“Return to Paradise”
A Local Historical Account of Machine Gun Kelly
1933 probably didn’t start out being much a year of a year to remember for the sleepy town of Paradise, Texas, but before the year was out, there would be some historic happenings of which the local inhabitants would certainly make note. The world, the country, and all the rural areas and towns were just recovering from the WWI; the Great Depression devastated the rich and poor, alike; and to add insult to injury, they found themselves in the midst of the Dust Bowl, a time historians and journalists would call, the “Dirty Thirties”.
Prohibition in the United States had been brewing for almost 14 years and with the forced temperance upon the law-abiding citizens of American, the dramatic rise in organized crime would far outweigh any expected decline in alcohol consumption. The “Gangster Era” began in the early twenties. The likes of Al Capone and Lucky Luciano became household names across ravaged America. Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and Pretty Boy Floyd became ‘superstars’ on the criminal stage. Many Americans identified with these “good ‘ole boys, gone bad” as they robbed from the ‘haves’ to give to the ‘have-nots’….namely themselves. Their total abandonment of law and disrespect for law enforcement gave the poor commoner a reason for applauding their efforts to stay afloat in a country drowning in debt and despair, even though their notorious efforts would often land them in a shoot-out, in jail, or in a coffin.
Bank robbers became heroes across the country…after all, wasn’t it the banks that foreclosed on farms, business, and homes during a time of economic upheaval that nobody could help. The American public became disenchanted and distrustful of the banking industry when local bankers ‘helped themselves’ to the meager pickings Americans had worked so hard for.
Soon gangsters and criminals turned to a new source of funding their lifestyles-kidnapping. From the famous kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s toddler, which resulted in the death of the tiny victim, came the Federal Kidnapping Act, also known as the Lindbergh Law. The new law, enacted in June of 1932, made transporting a kidnap victim across state lines a federal crime and carried very stiff penalties for anyone found to be accessories to such crimes.
The sleepy town of Paradise, Texas situated in rural north Texas and located 35 miles northwest of the cattle-king metropolis of Fort Worth knew all about these famous happenings through local newspaper articles, radio reports and word of mouth. But, little did they know they were about to become not just a mere tiny spot on a dusty map, but a prime target for the news media and Federal investigators. Most folks were not aware that members of the gangster element had already found their own ‘paradise’; a hide-out on the run-down farm of Mr. Robert “Boss” Shannon. “…the place was used as a stopover and occasionally bank robbers would come to the house and stay a few days to cool off”. They usually gave Shannon two or three hundred dollars to hideout on his place and no questions were asked. It was not an unusual occurrence among hard-pressed farmers who could always use extra cash.
Robert Green Shannon was born November 12, 1877 in Naylor County, Arkansas to Wilbur and Jemima Shannon. Robert, nicknamed Boss by his mother as a toddler, was the 6th child of this hard-working farm family. The Shannon family migrated to Hood County, Texas sometime prior to 1900. Boss returned to Arkansas and married the daughter of a family friend, Mary Icye Jackson in 1904 and they eventually settled in Wise County, where Icye died at the age of 25, leaving two young children. Boss returned to Arkansas and married Icye’s 19 year old sister, Maude. They lived in Justice Precinct 4, Wise County on property about 4 miles outside of Paradise where they had three more children. Maude died and was buried near her sister, Icye, in the Cottondale cemetery in 1923. With the two older children to help care for the three younger ones, Boss worked his farm and raised cattle until the drought and the economy began to take its toll.
In 1928, Boss married Ora Brooks in Parker County, Texas. Ora had a long lineage of American ancestry, born Ora Lillian Coleman to Thomas “Bud” and Mary Coleman in Mississippi in 1862. The Coleman clan, including patriarch Mac Coleman and several other family members moved to Coleman, Texas and lived off and on in Oklahoma, as well. Ora’s great-grandmother, Martha Elizabeth Belue, was a full-blood Cherokee, born in South Carolina, who married Hezekiah Coleman, a War of 1812 war veteran who received land grants in Mississippi. Raised in a fair luxury, Ora and her three sisters were well educated and versed in such things as music and social elocution. Ora was known to have played the piano and taught Sunday School at local churches in and around Paradise after her marriage to Boss. Ora had been previously married to James Emory Brooks in 1903, but apparently divorced sometime before 1928, as his death was not recorded until 1953 in Saltillo Mississippi. They had one child, Cleo Lera Mae Brooks, also known as Kathryn or Kit.
Kathryn married Lonnie Clyde Fry in 1918 in Konawa, Oklahoma at the age of 14 and had one child Pauline Elizabeth Fry, born 1919.
She and Lonnie apparently divorced not long after Pauline was born. Family notes, thought to be written in the hand of Pauline as an adult indicates that she had another husband after Lonnie by the name of L. E. Brewer whom she married in El Reno, Oklahoma.2 Kathryn married Charlie Thorne in Coleman, Texas at the age of 29. Charlie died of a supposed self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1928.
