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Illustration by Jeremy Luther.

Magazine | Okiecentric

Tigress: The Life and Times of Kathryn Kelly

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Posted 10.15.11

They were mostly dead by then, the girlfriends, mothers, and wives of the 1930s era gangsters who once dominated front pages. Their men put the once-obscure Federal Bureau of Investigation and its director J. Edgar Hoover in the headlines from coast to coast, during the largest crime wave in American history. Nearly all were gone, except Machine Gun Kelly’s once-famous widow Kathryn, a favorite target of J. Edgar Hoover, who died May 28, 1985, in Tulsa with a contrived identity and no public notice of her passing.

Bonnie and Clyde had been ambushed in late May 1934 on a Louisiana back road the month after Clyde, or someone pretending to be him, dropped a letter to Henry Ford at the downtown Tulsa post office, praising his speedy cars. Ten months later, Ma Barker, a simple Missouri hillbilly whom J. Edgar Hoover reinvented as a criminal mastermind, was shot to death with her son Fred in Florida, eleven hundred miles away from their Tulsa shack on North Cincinnati. Gone too were doe-eyed Billy Frechette, the love of John Dillinger’s life, who went to prison for him, and even Polly Hamilton, her replacement, who was with Dillinger when he was ambushed in Chicago. Ruby Floyd, former wife of Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd died in Broken Arrow. Only Helen Gillis, the wife of Baby Face Nelson, outlived Kathryn Kelly, but she never had or wanted Kathryn’s cunning, audacity, or ambition.

Kathryn was given the same birth name as Cleo Epps, queen of the Tulsa bootleggers, she who was pitched into the dank darkness of a west-side cistern after asking why she had to die. Cleo Mae Brooks didn’t like that name and became Kathryn in eighth grade to seem more elegant.

And eventually, it worked.

But she started small in 1904 near Saltillo, Mississippi, eight years before Elvis Presley’s mother was born there. After becoming Kathryn, she married at fifteen, divorced after her daughter Pauline was born and moved with her parents, James and Ora (Coleman) Brooks, from Mississippi to Oklahoma, where she was briefly married again.

Kathryn’s mother Ora divorced Brooks, married Robert G. “Boss” Shannon, and moved with Kathryn and Pauline to his place near Palestine, Texas, north of Fort Worth. He was in the hospitality business, catering to gangsters; his rate was fifty dollars a night.

Kathryn’s ticket out of that stark, weather-beaten farmhouse was her third marriage; this time the groom was Texas bootlegger Charlie Thorne. One evening after they quarreled, Charlie died of a gunshot wound. Despite Thorne’s illiteracy, he left a perfectly typed note lamenting that he could not live with Kathryn, or for that matter without her. “Hence,” Charlie announced, “I am departing this life.” A coroner’s jury shrugged and ruled him a suicide, despite rumors that Kathryn had threatened to kill Charlie. Soon Kathryn was convicted of robbery as “Dolores Whitney,” but was released on a technicality without giving back the loot.

That stash and Thorne’s money allowed the bereaved widow to improve her wardrobe and spend hours listening to jazz in Fort Worth clubs and bars. One of her suitors there later remembered that in the late 1920s, Kathryn “took me to more speakeasies … bootleg dives [and] holes in the wall than I thought there were in all of Texas. She knows more bums than the Police Department. She can drink liquor like water. And she’s got some of the toughest friends I ever laid eyes on.”

• • •

These qualities and Kathryn’s striking looks appealed to yet another Texas bootlegger, who was doing business with a handsome, dark Irish southerner who called himself George R. Kelly, at least until George took his woman. They probably met in Fort Worth, as early as 1928 but perhaps later. Wherever and whenever Kathryn and George first locked eyes, they immediately began a torrid affair.

After the Kellys became famous, bootlegger R.L. “Little Steve” Stephens boasted to the Tulsa World in 1933 that he married Kathryn and employed Barnes for five years, until his pedigreed bulldog disappeared. “I don’t mind [Kelly] taking my wife and my car,” Stevens quipped, “but I wish he’d left that dog.”

Like Kathryn, George had a troubled past. He was born George Francis Barnes and grew up Catholic in an upper-middle class Memphis family. During his second and final college semester, he met and eloped with the daughter of a wealthy Memphis contractor. George worked for her father, later drove a cab, and even started a goat farm financed by his mother-in-law. But soon he turned his high-school bootlegging hobby into a full-time profession, causing his wife to file for divorce. After a few Memphis arrests, he changed his name to George R. Kelly, drifted west, and eventually landed in Santa Fe, where he was convicted of bootlegging March 14, 1927.

After several months in the New Mexico penitentiary at Santa Fe, George moved to a wide-open Oklahoma boom town that in its earliest years was overshadowed in booze, gambling and prostitution only by Catoosa, the hell-hole of Indian Territory. “The biggest mistake I ever made,” he regretted later, “was leaving Tulsa.”

George lived for a time at 1208 S. Quaker Ave., one block east of Peoria. “I got my start in ‘28,” he recalled, perhaps off the mark a year. “I was the king of the rumrunners,” crowed George, perhaps forgetting Little Steve. “I had the town, a good clientele [and] made a good living.”

•••

Despite these late-life boasts of prosperity as a bootlegger, George did other things in Tulsa to make ends meet.

He became a prime suspect in a Saturday night robbery near Fourth and Main streets, July 23, 1927. The next evening, George was arrested for vagrancy, pending other charges, but was eventually released for lack of evidence. He was not so lucky the next year. In February 1928, he walked out of the Federal court at Third and Boulder convicted of bootlegging, bound for a Kansas lockup.

His Leavenworth stretch has often been described as a two–year tutorial in bank robbing, since many criminal luminaries of that age were also housed there. His mentors included Harvey Bailey, the “King of the Heist Men,” and Frank “Jelly” Nash, who helped stage the last Oklahoma train robbery in August 1923 near Bartlesville.

George was released in 1930 and eventually traveled north to plan jobs with Bailey. A few years earlier, crooked law enforcement helped local gangsters create the Silicon Valley of America’s criminal elite and a second home for several Tulsa gangsters.

“Of all the Midwest cities,” reminisced sometime Tulsan Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, decades later, “the one I knew the best was St. Paul, and it was a crook’s haven. Every criminal of any importance in the 1930s made his home [there] at one time or another.”

George helped rob a bank at Willmar, some one hundred miles west of St. Paul, July 15, 1930, taking $70,000, in cash—worth about $900,000 in modern money—and as much in securities. The St. Paul Pioneer Press called it “one of the most daring bank holdups since the days of the Younger Brothers and Jesse James gangs.” Even so, the James-Younger gang had been shot to pieces forty miles to the south in Northfield.

St. Paul homeboy Sammy Silverman grabbed an oversized share of the loot after the Willmar robbery. A month later, Silverman and two Kansas City racketeers were found dead high in the willow trees at White Bear Lake, fourteen miles northeast of St. Paul. The killings remained unsolved until George Kelly told authorities in 1934 that yet another Willmar accomplice had killed them all. George had used his own undersized share of the money dazzling Kathryn into marriage.

George later called this the turning point in his career. He should have just returned to bootlegging in Tulsa but, “No,” George remembered, mixing up the timeline somewhat, “that wasn’t enough. I had to go to Fort Worth and into that honky-tonk. [Kathryn] was pretty, the prettiest redhead I ever saw.” A Minneapolis preacher married them in September 1930.

George helped steal $40,000 from the Central State Bank in Sherman, Texas, on April 3, 1931. Ten months later, he struck a bank nearby at Denton and scored almost another forty at a Tupelo, Mississippi, near Kathryn’s birthplace on November 30, 1932. Since banks often ran out of cash during this, the third year of the Great Depression, Kathryn and George had begun to look for other opportunities.

•••

Kathryn always dreamed of better, brighter things and never-ending nightlife. George may have planned his first kidnapping during the 1931 Christmas season just to keep the peace. There is little or no evidence that Kathryn was involved.

