The notorious Barker gang robs a Federal Reserve mail truck in Chicago, Illinois, and kills Officer Miles Cunningham. Netting only a bunch of worthless checks, the Barkers soon returned to a crime with which they had more success—kidnapping. A few months later, the Barkers kidnapped wealthy banker Edward Bremer, demanding $200,000 in ransom.
After Kate Clark married George Barker in 1892, she gave birth to four boys: Herman, Lloyd, Arthur, and Freddie. Ma Barker, as Kate was known, was ostensibly responsible for discipline in the family, but she let her boys run wild. She defended her children no matter what they did, saying, “If the good people of this town don’t like my boys, then the good people know what they can do.”
All the Barker boys became involved in crime during their childhood: In 1922, Lloyd robbed a post office and received a 25-year sentence in federal prison; that same year, Arthur “Doc” Barker got a life sentence in Oklahoma for killing a night watchman, though later it would turn out that he was innocent; Freddie was next to see the insides of a holding cell after robbing a bank. While he was serving time in Kansas, Herman committed suicide in the midst of a heated gunfight with police after robbing a bank in Missouri.
Herman’s death inspired Ma Barker to pressure authorities to release her other sons, and Doc and Freddie were set free. Although popular culture has painted Ma as the gang's mastermind, historians have disputed this. Whether she was behind the gang's nefarious deeds or not, the Barkers were at the center of the Midwest’s burgeoning criminal community. When they tired of bank robberies, the Barkers tried their hand at kidnapping.
Their first victim, William Hamm, earned the gang $100,000 in ransom. Although the Bremer abduction in 1933 produced twice as much, it brought them a lot of heat from federal authorities. With the FBI on their trail, Doc and Freddie attempted plastic surgery. But this half-baked idea left them only with disfiguring scars, and Doc was captured in early 1935.
Doc, who was later killed while attempting to escape from Alcatraz in 1939, refused to talk to authorities, but police found papers in his hideout that led them to Ma and Freddie on Lake Weir, Florida. After a ferocious shootout lasting 45 minutes, the Barkers lay dead from the fusillade, machine guns still at their sides.
Twelve years later, Lloyd Barker was finally paroled. He too met a violent demise, but not at the hands of the police—his wife shot him dead in 1949. Father George Barker, who was never part of the Barker gang, was the family’s sole survivor.