PLUNK GENEALOGY -- see "Family" label on this blog and/or write Mike at

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Notorious Memphis Native

Of all the famous Memphians we’ve written about on The Chronicles, we only recently discovered that the infamous Machine Gun Kelly was born and raised here.

George Kelly Barnes, who became one of the most well known gangsters of the prohibition era, was born in Memphis in 1895 to wealthy parents who raised him in a traditional home environment. Kelly went off to Mississippi State University to study agriculture, but proved to be a poor student. His highest grade, a C­+, was in physical hygiene. At least he was clean.

Apparently, he was in trouble more than he was out of it during college so when he fell in love with Geneva Ramsey, he was happy to drop out of school and go to work. The couple had two children, and Kelly was driving a cab in Memphis to support the family. But they struggled financially and soon separated. That’s about when Kelly learned that bootlegging provided a much better income and a touch of criminal chic.

After a few arrests, Kelly left Memphis, continued his criminal career and gradually built his gangster reputation. His wanderings led him to Oklahoma City and then to Minneapolis where he married Kathryn Thorne, the mistress of one of Kelly’s associates and a seasoned criminal in her own right. It is suspected that it was she who crafted the Machine Gun Kelly reputation. Historians say that Kathryn was the mastermind of Kelly’s bank robbery spree through Texas and Mississippi which created a public frenzy that earned his place in history books and catapulted him to Public Enemy Number One.

In 1933, the couple returned to Memphis to hide out and visit their friend John Tichenor. On a September morning, Memphis police burst into the Tichenor house to find Kathryn asleep and a hung-over Kelly still in his pajamas. It was on that morning that Kelly is said to have coined the phrase, ”G-Men, please don’t shoot.”

They were arrested, quickly flown to Oklahoma City, tried and convicted. Machine Gun Kelly died of a heart attack in Leavenworth Penitentiary in 1954 on his 59th birthday.
afterthought -- After Mike read this post, he looked back through some census data. It could be that George Kelly Barnes, aka Machine Gun Kelly, was not born in Memphis, but rather came here at an early age and was raised here. Mike also believes that Kelly probably went to Central High School. Guess that photo won't go on the Wall of Fame.


Anonymous said...

I'm told that he graduated from Central High School.

Anonymous said...

my grandaddy was killed by al capone in april, 1954. Son of Virginia Marie Kelly.