On a steamy Saturday night, July 22, 1933, two married couples played bridge in the screened-in sunroom of a mansion near downtown. It was after 11:30 p.m., the game starting to wind down, when two armed men — one toting a submachine gun — burst in through the unlatched screen door. One of the women let out a shriek.
“Don’t say a word or we’ll blow your heads off!” barked the man with the machine gun. “Now which one’s Urschel?”
The homeowners, Charles and Berenice Urschel, did not say a word — nor did their guests, Walter Jarrett and his wife, Clyde.
The intruders, later identified as George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Albert Bates, weren’t the most prepared. Kelly repeated the question.
Again, no one at the card table spoke.
Kelly cracked a slight grin. “We’ll take both of you, then,” he said. He and Bates hurried the two men out the door and into a Chevrolet parked outside the home at 327 N.W. 18th.
On the way out of town, the kidnappers fished through their captives’ wallets to identify Urschel. They tossed Jarrett out of the car near Luther.
Kelly and Bates had their hostage: Charles F. Urschel, an oilman and husband to the widow of Tom Slick, the so-called “king of the wildcatters.” They drove south, certain that the 43-year-old baron blindfolded, bound and gagged in the backseat would fetch a tidy sum.
Berenice Urschel, meanwhile, wasted no time contacting police. But that wasn’t the only law enforcement she enlisted for help. She remembered a recent Time magazine article about the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, soon to be known as the FBI, which was tasked with combating kidnapping in the wake of the 1932 abduction of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby.
Berenice dialed the hotline number listed in the magazine.
The voice on the other end, the bureau director, was an ambitious bureaucrat named J. Edgar Hoover.
Rocked by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl, Oklahoma City was fertile ground for mythmaking. “Machine Gun” Kelly, born George Barnes, entered the dubious pantheon of 1930s-era gangsterdom. Not coincidentally, his notoriety also boosted the profile of Hoover and his FBI.
“What elevated this regional story to national legend was Hoover’s need not only to self-promote, but to promote the FBI,” said Bryan Burrough, author of the nonfiction book Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 — the basis for the 2009 Michael Mann film. “It was about promoting the FBI at a time where a lot of people didn't believe it would continue to exist, much less thrive.”
A federal agency of supercops needed bad guys formidable enough to warrant sizable funding and resources. While the Depression’s economic hardships produced no shortage of criminals roaming the Midwest, many were unremarkable thugs propelled to evil-mastermind status by Hoover’s penchant for hyperbole and a willingly sensationalistic press corps.
“This was when J. Edgar Hoover … was a little-known functionary in charge of a little-known bureau that few people outside of Washington had heard of,” said Burrough. “His agents couldn't make arrests. They couldn't carry guns, although some quietly did. The arrest of ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly was the first in a series of arrests and shoot-outs that turned Hoover into a household name.”
Barnes was atypical of the public enemies whose names were splashed across headlines in the ’30s. Raised in an upper-middle-class household in Tennessee, he briefly attended college and even made good grades.
But things began to sour after his mother died. He took the surname Kelly and turned to two-bit crimes. A stint in federal prison for bootlegging on American Indian land put him in close contact with more seasoned crooks. Upon his release in 1930, he drifted through the country, robbing banks.
“He was never the menacing figure that the name ‘Machine Gun’ Kelly suggests,” said Burrough. “He was a hard-drinking, fairly easygoing mook who had the good or bad luck to marry Kathryn Kelly.”
By most accounts, Kathryn Kelly was decidedly tougher. A slim, auburn-haired woman with a taste for fine clothes, furs and cars, it wasn’t hard for her to find men who would lavish her with such gifts.
She had been married three times by the time she and Kelly tied the knot in 1930 in Fort Worth, Texas.
Already, there were indications that Kathryn was as dangerous as she was attractive.
Husband No. 2 died under curious circumstances. A coroner determined the shooting was a suicide in light of a typewritten note found beside the body: “I can’t live with her or without her, hence I am departing this life.” Not bad for a man who was illiterate.
In George, Kathryn perhaps sensed the potential for bigger things. A canny publicist, she bought him a machine gun and distributed spent cartridge shells around Fort Worth speakeasies as mementos of “Machine Gun” Kelly. Word spread how her desperado husband could spray his name in bullets and shoot walnuts off a fence post, despite there being no evidence he ever fired a gun.
