The Ma Barker House. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
For those of you interested in true crime stories, look no further than the Ma Barker House, located previously in Lake Weir, Florida (the fifth largest lake in Florida). In this house, you will find a little piece of Florida history. The Ma Barker House is famous for a shootout between Kate “Ma” Barker and her outlaw son Fred Barker with the FBI on January 16, 1935. Read on to find out about the incredible true story of the Barker-Karpis gang during the “public enemy era.”
Ma Barker gained a reputation as a ruthless crime matriarch who controlled and organized her sons’ crimes. She would travel with them during their criminal careers.
Ma’s story begins in Ash Grove, Missouri where she was born Arizona Clark on October 8, 1873. Her parents were John and Emaline (Parker) Clark. She married a man named George Barker in 1892 and had four sons with him: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur and Fred. All four sons began their criminal careers at an early age. Herman committed his first crime at age 17 in 1910 when he was arrested for highway robbery. He had run over a child in the getaway car. During a robbery in Wichita, Kansas, Herman shot a police officer at point-blank range in the mouth. To avoid being prosecuted, he killed himself after he had been severely wounded from crashing his car. He died on August 29, 1927.
In 1928, his brother Lloyd Barker went to federal prison at the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Arthur “Doc” Barker went to the Oklahoma State Prison and Fred Barker landed himself at Kansas State Prison. Their father George had left the family at this point due to his sons’ criminal history and said that Ma had been “loose” with other local men in the area.
Following this, Ma lived in “miserable poverty” in a “dirt-poor shack” with no husband and no job while her three remaining sons were in prison. Records show she lived with an unemployed man named Arthur W. Dunlop. The Tulsa, Oklahoma census of 1930 describes Ma as Dunlop’s wife.
In 1931, Fred was released from prison and things improved for Ma Barker soon after. Fred, along with his former prison-mate Alvin Karpis, formed the Barker-Karpis gang and began a series of robberies in which they killed Sheriff C. Roy Kelly in West Plains, Missouri on December 19, 1931. This incident forced the group to have to leave the area immediately. Ma and Dunlop followed Fred and Alvin to Chicago, where they were later joined by Fred’s brother Arthur after he was released from prison in 1932. Karpis did not want to work for Al Capone, who had control of the mob in Chicago at the time, and so Karpis was told by racketteer Jack Piefer to move to St. Paul, Minnesota. The city had a reputation at the time for being a safe haven for wanted criminals.
By 1933, most of the gang were back in St. Paul where they carried out two kidnappings of wealthy businessmen. The FBI first connected the gang to the William Hamm kidnapping by using a new method of latent fingerprint identification. The gang decided to leave St. Paul with the FBI still heavily on the case.
On January 8, 1935, Arthur was discovered and arrested while still in Chicago. Arthur’s arrest led to the discovery of a map that had Ocklawaha, Florida circled on it, revealing to the FBI where Fred and Ma’s hideout was.
The Ma Barker house was originally located on a property owned by Carson Bradford. The Bradford’s (his son) built the home as a weekend and summer retreat from Miami. It was a two-story, 2,100-square-foot Florida cracker-style home with three bedrooms and two baths.
Mr. Bradford had never rented his home before to any tenant until one day he received a very generous offer from a representative of a Mrs. T.C. “Kate” Blackburn. The “sweet little old lady,” as she was described, was looking for somewhere to spend some quality time with her sons to get away from the Northern winter. Bradford informed them the house was not for rent but the group refused to take no for an answer. After offering to pay in cash in advance for an entire season, Bradford accepted the offer and soon had (unbeknownst to him) rented out his home to the notorious gangsters Ma Barker and her son Fred.
Two months later, the longest FBI shoot-out in history occurred. The FBI had zeroed in on them as Public Enemy #1.
Karpis and the other members of the gang had left the house three days before, leaving Ma and Fred alone in the house. Ma and Fred had tried to mislead police into thinking that there were more of them, but it was soon discovered it was just Ma and Fred acting alone. Agents soon surrounded the house and ordered Fred and Ma to come out, but instead, Fred opened fire on the agents. People who lived nearby heard the gunshots and became so interested in the events unfolding they went outside of their homes to witness the standoff, even holding picnics during the shootout.
Both Fred and his mother were killed inside the upstairs bedroom by federal agents after a long shootout.
The Bradford-Ma Barker house is located in Carney Island Recreation and Conservation Area. The home was moved on a floating barge from Lake Weir over to Carney Island in October 2016. The land the house sat on was sold in 2012 to another owner. The house itself was later donated to Marion County by the owner.
In Fall 2018, the home was made into a museum. Many of the original furnishings were kept intact, though there have been several restoration efforts made since. If you enter the house to this day, you will still see the bullet holes that penetrated the walls and furniture during the shootout with the police.
For more information on the house and to reserve a tour, please visit the Ma Barker House Museum website.
Melissa’s career in writing started more than 20 years ago. Today, she lives in South Florida with her husband and two boys.