George pulled young Howard Woolverton and his wife out of their car and into the cold evening air at South Bend, Indiana, the next January, demanding $50,000. Howard was the son of a local bank president who lived large, but was cash poor, due to Depression-era reversals. After three days, the young man gave his captors a face-saving yet totally worthless promissory note and was released. George and Kathryn sent notes demanding payment for months, but the family never even answered.

Kathryn knew what to do next.

She drove into Fort Worth, in February 1933, purchased a second-hand Thompson machine gun at a pawn shop and announced that from now on, the daily cocktail hour at the Shannon ranch would not begin until George finished target practice. She bragged about “the Big Guy” in Fort Worth dives, dumps, and hangouts, and soon began calling George “Machine Gun Kelly,” even though George didn’t care much for guns when he wasn’t robbing banks.

Tulsa’s Barker-Karpis gang abducted beer baron William A. Hamm at St. Paul, in June 1933. When they demanded a $100,000 ransom and got it, George, Kathryn, and their partner Albert Bates decided to try kidnapping again, despite a second failed effort.

Kathryn worked with George and Albert, planning the intricate details.

Silent, taciturn Charles Urschel started as an Ohio farm boy, served in the stateside Army during World War I, and put together enough cash to try his luck in the Oklahoma oil fields. He became the trusted business partner of Tom Slick, the wonder boy of Oklahoma wildcatters. Urschel married Slick’s widow Berenice,and moved into her Oklahoma City mansion. Later, they fired their armed bodyguard because he slept too much.

On July 22, 1933, Urschel probably wished he’d found a replacement.

“Keep your seats, all of you,” George demanded as he and Albert bolted through the screened porch door, interrupting a card game. The Urschels were entertaining Charles’ business partner, Walter Jarrett and his wife, late that Saturday evening in the exclusive Heritage Hills district. When the foursome refused to identify Urschel, both men were shoved into the getaway car. Jarrett was later released with cab fare, but Urschel was driven blindfolded to the Shannon farm, sporting earplugs.

There were a few minor hitches during the first few hours of the abduction to be sure. Since the getaway driver forgot to fill the tank before the kidnapping, the party was stranded for an hour while someone went for gas. The driver also fell asleep, ran the car into a ditch and had to ask a farmer for directions to the hideout.

Urschel was treated well as the gang waited for the $200,000 ransom, larger than any paid previously in American history. Oilmen John G. Catlett of Tulsa and E.E. Kirkpatrick delivered the money to Kansas City on July 30. When the loot arrived at the hideout and the handshakes all around ended, Urschel was dumped on the north edge of Norman with just enough cash to catch a cab home.

•••

While Urschel was missing, former frontier lawman Charles Colcord offered a $10,000 reward for Machine Gun Kelly, dead or alive; the Kellys became the first major FBI targets under the new Lindbergh law, giving the FBI the lead in most American kidnappings.

The gang could not know that Urschel had a photographic memory. He mentally recorded all the sounds of dreary Depression-era farm life and peeked from beneath his blindfold at his captors until he was caught. Urschel also remembered the bitter taste of the water: the gang boasted about their bank robberies and described Bonnie and Clyde as small-time gas station bandits.

All this gave Urschel what the FBI needed to pinpoint the hideout more quickly than anyone expected. Urschel joined the August 12 raid on the Shannon place, carrying his own shotgun. The posse arrested the Shannons, but Kathryn and George Kelly were already on the run, sometimes together, sometimes separately. Harvey Bailey was found sleeping outside on a cot in the Texas heat with ransom money stuffed in his pockets, which did little to convince the jury he faced later that he was not a kidnapper. This was probably true.

Kathryn used Luther Arnold, a homeless farmer she picked up with his family along the road, to make an offer to federal prosecutors. She would surrender George and take a light sentence herself if her beloved mother Ora were released. When this didn’t work, she had George write letters to prosecutors threatening “the extermination of the entire Urschel family.” During the Shannon trial, a letter from Chicago smudged with George’s fingerprints, addressed to “Ignorant Charles,” told Urschel that “if the Shannons are convicted, you can get another rich wife in hell.” These threats prompted E.E. Kirkpatrick to call Kathryn a “Human Tigress” fifteen years later, when she unsuccessfully applied for parole. But now, in late September 1933, the authorities were closing in on the Kellys, even as her Shannon relatives, Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey, were being tried in Oklahoma City.

