Of all the public enemies of the 1930s, George "Machine Gun" Kelly enjoyed the best press. Everyone insisted he was a very bad man, especially his wife Kathryn and the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover, but calling Kelly Public Enemy No. 1 was an insult to hundreds of far more dangerous criminals. One candid profiler called him "a good-natured slob, a bootlegger who spilled more than he delivered," referring to his criminal activities before he met and married the flamboyant Kathryn Shannon. She gave him his reputation, making him into something supposedly big in big-time crime, but the fact is that Kelly never fired a shot at anyone and he certainly never killed anyone, a remarkable statistic for a public enemy dubbed Machine Gun.
Kelly met Kathryn in Oklahoma City, where he was already out of his element just trying to make it as a simple bootlegger. She had excellent underworld connections thanks to a "fugitive farm" her parents ran on their small Texas ranch, where criminals on the run could hide out for a price. Determined to make Kelly into a fearless crook, Kathryn gave him a machine gun as a gift and had him practice shooting walnuts off fence posts. It must have been exciting for Kelly, who already had a "bum ticker." Kathryn passed out cartridge cases in underworld dives, remarking, "Have a souvenir of my husband, Machine Gun Kelly." Machine Gun, she would say, was at the moment "away robbing banks."
Machine Gun did break in with a few small bank holdup gangs and took part in some capers in Mississippi and Texas. Fortunately for Kelly, he never had to prove his mettle under fire, since the jobs went off smoothly. Soon, Kathryn insisted they go big time like some other mobs and get into kidnapping. They formed a kidnap gang with a rather mild-mannered middle-aged crook named Albert Bates. The two men, armed with machine guns, broke into the home of millionaire oil man Charley Urschel in Oklahoma City. The Urschels were playing cards with a neighboring couple. Kelly, not exactly a master at planning a job, hadn't the least idea which one was Urschel, never having seen or even obtained a picture of him. When no one would say who Urschel was, the kidnappers were forced to take the two men. After they drove for a while, Kelly had both men produce their wallets and identified Urschel. He tossed the other, Walter Jarrett, out on an empty road.
After a number of false steps and missed signals, the kidnappers collected $200,000 in ransom. Once they had the money, Kathryn demanded they protect themselves by "killing the bastard," but Kelly, in the one time he stood up to his wife, convinced the others in the gang that their victim should be freed or it would "be bad for future business."
The FBI ran the gang to earth thanks to victim Urschel, who turned out to have a brilliant memory. Although he had been kept blindfolded throughout his ordeal of several days, he was able to remember so many details that the agents soon identified the place where he had been held as the ranch of Kathryn's parents in Texas. Once the gang members were identified, they were readily captured. Bates was picked up in Denver. Kelly and Kathryn were cornered a little later in a hideout in Memphis. According to the version later given by Hoover, Kelly cringed in a corner of the room, hands upraised, and pleaded: "Don't shoot, G-men, don't shoot." This dramatic incident supposedly gave the FBI agents their popular name. The tale was sheer hogwash, however. The name "G-men" had been used years earlier to describe government workers and agents, and Kelly was actually captured by Detective Sgt. W. J. Raney and Detectives A. O. Clark and Floyd Wiebenga of the Memphis Police. After the three broke down the bedroom door, Raney shoved a shotgun into Kelly's paunch, and Kelly said, "I've been waiting for you all night."
Shipped off to Alcatraz under a life sentence, Kelly soon became known as the easygoing man he always had been (Pop Gun Kelly to some) and was eventually transferred out of that prison of toughs to Leavenworth, where he died of a heart attack in 1954. Kathryn Kelly was released from her life sentence in 1958 and faded into oblivion with her aged mother.