Barker, Ma (1872–1935)

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Barker, Ma (1872–1935)

Notorious outlaw of the 1930s. Name variations: Arizona Donnie Clark; Kate "Ma" Barker. Born Arizona Donnie Clark, near Springfield, Missouri, in 1872; died in Oklawaha, Florida, on January 16, 1935; married George Barker, around 1892; children: Herman, Lloyd, Dock, and Fred.

With an outlaw mentality rivaling that of Jesse James, Dillinger, or Baby Face Nelson, a dumpy, middle-aged woman, with a motherly face, masterminded holdups in the Missouri-Oklahoma area for 12 years, terrorizing businessmen and bankers, and prompting F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover to call her a "mean, vicious beast of prey… a she-wolf." Arizona Donnie Clark, or "Ma" Barker, as she was more commonly known, rose to head one of the last notorious outlaw bands in the country and died in a fierce shootout with Federal agents on January 16, 1935.

The first comparatively uneventful years of Barker's life were spent in the Ozark mountains. At age 20, she married a farm laborer, George Barker, and lived as a model Presbyterian wife and mother of four boys—Herman, Lloyd, Dock, and Fred. This idyllic family picture faded when, as teenagers, the boys started harassing neighbors and robbing local merchants. Staunchly defending them, Barker did whatever she could to keep them away from the police and out of court.

By 1915, Barker and her troubled family were living in a two-room shack, where she set up a "cooling off" service for convicts or crooks on the run. They had only to show up at her door, and she would provide food, shelter, and "howto" advice on criminal activities. One of the first graduates of her program, an outlaw called Al Spencer, paid his debt to Ma by holding up a passenger train and seizing more than $20,000 in cash and bonds. From then on, throughout the 1920s, Barker acted as the brains behind countless robberies and bank raids for a percentage, keeping herself in funds and out of jail.

Barker left her husband, and lived from town to town with a succession of lovers, planning robberies, kidnappings, and murders for the now notorious Barker Gang (also known as the Holden-Keating Gang). Keeping tight rein over her "boys," she became bolder, visiting target banks herself under the guise of opening "a modest account with the money left me by my dear husband." These visits were opportunities to case banks for the location of the safe and the placement of security.

After a final million-dollar bank raid at Concordia, Kansas, and the kidnapping of the president of the Commercial State Bank of Minneapolis, Barker took to the hideout at Lake Weir in Florida with her son Fred in tow, while the F.B.I. was busy rallying forces and planning their January 16 assault. There are conflicting reports on the details of the final confrontation, but, during a reportedly six-hour siege, the cottage was attacked by machine guns, rifles, and tear gas. Ma Barker was found in an upstairs room, beside her son, with three bullet wounds and a .300 gas-operated automatic rifle still "hot in her hands." According to another report, more than $10,000 in large denomination bills was found in her pocketbook.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts