On January 16, 1935, FBI agents engaged in an epic six-hour gunfight with Kate “Ma” Barker and her son Fred in tiny Ocklawaha, Florida, ending the criminal reign of the notorious Ma Barker crime family and eventually causing the death of Tallahassee. graze public enemy no. 1.
At the height of the heyday of J. Edgar Hoover’s “Public Enemy #1,” FBI agents tracked down notorious bank robbers and kidnapper Ma and his son Fred, to Ocklawaha, a sleepy town on the banks of the Lake Weir in Marion County, Florida. There was no quick stop.
After approaching the rental house on January 16, 1935, at 5 a.m., and making their presence known, a firefight ensued until 11 a.m. By the time the dust cleared, the two suspects had been killed prompting the shootout longest in FBI history.
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A crime family develops
Ma Barker was born Arizona Clark in Ash Grove, Missouri in 1873. In 1892 she married George Barker and the couple had four sons: Herman (1893-1927), Lloyd (1897-1949), Arthur (1899-1939), and Frederick (1901 -1935).
His sons were involved in crimes that escalated into robbery and murder. Herman died in 1927 in Wichita, Kansas after a robbery and murder of a police officer. He committed suicide to avoid arrest after being seriously injured.
In 1928, Lloyd was incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Arthur was in Oklahoma State Prison and Fred was in Kansas State Prison. At some point during this period, George, his father, left the family. Subsequently he was buried in Oklahoma in 1941 when he died of natural causes.
Going after Public Enemy No. 1
Fred Barker was released from prison in 1931. He had met Alvin Karpis, another inmate, while serving in Kansas. Upon their release, they were arrested for jewelry theft later that year. On November 8, 1931, they encountered Night Marshal Manley Jackson in Pocahontas, Missouri, whom they took hostage and was later murdered.
During a series of robberies, Barker and Karpis killed Sheriff C. Roy Kelly in West Plains, Missouri on December 19, 1931, and fled the area along with Ma. Arthur Barker was released from prison in 1932 and joined the gang.
While continuing with their heists, the gang went big in June 1933, when they kidnapped William Hamm, heir to the Hamm Brewery in Minnesota. After receiving a $100,000.00 ransom, he was released safely. In January 1934, they kidnapped Edward Bremer, bank president and son of Adolf Bremer, president of the Jacob Schmidt Brewing Company, and received a ransom of $200,000.
This was the equivalent of approximately $4,360,000 today. The Bremer family was connected to President Franklin D. Roosevelt which soon led to the Justice Department investigating. George “Shotgun” Ziegler, a gang member who had been instrumental in planning Bremer’s kidnapping, began bragging about the kidnapping. He was fatally shot as he exited a restaurant in Cicero, Illinois on March 22, 1934. Justice Department agents found names, addresses, and other valuable information in his pockets.
The longest shootout
On January 8, 1935, agents led by Melvin Purvis captured Arthur Barker in Chicago. He had in his possession a map of Florida with Lake Weir, near Ocala, circled. This led the agents to the tiny village of Ocklawaha and eventually to the rental house occupied by Ma and Fred Barker at 13250 East Highway C-25.
At approximately 5 a.m. on January 16, officers led by Officer Earl Connelly surrounded the house. After making his presence known, Officer Connelly told the occupants that no one would be hurt if they left. But Barker shouted “Well, go ahead!” Tear gas was fired into the residence and gunfire was returned.
The officers and occupants fired at each other over the next six hours, with an exchange of between 950 and 1,500 shots. By all accounts, it was a slow firefight with sporadic gunfire. Finally, around noon, officers entered the house and found Ma and Fred both dead. Officers found machine guns, rifles, pistols and $14,293 in cash.
The story doesn’t end there
Alvin Karpis was eventually captured and sent to Alcatraz, but not before stashing untold sums of money in several banks. He was paroled in 1969, wrote a book and moved to Spain. He died on August 26, 1979, in Spain, of an overdose of sleeping pills or natural causes, according to different accounts.
Ma and Fred’s bodies were taken to Sam Pyle’s Funeral Home in Ocala by undertaker Harold Martin. The bodies were embalmed and put on display in the funeral home for the next eight months. The high volume of curious spectators wore out the carpet.
After they were placed on public display, a Joplin, Missouri attorney named Claude Kenney made arrangements to bury their remains in Timber Hill Cemetery near the city of Miami, Oklahoma. En route to Oklahoma, the hearse stopped in Tallahassee on September 25, 1935. The driver boasted that he had a couple of real highwaymen with him. “Oh, don’t worry,” he continued, “they’re dead.”
The house where the shooting occurred was moved to Carney Island Recreation Area, on Lake Weir, in 2018. It is now a museum.
And so, while we’ve been visited by presidents, celebrities, and a serial killer, that’s been our touchdown with a depression-era Public Enemy No. 1.
Florida Sheriffs Association law enforcement coordinator David Brand is an occasional guest columnist for the Tallahassee Democrat and lives in St. Teresa.