Who was Machine Gun Kelly?

Regarded as one of America’s most infamous gangsters, Machine Gun Kelly engaged in a wide range of crimes during the Prohibition era. From bootlegging to armed robbery and kidnapping, his crimes and story are testament to the tumultuous times of Prohibition and the Great Depression, highlighting the complexities of punishment and the pursuit of justice. His transformation from a small-time bootlegger to a national criminal figure embodies the dark allure of the gangster image, an allure that continues to captivate the public imagination to this day.

Machine Gun Kelly, born George Kelly Barnes on July 18, 1895, was an American gangster from Memphis, Tennessee, during the Prohibition era. Image: Picture of  Kathryn (left) and George Kelly (right) being sentenced to life imprisonment for their involvement in the Urschel kidnapping.

World History Edu provides a comprehensive overview of Machine Gun Kelly, the gangster, covering his life, criminal career, and legacy.

Early Life and Background

George Kelly Barnes, later known as Machine Gun Kelly, was born on July 18, 1895, in Memphis, Tennessee.

Coming from a well-off family, Kelly had a relatively normal upbringing and was even enrolled in Mississippi A&M College, now known as Mississippi State University.

However, his life took a turn when he decided to drop out and marry Geneva Ramsey at the age of 19. The marriage produced two children but ultimately failed, setting the stage for Kelly’s descent into criminality.

Entrance into Criminality

The early stages of Kelly’s criminal career were marked by small-time ventures into bootlegging during Prohibition, a period when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcoholic beverages were banned in the United States. His operations were initially insignificant, but they introduced him to the underworld and the network of crime.

Rise to Notoriety

Kelly’s transition from a low-level criminal to a notorious gangster was facilitated by his second marriage to Kathryn Thorne.

Thorne played a crucial role in Kelly’s criminal persona, purchasing his first machine gun and encouraging his use of the weapon. She was also instrumental in cultivating his infamous image by distributing empty cartridges from his gun at various speakeasies, thereby earning him the nickname “Machine Gun Kelly.”

Major Crimes

Kelly’s criminal activities escalated both in scale and in severity. He was involved in bank robberies, bootlegging, and eventually kidnapping, which was considered a lucrative venture during the Great Depression era.

His most famous crime, the kidnapping of Charles F. Urschel, an oil tycoon, catapulted Kelly into the national spotlight. Urschel was kidnapped in July 1933, and a substantial ransom of $200,000, a fortune at the time, was paid for his release.

His nickname “Machine Gun” was derived from his favorite weapon, a Thompson submachine gun. Kelly’s criminal activities included bootlegging, armed robbery, and kidnapping, the latter of which ultimately led to his downfall.

The Urschel Kidnapping

The Urschel kidnapping is particularly notable not only for its high-profile victim but also for the meticulous planning that went into it. Urschel, despite being blindfolded, managed to leave clues about his whereabouts, noting sounds and even the pattern of sunlight, which eventually helped the authorities in their investigation.

Downfall and Capture

The downfall of Machine Gun Kelly was as rapid as his rise. The investigation into the Urschel kidnapping, led by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), was extensive and thorough. Kelly was captured without a fight in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 26, 1933, famously reputed to have uttered the phrase “Don’t shoot, G-Men!” upon his arrest, although this account is disputed.

Trial and Imprisonment

Kelly’s trial was a significant event, partly due to the involvement of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which was keen on establishing its reputation. The American gangster was convicted of the Urschel kidnapping and sentenced to life imprisonment. His incarceration included time at the infamous Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, where he spent 17 years before his transfer to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

Life in Prison and Death

While in prison, Kelly’s image transformed from a fearsome gangster to a model inmate.

He died of a heart attack on July 18, 1954, at Leavenworth, on his 59th birthday.

His life and crimes had a lasting impact on American culture and law enforcement, contributing to the mythos of the gangster era of the 1920s and 1930s.


Machine Gun Kelly’s legacy is a complex one. On one hand, he is remembered as a symbol of the lawlessness of the Prohibition era and the Public Enemy era that followed.

On the other hand, his capture and imprisonment marked a turning point in the fight against organized crime in the United States, showcasing the growing effectiveness of the FBI.

Cultural Impact

Kelly’s life has been dramatized in films, literature, and music, reflecting the public’s enduring fascination with gangsters of his era. His nickname has even been adopted by later figures in popular culture, further cementing his place in American folklore.

Films like “Machine-Gun Kelly” (1958) and “The FBI Story” (1959) dramatize his life and crimes, while “Melvin Purvis: G-Man” (1974) focuses on law enforcement’s pursuit.

American author and journalist Ace Atkins penned a novel titled “Infamous” (2010) that delves into the intricate details of Kelly’s most famous crime.

Also, the gangster’s influence extends to music and comics, inspiring characters in Clark Westerman’s series “Pretty, Baby, Machine”.

Additionally, his legacy lives on through the stage name of American rapper and songwriter Colson Baker, who adopted “Machine Gun Kelly” as a homage to the infamous gangster.

Frequently Asked Questions about Machine Gun Kelly

Here are some frequently asked questions about the gangster Machine Gun Kelly, along with their answers:

Why was he called Machine Gun Kelly?

He earned the nickname “Machine Gun Kelly” due to his preference for using a Thompson submachine gun during his criminal activities. His wife, Kathryn Thorne, also helped cultivate this image by distributing photographs of him with the weapon.

What was Machine Gun Kelly’s most famous crime?

His most notorious crime was the 1933 kidnapping of wealthy businessman Charles F. Urschel, for which Kelly and his gang received a $200,000 ransom.

How was Machine Gun Kelly caught?

Kelly was captured by the FBI in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 26, 1933. The investigation into the Urschel kidnapping, which included tracing the ransom money and gathering intelligence from various sources, led to his arrest.

What happened to him after his capture?

After his capture, Kelly was tried and convicted for the Urschel kidnapping. He was sentenced to life imprisonment and served time in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and later at Alcatraz.

Did Machine Gun Kelly have any famous last words or phrases?

Upon his arrest, Kelly is reputed to have said, “Don’t shoot, G-Men!” although this account is sometimes disputed. The term “G-Men” (short for “Government Men”) became a popular slang term for FBI agents.

Where did Machine Gun Kelly serve his prison sentence?

Kelly served his sentence at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary and was later transferred to Alcatraz, where he spent a significant portion of his imprisonment.

Kelly was captured by the FBI in Memphis, Tennessee, on September 26, 1933. His capture was a significant victory for the FBI and its director, J. Edgar Hoover, and it helped cement the FBI’s reputation as a formidable law enforcement agency.

When and how did Machine Gun Kelly die?

Kelly died of a heart attack on July 18, 1954, at the U.S. Penitentiary, Leavenworth, Kansas.

What was Machine Gun Kelly’s life like in prison?

In prison, Kelly was considered a model inmate. He reportedly adapted well to prison life and was not involved in any major disciplinary incidents.

How has Machine Gun Kelly been portrayed in popular culture?

Kelly’s life and persona have been depicted in various films, books, and songs, contributing to the mythologization of his character as a quintessential American gangster from the Prohibition era.

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