The Kellys tried their hand at kidnapping. They took a banker’s son in South Bend, Ind., only to discover that the young man’s profligate spending had not accurately reflected his parents’ modest means. They grudgingly released him after he signed a worthless promissory note.
The Urschels, by contrast, were hardly strapped for cash. In addition to Charles’ fortune, Berenice’s late husband had amassed an estate said to be worth $50 million.
Kelly and Bates took Urschel to a ranch in Paradise, Texas, about 40 miles north of Fort Worth. Owned by Kathryn’s stepfather and mother, Robert “Boss” and Ora Shannon, the place was known in underground circles as a safe haven for crooks on the lam.
For the next nine days, a blindfolded Urschel was kept chained to a high chair while the Shannons kept guard.
A ransom letter arrived at the Tulsa home of John Catlett, an Urschel friend. It instructed Urschel’s family to place a specific classified ad in The Daily Oklahoman. Berenice Urschel complied, which prompted a follow-up letter in which the kidnappers outlined their demands.
Following that directive, on July 29, Urschel employee E.E. Kirkpatrick boarded the “Sooner” train to Kansas City, Mo., carrying a leather bag that held the $200,000 ransom. Catlett was also onboard with a decoy bag, in case things went awry.
As the kidnappers had instructed, Kirkpatrick kept an eye out for two bonfires alongside on the way to Missouri. Once he spotted the second one, he was to toss the bag from the train. If he didn’t see a fire, he was to continue on to Kansas City, check into a hotel and await further word.
The bonfire rigmarole likely was just pretense; neither Kirkpatrick nor Catlett saw any blaze. Ultimately, Kirkpatrick delivered the bag to a stocky, well-dressed man — later identified as Kelly — outside a hotel in Kansas City.
According to several accounts, the Kellys argued about their next move. Kathryn reportedly wanted them to kill Urschel, while George contended they’d be assured the electric chair if they didn’t fulfill their end of the bargain.
Thus, Urschel’s life was spared. He returned home two days later, managing to avoid a crush of reporters camped outside his house.
The next morning, he sat down with Gus Jones, the federal agent handpicked by Hoover to head the investigation.
Information gushed from Urschel like one of his wells.
“He had a tremendous photographic memory,” said Stanley Hamilton, author of Machine Gun Kelly’s Last Stand. “In business, they said he could quote back over a month or two running of amounts lost in the last month, right down to the date. No one wanted to play poker with him. He cleaned them out all the time — great memory.”
In captivity, he put it to good use. The night of his abduction, Urschel recalled the car had stopped at a filling station where an attendant commented on drought in the area not affecting the “broomcorn,” a crop prevalent in southern Oklahoma.
Urschel said he’d been kept at a farm, because he routinely heard the sounds of roosters, pigs and other barnyard animals. He recounted that the well water tasted like sulfur. He approximated dimensions of the place by counting his steps. And he made sure to leave his fingerprints on everything he could.
Most tellingly, he told Jones about how he heard an airplane fly overhead twice a day, except for a Sunday, when it rained. It turned out to be American Airways’ daily flight between Fort Worth and Amarillo, Texas.
Piecing together such information, investigators employed scientific methodology to identify the Shannon ranch as the site of Urschel’s captivity.
Or so that was the story. Burrough is skeptical.
“I think that's horseshit,” he said. “That's the story that was retold for a quarter-century, that Gus Jones, through ‘scientific policing’ — Hoover's buzzword — deduced all this from Urschel.”
Burrough maintains that the unsung hero was Fort Worth police detective Ed Weatherford.
A drinking chum of Kathryn’s, Weatherford had pegged the Kellys early on as potential suspects. The day after the kidnapping, the detective had noticed a Daily Oklahoman paper in the Kellys’ car, its tires caked in red clay. He relayed his suspicions to the Dallas FBI office and continued to hound the bureau over the following weeks.
Agents eventually relented and checked the Shannon ranch. The Kellys, they learned, had been there often.
“It's pretty clear that only after all of what Urschel was saying matched exactly with the Shannon ranch, did they decide to raid it,” Burrough said.
If Weatherford received little credit, Urschel perhaps fared only marginally better. While the details he proved were invaluable, Hamilton said, Hoover minimized Urschel’s contributions.
