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Ma Barker
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Ma Barker

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Ma Barker was the matriarch of the Barker-Karpis Gang, whose spree of kidnappings, murderers and bank robberies led to her and its members' violent deaths.

Who Was Ma Barker?

Ma Barker, her four sons – Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Fred – and Alvin Karpis, formed the Barker-Karpis Gang in 1931. That year, Fred and Alvin shot a sheriff to death. The murder started a pattern of thoughtless killing by the gang. Barker became a wanted woman. On January 16, 1935, Ma and Fred where shot and killed by FBI agents in Oklawaha, Florida.

Early Years

Barker was born Arizona Donnie Clark on October 8, 1873, to a poor family in Ash Grove, Missouri. Her parents were of Irish and Scottish descent. Clark was a headstrong girl with dark penetrating eyes and a nasty temper. Along with her siblings, she attended church regularly and spent her free time singing and playing the fiddle.

As a child, Clark witnessed local outlaw Jesse James and his gang ride through her hometown. The sight triggered her thirst for adventure and was a catalyst for her life to come.

Personal Life

In 1892, Clark married a man who would fail to quench that thirst — a poor, soft-spoken tenant farmer named George Barker. Over the next decade, the couple had four sons: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur (nicknamed Doc) and Fred. (Arizona Clark had by then had adopted the nickname "Kate," and taken her husband's last name.)

As the Barker boys aged, they were constantly in trouble with the law. Herman, the oldest, was arrested in 1910 for petty thievery. By the time Barker's two youngest, Doc and Fred, had reached their teen years, all four sons were repeatedly landing themselves in prisons and reformatories. But Barker refused to discipline her boys and would fly into a rage at anyone, including her husband, who tried to scold them. After the family relocated to Tulsa in 1915, George left Kate.

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Barker-Karpis Gang

In the spring of 1931, Barker's youngest son, Fred, was unexpectedly paroled from Lansing Prison, in Kansas. Fred brought with him a fellow parolee Karpis. He and Fred agreed to become partners in crime. Barker approved of the newly formed Barker-Karpis Gang and let them use her Tulsa shack as a hideout. Living vicariously through the exploits of her boys offered Barker the adventure she had always craved.

Fred and Karpis quickly went to work, committing a series of burglaries and small-time bank robberies. In December 1931, they robbed a department store in West Plains, Missouri. The next day, they shot and murdered the town's Sheriff, C. R. Kelly, at point-blank range. Kelly's murder started a pattern of excessive violence and thoughtless killing that soon became the trademark of the Karpis-Barker Gang. For the first time, Barker became a wanted woman.

On March 29, 1932, Fred, Karpis and three accomplices robbed the Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis and made a clean getaway. The Barker-Karpis Gang got away with more than a quarter of a million dollars in cash and bonds.

In September of 1932, Barker's son Doc was paroled from a murder sentence at the same time that his brothers were free. The Barker gang was back at full strength and more menacing than ever. With Barker's blessing, they quickly plotted another bank job for December, at the Third Northwestern National Bank in Minneapolis. This time, however, they failed to adequately think the job through. The consequence was a violent shoot­out with the police, which only served to solidify their reputation as the most vicious criminal gang in America.


Another shootout between the Barkers and the authorities would occur on the morning of January 16, 1935, when the FBI raided the house in Oklawaha, Florida, where Barker and Fred were staying. Heavily armed FBI agents surrounded the house and ordered the pair to surrender. With no reply, the agents threw tear gas canisters at the windows. Fred fired a machine gun and a shootout began that left the house riddled with bullets. Fred and Barker fought for their lives, shooting back with everything they had. Finally, after four hours, the federal agents began to run out of ammunition and the scene became deathly quiet. Barker and Fred were found together, dead in an upstairs bedroom. A stash of weapons and thousands of dollars were recovered at the house.

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