Gangsters rule new exhibit at National Archives

Remember such outlaws as “Pretty Boy” Floyd, “Machine Gun” Kelly and “Ma” Barker?

02/06/2012 5:00 AM

05/16/2014 6:05 PM

The note from Edward Bremer to his wife, Patz, asks her not to worry despite the blood in the car.

His kidnappers had struck the banker on the head. But they had dressed the wound and allowed their hostage to write home to assure everyone he was not dead — and therefore worth the ransom money.

“Tell Hertzy to be a good little girl, her daddy is thinking of her all the time and to see you & her again is all that I want ” Bremer says in the handwritten note. “I’m treated nice and the only thing I have to ask is to keep the police out of this so that I am returned to you all safely.”

He was, eventually, and that note ended up as evidence in the case of the United States v. Alvin Karpowicz, alias Alvin Karpis. It is a highlight of a free exhibit that opens today at the National Archives in Kansas City called “They’re Not Going to Get Me: Crime in the 1930s.”

Archivist Jake Ersland happened across the Bremer note, which is contained in the archives’ vast collections.

“I was holding this piece of history and it’s fascinating,” Ersland said. “I wanted to know how much do we have in our holdings that’s related to this era.”

The result is a new exhibit, a year in the making, that includes original court documents, mug shots and even film from the notorious period when gangsters dominated the headlines and newsreels. It was during this war on crime that the Federal Bureau of Investigation came of age.

The Midwest was the backdrop for a lot of gangster activity, and the Central Plains Region of the National Archives contains records from Missouri to Minnesota. The exhibit includes material on the Barker-Karpis Gang, John Dillinger, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Bonnie and Clyde, and other outlaws.

One of the first things a visitor sees is a huge photo of the ambushed car from the June 17, 1933, Union Station Massacre.

The archives exhibit includes the indictment of Adam Richetti for the massacre and a subpoena for a federal agent to bring Richetti’s fingerprints to court.

Another outlaw with a local connection was “Machine Gun” Kelly, who was recorded in the daily count book of the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth. The oversized book, which is in the exhibit, is opened to the page for Sunday, Sept. 2, 1934, when prisoner “44131 George R. Kelly (lifer) white” was transferred to Alcatraz. Someone placed a little blue star next to Kelly’s name in the book, perhaps marking him as a prize catch.

Kelly’s gang had kidnapped an oilman from Oklahoma and received $200,000 in ransom in denominations ranging from $5 bills to $1,000s. But the feds recorded every serial number, which made their way to the court record and the archives exhibit. There is even a Pan American plane ticket to Havana and a Cuban visa used in the laundering of the money.

The exhibit also has the single-page court verdict, filled out and signed by the foreman, convicting Kelly and his wife, Kathryn, as well as the commitment papers sending them both to prison for life.

One of the few artifacts in the exhibit that is not paperwork or a photograph is a pair of stolen binoculars that Bonnie and Clyde left behind after their shootout with lawmen at the Red Crown Tourist Court in Platte City. The binoculars are on loan from a private individual, said Dee Harris, exhibits specialist for the National Archives.

Other items in the exhibit come from the Library of Congress or the National Archives in Fort Worth. There are clips from a 1936 film called “You Can’t Get Away With It,” in which the FBI warns gangsters that their days are numbered.

Many items are reminders of the violence of that era.

A bench warrant for Dillinger gang member Homer Van Meter was returned marked “not executed for the reason that the defendant named herein was shot and killed by St. Paul Police.” Bail had been set at $50,000.

Other items in the exhibit will forever be mysterious, such as the mug shot of Karpis’ companion, Dolores Delaney. She was pregnant at the time and would never see Karpis again after they were sent to separate prisons. But in her photo she looks carefree, even smiling.

A very different photo shows a stout and rather frightening 62-year-old woman standing next to a Christmas tree. She was Kate “Ma” Barker, mother of Karpis gang member Freddie Barker. She was killed in a 1935 four-hour shootout when lawmen went after her son. The FBI, in a bit of hyperbole, justified the shootout by calling Barker “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain this country has produced.”

A member of the gang, however, is quoted in the exhibit as saying that “she couldn’t plan breakfast, let alone a bank robbery.”


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