July 28, 2021

The Notorious Ma Barker

by Not Past It

Background show artwork for Not Past It

Ever heard of lady crime boss, Ma Barker? On July 26, 1932, her alleged gang of thieves stole over $200,000 from a Kansas bank without firing a single shot. The Barker-Karpis gang stole millions before Ma was killed in a shootout with the FBI. But was she a criminal mastermind or just a scapegoat?

Where to Listen


Sue Sutton: When we walked in the door, I could not believe it. This place looked like it was from another time period. 

Simone: Retired community college instructor, Sue Sutton, was a teenager in the mid 60s when her family moved to Concordia, Kansas. Sue’s father took her and her sister to the local bank to open bank accounts…but when she walked in, she couldn’t believe what she saw... 

Sue: The bank tellers were separated by bulletproof glass. There were spikes. There were electrical wires running over the top of the partitions.

Simone: It seemed over the top for a local bank in a small, 5000-person town in the Great Plains. Even the employees were expected to protect the bank.

Sue: There was a shotgun behind the door and everyone who was an employee was encouraged to take target practice on their lunch hour, down in the basement of the bank.


Simone: So why was this small town bank so intensely on lock?

Sue: These modifications all came about because of the bank robbery that took place in 1932.

Simone: Eighty-nine years ago this week -- on the morning of July 26th, 1932 -- a gang of bank robbers walked into the Cloud County bank in Concordia, KS. And they walked away with more than $200,000…without firing a single shot.

Simone: And the legendary criminal mastermind behind it all?…The notorious Ma Barker.

Simone: From Gimlet Media, this is Not Past It, a show about the stories we can’t quite leave behind. Every episode, we take a moment from that very same week in history -- and tell you the story of how it shaped our world. I'm Simone Polanen. 

Simone: We’re gonna tell you the story of Ma Barker -- well, maybe more like stories. Because it changes depending on who you talk to. Ma Barker is remembered as one of America’s most notorious crime lords --  and she did it as a woman because we can do anything we set our minds to, ladies!…but when you start digging into the real facts, things aren’t so black and white. 

Simone: So wise up, wise guys. After the break, the real Ma Barker and big time crime in the 30s. So stick around, see.

Chris Enss: Ma Barker was this incredible woman who ends up being the matriarch to a family of thieves, thugs, and murderers.

Simone: This is Chris Enss, she’s a history writer and co-author of Ma Barker: America’s Most Wanted Mother. And for her book, she tracked Ma Barker back to her origins.

Simone: Ma Barker was born Arizona Clark, either in 1872 or 73. There are competing reports. She lived with her family on a small farm in Greene County, MO in the Ozarks. But Chris says, Arizona always wanted more for herself. 

Chris: When she was growing up in the Ozarks with her sisters, her sisters were content with what they had, but Arizona always had dreams of having millions of dollars, living in fancy homes and wearing minks and fine jewels.

Simone: Then in 1892, when Arizona Clark is around 19, she marries George Barker -- a little older, a little shy, quite handsome. Arizona starts going by the name of Kate Barker -- not quite the oomph of a name like Arizona Clark, but that’s neither here nor there. 

Simone: Over the next decade, Kate and George have four sons together, who they struggle to raise on the little money from George’s endless string of low-income jobs. Not exactly the cushy life Kate had dreamt of.  

Simone: And before her sons even come of age -- with little education and few job prospects -- they turn to other opportunities. 

Chris: Her boys started very young being involved in a lot of petty thievery. It started out simple as stealing a bicycle or stealing property from another person's home. And every time they would get in trouble and be hauled before the judge, Ma was quick to be right there with them and make sure that the judges knew that they were boys that really weren't understood that they would be good boys.

Simone: Kate shows up to court as a mom. And this is where -- supposedly -- she starts to earn the nickname Ma. 

Chris: She helped foster this whole notion of, “it doesn't make any difference how much you steal, mom's going to get you off.”

