"Doc" on the Rock:
Ripples from the Fall
of Arthur Barker

by Joel GAzis-SAx

Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

For Susanna Dewa

Identification Order #1219

The G-Men shackled Arthur Barker to a chair. He didn't look like much: he was only five foot, three inches tall. For eight days and nights broken only by humanitarian restroom breaks and meals, the little man held out. He kept his brown eyes focused straight ahead, refusing his interrogators a glance lest he establish rapport and give a secret in a careless moment of comradery. He would tell them nothing. As far as the agents were concerned, he might as well have been catatonic.

What they had before them now was the latest incarnation of a popular romantic figure: the outlaw. During the Twenties, public fears and envies had dwelt on big city mobsters -- racketeers who could wiggle a finger and have a murder carried out. These public enemies -- as the press dubbed them -- were urban ethnics: the Irish, the Italians and the Jews. The Department of Justice, the IRS, and Treasury agents had joined forces to put these men behind bars. The gangsters of the Roaring Twenties had been the products of metropolitan affluence, men who set themselves up in major ports and rail centers where there were goods waiting to be hijacked and customers for their imported alcohol and narcotics.

The public enemies of the Thirties were farmboys from the heartland, men reared in the ethic of doing it all for themselves. They emulated Jesse James and his one-time Confederate irregulars, riding the plains in their steel steeds; striking against the rich; spitting lead into the hearts of interfering guards, meddlesome bystanders, and intrusive police with their machine guns; and then zipping across state lines to enjoy the spoils. Barker and his gang had kept the Feds guessing for years. They knew how to hit banks, leaving no one knowing who had done it. Sometimes others got the blame. Like many Depression-era bandits, they earned for themselves quiet support and admiration from an agrarian public which hated the banks. Farmers used to sharing their crop failures with those close to them found that loan officers would not starve and sacrifice for them. Lenders kept themselves fat by foreclosing on cultivators during bad years. If a villain knocked over a poorly guarded small-town depository, he might see a close-mouthed smile on a man who'd just lost everything on a mortgage. Exploiting this kind of gratitude and laying down careful plans had enabled the Barker-Karpis gang to confound federal and local law enforcement and work almost anonymously.

Doc was born in southern Missouri's Ozark Mountains to Arizona Donnie "Kate" Barker and her lead miner husband George. His 1899 birth made him their third son. George was a hard-working man who never had trouble with the law nor high ambitions. According to Doc's Leavenworth prison admission record, Mr. Barker "was always moderate in his discipline." Arizona was known as a "devoutly religious mother" who "read her Bible and played the fiddle."(1) Doc and the other boys just called Arizona "Ma". Like his three brothers -- Herman, Lloyd, and Fred -- he'd started young as a petty thief. Webb City, Missouri police took him and his brothers in so many times that his mother became histrionic. "They're marked," she complained. "The cops here won't ever stop persecuting my boys." And so, in 1915, when Doc was 16, she moved the brood to Tulsa where sons Herman and Lloyd ran the Central Park Gang's mugging and burglary operations. When he turned 18, he turned to honest work, getting himself trained as a glass blower for a company that made glass chimneys in Fort Smith, Arkansas and Tulsa. Doc got himself in bigger trouble in 1918 when he stole a government vehicle on the Fourth of July. The Tulsa city police delivered him to the U.S. Court, but he escaped. He spent the next two years working as a common laborer in Tulsa. Joplin, Missouri police picked him up in 1920 and returned him to Tulsa. Somehow, he or his mother negotiated his release, which left him free to be arrested for burglarizing a bank (he told Muskogee, Oklahoma police that his name was "Claud Dale"). The State of Oklahoma kept him in the State Penitentiary for a few months while lawyers debated his future: in June 1921, the Court ordered his release.

The murder of a hospital security guard in 1922 brought Doc unwanted and perhaps undeserved attention. This time the courts found "Dock" and his friend Volney Davis guilty of murder and sentenced them to life imprisonment at the State Penitentiary in McAlester, Oklahoma. While Herman and Freddie were free to rob small-town banks, general stores, and other mercantile concerns, (Lloyd had been sentenced to 25 years in Leavenworth for mail robbery) Doc brooded over this one crime he had not committed and worked as a printer. Ma spent years trying to convince Oklahoma officials of Doc's innocence. Years later vindication came when a California-based thief confessed to the murder.(2)

Meanwhile Ma's youngest and favorite, Freddie, freely roamed the Midwest until he botched a robbery on the Windfield, Kansas bank. He got sent up to the Kansas State Penitentiary in Lansing in 1926. Herman roved the southwest with the Kimes-Terril Gang, knocking over banks and stores. A 1927 raid on Newton, Kansas for free supplies ended his life. He blasted his way through a surprise road block, killing a marshal; but the officer's partners got Herman as he passed. Herman buzzed up the road and pulled off. He bled profusely and felt too weak to go on, so he sucked the barrel of his Luger, angled it upwards, and, with his last bullet, shot himself.

