George Francis Barnes Jr. (July 18, 1900 – July 18, 1954), better known as “MachineGun Kelly“, was an American gangster during the Prohibition era. His nickname came from his favorite weapon, a Thompson sub machine gun. His most famous crime was the kidnapping of oil tycoon and businessman Charles F. Urschel in July 1933 for which he, and his gang, collected a $200,000 ransom. Their victim had collected and left considerable evidence that assisted the subsequent FBI investigation that eventually led to Kelly’s arrest in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 26, 1933. His crimes also included bootlegging and armed robbery.
During the Prohibition era of the 1920s and 1930s Kelly worked as a bootlegger for himself as well as a colleague. After a short time, and several run-ins with the local Memphis police, he decided to leave town and head west with his girlfriend. To protect his family and escape law enforcement officers, he changed his name to George R. Kelly. 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, beginning February 11, 1928. He was reportedly 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; she also helped 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 note of evidence of his experience including remembering background sounds, counting footsteps and leaving fingerprints on surfaces in reach. This proved invaluable for the FBI in their investigation, as they concluded that Urschel had been held in Paradise, Texas, based on sounds that Urschel remembered hearing while he was being held hostage.
An investigation conducted at Memphis disclosed that the Kellys were living 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. George and Kathryn Kelly were taken into custody by FBI agents and Memphis police. Caught without a weapon, George Kelly allegedly 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, became synonymous with FBI agents. The couple was immediately removed to Oklahoma City.
The arrest of the Kellys was overshadowed by the escape of ten inmates, including all of the members of the future Dillinger gang, from the penitentiary in Michigan City, Indiana, that same night.
On October 12, 1933, George and Kathryn Kelly were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial was held at the Post Office, Courthouse and Federal Office Building in Oklahoma City.
Investigation at Coleman, Texas, disclosed that the Kellys had been housed and protected by Cassey Earl Coleman and Will Casey and that Coleman had assisted George Kelly in storing $73,250 of the Urschel ransom money on his ranch. This money was located by Bureau agents in the early morning hours of September 27 in a cotton patch on Coleman’s ranch. They were both indicted at Dallas, Texas, on October 4, 1933, charged with harboring a fugitive and conspiracy, and on October 17, 1933, Coleman, after entering a plea of guilty, was sentenced to serve one year and one day, and Casey after trial and conviction, was sentenced to serve two years in the United States Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas.
The kidnapping of Urschel and the two trials that resulted were historic in several ways. They were: 1) the first federal criminal trials in the United States in which movie 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 FBI; and 4) the first prosecution in which defendants were transported by airplane.
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 spent 17 years on Alcatraz as inmate number 117, working in the prison industries, and boasting of and exaggerating his past escapades to other inmates, and was quietly transferred back to Leavenworth in 1951. He died of a heart attack at Leavenworth on July 18, 1954, his 54th birthday, and is buried at Cottondale Texas Cemetery with a small headstone marked “George B. Kelley 1954”.