Simone: George splits with Ma right before the Great Depression. Allegedly because George is fed up with all the crime his family is getting involved with. And legend has it that Ma doubles down, encouraging her boys to graduate from petty thievery into the big leagues…where the rewards were bigger, but so were the risks. 

Chris: So if you're going to be shot at, if your life is going to be threatened, let's make sure that we do this on a grander scale. And perhaps when you walk away, you don't just walk away with maybe 20, $30 from the grocery store, but maybe a, a larger haul from a bank.

Simone: The boys start getting involved in robbery, larceny, the list goes on. Sometimes Ma can get them off, sometimes not. Her sons are all in and out of prison.

Simone: But then, their family crime business expands -- in 1931, one of Ma’s sons, Fred Barker, is doing a stint in prison for burglary when he meets a fellow inmate, Alvin Karpis. The two hit it off and decide to join forces. And the Barker-Karpis gang is formed. 

Simone: Once Fred and Alvin are out, the gang gets to work…committing robberies across the Midwest and the South and setting up a slew of safe houses in St. Paul, Minnesota. Where it was reported that Ma would often cook up a nice warm meal for her boys.

Simone: Then, the gang set their sights on one particular bank...in a small town…called Concordia, Kansas. 

Simone: And on Tuesday, July 26th 1932, members of the Barker-Karpis gang walk through the doors of the Cloud County Bank.

[ARCHIVAL, Ray (Newspaper Editor): Blade Empire…what?!...are you serious? Any shots fired? Oh, no!…They, they took hostages? Who? Oh no….yes, yes thank you!]

[ARCHIVAL, Ray (Newspaper Editor): Hey, Lily. Lily, I got a scoop for you! Come here.]

Simone: This is the opening of a play about that infamous robbery -- in all its campy and charming glory...

[ARCHIVAL, Ray (Newspaper Editor): Lily. Listen, Cloud County Bank has just been robbed by a gang of six outlaws.]

[ARCHIVAL, Lily: Oh, my!]

Simone: It was written by Sue Sutton, the woman from the top of the show, who visited the bank as a teenager back in the 60s. She researched that robbery inside and out for the play, so she knows the events of that day well.

Sue: One of the robbers had pistol whipped the director, and as he faltered trying to get that barrel vault open, he was being bashed by the butt of a gun and bleeding. And these, uh, female employees were seeing this, and they were pleading, “stop, stop hitting him.” But eventually, they grabbed what they could. They cleaned out the teller, uh, windows with their guns drawn, but no shots fired. 

Simone: Sue says on their way out of the Cloud County Bank, the robbers grab three hostages and make them stand on either side of the getaway car, basically acting as human bullet shields. They drive out to the edge of town, just past the railroad tracks, where they set the hostages free. 

Simone: Then, they dump a box of roofing nails across the road...so that if anyone tries to chase them down, well...pop, pop, bitch...with what tires? 

Simone: After the success of the Cloud County Bank robbery, the Barker-Karpis gang get even more ambitious. They go for higher-paying crimes…like kidnapping for ransom. And writer Chris Enns says…it’s because of Ma. 


Chris: It's Ma who kind of pulls them all together and says, “Here's what we're going to do, guys.” We are going to quit this life of petty robbery and we're going to go right for the people that we know have the most money and we are going to kidnap. And, that's exactly the kind of thing they start doing.

Simone: In 1933, they abduct a wealthy Minnesota brewery owner, earning $100,000 in ransom. And in 1934,  they net $200,000 after kidnapping a Minnesota millionaire. Both hostages are released unharmed but the high-profile kidnappings put the Barker-Karpis gang right in the crosshairs of the FBI.

[ARCHIVAL, J. Edgar Hoover: We must not for a moment, lose sight of our goal to teach the criminal you can't get away with it.]

Simone: That’s the voice of J. Edgar Hoover, you know, the cross-dressing, wiretapping, abuse of power-ing, longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. 

Simone: Over at the FBI, Hoover was trying to track down America’s worst criminals...the baddest of the bad guys. And to him, Ma Barker was it. He reportedly called her “the most vicious, dangerous, and resourceful criminal around.” And her face was plastered on FBI most wanted posters.

