Biography of Gangsters George R. Machine Gun Kelly

About the famous gangster George R. "Machine Gun" Kelly, biography and history of her crimes, victims and death.

THE GANGSTERS

GEORGE R. "MACHINE GUN" KELLY (1895-1954)

Person: This strapping six-footer with a round face and blue eyes seemed to wear a perpetual grin, except when he was talking tough or boasting. Suffering from a bad heart, Kelly was in no shape to do one tenth of the things he claimed he'd done--or were attributed to him by his wife, the law, or the press. Born in Memphis, Tenn., he died while incarcerated in Leavenworth Penitentiary.

Activities: George Kelly met Kathryn Shannon in 1927. Until then Kelly had been no more than an amiable, if less than competent, Oklahoma City bootlegger who spilled more than he delivered. By contrast, Kathryn was a firebrand out of the Mississippi backwoods who dreamed of riches and power and determined to make Kelly a top-flight criminal. Well versed in underworld affairs since her parents ran a ranch where fugitives could hole up for $50 a day, Kathryn began promoting Kelly as a fearless crook who was often "away robbing banks." She gave him a shiny machine gun as a present and made him practice shooting walnuts off fence posts. Kathryn, who understood promotion, also passed out cartridge cases in underworld dives, saying, "Have a souvenir of my husband, Machine Gun Kelly."

Kelly eventually made it into some local gangs and took part in a few holdups of small Mississippi and Texas banks. It was as much as he had ever hoped for, but Kathryn, who married Kelly in 1931, insisted they go after the big money in kidnapping. They pulled off only one major job and were promptly caught. A story put out by the FBI stated that when its agents trapped the couple in their Memphis hideout, Kelly cowered in a corner, his hands high, and whimpered: "Don't shoot, G-men, don't shoot." J. Edgar Hoover, insisted that that was how his agents got their nickname, but the fact was that the Memphis cops on the raid heard Kelly say nothing of the kind and that employees of the federal government had long been called G-men. Cynics have also challenged the story, suggesting it was part of Hoover's efforts to enhance the image of the FBI and to solidify his own position as a shaky Republican holdover in a Democratic administration.

Leading Crimes: There was only one--the 1933 kidnapping of oilman Charles F. Urschel, from whom the gang collected $200,000. Kathryn opted for "killing the bastard" once they received the ransom, but Kelly, shocked, convinced the rest of the gang that Urschel had to be freed or it would "be bad for future business." As things turned out, Urschel proved to be a human memory machine; although he had been blindfolded, he was able to supply the FBI with so many clues that agents soon pinpointed his place of confinement as Kathryn's parents' ranch in Texas.

Major Victims: None. Machine Gun Kelly never killed anyone--or even fired his weapon in anger.

How Died: Sentenced to life in Alcatraz--and some say happy to be free of Kathryn--Kelly carried on a lengthy and remarkable correspondence with Urschel, once writing: "I must be fair. Being in prison has brought me one positive advantage. It could hardly do less. Its name is comradeship--a rough kindness of man to man; unselfishness; an absence, or diminution, of the tendency to look ahead, at least very far ahead; a carelessness, though it is bred of despair; a clinging to life and the possible happiness it may offer at some future date." Bothered by the Alcatraz climate, Kelly was transferred to Leavenworth, where he died of a heart attack three years later. Kathryn's life sentence was commuted in 1958, and she was released.

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