“Hoover didn't want to share credit with anybody,” said Hamilton. “During the trial and everything, he never really played that (Urschel’s account) up. Hoover sent Urschel a note of thanks later — a pretty crappy note.”
‘Don’t shoot, G-Man!’
Police and federal agents, joined by Urschel, raided the Paradise ranch on Aug. 12. They arrested the Shannons as well as a murderous fugitive named Harvey Bailey, who had the poor timing of hiding out there with some of the Urschel ransom in his possession. Police arrested Bates in Denver a few days later.
With the Kellys still at large, their conspirators were tried in Oklahoma City federal court. Kathryn, furious over her mother’s prosecution, got word to the government that she’d give them her husband if charges against Ora Shannon were dropped. Prosecutors declined.
It wasn’t long before a number of key figures in the trial — including Urschel and presiding Judge Edgar Vaught — received death threats, presumably from George Kelly.
“You are living on borrowed time now,” Kelly wrote Urschel. “You know that the Shannon family are victims of circumstances the same as you was. You don’t seem to mind prosecuting the innocent, neither will I have any conscious qualms over brutally murdering your family.”
Such bravado ended Sept. 26, when law enforcement descended on the Kellys’ hideout in Memphis, Tenn.
“Don’t shoot, G-man! Don’t shoot!”
That’s what “Machine Gun” Kelly allegedly shouted when federal agents, guns drawn, closed in on him. Whether that utterance, ostensibly Kelly’s nickname for “government man,” was reality remains uncertain.
But newspapers loved the story, and it served to burnish the FBI’s reputation while bolstering Hoover’s contention that the most fearsome criminals were “yellow rats” at heart.
Vaught sentenced the Kellys, the Shannons, Bates and Bailey to life in prison. Newsreel cameras rolled — the first time they were allowed in federal court.
Crime doesn’t pay
Kathryn Kelly and her mother left prison in 1958 during a hearing for a retrial. They never returned. The FBI refused to open its case files, in effect giving authorities little option but to drop the matter. That year, Charles Bronson starred in the B-movie Machine Gun Kelly, depicting the title character as a bloodthirsty psychopath.
Mother and daughter quietly settled in Oklahoma City, working as bookkeepers at the Oklahoma County Poor Farm.
Kent Frates, who writes about the crime in Oklahoma’s Most Notorious Cases, to be published next year by University of Oklahoma Press, said he is certain Kathryn was the brains behind the kidnapping.
At any rate, Frates said his uncle, the late Charles Urschel, had no doubt about it.
“He didn't like particularly to talk about the kidnapping, but when he did, there were a couple things that were really clear — and one of them was he absolutely was convinced that Kathryn was the mastermind, and he was further convinced that she had wanted to kill him,” said Frates.
“I don't know if hate is maybe a little strong, but he sure carried a lot of grudge about her. I think he kind of looked on [George] Kelly as if he was sort of a klutz. Even though Kelly threatened his life, he just didn't have the same feelings about him. But boy, when it came to Kathryn, that was a no-no.”
Urschel’s distaste for Kathryn didn’t extend to her daughter, Pauline Frye, who was 14 when she essentially became an orphan. Unbeknownst to all but a handful of people, Urschel paid for her college education.
“Judge Vaught agreed to facilitate a plan and to be the go-between between Mr. Urschel and the child to get financial aid for Pauline to go to East Central University (then-Teachers College) in Ada,” said retired U.S. District Judge Ralph Thompson, an expert on the Kelly case and a relative of Vaught.
“Urschel not only would not permit any credit to be given to himself, but not even any knowledge that it was happening. Judge Vaught kept it completely secret.”
After both Urschel and Vaught died, documentation surfaced that revealed the arrangement. Frye thought Vaught had been her secret benefactor.
As for Kelly, he served most of his sentence at Alcatraz, where he was a model prisoner and played drums in a band headed by Al Capone. Kelly died on July 17, 1954, his 59th birthday.
He wrote Urschel in 1940, asking his former captive for advice about a possible oil lease.
“How is your bridge game?” Kelly asked in the letter. “Are you still vulnerable? I don’t mean that as a dirty dig but you must admit you lost your bid on the night of July 22, 1933.
"I hope you will not consider my writing an impertinence, if you do, just tear the letter up and forget it. Of course, I should enjoy hearing from you any time.”
Urschel did not write back.