Simone: And it’s on posters like this that the country gets their first real glance at Ma Barker. A middle-aged woman, on the plump side, a short, dark bob grazing her cheeks, a bold lipstick painted onto her smirking lips. And in capital letters on either side of her face: FUGITIVE FROM JUSTICE.

Simone: As the FBI intensifies their hunt for Ma's boys, the gang decide to split up and hide. 

Simone: Ma Barker and her son Fred make their way south. They hide out seventy miles west of Daytona Beach in the quiet central Florida town of Ocklawaha. Where they think they’ve gotten away...

Simone: But Fred makes the mistake of sending a postcard revealing their location to another member of the gang. The FBI agents find it and are hot on their tail. And at 5:30am on January 16, 1935, FBI agents surround the two-storey house where Ma and Fred are hiding. The agents demand the Barkers surrender. But Ma and Fred refuse.

Simone: FBI agents exchange gunfire with Fred and Ma Barker for hours. 

[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: At Ocklawaha Florida, federal agents killed the notorious Ma Barker and her son. For six hours, the neighborhood was like a battlefield. Agents fired more than 1500 rounds of ammunition.]

Simone: And in the end, after the hours-long gunfight, Ma and Fred lay dead, clutching onto their Tommy Guns. Ma, supposedly, with thousands of dollars tucked neatly away in her apron. 

[ARCHIVAL, Reporter: And here is the Barker arsenal. In the center is the Tommy Gun found thatched in the stiffening fingers of the 55 year old Ma.]

Simone: Images of her dead body spread across newspapers and movie screens for the world to see. Just as Hoover wanted to prove...Ma Barker could not escape the law. The good guys stopped the bad guys. 

Simone: But had they really?

Simone: Because, the story we've just told you -- it only became popular legend after Ma Barker died. When you look at the historical records from this time, there's no real evidence to suggest Ma Barker herself ever committed a crime. Her boys, yes -- but her? She was never arrested, never fingerprinted. And yet the FBI had gunned her down and touted it as a win.

Simone: So what’s the deeper story here? Was the infamous character of Ma Barker real? Or just a creation? 

Simone: That’s after the break. So don’t go nowhere.

Simone: Before the break, we learned all about Ma Barker and the bank-robbing Barker-Karpis gang -- their famous heist at the Cloud County Bank in Kansas, and Ma’s bullet-riddled death at the hands of the FBI. But we also learned that there’s potentially a big gap here between the legend of Ma Barker…and the truth. Because there never was any hard evidence that Kate “Ma” Barker herself was ever involved in any crime. Ever. 

Simone: So how’d she get labeled one of the most notorious crime bosses of all time? 

Simone: To answer that question, we have to take a little trip…to the movies… 

Simone: Imagine it’s 1936 and you’ve just bought your ticket to the talk-of-the-town short film You Can’t Get Away With It.

Simone: You’re sitting in one of those incredibly uncomfortable, old-school, hard-backed movie theater chairs. You’ve got your popcorn, and a cold soda…the projector flickers on. 

[ARCHIVAL, Narrator: Let’s see, let’s ask J. Edgar, who as a young attorney became…]

Simone: And soon, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s wide face takes up the entire screen...

[ARCHIVAL, Hoover: A special Agent must be a good marksman and have the courage to shoot it out with the most venomous of public enemies….]

Simone: And he’s talking at you about how freakin’ cool the FBI is…mmm...sure?… 

Simone: But, you keep watching...

[ARCHIVAL, Narrator: Here's where the crime record closes with a full stop, full stop for these criminals, dead ones…]

Simone: The camera zeroes in on an ominous-looking filing cabinet. 

[ARCHIVAL, Narrator: Here you will find notorious names that made evil headlines of crime.]

Simone: And there you see, right there on the giant movie screen, a name written on a file in all caps -- Kate “Ma” Barker. 