Memoirs from family members relate that they thought it was Charlie that may have led Kathryn into a life of crime.1 Kathryn was the girlfriend of gangster Steve Anderson when she first met George Kelly Barnes in Oklahoma. While Steve was out of town pulling a job, she and George ran off together and they later married in Minneapolis, Minnesota September 30, 1930.
By all indications they were a good match. Kathryn liked to drink and handled guns as well as George did. Kathryn was known to be an excellent shot with handguns, rifles, and shotguns. In February of 1933, Kathryn purchased a Thompson machine gun in from J. Kar, a pawnbroker in Fort Worth, Texas and presented it to George as a gift.
It’s been reported that they practiced with the machine gun while visiting her step-father’s farm in Paradise until George could handle the gun well enough to “write his name in the side of a barn”. By this time, George had been in the ‘banking business’ for several years, holding up banks all over the south and mid-west with fellow-gangster Harvey Bailey, sometimes raking in $20,000 per job which was a phenomenal amount of money during that time. They would hold up a bank, split up for a few weeks and head to Mexico or other exotic places, then meet up again and pull another job. It wasn’t long before Kathryn joined in, using disguises and helping switch out automobiles to throw law enforcement off their trail.
The 1930 Federal Census shows R. G. (Boss) Shannon, age 51, living on his farm near Paradise in Precinct Justice 4, enumerated on April 19, 1930. With him, his wife, Oral L., age 41; Armon C. Shannon (Boss’s son by Maude), age 17; Otha J Shannon (also Boss’s son by Maude), age 15; Pauline Fry, step-daughter, age 10; and Ruth Shannon (Boss’s daughter by Maude), age 9.
I was unable to locate Kathryn in the 1930 census. Her home in Fort Worth (inherited from her dead husband, Charlie Thorne) indicates renters were living in there at 857 E. Mulkey Street at the time of the census. George Kelly is enumerated in the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary as an inmate in the 1930 census records. We know that Kathryn and George married in late September of that same year.
Born George Frances Barnes, Jr. on July 18, 1900 in Chicago, Illinois –the only son of George Francis and Elizabeth (Kelly) Barnes. He had an older sister, Inez. George was very close to his mother and his sister. So much so, that when he found out his insurance salesman father was cheating on his sickly mother with a one-legged woman, he reacted by bribing his father that he would not tell his mother if his father would let him have the keys to his car anytime he wanted. The use of his father’s car virtually sealed his fate on the road to a life of crime. The car became his tool for area bootlegging in the Tennessee area, even though he was a very young teenager. He had money coming in daily and he soon quit school to join a full-time job of ‘rum-running’. His mother died in 1917 when George was only 17 and he resented his father for the rest of his life. His father died in 1936, while George was serving time at Alcatraz.
In 1916 he eloped by crossing the state line into Mississippi with fifteen year old Geneva Ramsey, the oldest daughter of a local, successful business man. Though her parents did not approve of Geneva marrying at such an early age, they soon took George into the family business. Geneva insisted he stop his bootlegging and earn his living legitimately, which he did for a time. George respected his father and mother-in-law greatly and felt a great kinship to George Ramsey as he taught young George about the construction business.
In 1922, Mr. Ramsey was killed in a construction blast, leaving his family and George in great mourning. George Barnes never recovered and unable to continue his father-in-law’s business successfully, he soon left Geneva and two young sons behind for a life of crime. He served a short stint in a Santa Fe, New Mexico prison for bootlegging and later a longer time in Leavenworth for selling bootleg whiskey on an Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. It was during his stay in Leavenworth that he made new friends with connections to the mob and the underworld. When he got out of Leavenworth, he entered a whole new world of bank robbing and larceny.
By 1932, George was getting bored with bank robbing and he and Al and Kathryn hatched a scheme for kidnapping. Kathryn studied the society pages in various newspapers to learn who had money, where they lived, and what their habits were. The soon found that Charles Urschel, an oil baron in Oklahoma City was the best target. Most of you know the rest of the story; how they pulled off the kidnapping; driving Urschel across 2 states into Texas where they held him blindfolded and a prisoner on the farm of Boss Shannon. You’ve probably also heard about the elaborate scheme to receive the ransom money of $200,000 and how the criminals got away Scott free….but only for a while.
Urschel, though blindfolded, was able to tell the Feds just about everything he could possibly remember about the place where he was held, memorizing details, voices, sounds, and smells. His memory was so detailed, that a Federal agent, acting as a banker who had money to lend to the poor farmers in Wise County, knew immediately when he entered the Shannon farm that it matched exactly to the little hand drawn map provided by Urschel.