Ma could not admit that Herman had killed himself. The problem, as she saw it, was the police. Her sons were strong and brave, the police murderous and conniving. In 1927, she left her husband for a younger lover, Arthur Dunlop. (George and Ma never divorced.) For the next several years, she would haunt the halls of government in Oklahoma and Kansas, campaigning for her three surviving sons' release. The money for the lawyers and, perhaps the bribes, came from the safe house she operated for fugitives in Tulsa. Freddie would be the first released in 1931. And he would bring to the family a new friend whom he'd met in prison, a calculating robber named Alvin Karpis.

Alvin and Fred were probably lovers, at least in their prison days. They met shortly before Fred's release from Lansing. Karpis engineered his own early release by volunteering for work in the prison coal mines. For all the coal he turned in which exceeded his minimum, Karpis could earn "good time" or time off his sentence. He didn't work much harder at mining: he paid prisoners with life sentences to mine the extra coal for him. He turned it in as his own and soon joined Freddie and Ma in Tulsa. Ma accepted Karpis as her son.

Whether Ma was the driving force behind the gang or just their cook and laundress has never been clear. Historians and pulp writers still debate whether Ma was the gang's mastermind, molding her sons into the image of her childhood heroes the James/Dalton Gang or just a misguided mother who could see no evil in "her boys". She did operate safe houses as a way of making money for their defense before, during, and after their incarcerations; she enjoyed the vacations and homes which they bought with their take from the banks; and she stood by Freddie to the last as the Feds surrounded the Florida vacation cottage where they were hiding out together. The family dynamic continues to inspire thrill-seeking, amateur psychiatrists who seek to explain and even invent Fred, Doc, Alvin, and Ma by appealing to folk theories blaming "bad seed" or peculiar sexuality. One sensationalist crime writer, taking the testimony of the often imaginative Alcatraz stool pigeon "Blackie" Audett as truth, claims that Alvin and Fred operated as murderous procurers for their lesbian mother who left the bodies of many girls at the bottom of Ice Age lakes once she'd finished with them.(3) Whatever her role, all who wrote about her agreed that she lived chauvinistically for her sons.

Doc got paroled in 1932 on the condition he leave Oklahoma and never return. He spent three months visiting his father in Neosho, Missouri before meeting Ma, Fred, and Alvin up in Saint Paul. He may have tried to go straight. His Leavenworth prison psychiatrist reported: "He states that he was unable to make his way by being employed in lawful economic pursuits and was forced to resort to other means of livilihood. [sic] Unfortunately, these were unlawful means." (4) Doc's first venture with the gang was the robbery of the Third Northwestern Bank of Minneapolis. This netted the family business $112,000. Officers Leo Gorski and Ira Evans met the robbers as they came out and were fatally shot for their vigilance. A curious bystander, one Oscar Erickson, also met his death. Some say that Doc, thrilled by his new freedom and the novel, explosive power of the gang's machine guns, did the killings himself. When the police caught up with one of their accomplices, Larry DeVol, a few days later, the Barkers moved to winter quarters in Reno, Nevada. DeVol did not betray his associates.

Robbery, the Barkers and Karpis came to realize, was a hazardous crime. In early 1933, they raided the Fairbury, Nebraska bank. Earl Christman did not see the security guard who drove a bullet into his gut. The gang killed the guard and took Christman to a Kansas City safehouse. Christman died the next day. The Barkers and Karpis buried the body in a secret place. They'd netted over $150,000, but was it worth the risk? None of them knew why the guard had chosen Christman. It could have been someone else, maybe a Barker or Karpis. And, sometimes, even when things went well, robbery did not pay. The Barkers, Monty Bolton, Bill "Lapland Willie" Weaver, and Fred Goetz ambushed an armored car in Chicago. Bolton shot a patrolman while the others loaded several sacks, which proved to be filled with worthless paper, into the getaway car. Though they continued to rob banks and payrolls, they experimented with a surer and safer tactic: kidnapping wealthy citizens. Their first target was brewer William Hamm of St. Paul.