Simone: This film, and films like it, were straight out of the mastermind of J. Edgar Hoover. 

Steve Underhill: His propaganda unit was responsible for shaping what people thought, shaping perceptions. And it did that through media control.

Simone: This is Steve Underhill. He’s a professor of communications at Marshall University. And he wrote the book The Manufacture of Consent: J. Edgar Hoover and the Rhetorical Rise of the FBI.

Steve: That meant speech writing. It meant getting into the comic books. It meant getting into the movies. It meant getting into all forms of symbolic expression.   

Simone: Movies like You Can’t Get Away with It were designed to get out a specific message to the American public. 

Steve: So good guys versus bad guys is the basic formula for propaganda because propaganda requires a clear break between good and evil.

Steve: The first wave of information was propaganda made by the FBI in the sense of, “Hey, look, everybody, there's super villains in America. Therefore you need superheroes.”

Simone: Remember where we are in time -- America is recovering from the depths of the Great Depression -- hard times had ushered in a rise in criminal activity. And really big name criminals. Like Al Capone, John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly -- the gangster, not the rapper. And…the Barker-Karpis gang.

Simone: And Hoover wants more license to do whatever he deems necessary to these bad guys, but the bureau is less than 30 years old at this point…not the stronghold we see today -- and Hoover is trying to expand the bureau’s power. But to do that, he has to prove that the FBI is needed, and the best option in the face of crime.

Steve: It's 1935, Hoover was worried about losing out to the Bureau of Prisons, because the Bureau of Prisons offered a different solution to crime. Their solution was we could reform criminals.

Simone: The Bureau of Prisons wanted to emphasize rehabilitation. But to Hoover, this would undermine the need for the FBI and change the mission of its agents. 

Steve: I mean, think about this. If you can rehabilitate a person, it means you don't need to kill them.

Simone: And if you can rehabilitate a person, good guys versus bad guys starts to get a lot messier.

Simone: But when it comes to Kate “Ma” Barker, specifically, Steve says Hoover needed to make her the bad guy…because at the time, she wasn't even on their radar.

Steve: The FBI was looking for her son, who was a criminal.

Simone: Steve says that Ma Barker was never the original target...but was accidentally gunned down by the FBI. 

Steve: Instead of saying, “We, we killed somebody on accident,” they slurred the character of the victim for the sake of them justifying the death, which I believe is a common police tactic historically.

Steve: And the propaganda begins when they say, “Okay, let's create language that justifies why we killed her. We are going to say, she's now Kate ‘Ma’ Barker.” 

Simone: One historical primary source that is quoted repeatedly in telling Kate “Ma” Barker’s story is a report that comes from the desk of J. Edgar Hoover himself, FBI Report: I.C. #7-576. It was circulated in November of 1936. Over a year-and-a-half after Kate Barker was killed. 

Simone: In this report, Hoover says things like, “Ma Barker liked to live well. She purchased expensive clothing, furniture and other necessities from the spoils of her sons depredations”... sounds a lot like the story we told you in the first half -- that Ma Barker wanted her sons to provide her this rich and lavish life -- which turns out, is more folklore than fact. The report also says, “it is possible that Kate became loose in her moral life. She was seen with a neighbor of hers who was having outside dates with other men”...so he basically slut shames Kate, making her out to be this immoral woman…ugh… 

Simone: Hoover had created this character of the maternal bad guy… 

Steve: The whole Ma thing is to emphasize that maternal part and to kind of blame her for being maternal, when her son was dangerous.

Simone: And just think about how smart of a character “Ma” really is. No one is contesting that Kate Barker wasn’t a supportive mom for Fred and the rest of her criminal boys. She cooked and cared and fought for them. 

Simone: But as Steve points out, Kate Barker may not have had much of a choice.

Steve: I don't think anyone believes she had the economic means to leave her son. And I think it's, it's harder to blame her for poverty and easier to blame her for being a bad mom.

Sue: I'm sure she knew some of what was going on. But I don't think that was her main role. She was a mother first, and concerned about the safety of her boys.

