July 18, 2016 is both the 121st birthday and the 62nd anniversary of the death of one of the most notorious criminals of the American Prohibition period – George “Machine Gun” Kelly. He was born in Memphis, Tennessee to a comfortable middle class family. Growing up, he was quite a dismal student; he did, however, consistently gain high marks for personal hygiene. I guess that’s something! Kelly started off his adult life working as a cab driver and was married quite young to Geneva Ramsey. His limited income as a cabbie put a strain on his marriage and Kelly turned to a life of crime (liquor running) to supplement his meager income. This did not really help, however, George and Geneva split soon after.
After a series of small-time crimes and short prison sentences, Kelly met Kathryn Thorne, a seasoned criminal on her own. Thorne convinced Kelly to escalate his crimes and bought him the machine gun which would become his calling card. Kathryn whispered about this great new bank robber “Machine Gun” Kelly in banks and saloons around the Midwest and is credited by many for creating her lover’s reputation. Machine Gun and Kathryn plotted to kidnap a wealthy oil tycoon, Charles Urschel of Oklahoma City, in order to make a big score in the ransom money. They successfully pulled off the caper and received $200,000 from the family. However, the bills were marked by the fledgling Center Bureau of Investigation (now the FBI) who put out Wanted posters declaring Kelly “Public Enemy Number One” and as an “Expert Machine Gunner.” Kelly and Thorne bounced around the country until the FBI finally caught up with couple in Memphis in September 1933 after they had spent a night drinking and they were taken without a shot being fired. Kelly famously quipped, “Don’t shoot, G-Man!”
Machine Gun Kelly spent the rest of his life in prison – splitting time between Leavenworth, Kansas and Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. He died of a heart attack in Leavenworth on his birthday in 1954. Kathryn was released from prison in 1958 and lived out her life in as a bookkeeper in a hospital in Oklahoma.