St. Paul underworld figure Jack Peiser recruited the Hamm kidnappers who included Doc, Freddie, Karpis, Fred Goetz (who also went by the name George Ziegler), Charles J. Fitzgerald, and, later, Byron Bolton. Hamm was walking to lunch a block or so from his brewery when Doc and Fitzgerald joined him and waved over a Hudson sedan driven by Karpis. As Bolton watched for police or courageous citizens who might intervene, Doc and Fitzgerald pushed Hamm into the back of the car and made him lay, blindfolded, on the floor. Bolton jumped into the front seat. The kidnappers drove Hamm thirty miles outside of the city, then stopped to force him to sign some notes authorizing his bankers to pay the ransom and asking that his his friend, William Dunn, deliver it. Freddie, Fitzgerald and possibly Fred Goetz returned to St. Paul while Karpis, Doc, and Bolton drove down to the Bensenville, Illinois home of Edmund C. Bartholmey. Bartholmey later claimed ignorance of the gang's plans. "George Ziegler" (Goetz) had persuaded him to let Barker, Karpis, Bolton and their prisoner stay a few days. He told a prison psychiatrist "...I had nothing to do with [the kidnapping]....[A]s soon as I saw the man, I felt that there was something wrong, but I didn't know it was Hamm until the next day." Negotiations for Hamm's release proceeded quickly and, four days after his June 15, 1933 abduction, he reappeared, $100,000 poorer.(5)

Edward George Bremer, a wealthy St. Paul banker, had just pulled up to a stop sign after dropping off his daughter at her St. Paul, Minnesota school when four masked men bearing pistols appeared and forced him away from the wheel of his Lincoln sedan. They clubbed him over the head, pressed him to the floor of his car, and strapped a pair of taped goggles over his eyes. As Doc, Karpis, Harry Campbell, and William Weaver drove Bremer to their Bensonville, Illinois hideout, other members of the gang contacted Bremer's friend Walter Magee with the ransom demand. Bremer spent two weeks as the Barker's captive while Magee negotiated his release on behalf of the family. Doc, Fred, and Alvin took great pains to hide their identities and Bremer's whereabouts, even from him: they made Bremer wear a blindfold, feigned phony accents, and compelled Bremer's ransomers to follow their strict instructions for the payoff. On February 6, 1934, Magee went as instructed to a St. Paul street corner where he found an unlocked car marked with Shell Oil Company signs. Inside this car he found the following note:

Go to Farmington, Minnesota. The Rochester bus will arrive there at 9:15 p.m. and leave at 9:25 p.m. Follow one hundred yards in back of this bus, when it leaves Farmington until you come to four red lights on the left of the road; turn on the first road to the left and proceed at fifteen miles per hour until you see five flashes of lights; then stop and deposit packages of money on right hand side of road. Leave the note; get in the car and go straight ahead.(6)

Magee complied fully. He left $200,000 in five and ten dollar bills by the roadside and drove on. Bremer appeared, tired and disoriented but alive, near Rochester, Minnesota the next evening.

The banker's release allowed the Department of Justice's Division of Investigation (the predecessor of the FBI) to vigorously pursue the kidnappers. They questioned Bremer closely about his ride to the hideout, the furnishings and markings of his room there, the sound of his kidnappers' voices, and the way they'd treated him. An empty gas can turned up outside of Portage, Wisconsin. Bremer remembered seeing this and so the Division sent it off to Washington. Fingerprint analysts found two latent prints on the can. These belonged to Arthur "Doc" Barker. The gang, which had enjoyed anonymity in its previous ventures, suddenly became the subject of teletype messages to special agents throughout the country. On March 23, 1934, Division of Investigation Identification Order No. 1219 went out to law enforcement officials and post offices nationwide. This poster of Doc's fingerprints, description, signature, criminal record, and face became an emblem of the Federal campaign against the gang.(7)

The Barkers and Karpis panicked. They killed Harry Campbell and possibly Fred Goetz, blowing the latter's face into a thousand pieces so that he could not be identified. They sought the services of Chicago underworld surgeon Joseph P. Moran. Moran put Fred and Karpis under morphine sedation. He made some alterations to their faces which changed little and hurt a lot. He injected their fingertips with cocaine and then scraped off all the whorled layers of skin right down to the muscle.(8)

Despite Fred and Karpis's feral displeasure with the results of the surgery, Moran stayed in the good graces of the Barker family long enough to launder some money for them. Moran slipped, however, when he moved off to Toledo. There he bragged to a parlor house madam that he had the Barkers in the palm of his hand. The madam reported the boast to the gang. In August 1934, Moran left the brothel in Doc and Fred's company. He never returned. The brothers shot Moran and laid him in a lime-filled hole somewhere in Michigan.

