If you saw the old Coen Brothers movie hit, O Brother Where Art Thou, set in the Mississippi Delta, you surely remember George “Baby Face” Nelson, the manic-depressive, Thompson gun wielding, Chicago outlaw who robs the “Bank of Itta Bena” and hates “cows worse than coppers.”
The Coens’ version of Baby Face Nelson was completely fictionalized—the outlaw never robbed a Delta bank and did not die in a Mississippi electric chair.
Mississippi, though, does have a unique connection with another well-known name from the Great Depression outlaws rogues’ gallery.
George “Machine Gun” Kelly, née George Kelly Barnes, has been the subject of or a character in numerous movies and television shows, including the1958 Machine-Gun Kelly starring Charles Bronson in the title role. James Taylor even sang a song about Kelly on his Mud-Slide Slim album. The popular characterizations of Kelly, however, like the Coens’ version of Baby Face Nelson, generally have been fictionalized to the point of bearing almost no resemblance to the actual man.
The real Machine Gun Kelly grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he attended Central High (a school with a number of interesting graduates, by the way). Over most of his career, Kelly’s criminal projects were far less spectacular than the moniker “Machine Gun” would suggest. He began his outlawry during prohibition as, primarily, a small-time whisky trafficker. Not surprisingly, his bootlegging trade took him into the Mississippi Delta on a number of occasions.
In Greenville, Mississippi, a town he frequented in those times, he was known, not as Machine Gun Kelly, but as “Half Pint” Kelly – an allusion to the size of the whiskey bottles he sold.
The law caught up with him in the southwest in the 1920s – he did a brief stretch in the New Mexico penitentiary and, later, three years in the Oklahoma state prison for running liquor in that state.
On his release he married Kathryn Thorne, a Saltillo, Mississippi girl transplanted to Fort Worth, Texas, and the two embarked on the most notorious phase of Kelly’s criminal career – the 1933 kidnapping of Oklahoma millionaire Charles Urschel. (Kathryn, who was a fascinating character herself, is sometimes credited with supplying Kelly with his first Thompson submachine gun and giving Kelly his famous nickname.) Urschel was held prisoner on a Texas ranch belonging to Kathryn’s mother and stepfather until released in exchange for a $200,000 ransom.
The FBI tracked Kelly back to his old hometown – Memphis. Upon his arrest in that city Kelly used a term – many say he originated it – that has been applied to federal agents ever since when he famously raised his hands and shouted: “Don’t shoot, G-men!”
An Oklahoma City federal court convicted Kelly of kidnapping across state lines in violation of the newly enacted Lindbergh Act – the first case under that law. He spent the greater part of his life sentence at Alcatraz where his fellow convicts called him “Pop-Gun” Kelly for his mild demeanor and reputation as a model prisoner.
Kelly died in the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, in 1954 and is buried in Cottondale Cemetery in Wise County, Texas.
And just what was George “Machine Gun” Kelly’s unique connection to Mississippi mentioned at the outset? He was an alumnus of Mississippi State University where he studied agriculture before beginning his life of crime!
James T. McCafferty is a lawyer and award-winning writer who grew up in the Mississippi Delta and now resides in McComb. He is the author of many magazine and newspaper articles, two children’s books about Delta bear hunter Holt Collier, and the full-length The Bear Hunter: The Life and Times of Robert Eager Bobo in the Canebrakes of the Old South. For more information see his website: www.canebrakes.com.
Copyright 2017 James T. McCafferty