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George Kelly Barnes

Machine Gun Kelly

July 18, 1895 — July 18, 1954



George Kelly Barnes aka George R. Kelly aka George "Machine Gun" Kelly was a notorious American criminal during the prohibition era. His crimes included bootlegging, armed robbery and, most prominently, kidnapping.


Early life and education

George Kelly Barnes was born to a wealthy family living in Memphis, Tennessee, his father was a well-to-do insurance executive. Kelly’s early years as a child were essentially uneventful and his family raised him in a traditional household.

He received his early education at Idlewild Elementary and was enrolled at Central High School, the oldest high school in the City of Memphis Public Schools.

His first sign of trouble began when he enrolled into Mississippi State University (MSU) to study agriculture in 1917. From the beginning, Kelly was considered a poor student, having been awarded his highest grade (a "C plus") for good physical hygiene. He was constantly in trouble with the faculty and spent much of his academic career attempting to work off the demerits he had earned. He soon flunked out of MSU.


During this period Kelly met and soon afterwards married Geneva Ramsey. The couple had two children (George Jr. and Bruce), but not wanting to rely on his family’s money, Kelly struggled, employed as a cab driver, to make ends meet. His father was also not inclined to help George because of what had happened at Mississippi State, and his dislike of Geneva. Money problems strained the relationship, and the couple soon separated.


George "Machine Gun" Kelly, handcuffed and shackled, is led, under heavy guard, from Shelby County Jail enroute to the Memphis airport and Oklahoma City where he will be tried for the kidnapping of Charles F. Urschel, Oct 2, 1933

As he lived in the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 30s, George was able to find both work with a bootlegger as well as a colleague. After a short time, he had several run-ins with the local Memphis police, he decided to leave town and head west with a new girlfriend.

To protect his family and escape law enforcement officers, he changed his name to George R. Kelly.[citation needed] He continued to commit smaller crimes and bootlegging. He was arrested in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for smuggling liquor onto an Indian Reservation in 1928, and sentenced for three years to Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. Sent to Leavenworth on February 11, 1928, he was a model inmate and was released early.

Shortly thereafter, Kelly married Kathryn Thorne, who purchased Kelly’s first machine gun and went to great lengths to familiarize his name in the underground crime circles. Some historians claim that Kathryn coined the nickname "Machine Gun Kelly" and even went so far as to plot some small bank robberies.

Nonetheless, Kelly’s last criminal activity proved disastrous when he kidnapped a wealthy Oklahoma City resident, Charles F. Urschel and his friend Walter R. Jarrett. Urschel, having been blindfolded, made sure to foil his kidnappers by noting all possible evidence of his experience such as carefully noting background sounds, counting footsteps and leaving fingerprints on every surface in reach. This in turn proved invaluable for the FBI in their investigation, as they learned that Urschel had been held in Paradise, Texas.

An investigation conducted at Memphis disclosed that, after 56 days on the lam, the Kellys were staying at the residence of J.C. Tichenor. Special Agents from Birmingham, Alabama, were immediately dispatched to Memphis, where, in the early morning hours of September 26, 1933, a raid was conducted; during which, George had the misfortune to famously (or infamously) inadvertently urinate on the arresting officer. George and Kathryn Kelly were taken into custody by FBI Agents and Memphis police officers Sergeant William Raney and officer Thomas Waterson. Caught without a weapon, George Kelly supposedly cried, "Don’t shoot, G-Men! Don’t shoot, G-Men!" as he surrendered to FBI Agents. The term (which had applied to all federal investigators, meaning simply 'Government Men') became synonymous with FBI Agents. Reports of the raid, however, indicate that George Kelly came to the door, dropped his pistol and said, "I’ve been waiting for you all night." Recent research revealed a 1933 newspaper interview with one of the federal agents at the arrest. He commented that, upon their arrest, Kathryn Kelly put her arms around George and said, These G-men will never leave us alone. Thus, it was actually Kathryn Kelly who coined the term. However, the FBI press machine generated the G-Man story to build its own reputation. The FBI itself now repudiates the "Don't shoot, G-Men!" story.

Kathryn and "Machine Gun" Kelly received life sentences for Urschel kidnapping, Oct 12, 1933

On October 12, 1933, George and Kathryn Kelly were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. Kathryn Kelly and her mother had all charges dropped and were released in 1958.

