Moving on to the next portrait of infamy, we’d like you to meet another notorious criminal—gangster, bootlegger, and kidnapper from the 1920s to 30s. You may not know him by name, but perhaps one of his monikers may be familiar to you? Read on to see Machine Gun Kelly’s mug shot and learn more about his life of infamy.
Aside from Robert “The Birdman” Stroud and Alphonse “Al” Capone, Alcatraz’s list of the famously infamous inmates include George Kelly Barnes. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, that’s because he’s best known as “Machine Gun Kelly,” a moniker he earned for his favorite weapon, the Thompson submachine gun. He lived during the so-called Prohibition Era, a period where the sale, manufacture, and transport of alcohol was banned in the United States from 1920 to 1933.
According to stories, George Kelly Barnes married and fathered two children early; he worked as a cab driver in Memphis to support his family, but his earnings proved to be insufficient. Distressed and tired of working for long hours with little reward, he left the cab company and started looking for other opportunities to earn enough money. Still, he remained financially challenged and without a permanent job; he eventually got separated from his wife at 19. It was around this time that he started working as a small-time gangster and bootlegger in his hometown.
Shortly after he began his career of infamy, he had several encounters with the local police, forcing him to leave and move to the west with a new girlfriend. To ensure his family’s safety and avoid detection by the police, he changed his name to George R. Kelly. After the move, he continued committing petty crimes and bootlegging, while also managing to avoid arrests and jail sentences. However, he was spotted while smuggling liquor to an Indian Reservation in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1928. He was sentenced to three years in Leavenworth Penitentiary in Kansas, starting in February of the same year. He was released ahead of time for being a “model inmate.”
Shortly after serving another sentence in New Mexico State Penitentiary for a similar crime in 1929, he met and worked with Steve Anderson, a small-time bootlegger in Oklahoma City. There, he also met and fell in love with Anderson’s mistress, Kathryn Thorne, who was also an experienced criminal. It was Thorne who bought Kelly’s first machine gun and pushed him to commit more serious crimes. Some even say Kelly earned his infamous moniker from Thorne, who introduced him to her acquaintances as “Machine Gun” Kelly and handed out spent cartridge casings from his Tommy Gun as souvenirs.
Kelly committed his most serious criminal offense in July 1933, when he and his wife carried out a plan to kidnap Charles Urschel, a wealthy businessman and oil tycoon. They took and hid Urschel in a ranch in Texas, and demanded for a ransom of $200,000. However, despite being blindfolded, the businessman managed to foil Kelly and his gang by keeping track of everything about his experience, such as background sounds and footsteps. He also left fingerprints on everything he touched. These aided the FBI in their investigation, and led to the arrest of George and Kathryn Kelly on the morning of September 26, 1933.
The infamous duo faced trial in October 1933, and were given life imprisonment sentences. Kelly was first incarcerated in Leavenworth and his wife in a federal prison in Cincinnati. He was sent to Alcatraz for arrogant behavior towards prison officials, threatening to escape and pull his wife out from prison as well. Together with two of his accomplices, Kelly, tagged prisoner AZ #117, was among the first prisoners to be sent to the island penitentiary.
According to a former Alcatraz inmate, he earned the nickname “Pop Gun Kelly” for being an exemplary prisoner and hardly ever the tough, violent gangster that his wife introduced him to be. He spent 17 years in Alcatraz and was brought back to Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1951. Kelly passed away due to heart attack on July 18, 1954, which was his 59th birthday.
For more mug shots and stories about the most prominent gangsters and criminals, don’t forget to check the rest of Portraits of Infamy installments!
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