Missouri and Ozarks History

Information and comments about historical people and events of Missouri, the Ozarks region, and surrounding area.

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Location: Missouri

I'm a freelance writer specializing in the history of the Ozarks and surrounding region. I've written sixteen nonfiction books, two historical novels, and numerous articles. My latest books are Wicked Women of Missouri, Yanked Into Eternity: Lynchings and Hangings in Missouri, and Show-Me Atrocities: Infamous Incidents in Missouri History.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Barker Gang and the Murder of Sheriff Kelly

Landlords nowadays often require folks wishing to rent a house or apartment to fill out applications so they can do background checks on the applicants before letting strangers move onto their property. Such was not the case in 1931 when an older couple, giving their names as Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Dunlop, showed up at Thayer, Missouri, about October 12 of that year and rented a farmhouse from Wellington McClelland in an out-of-the-way area about two miles east of town. The free-spending Dunlop, who let it be known that he was a retired farmer who’d made his money from oil lands in Oklahoma, just plunked down the cash and moved in. A day or two later, two young men, whom Dunlop introduced as his son and nephew, moved in with the couple. In an era before instant background checks, McClelland had no way of knowing that “Mrs. Dunlop” was actually Arizona Kate “Ma” Barker, that one of the young men was her murderous son Fred, and that the other was the notorious Alvin Karpis.
Over the next few weeks, Karpis and Fred Barker pulled off a string of crimes in the area, including the burglary of McCallon’s clothing store in West Plains on Thursday night, December 17. On Saturday morning the 19th, Karpis pulled his 1931 blue De Soto into Davidson’s garage in West Plains to have two flat tires repaired, with Fred Barker riding shotgun. The car matched the description of a vehicle seen near McCallon’s store on the night of the burglary, and garage owner Carac Davidson immediately relayed his suspicions to Howell County sheriff C.R. “Roy” Kelly. Still seated in the car when the sheriff showed up to investigate, Barker and Karpis immediately gunned the lawman down when he walked up to the driver’s side door of the De Soto. Accounts of the murder differ, but the best evidence suggests that Barker opened fire first with a .45 caliber automatic pistol and fired the fatal shots. He then jumped out of the vehicle and ran around to the other side to continue shooting as Kelly fell, while Karpis chimed in with a .38 caliber revolver.
After the shooting, Karpis roared out of the garage in the De Soto, and Barker escaped on foot through the streets of West Plains. Bloodhounds were put on Barker’s trail but to no avail. The De Soto was found later on Saturday a mile or so east of Thayer, where Karpis had abandoned it, and the gang was soon traced to the nearby McClelland farmhouse. Described as a four-room cottage on a high knoll back away from the road, the house reportedly offered a view of the surrounding countryside for miles around, and by the time authorities arrived, the birds had flown. In their haste to escape, the renters had left behind papers definitely identifying them as the Barker-Karpis gang, and photographs of most of the gang members, including Kate Barker, were also discovered. Much of the merchandise taken in the burglary of the McCallon store was recovered as well.
Funeral services for Sheriff Kelly were held on Monday, December 21. Shortly afterwards, his widow, Lulu Kelly, was selected to fill his unexpired term as sheriff of Howell County. One of her first actions was to offer, jointly with the West Plains police chief, rewards for the arrest and conviction of the Barker-Karpis gang members, including $100 for “Old Lady Arrie Barker, mother of Fred Barker.” This was apparently the first official notice by law enforcement of Ma Barker, who would go on to become infamous as a reputed leader of the gang, although she was, in fact, mostly just an overindulgent mother who felt her villainous sons could do no wrong.
Sources: FBI files, Howell County Gazette, West Plains Journal.


Blogger W.D. Smith said...

This is an excellent article. Please check your email, as I just sent you a message. I'm very happy to have read your blog post.

April 14, 2016 at 7:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My father lived just down the road from this house as a teenager. He met these people on several occasions and one of the men asked if he could ride my fathers horse. This man later was identified as Alvin Karpis public enemy no 1.

June 6, 2016 at 3:58 PM  
Blogger Larry Wood said...

That's fascinating. Many of these gangsters could seem like ordinary people if you didn't happen to interrupt them when they were committing a crime.

June 7, 2016 at 2:04 PM  
Blogger tim mahoney said...

This is absolutely spot-on, and I've done years of research on the Barker-Karpis gang. Congrats! Nicely done. (Tim Mahoney, author, "Secret Partners."

October 22, 2017 at 4:07 AM  
Blogger Larry Wood said...

Thanks, Tim. I think I consulted your book (or something you wrote) when I was writing about the Barker gang for a chapter in one of my books.

October 22, 2017 at 10:33 AM  

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