The kidnapping of Urschel and the two trials that resulted were historic in several ways: 1) they were the first, last, and only federal criminal trials in the United States in which moving cameras were allowed to film; 2) the first kidnapping trials after the passage of the so-called Lindbergh Law, which made kidnapping a federal crime; 3) the first major case solved by J. Edgar Hoover’s evolving and powerful FBI; and 4) the first crime in which defendants were transported by airplane. At the time it was the largest ransom ever paid in the United States. Most historians agree that it also marked the end of the Gangster Era in America.


Machine Gun Kelly spent his remaining 21 years in prison. During his time at Alcatraz he got the nickname "Pop Gun Kelly". This was in reference, according to a former prisoner, to the fact that Kelly was a model prisoner and was nowhere near the tough, brutal gangster his wife made him out to be. He died of a heart attack at Leavenworth Federal Prison, Kansas on July 18, 1954 - his 59th birthday.

He is buried at Cottondale Texas Cemetery with a small head stone marked "George B. Kelley 1954".

Machine Gun Kelly and Kathryn Kelly were imortalised in a song "Machine Gun Kelly" (1970) written by Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar which was recorded by James Taylor on his 1971 Album "Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon".


This strapping six-footer with a round face and blue eyes seemed to wear a perpetual grin, except when he was talking tough or boasting. Suffering from a bad heart, Kelly was in no shape to do one tenth of the things he claimed he'd done--or were attributed to him by his wife, the law, or the press. Born in Memphis, Tenn., he died while incarcerated in Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Activities: George Kelly met Kathryn Shannon in 1927. Until then Kelly had been no more than an amiable, if less than competent, Oklahoma City bootlegger who spilled more than he delivered. By contrast, Kathryn was a firebrand out of the Mississippi backwoods who dreamed of riches and power and determined to make Kelly a top-flight criminal. Well versed in underworld affairs since her parents ran a ranch where fugitives could hole up for $50 a day, Kathryn began promoting Kelly as a fearless crook who was often "away robbing banks." She gave him a shiny machine gun as a present and made him practice shooting walnuts off fence posts. Kathryn, who understood promotion, also passed out cartridge cases in underworld dives, saying, "Have a souvenir of my husband, Machine Gun Kelly."

Kelly eventually made it into some local gangs and took part in a few holdups of small Mississippi and Texas banks. It was as much as he had ever hoped for, but Kathryn, who married Kelly in 1931, insisted they go after the big money in kidnapping. They pulled off only one major job and were promptly caught. A story put out by the FBI stated that when its agents trapped the couple in their Memphis hideout, Kelly cowered in a corner, his hands high, and whimpered: "Don't shoot, G-men, don't shoot." J. Edgar Hoover, insisted that that was how his agents got their nickname, but the fact was that the Memphis cops on the raid heard Kelly say nothing of the kind and that employees of the federal government had long been called G-men. Cynics have also challenged the story, suggesting it was part of Hoover's efforts to enhance the image of the FBI and to solidify his own position as a shaky Republican holdover in a Democratic administration.

Leading Crimes: There was only one--the 1933 kidnapping of oilman Charles F. Urschel, from whom the gang collected $200,000. Kathryn opted for "killing the bastard" once they received the ransom, but Kelly, shocked, convinced the rest of the gang that Urschel had to be freed or it would "be bad for future business." As things turned out, Urschel proved to be a human memory machine; although he had been blindfolded, he was able to supply the FBI with so many clues that agents soon pinpointed his place of confinement as Kathryn's parents' ranch in Texas.

Major Victims: None. Machine Gun Kelly never killed anyone--or even fired his weapon in anger.

How Died: Sentenced to life in Alcatraz--and some say happy to be free of Kathryn--Kelly carried on a lengthy and remarkable correspondence with Urschel, once writing: "I must be fair. Being in prison has brought me one positive advantage. It could hardly do less. Its name is comradeship--a rough kindness of man to man; unselfishness; an absence, or diminution, of the tendency to look ahead, at least very far ahead; a carelessness, though it is bred of despair; a clinging to life and the possible happiness it may offer at some future date." Bothered by the Alcatraz climate, Kelly was transferred to Leavenworth, where he died of a heart attack three years later. Kathryn's life sentence was commuted in 1958, and she was released.


Bootlegger, bank robber, and kidnapper. Born George Kelly Barnes on July 18, 1895, in Memphis, Tennessee. (Some sources state that he was born in 1897. A book by one of his sons stated that he was born in Chicago in 1900.) Despite the nickname “Machine Gun,” Kelly was a relatively minor criminal until a 1933 kidnapping made him infamous. Before starting his life of crime, he was a student at Mississippi A & M College. He married Geneva Ramsey when he was 19, but the couple later divorced. His first wife told The New York Times after his arrest that she divorced him because he was “running in bad company.” They had two sons together.

Involved in bootlegging as a teenager, Kelly returned to the profitable illegal enterprise after several failed attempts at legitimate work. He was caught selling illegal liquor in 1927 and spent a few months in jail in New Mexico. Nabbed again, this time for selling liquor on an Indian reservation, Kelly did time at Leavenworth Prison in Kansas. While incarcerated, he made friends with several bank robbers—including Charlie Harmon, Frank Nash, and Francis Keating, and Thomas Holden—and is believed to have helped Keating and Holden escape.

After his release from prison in 1930, Kelly traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota, with his girlfriend Kathryn Thorne. (The two later married in the fall of that year.) There he reunited with Keating and Holden and participated in a bank hold-up with the pair. Continuing his crime spree, Kelly was involved in bank robberies in several states, including Iowa, Texas, and Washington. According to legend, Kelly’s wife helped build his reputation, buying him a machine gun and nicknaming him after the weapon. She also reportedly gave away shell casings from his exploits to people as souvenirs to increase his notoriety.

Along with bank robbing, Kelly tried made several attempts at kidnapping. With his wife and longtime associate Albert L. Bates, Kelly hatched a plan to kidnap wealthy Oklahoma oil man Charles F. Urschel. On July 22, Bates and Kelly entered the Urschel’s Oklahoma City home and abducted Urschel and one of his friends, Walter R. Jarrett, leaving their wives behind. Jarrett was soon let go, but Urschel was held for ransom. Kelly and his gang wanted $200,000 for the oil man.

They set up an elaborate system for the handling of their captive and the delivery of the ransom. But they didn’t count on Urschel’s sharp mind and the authorities keeping track the ransom money’s serial numbers. The ransom was delivered on July 30 in Kansas City and Urschel was released the next day. He was unharmed and, although blindfolded some of the time, he was able to provide a number of clues to authorities. From Urschel’s descriptions of what he heard and saw while being held hostage, the authorities were able to figure out that he must have been near Paradise, Texas. Earlier there also had been a tip that the Kellys were involved.

Kathryn Kelly’s mother, Ora Shannon, lived on a ranch near Paradise. The place was raided and several suspects, including Shannon, her husband, and his son, were arrested on August 12. Bates was caught that same day in Denver, Colorado, on an unrelated charge, but he was found to have money from the kidnapping on him. But the Kellys eluded capture for several weeks. They were discovered in Memphis, Tennessee, and taken into custody on September 26, 1933. They were quickly tried and convicted; both were sentenced to life in prison on October 12.

The once notorious Machine Gun Kelly was mocked in the news as “Pop Gun Kelly.” He was sent to Alcatraz Prison, home to many hardened criminals, such Al Capone. Moved to Leavenworth in the 1950s, Kelly died there on July 17, 1954, of a heart attack.

Today Kelly is remembered along with the likes of “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and “Baby Face” Nelson as one of the criminals that made up the Midwest crime wave of the early 1930s.


George "Machine Gun" Kelly is probably considered one of the most famous "gangsters" from the prohibition era. "Machine Gun" was born George Kelly Barnes on July 18, 1895, to a wealthy family living in Memphis, Tennessee. Kelly's early years as a child were essentially uneventful and his family raised him in a traditional household. His first sign of trouble began when he enrolled into Mississippi State University to study agriculture in 1917. From the beginning, Kelly was considered a poor student with his highest grade (a C plus) awarded for good physical hygiene. He was constantly in trouble with the faculty and spent much of his academic career attempting to work off the demerits he had earned.

It was during this time that Kelly met a young woman by the name of Geneva Ramsey. Kelly quickly fell in love with Geneva and made an abrupt decision to quit school and marry. Kelly fathered two children with Geneva, and to make ends meet, took a job as a cab driver in Memphis. He worked long hours with little reward for his time. Kelly and Geneva were struggling financially, as the job was failing to provide enough money to support their family. Distressed and broke, Kelly left his job with the cab company to seek other avenues to make ends meet. The strain proved to be overwhelming and at 19 years old, he found himself without steady work and separated from his wife. It was about this time when Kelly took up with a small time gangster and started a new venture as a bootlegger. Kelly began to enjoy the financial rewards of his new trade along with the notoriety.

