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Florida History: How the feds found the Barker gang in Ocala

Eliot Kleinberg
Palm Beach Post
Handout:
Kate "Ma" Barker and her gang lived on in this tiny lakeside town near Ocala. On January 16,1935 15 G-men circled a two story cottage on Lake Weir and closed the book on Kate Barker and her son Fred after a six hour machine gun battle.
JOHN PENDYGRAFT   |   Times 
Handout photo for Ma Barker Halloween story:
Handout:
Donald Weiss says he sees Ma Barker on the porch in this photograph he took of the historic lakeside home in 2005.

Readers: If you are a regular follower of this column, or just watch the news, you know it always comes back to Florida. That was the case with a scrawled map found in a Chicago hotel room. 

The “Belle Air,” a two-story, 100-year-old green wooden home with white trim built in 1893 in Ocklawaha, just south of Ocala, was reportedly punctured about 1,500 times the morning of Jan. 16, 1935. It was the day the feds caught up with the Barker gang.

They’d terrorized much of the Midwest and were blamed for at least three kidnappings, 10 murders and for robbing or stealing $1 million to $3 million. Their leader: Ozark Mountain daredevil, “Arizona” Kate Donnie Clark Barker. The papers liked to call the Missouri native “Machine Gun Kate” but most people just called her “Ma.''

When the gang made the mistake of kidnapping a Minnesota banker whose father was a friend of Franklin Roosevelt, the president of the United States ordered the weight of the federal law enforcement community to bear, and the Barkers fled to South Florida.

Related: Old bracelet found on Ma Barker House property in Marion County

At a prestigious downtown Miami hotel, the mysterious “Mrs. T.C. Blackburn,”  a fake name, mentioned she needed a quiet retreat. The head of a local dog track recommended his place on Lake Weir. In November 1934, the gang moved in. 

Back in Chicago, the FBI swooped down on a gang hideout, where they found a road map of Florida. Someone had drawn a red circle around Ocala. The feds tracked the Barkers to Ocklawaha, a town of about 300. At 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 16, 15 agents descended on the Belle Air. 

At the door, Ma said something in a tone that hinted surrender. Her son, Fred Barker, appeared at an upstairs window and fired a round. The battle was on. 

Gunfire stopped after about six hours. Fred had been hit by about 11 bullets. Ma had about four, including one in her head. Authorities later said it’s likely the two were killed in the first 45-minute barrage and jumpy agents later shot any time something moved. 

In 2016, the home structure was lifted and floated across Lake Weir to the Carney Island Conservation and Recreation Area. 

READER REWIND: Everyone has their own piece of Florida history. Share yours with us by leaving a voicemail at 850-270-8418.

From a reader: Eliot, a couple of days ago our newspaper ran your article on the Ma Barker gang. I truly enjoyed reading the article mostly because I enjoy such history and because I may have a couple of handguns that belonged to Ma Barker. Problem, I have no provenance to the fact that these are her pistols and wondered if you could be of any help in certifying that these are her pistols. 

How did I get them, you ask? My daughter-in-law’s great-great-grandfather was the mayor of Jacksonville. He went on to become the governor of Florida. Somehow, these pistols passed down the family tree and my daughter-in-law acquired them from a great aunt who called her and said that she had some family materials she needed to pick up.

I cleaned up the pistols and traced them back to about 1915, so that would be about the time frame for Ma Barker to own that gun. The other I could not trace. Both are .32-caliber pistols. Can you help shed any light on these weapons and their linkage to Ma Barker or the gang members? I would appreciate any help you can provide. - Gerald S.

Readers: Do you have any information that might help Florida Time reader Gerald?

Next week: Hemingway

Eliot Kleinberg has been a staff writer for the past three decades at The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, and is the author of 10 books about Florida (www.ekfla.com). Florida Time is a product of Gannett Media and publishes online in their 22 Florida markets including Jacksonville, Fort Walton Beach, Daytona Beach, Lakeland, Sarasota and West Palm Beach. Submit your questions, comments or memories to FloridaTime@Gatehousemedia.com. Include your full name and hometown. Sorry; no personal replies.