Urschel, himself was present when the Feds stormed the Shannon place a few days later. He wanted to return to the place he was held and see what the place actually looked like. He wanted to see the people who had held him captive and to make sure the Feds ‘got their men’ and women. Ora, Boss’s wife, along with Boss and his son, Armon were all arrested that day, along with another hoodlum named Harvey Bailey who was using the Shannon house as a safe house after being shot in the leg during a recent bank robbery in Kingfisher, Oklahoma. With Bailey, they found a .45 caliber handgun and Thompson machine gun, reportedly loaned to him by Kelly. George, Kathryn, nor Al was at the farm by time the Feds got there. They had already fled with the bulk of the ransom cash.
George and Kathryn lit out to various places, implicating friends, relatives and even some hitch-hikers along the way. It’s hard to know exactly when they figured out that the Feds knew who they were, but at some point, even George and Kathryn split up for a while. Running out of places to hide, the wound up in Memphis, Tennessee, the place of George’s boyhood home where he knocked on the door of his first wife’s brother, who had no idea that his ex-brother-in-law and Machine Gun Kelly were one and the same. George explained that he and Kathryn needed a place to stay for a few days, so his brother-in-law let him stay at the house of a friend who was on vacation. George sent him on some errands and thus implicated him in his wrong-doings. The young man had just past the Tennessee bar exam and was eventually indicted in the kidnap scheme, lost his license to practice law and spent time in the penitentiary.
It was at this little house, at 1408 Rayners Street in Memphis, that George and Kathryn were apprehended. It was early morning, George had stepped outside to retrieve the morning paper and left the front door unlocked, a mistake which may have saved his life. The Feds sneaked quietly into the house and immediately subdued George in the bathroom and Kathryn in the process of dressing in the bedroom. It was here that through either folklore or rumor that George hollered “Don’t shoot G-men!”, thus coining the nickname G-Men for the government, federal agents headed by the illustrious J. Edgar Hoover.
J. Edgar Hoover had taken a personal interest in the Herschel kidnapping, planning and following the agents throughout the investigation. He would eventually make sure that a total of 21 people were convicted; 6 of those receiving life sentences.
George spent a total of 21 years in both Alcatraz and Leavenworth Federal Prison where he died of heart disease on July 18, 1954. No one from his family claimed his body, so Boss Shannon had his body returned to Wise County, where he was buried in Shannon’s own family plot in the Cottondale Cemetery.
Kathryn and her mother Ora both received life sentences. They served 25 years together in a Virginia correctional institute for women. They were released in 1958, pending an appeals trial, which never took place. They lived quietly out the rest of their lives in Oklahoma City. Ora died in 1980 at the age of 92; Kathryn died 5 years later at the age of 81. They are buried side by side in the Tecumseh Cemetery near Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. It’s been said that they both returned to Paradise after Boss Shannon died to tend to the partials of land bequeathed to them at his death, which were eventually sold.
Armon Shannon, the 22 year old son of Boss Shannon, received a 25 year probated sentence for his part in holding Urschel captive in his house on the Shannon farm. However, he was the first one to cooperate with the FBI, so he was sent home to his young wife and 2 babies. Armon would return to Wise County where he lived the remainder of his life. He would eventually marry three times and have seven children.
Robert Green Boss Shannon served about eleven years of his life sentence. He was granted his freedom in 1944 by President Roosevelt and returned to Paradise to live out the twelve remaining years of his life. He is buried in the Cottondale Cemetery between his first two wives, Icye and Maude.
Eventually, the rural town of Paradise returned to its everyday existence, but the year of 1933 will be remembered for many generations to come.
The Paradise Historical Society is currently researching the viability of applying for Texas State Historical Markers to mark the Boss Shannon Farm and George Barnes’ grave.
View a full gallery of images under our Gallery Page.
“Fred Parker’s memories of his parent’s involvement with Kathryn and George”. A public member story attached to Lera Cleo “Kathryn” “Kay” Brooks on ancestry.com.; tree of Theresa Lynne Hutto, 29 Dec 2010
“Family notes perhaps by Pauline Horn re Cleo’s husbands”. Tree of Theresa Lynne Hutto, 19 Dec 2010
Machine Gun Kelly’s Last Stand, Hamilton, S., University Press of Kansas, 2003
www.ancestry.com Shannon family research by Donna Weeden
Machine Gun Kelly’s Last Stand, Hamilton, S., University Press of Kansas, 2003
Machine Gun Kelly: To Right A Wrong, Barnes, B. Tipper Publications, California, 1991
Reflections of the Past, Part II, Paradise Historical Society, 2005
www.archives.gov National Archives and Records Administration
Newspaper articles from: Wise County Messenger. Bridgeport Index, Fort Worth Star Telegram and The Oklahoma.
With the permission of Glen Horn, many of the family photographs used on this page are from the “Horn Jr Family Tree”. Many thanks to the Horn Family.
READ MORE ARTICLES ABOUT MACHINE GUN KELLY:
Victims of Crimes – Paradise Texas History
1933 Newsreel Video from National Archives about Urschel Kidnapping
Grave of George “Machine Gun Kelly” Barnes