Machine Gun Kelly has got to be one of the most badass gangster nicknames of all time. (It’s so good, in fact, that it’s even been adopted by a rapper.) But Mr. Machine Gun wasn’t born a notorious thug. In fact, unlike most of the criminals of his time, he had a pretty normal life at least in the beginning.
The future gangster was born George Kelly Barnes in Memphis, Tennessee around the turn of the century. When he was just a toddler, George’s upper-middle-class family relocated to Chicago. His childhood was pretty average until he was a teenager and caught his father having an affair. Instead of just getting upset, he got even. George threatened to tell his mother about the affair if he wasn’t given an increased allowance and a car. His dad obliged. This same audacity would mark George’s criminal career.
George started bootlegging during high school. Though he went to college afterward, he quickly dropped out to focus on his criminal career, and he changed his last name to Kelly. Eventually his bootlegging business got so big that it attracted too much attention and landed him in prison. There, he met some bank robbers, and that’s where the fun really begins.
In 1930, when he was released from prison, Kelly joined his bank-robber friends in St. Paul, Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, he met a woman named Kathryn who would eventually become his wife. Reportedly it was Kathryn, no stranger to crime herself, who turned the ordinary criminal George Kelly into the infamous gangster known as Machine Gun Kelly. Legend has it that she bought him his first Tommy gun and made him practice his marksmanship. Not only that, but she supposedly went on bank robberies with him dressed as a man.
Kelly’s first bank robbery was on July 15, 1930. Armed with his signature machine gun, Kelly and three of his bank-robbing cronies robbed the Bank of Wilmar in the small town of Wilmar, Minnesota. They got away with a nice chunk of change $70,000. The robbery attracted a good bit of attention because two women were wounded by gunfire and a cashier was pistol-whipped. The head of the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Activity claimed that he hadn’t seen a holdup so brazen and cold-blooded since Jesse James.
Still, Kelly managed to evade the law. He participated in a string of high-profile bank robberies for the next few years, including some with the infamous Barker-Karpis clan. Like Ma Barker and her boys, though, Kelly eventually moved from robbing banks to kidnapping, and that too became his downfall.
In July of 1933, Kelly, his wife and a couple of accomplices kidnapped a wealthy Oklahoma City man named Charles F. Urschel. They kept him for a week and released him unharmed when the ransom was sent. Because this was not long after the Lindbergh kidnapping, the FBI went extra hard on the Kellys, and both George and Kathryn were caught and sentenced to life in prison. Theirs was the first major case to be solved by J. Edgar Hoover and the first kidnapping to be labeled a federal crime. They were also the first defendants to be transported by airplane, and their trial was the first to be filmed.
George Kelly spent the rest of his life in prison much of it at Alcatraz where he was such a model prisoner that the other inmates started calling him Pop Gun Kelly, implying that he was not actually the ultra-tough gangster he was purported to be. Whether or not Kelly was truly a cold-blooded villain or not, as long as there are rappers and Hollywood movies, that’s surely how we’ll remember him.