Along with the new success also came the quandaries of working in the underground. After being arrested on several occasions for illegal trafficking, Kelly decided to leave Memphis along with a new girlfriend and head west. He adopted the new alias of George R. Kelly to help preserve the respect and name of his upstanding family back home. Kelly's luck continued to saw tooth with great monetary scores and several unfortunate predicaments. By 1927, Kelly had already started to earn his reputation in the underground world as a seasoned gangster, having weathered several arrests and serving various jail sentences. In 1928 he was caught smuggling liquor into an Indian Reservation and was sentenced to three years at Leavenworth Penitentiary.

After serving-out another long sentence at the State Penitentiary in New Mexico in 1929 for another similar conviction, Kelly gravitated to Oklahoma City where he hooked up with a small time bootlegger named Steve Anderson. Kelly soon fell for Anderson's attractive mistress Kathryn Thorne, a seasoned criminal in her own right. Thorne had come from a family of outlaws and had been arrested for various charges ranging from robbery to prostitution. Thorne was twice divorced and her second husband had been a bootlegger who had later been found shot to death under suspicious circumstances. The official determination of death was suicide, but many people (including one of the investigators) had long suspected that Kathryn was involved since only days before, she had made comments to a gas station attendant that she was going over to "kill that god-damned Charlie Thorne." Kelly and Kathryn became inseparable and married in Minneapolis in September of 1930.

Up until his relationship with Thorne, Kelly had been a relatively small time criminal. Kathryn's influence soon became obvious, as Kelly's crime sprees would launch him to the prestigious status of "Public Enemy Number One." Kathryn purchased a machine gun for Kelly and pressured her husband to practice. It was said her purpose was premeditated. She was a master at marketing her husband to the underground circles and public. She was known to take the spent gun cartridges and pass them around to acquaintances at many of the underground drinking clubs, introducing them as souvenirs from her husband "Machine Gun" Kelly.

Many historians (and fellow inmates of Kelly) believe that Kathryn was the creator of the "Machine Gun Kelly" image and became known as the mastermind behind several of the successful small bank robberies Kelly pulled off throughout Texas & Mississippi. In August of 1933, the FBI published Wanted Posters describing Kelly as an "Expert Machine Gunner" and created a public frenzy that would later place Kelly into the history books.

In July of 1933, Kathryn and Kelly plotted a scheme to kidnap wealthy oil tycoon & businessman Charles Urschel. Kelly, carrying his trademark Tommy Gun, and two other men carrying pistols entered the Urschel's mansion in Oklahoma City. The Urschels were playing a game of bridge with friends when Kelly stormed in threatening to "blow everyone's head off." Kelly's new hostages were non-cooperative and he was unable to determine which man was Urschel. The two men were forced into a sedan, covered with a tarp and searched for identification. Once they found the ID on Urschel's friend, a man by the name of Walter Jarret, they robbed him of $51 and left him on the side of a deserted road. Urschel was taken into hiding on a rural ranch in Texas and the Kelly Gang made demands for a $200,000 ransom.

The Urschel's family friend E.E. Kirkpatrick made drop arrangements and delivered the ransom in denominations of $20 bills. The money was delivered near the LaSalle Hotel in Kansas City on July 30th, ending the eight-day ordeal. The following day Urschel was released near Norman, Oklahoma, and casually walked into a restaurant to call for a cab. Urschel was sharp, and though blindfolded throughout the ordeal, made sure that his fingerprints were spread everywhere, counted his footsteps to various areas when blind folded, and audible sounds of his surroundings were mentally cataloged, all of which would later become useful in the FBI's investigation.

After splitting the ransom money with their accomplices, Kathryn and "Machine Gun" started state hopping trying to stay two steps ahead of law officials. From the several clues that Urschel was able to provide, the FBI raided the ranch and made an arrest of one of the other conspirators. The bills that had been used for payment in the ransom, had traceable serial records and the Center Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) started a nationwide search for whom they now suspected was George R. Kelly.

George and Kathryn bounced around different states with Chicago becoming their main hub. Both dyed their hair to conceal their identities and enjoyed a lavish lifestyle. After several weeks in hiding, the couple finally made their way back to Memphis to stay with longtime friend John Tichenor. On the morning of September 26, 1933, Memphis police, along with FBI Agents, surrounded the Tichenor house and then made a violent forced entry. It was said at that moment, that Kelly coined the phrase: "G-Men, please don't shoot." Kelly was found badly hung over from the prior evening's drinking binge (still in his pajamas) and Kathryn was in bed still asleep. The couple was quickly flown to Oklahoma where they stood trial and both received life sentences. Eventually all of the accomplices were apprehended, and out of all of those involved, six were issued life sentences.










This web page was last updated on: 23 December, 2008