A cherub-cheeked, middle-aged woman with a demure string of pearls around her neck isn’t exactly what comes to mind when you think of the average crime boss. And that’s exactly what makes Ma Barker, matriarch of the Barker crime family and reputed mastermind behind a string of Great Depression-era bank robberies, so delightful. While the Barker-Karpis clan was notorious in its day, they’re now overshadowed by the truly blockbuster criminals of the era – people like Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, or John Dillinger. So today, we’ll give Ma and her boys some shine.
The details of Ma Barker’s life are a bit uncertain, but here’s what we know for sure. Born “Arizona Donnie Clark” (weirdest name ever?) in small-town Missouri, Ma’s early life was pretty average. She met George Barker when she was a young woman; they married and had five sons together – Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, Fred and Willmer. Husband George – alleged to be an insufferable alcoholic – eventually either abandoned the family or was kicked out. Impoverished and alone, Ma and her boys turned to a life of crime.
The years of 1931-1935 were a whirlwind of bank robberies and kidnappings for Ma and her sons. The Barker boys were no strangers to the cops – and neither was Ma. “It got to the point where she was harassing the police, to the point where they didn’t want to hold the Barker boys,” says Barker Gang historian Rick Mattix. They teamed up with the Karpis crime family – a member of which Fred Barker had met in prison – and formed The Barker-Karpis Gang. Together, they robbed dozens of banks without a hitch, and by 1933 were sitting on $3 million in stolen cash. They earned a new nickname, too. “The Blasters,” it seemed, had a real penchant for gunplay.
The Barker-Karpis boys’ most famous crime, though, took bank heists to a whole new level: they took an actual banker! On the frigid morning of January 16, 1934, in St. Paul, Minnesota, members of the gang trailed Edward Bremer Jr., president of Commercial State Bank, as he dropped his daughter off at school and then headed to work. In a bold scheme that puts today’s Occupy movement to shame, they snatched him up in broad daylight and demanded $200,000 for his safe return.
Unfortunately for Ma and her boys, this incident proved to be the downfall of their gang. The banker heist garnered enough attention to land Barker-Karpis member Alvin Karpis at the Public Enemy #1 spot, and he was subsequently arrested. In 1935, Ma was discovered hiding out in Florida and was gunned down and killed by police.
Ma Barker’s level of participation in the gang’s activities has been hotly debated. Many think she was the mastermind behind the crimes. Others think of her more as an old-timey Mama June and her sons as gangster Honey Boo Boos. In other words, perhaps she was more of a loving (and slightly overbearing) mother who took care of her sons despite their bad behavior and who was then villainized by the authorities. But however you look at them, one thing’s for sure: Ma Barker and her sons left one hell of a heisting legacy.