Kelly’s mugshot in Memphis, 1933.
Before television, it was radio that brought to life the almost mystical figures entrenched in America’s past – politicians and athletes alike. However, bank robbers of the depression-era garnered most of the country’s attention as well. Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd became legendary staples in outlaw history. One notorious criminal in particular, was Memphis born, George Francis Barnes Jr. Raised in a prominent Memphis household in the early 1900’s, Barnes seemed destined to grow into a life of anything but infamy. As a graduate of Central High School, Kelly would enroll at Mississippi A&M (now Mississippi State University), only to flunk out within four months. After taking a stab at higher learning, Barnes returned home and began a short stint as a small time bootlegger. Upon experiencing legal trouble due to his then profession, Barnes married a young woman named Kathryn Thorne and left Memphis, embarking on a career of bank robbery. Along the way, Kathryn purchased for George a tommy gun, and the alias “Machine Gun Kelly” was born. Barnes changed his last name to Kelly, in attempt to protect his family’s reputation.
After the kidnapping of Oklahoma oil tycoon, Charles Urschel in 1932, FBI figurehead J. Edgar Hoover named Kelly – Public Enemy No 1. Upon receiving a $200,000 ransom for Urschel, Kelly and his wife fled to Memphis with the intention of laying low until things blew over. On the morning of September 26, 1933, the two were hiding out at a friend’s house at 1408 Rayner St, when the FBI entered the home and arrested the couple. Legend has it, that Kelly threw up his hands and exclaimed “G-Men don’t shoot, don’t shoot G-Men”. This is said to be the origin of the term, “G-Man” meaning, government man. Despite being long perceived that Kelly coined this term, it was later denounced as ever taking place. Kelly and his wife Kathryn were sentenced to life in prison, with Kelly being sent to Alcatraz. He would eventually be transferred to Leavenworth, where he would die of a heart attack on his 59th birthday on July 18, 1954.