George "Machine Gun" Kelly
In 1991, Bruce Barnes wrote Machine Gun Kelly: To Right A Wrong. Barnes, the second son of George Kelly Barnes and his first wife Geneva Ramsey, attempts to create an image of his father after what he feels was a life time of crass questions from inconsiderate people. While Barnes does shed a good deal of light on Kellys early life, his coverage of his fathers criminal career is far from complete and contains inaccuracies.
In his acknowledgements, Bruce Barnes gives much credit for the book to Geneva Barnes, my mother, for her unfaltering memory. Indeed much of the book seems to be influenced by Geneva and her six years of marriage to George Barnes. His criminal career doesnt begin until three-quarters of the way into the book.
In Barnes biography of his father he states that George Kelly Barnes was born in Chicago in 1900. Previous information indicated that Barnes was born in Memphis, Tennessee in 1897 or 1895.While many of the famous bandits of the Mid-West Crime Wave came from poor families and had limited education, George Barnes was born into an upper middle-class family and is one of the few celebrated outlaws who actually attended college.
The Barnes family moved to Memphis from Chicago when George was two years old. Barnes despised his father from an early age while loving his mother dearly. As a teenager, Barnes saw his father, an insurance company executive, arrive at the home of a woman with whom he was having an affair. While his first reaction was to run home and tell his mother, he thought about how he could make this profitable for himself. The next day he skipped school, went to his fathers insurance office, confronted his father with what he had observed and demanded a higher weekly allowance and use of the family automobile. His father quickly gave in.
While Barnes was attending Central High School in Memphis, he was already doing a little bootlegging Tennessee had begun state prohibition in 1909 now that he had the use of an automobile. During his sophomore year, Barnes was arrested in Memphis for possession of alcohol. He called his father to bail him out knowing that he had quite a bit of influence in the city. Before he graduated from Central High School, Barnes mother, Elizabeth Kelly Barnes, passed away. Young George Barnes was devastated. He blamed his father's infidelity for causing his mother to die of a broken heart. His relationship with his father continued to deteriorate. Years later, when Barnes first marriage was falling apart and he had turned to alcohol, he attempted suicide one night by taking bichloride of mercury. He then called his father.
Im committing suicide. Will you bury me Dad? he asked.
Gladly son, came his fathers reply.
At the hospital his father coldly told him, George, why dont you stop botching up every move you make in your life? The next time you try something like this, use a gun and make a clean job of killing yourself.
After graduating from high school, Barnes enrolled at Mississippi A & M (today Mississippi State University) to study agriculture. His college career lasted a mere four months. In the first semester, he picked up 31 demerits and 24 more during the first few weeks of the second semester. His highest grade was a C-plus, which he received in a Physical Hygiene course. He received a zero in Woodwork and an incomplete in Military Science. He once climbed the school flagpole and repaired a pulley in an effort to erase demerits. Perhaps he could have been nicknamed flagpole Kelly.
Barnes college experience was over. He decided that he had enrolled only because his mother wanted him to, so he quit and headed home to Memphis. Barnes had developed a taste for higher class young ladies and at one social outing he met Geneva Ramsey the daughter of a local well-to-do businessman, George F. Ramsey. Barnes was persistent in his pursuit of Miss Ramsey, whose father had heard of Barnes reputation and forbade his daughter to see him.
Barnes efforts paid off and one night on a drive in Mississippi he convinced Geneva to elope. When their car broke down, they did just that. Taken in by a girlfriend of Genevas, who happened to be the daughter of the governor of Mississippi, the happy couple partied a few days before returning to the Ramsey family household.
George Ramsey proved to be a positive influence in the life of Barnes. Years later while at Alcatraz, Kelly told his son, Bruce, if your Granddad Ramsey had been my father, my life would have been entirely different.
Ramsey had developed a prosperous business building levees and railroads in the Mississippi River Valley. He offered Barnes a job and the two men, working together, developed a mutual respect for each other. Ramsey could see Barnes making an effort to turn his life around. The respect Barnes received from Ramsey and the father figure he came to represent caused the transformation. In the mid-1920s George Ramsey died after an accident with a stick of dynamite. This incident devastated the young married couple and sent Barnes into a tailspin.
Ramseys wife sold the business and tried to help her daughter and son-in-law get a fresh start. A used car business didnt work out and neither did a goat farm. Discouraged, Barnes tried the insurance business with help from his father, but when this didnt produce the results he wanted he turned back to bootlegging.
Geneva was furious with her husbands actions. Once, after he was arrested and she had to borrow $200 from her mother to bail him out, she threatened to divorce him. By this time the couple had one son, George Jr., whom they called Sonny. Barnes was not a good father and paid little attention to his first son. During one heated argument with Geneva, Barnes picked up his son and hurled him across the room. Later, Sonny would fear and resent his father and never have anything to do with him.
Barnes didnt seem to have the willingness to stay with any legitimate job. Some considered him lazy. Increased drinking led to his abusing his wife and son on a regular basis. Geneva left him on several occasions for short periods of time, but would return. She suffered one miscarriage before she had a second child, Bruce. Barnes loved his second son and doted heavily on him, showing favoritism in front of Sonny.
After more fights, Barnes left for Kansas City, where he got a job in a grocery store as a checker. Once more he convinced Geneva to give him another chance. She and the children soon joined him there. A short time later she realized he was stealing from the store. After an argument that turned physical, Geneva packed the family up and went back to Memphis leaving Barnes for good. She was later granted a divorce.