How a Memphis man became Machine Gun Kelly and the FBI’s first public enemy number one

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MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Memphis in the roaring 1920s and early 1930s. Turn back the clock to a time when the cotton industry was king and blues music had found its home on Beale Street.

"That was the roaring 20s. Our country was booming and our city was booming," Shelby County Historian Jimmy Ogle said.

Memphis was booming, but like other American cities it was also a period of Prohibition and crime.

"Some of the insurance companies rated us as one of the most dangerous cities in the teens and 1920s," Ogle said.

That time period also gave us gangsters such as Al Capone, Scarface and, in Memphis, one nicknamed Machine Gun Kelly.

But long before his criminal notoriety, some say Kelly was born in the Bluff City as George Kelly Barnes, Jr.

June Waddell West is executive director of Memphis Heritage.

"The history of it is he went to Idlewild school, went to Central, teachers were not really impressed with him. He made C's. That's better than you might have guessed," West said.

He was an average kid, an average student who grew up with his parents in this traditional home on Cowden Street in the Idlewild Historic District.

Fast forward to today and this house is where Leslie Wilkinson and her family now call home.

"The seller, yes, told us that he grew up in the house or lived here maybe as a young man or teenager. We think it's pretty cool. We keep thinking one day we might find some money in the basement," Wilkinson said, laughing.

A tour inside Kelly's old home doesn't reveal any money, secret hideouts or glimpses as to what put him on a path of crime.

"The dining room is this way, just a traditional foursquare," Wilkinson said.

But Kelly's first signs of a non-traditional life began when he enrolled at Mississippi A&M College, now Mississippi State University.

He was considered a poor student who was always in trouble. At 19 years old Kelly met and fell in love with Geneva Ramsey. They married and had two children, but his life took a turn towards crime when he couldn't make a living doing legitimate work.

"And ended up with some bad guys running some liquor and became a bootlegger, came back to Memphis and became a cab driver," Ogle said.

His first marriage ended, but his life of crime was just beginning. Kelly went on to become a bank robber and was sent to federal prison for transporting liquor across state lines.

But when he got out he met his second wife, Kathryn Thorne. She not only toughened up his image, but she gave him a gun and changed his name.

"It turns out his wife was his P.R. captain. His wife was the one who gave him his first gun, the Tommy Gun, as we know for at the time and got the moniker Machine Gun Kelly. She pretty much built his image," West said.

J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI felt compelled to show the public they were cracking down on gangsters. They focused in on Kelly and his gang conducting a nationwide manhunt after he kidnapped Oklahoma businessman Charles Urschel and collected $200,000 in ransom.

Kelly became the FBI's first ever public enemy number one.

Kelly made it back to Memphis and a house on Rayner near South Parkway was his hideout. But he didn't know his kidnapping victim had collected evidence leading the feds to this front door and straight to Kelly.

"The story goes he had tied one on the night before when they came in to get him and he was like, 'Don't shoot, G men,' and it wasn't like 'I'm going to get you guys' and he pretty much gave in," West said.

He was arrested, fingerprinted, and booked. Still to this day, some people living on Rayner such as Aaron Williams and Toni Haley say people are intrigued by Kelly's life.

"You could say this was the gangsters' getaway down south. Mainly they'd have property down south from the big lights up north," Williams said.

"I've seen a lot people come through just to see this house and they tell me that's the house Machine Gun Kelly was in when he was captured," Haley said.

Kelly would eventually serve time in Leavenworth and Alcatraz, but he gained the nickname 'Pop Gun Kelly' for being a model prisoner and not being as tough as his wife made him out to be during his life of crime that started and ended in Memphis.

"Machine Gun Kelly, George Kelly Barnes, the first ever public enemy number 1, first one ever caught and caught in Memphis, Tennessee in 1933," Ogle said.