1928. Some believe that Barker forced him to leave, while others think that he made his departure when life with his criminal family became unbearable.
Author Miriam Allen deFord writes that following Herman’s death and incarceration of his other children, George completely withdrew himself from the scene. According to the FBI, George split from his wife because she turned “loose in her moral life” and was “having outside dates with other men".
They mentioned that while George was not a criminal, he still proclaimed himself as his sons’ next to kin after their deaths to gain their assets, most of which were illegally acquired.
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Barker did everything in her power to have her sons free. The seriousness of their crime was not of any consequence to her. Between 1928 and 1931, she lived a life of a complete destitute. She did not have a husband, nor did she have a job, and all her sons were imprisoned. This was probably when she was “loose” with local men, as the FBI insinuated.
Sometime around 1930, she and an unemployed man named Arthur W. Dunlop (or Dunlap) began living together. She was his common-law wife. After Fred returned from prison, things began to turn around for her.
Fred and his prison-mate Alvin Karpis set up the Barker-Karpis gang in 1931 and committed a series of robberies. On December 19, 1931, Fred and Karpis murdered Sheriff C. Roy Kelly in West Plains, Missouri, which compelled them to leave the region.
Travelling with the Barker-Karpis Gang
Ma Barker and Dunlop accompanied the Barker-Karpis gang during their wandering criminal career and adopted several aliases. A wanted poster was put out for the capture of "Old Lady Arrie Barker" in exchange for $100. This poster called her an accomplice of the gang. After this point, the gang members began referring to her as Kate.
After Arthur got out of jail in 1932, he became a member of his brother’s gang. Beyond these three core members, the gang encompassed 25 other people at the height of their criminal activities.
The gang went to Chicago but left not long after, as Karpis had no intention of being employed by Al Capone. On the suggestion of racketeer Jack Peifer, the gang moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, a hotspot for wanted criminals at the time. It is in St. Paul that the gang committed some of its most infamous crimes.
The gang never accumulated as much public attention as their contemporaries like the Dillinger Gang, or the Barrow Gang, but they were probably more opportunistic and crueller. The group not only robbed banks, but they also ran a kidnapping ring. While in St Paul, they regularly changed houses and made a deal for protection with St. Paul's police chief Thomas "Big Tom" Brown.
Dunlop used to become quite chatty after he started drinking. The members of the gang were wary of him. While living in a hideaway, the group was nearly caught when a neighbour recognized them but escaped after Chief Brown informed them about it. They killed Dunlop while they were on the road, likely believing that it was he who revealed their whereabouts, and left his naked body near Webster, Wisconsin.
The gang moved to Menomonie, Wisconsin, and Fred arranged a string of hotel rooms and hideaways to keep his mother while the gang was active there. This way, he believed that she would not know much about their crimes and keep away from the girlfriends of the gang members, as she did not get on well with most of them.
While in Menomonie, the gang did several kidnappings, including those of William Hamm and Edward Bremer.
Death & Aftermath
After the arrest of Arthur in Chicago on January 8, 1935, the FBI came to know that the other gang members were residing at a house in Ocklawaha, Florida.
On January 16, 1935, FBI agents encircled the house not knowing that no one besides Fred and Ma was inside. In the ensuing gunfire, both were killed. They were laid to rest at Williams Timberhill Cemetery in Welch, Oklahoma, where Herman was previously buried.
After her death, Hoover depicted her as the real force behind the gang, a claim that has been overwhelmingly refuted by historians and people who knew her. The pop-cultural and fictitious representations of her have not also been flattering.
According to author Tim Mahoney, the mastermind behind the gang’s operation was Chief Tom Brown, before meeting whom, the gang was merely a "bumbling band of hillbilly burglars". He was the one who turned them into a highly competent outfit of robbers and kidnappers.