Simone: Community college instructor and playwright, Sue Sutton, doesn’t buy Hoover’s “Ma” story either...

Sue: She wanted her sons to make their way in life. And if they happen to be criminals, which they all were, then she supported them in that. 

Simone: And if anything, maybe Kate Barker was just a woman doing the best with what life had given her.

Sue: She was a survivor. She grew up in Missouri, probably a poor family, uneducated, and did the best she could. I'm fairly sympathetic to her. She was proud of her boys because they were her boys…

Simone: Kate “Ma” Barker may have known her way around a Tommy Gun, but she also cared for her family and worked hard to keep them safe. She surely wasn’t Hoover’s dreamt-up supervillain. She was a person, who only had her story told from the mouths of others. And who stood no chance against the power behind law enforcement trying to evade accountability. 

Simone: If you live in America, it’s a story you’ve become all too familiar with.

Steve: Have you noticed there's never a moment where the police go: “We totally killed somebody on accident. Can you believe it? Man, that is so tough that we killed somebody that we did not mean to kill, and we're going to have to live with it.” You would think in all the people who get killed, that would have to be true at least once. But, that's never the message you get because the boiler plate is never admit accountability and always blame the victim.

Simone: Bending the narrative so the “good guys” can stay the good guys is a tactic that’s far outlived Hoover and his propaganda machine. The error on the part of law enforcement can be minimized, written off. A press release notes that a “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction,” conveniently omitting that the “medical incident” was the police officer suffocating the man to death. Or a victim is made the bad guy with that tried and true red herring of calling their character into question. An officer enters the wrong apartment, kills someone in their own home, and then reports back about the marijuana they found in that person’s possession. So were they really totally innocent? 

Simone: This was baked into the FBI from its founding—it’s a part of how law enforcement works in America. This way, good guys stay good, no matter what. Even when they do bad things.


Simone: Not Past It is a Spotify Original, produced by Gimlet and ZSP Media. Next week, we’re headed to the Olympics with Jesse Owens.


[ARCHIVAL, Announcer: After the fanfares of the Olympic opening comes the most amazing performance by America’s Black Streak, Jesse Owens in the 100 meter. The world’s most superb runner makes the others look as if they are walking.]


Simone: This episode was produced by Remoy Philip. Our show is produced by Kinsey Clarke and Sarah Craig. Our Associate producer is Julie Carli. Our intern is Laura Newcombe. The supervising producer is Erica Morrison. Editing by Andrea B. Scott and Zac Stuart-Pontier. Fact checking by Jane Ackermann. Sound design and mixing by Bobby Lord. Original music by SaxKixAve, Willie Green, J Bless, Peter Leonard, and Bobby Lord. Our theme song is Tokoliana by KOKOKO! With music supervision by Liz Fulton. Technical direction by Zac Schmidt. Show art by Elise Harven and Talia Rochemann. The executive producer at ZSP Media is Zac Stuart-Pontier. The executive producer from Gimlet is Abbie Ruzicka. Special thanks to: Sue Sutton for sharing the recording of her play, “The Cloud County Bank Robbery: A Real Life Play.” And to: Florence Girard, Lydia Polgreen, Jake Maia Arlow, Dan Behar and Clara Sankey, Emily Wiedemann, Liz Stiles, and Nabeel Chollampat. 


Simone: And thank you. For listening! Our voicemail is open. We are currently on the hunt for stories about Beanie Babies. This was one we got last week:

Kayla: She went and hid it from me inside of a lamp. And, the next thing I knew, I started smelling smoke. And, we looked into the lamp and my Beanie Baby’s arm was on fire. 


Simone: Oh my gosh! Damn.


Simone: Well, do you have a story about a Beanie Baby? Give us a call at 646-504-9252. Follow Not Past It now to listen for free, exclusively on Spotify. And follow me on Twitter @SimonePolanen. Thanks for hangin’. We’ll see you next week.


Sue: Okay, it's been fun. And talk to you later. Buh-bye.