After Moran's death, the gang scattered. Doc remained in Chicago, enjoying shows, reading, and doing a little gambling. Special Agent Melvin Purvis tracked Doc to the apartment at 436 Surf Street that he shared with his girlfriend. As Doc and his girl came out for their evening walk on the night of January 8, 1935, he saw Purvis coming up the walk. Other agents appeared as quickly as he could turn his head. He stopped and let them search him. They patted him down. No lumps. Surprised that this killer should be unarmed, Purvis asked Doc where his gun was.

"Home," said Doc. "And ain't that a hell of a place for it?"(9)

While some of the agents questioned Doc at headquarters, others searched his apartment. A mark on a Florida tourist map that the agents found in his living room showed them where they could find Fred and Ma. Purvis led his agents to Oklawaha, Florida. Just before dawn on January 16, 1935, they crept up on the two story vacation cottage on Lake Weir. They broke the silence, announcing their arrival and calling on the Barkers to come out. For a few moments, there was no reply. The agents repeated their command. And there was more silence. Then an agent threatened to use tear gas if they didn't come out.

Ma yelled "All right, go ahead!" Machine guns made the ground between the house and the agents' line impassable to both crook and lawman. The battle went on for hours, until the FBI ran out of ammunition and had to send to Jacksonville for more. It was then that they noticed that the firing from the house had also ceased. Purvis led his agents to the door, let them kick it in, and then entered. Fred and Ma were in an upstairs bedroom. Fred lay on his face, atop a .45 automatic and a machine gun. Ma lay next to him, a machine gun by her side. They still had ammunition to spare.(10)

While the local undertakers made some cash on the side displaying Fred and Ma's ice-preserved corpses to a curious public, the U.S. Attorney in Minneapolis began the process of putting Doc in a place where he would not be seen; where the facts of his life would be reduced to a subject of gossip and conjecture. Doc was found guilty of the Bremer Kidnapping (while Alvin Karpis was still at large) and sentenced to life imprisonment. The court recommended that he be sent to the Federal Bureau of Prison's isle of forgotten souls, a Chateau d'If known as Alcatraz.


(1) U.S. Penitentiary Leavenworth, Kansas, Admission Summary for #46928 (Arthur Barker), June 3, 1935 (BOP Archive); Lawrence County Historical Society Bulletin, July 1991. [Return]

(2) Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen, M. Evans and Company, 1995, p. 47. [Return]

(3) Ward, Families Who Kill, Pinnacle Books, p. 91. [Return]

(4) USPLK, Admission Summary for #46928 [Return]

(5) Parole Report by U.S. Attorney for 49369-L (Charles Fitzgerald), no date (1936?); Whelan, Parole report for Edmund C. Bartholmey, August 1, 1936 (cross-filed in Charles Fitzgerald file). Fitzgerald was the oldest member of the Barker gang. Born in 1877, he'd first been arrested in Kansas City for carrying a concealed weapon in 1898, the year before Doc was born. Prison officials considered him a habitual criminal. In 1942, he'd become so emaciated and sick with heart disease that Alcatraz authorities sent him to Leavenworth where he died in 1945.

The report by the U.S. Attorney suggests that the kidnappers were convened by Jack Peiser. If this is so, it lends credibility to the contention that Ma was not the gang's "mastermind." Karpis and Fitzgerald, however, both made statements in court to the effect that Peiser had nothing to do with the kidnapping. Peiser committed suicide before sentencing. Cf. Karpis, pp. 11-13. Bolton turned against his co-conspirators.

(6) Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Barker-Karpis Gang", monograph, November 19, 1936, revised, April 1984, p. 7. [Return]

(7) The wanted poster lists several people who were not related to the Barkers at all! Doc was given a wife named Edna, two sisters and two brothers that he never had in real life. (Thanks to Betty Allen and Sarah Davis for checking Missouri genealogical sources on the Barkers.)[Return]

(8) This part of the operation was more successful: many years later Karpis, who said that Moran had "sharpen[ed] the ends of my fingers like you'd sharpen a pencil", would befuddle FBI men who came to fingerprint him as one of Alcatraz's resident aliens. He had nothing to print. Nash, p. 49; Karpis, On the Rock, New York: Beaufort Books, 1980, p. 126. [Return]

(9) Nash, p. 50. [Return]

(10) Nash, pp. 50-51; FBI, p. 9. [Return]

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