Darn it felt good to be a gangster.

Year of Fear

And it rhymes, too

Plain old George Kelly was doing quite well as a bootlegger and a bank robber until his wife Kathryn decided that they should pull off a string of kidnappings, make a boatload of money, and retire to Mexico.

Their first attempt ended poorly, when they kidnapped a gent whose family was unable to raise the ransom money (p.56). Oops. They decided to try again – but first, Kathryn decided that her husband’s image could stand a little improvement. So she bought him a machine gun and started spreading rumors about his prowess.

…she made her rounds of the local taverns and speakeasies, where she was constantly boasting about her husband, saying he could shoot walnuts off a fence line with his machine gun and write his name with it on the sides of barns (p. 46).

Basically, Machine Gun Kelly became Machine Gun Kelly because his wife wanted him to sound cooler. Sometimes history is awesome like that.

Anyway – their next target was millionaire Oklahoma oil tycoon Charles Urschel (no relation to the book’s author), whom they kidnapped from his swanky mansion on July 22, 1933 (p.75). Urschel was both the most cooperative and the sneakiest hostage ever – by the end of his stay with Kelly and his gang he had learned enough about the remote Texas farm where he was held hostage to lead the feds right to the door,  even though he was blindfolded the entire time.

Before long, he had enough details that he could draw the shack and the farm in his mind and identify and enumerate every animal that populated it. There were two chicken coops out back, a well with nasty, mineral-tasting water out front with a pulley that squeaked with a distinctive sound. There were four cows, three hogs, two pigs, a bull, and a mule (p. 87).

Kelly probably would have gotten away with the kidnapping if he had killed Urschel after collecting the ransom money (as his wife suggested) or if he had just chosen a stupider target. But he didn’t – so we get a months-long, multi-state investigation and pursuit that involves…

  • a bad dye job
  • one accidentally kidnapped sullen teenage girl
  • extremely embarrassing near-misses
  • Melvin Purvis (looking nothing like Christian Bale in Public Enemies, alas)
  • custom-built armored cars
  • deliberately mistaken identities
  • a brief cameo by Al Capone
  • missing codebooks
  • and tiny dogs.

Why don’t they teach this kind of stuff in high school history classes? It’s great!

The Year of Fear: Machine Gun Kelly and the Manhunt that Changed the Nation by Joe Urschel is a very fun and detailed book that’s available in print and book on CD.

– Amy E.



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2 responses to “Darn it felt good to be a gangster.

  1. That sounds like a book we might need to get for the library (and I might need to read for myself)

  2. Pingback: November 2015 Recap | Eleventh Stack

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