“I’ve been waiting for you all night,” George croaked, as he fidgeted with a pistol and nearly got himself shot before putting on his own handcuffs in a Memphis house, even as Kathryn screamed from the bedroom. He probably didn’t leave the front door unlocked on purpose and definitely didn’t say, “Don’t shoot, G-men,” either, despite stories that J. Edgar Hoover told for decades. The ashtray-strewn hideout was full of liquor bottles, but not a cent of the ransom was hidden in the trash and litter. About half of the $200,000 in ransom money has never been found.

The Kelly’s fifty-six day run from Paradise to Omaha and Cleveland, from there to San Antonio, St. Paul, and finally Tennessee was over. Kathryn refused to put her street clothes on, faked an appendicitis attack at the Memphis jail, and claimed in a newspaper interview that she was only involved because George threatened to kill her.

•••

Ora, Boss, and his son Armon “Potatoes” Shannon, were found guilty of kidnapping with Albert Bates and Harvey Bailey September 30, 1933. They were sentenced the next day, but not until George and Kathryn were escorted into the same courtroom four days after their capture to plead not guilty in a separate case. During their jury trial later, Kathryn blamed George for everything, when she wasn’t posing for newspaper photographers on the witness stand in black satin, as the gallery clucked. Kathryn’s own relatives sealed her fate by describing her involvement in the smallest details of the abduction.

Thirteen days after their first appearance before Judge Vaught, he gave Kathryn and George life sentences. “Be a good boy,” Kathryn said as George was led away. She never saw him again. Machine Gun Kelly died on his 59th birthday at Leavenworth in 1954. Charles Urschel, of all people, anonymously financed the college education of Kathryn’s daughter Pauline, with Judge Vaught acting as intermediary, despite the many times the Kelly gang threatened to kill him.

Kathryn Kelly and her mother Ora were released from prison in mid-June 1958 when the FBI refused to release files revealing that George probably wrote certain Urschel threat letters that the government had attributed to Kathryn. That year Charles Bronson played the lead in Machine-Gun Kelly, his first starring role.

Elderly patients living at the county poor farm—the Oklahoma City nursing home of last resort a few years later—probably didn’t know that kindly nurse Ora was a convicted big-time kidnapper. Perhaps she even gave shots and handed out pills. Kathryn worked there too, but as a bookkeeper.

When contacted in 1962, Kathryn was worried. “Why can’t they just leave us alone? I’m afraid I’ll lose this job if this constant barrage of publicity keeps up … I was just a young farm girl when I met Kelly back in 1930,” she dissembled. “I wasn’t used to all the money, cars and jewelry George offered me … Any farm girl would have been swept off her feet same as I was.”

Despite this, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Ace Atkins recently portrayed Kathryn as “the Lady Macbeth of Depression era America” in his historical novel Infamous, but she and her mother were long gone.

Ora died five years before Kathryn at the suburban Oklahoma City home they shared. Kathryn passed on in Tulsa as “Lera Cleo Kelly,” a supposed Wisconsin native, who lived at a west Tulsa nursing home.

Kathryn spent her last, anonymous days at Oklahoma Osteopathic Hospital, in a building still perched high above the Arkansas River. She might have even seen the place near the 11th Street Bridge where Howard Hughes’ great-grandfather led captured Union Army wagons westward, down a hill and across the shallows during the Civil War. How Kathryn Kelly, the Human Tigress of 1933, would have marveled at the fabled million dollars in loot General Gano supposedly carried away that day, had she only known.

From Gano’s crossing, you can see the place she died, her sleek, blue Cadillac, salad days of fame and sparkly diamonds long forgotten.

Laurence J. Yadon’s fifth book, Old West Swindlers, co-authored with Robert Barr Smith, was published in March.