Tuesday, April 23, 2013

James Taylor -- "Machine Gun Kelly" (1971)

You'd better watch out Machine Gun Kelly
Careful of what you do now
If you keep listening to your old lady
Ain't no telling what'll happen to you now

Good advice -- unfortunately, George "Machine Gun" Kelly (who was born George Kelly Barnes) didn't take it.  As a result, he ended up in the federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island.

My family and I visited Alcatraz Island on our recent trip to San Francisco.  "The Rock" is only a short ferry ride from the Fisherman's Wharf area, and is a very prominent feature of San Francisco Bay.

Here's how Alcatraz looks from Coit Tower, which stands on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco:

The Alcatraz federal prison was open only from 1934 to 1963, but it looms very large in the public's imagination -- partly because of the notorious criminals who were incarcerated there (including not only Machine Gun Kelly but also Al Capone, Robert "Birdman of Alcatraz" Stroud, and Alvin "Creepy" Karpis) and partly because no one successfully escaped from Alcatraz.  (Five of the 36 men who attempted to escape from Alcatraz did make it off the island, but are presumed to have drowned in the frigid waters of San Francisco Bay.)

We travelled to Alcatraz on the one and only hybrid ferry operating in this country, the "Hornblower Hybrid":

Here's what Alcatraz looks like from the ferry:

Alcatraz is quite close to San Francisco, as the next photo shows.  Former prisoners talked about how maddening it was to hear the sounds of music and laughter from the city as they lay in their beds:

Back to the story of Machine Gun Kelly . . .

George Barnes was the son of a well-to-do Memphis insurance agent and his wife.  He became a bootlegger at an early age, but his criminal career really took off when he met his second wife, Kathryn.  (George was her fourth husband.)

Kathryn Kelly had a real talent for public relations.  She bought George a .45-caliber Thompson submachine gun like this one at a pawn shop:

Pretty soon, people in the Southwest began to tell stories of a bank robber who signed his name in bullet holes on billboards and bank walls after his holdups.  Kathryn networked with other criminals by handing out spent cartridges from George's machine gun as souvenirs.

Katherine Kelly
Kelly listened to his old lady when she dreamed up a bold plan to kidnap Charles Urschel, an Oklahoma City oil millionaire.  The Kellys eventually collected a $200,000 ransom from Urschel's family, then released him unharmed.

But the brand-new "Lindbergh Law" - enacted that same year in response to the shocking abduction and murder of Charles Lindbergh's baby -- made kidnapping a federal crime, and the FBI was quickly on the Kellys' trail.

Three months after the kidnapping, FBI agents and local police tracked the couple to a Memphis hideout and arrested them without a shot being fired.   The Memphis chief of police described the arrest in these words:

When Kelly looked into the muzzle of a sawed-off shotgun in the hands of a Memphis detective sergeant, there was a thin yellow fluid that began to rise up the canal of his spinal column, in much the fashion that mercury rises in a thermometer on an exceedingly hot day, and he immediately dropped his revolver and submitted quietly to arrest.

The Kellys in court
Kelly never shot anyone -- in fact, he never even fired at anyone -- but thanks in part to Kathryn's efforts, he had become one of the most famous and feared criminals in America.  The couple were tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison within two weeks of their arrest.

Only a few days later, the Federal Bureau of Prisons purchased Alcatraz Island from the U.S. military, and converted the existing military prison on the island to a maximum-security federal penitentiary.  In 1934, Kelly became one of the first inmates to be jailed at Alcatraz when he and a number of other prisoners were transported there by train from the prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Kelly's mug shot
Kelly spent 17 years at Alcatraz.  He was a model inmate and was given the nickname "Pop Gun Kelly" by other prisoners.  In 1951, he was transferred back to Leavenworth, where he died three years later of a heart attack at the age of 59.

Kathryn was released from prison in 1958, and worked as a bookkeeper at an Oklahoma prison until she died in 1985.  While in prison, she wrote these lines -- presumably about her husband:

My heart is numb, yet aching with the need of you.
Grim, stark sadness dims everything I try to do
That banner in courage I carried fell apart
The want of you is like no other thing, dear heart

"Machine Gun Kelly" was released in 1971 on James Taylor's third and most successful album, Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon.  It was written by Danny "Kootch" Kortchmar, a famed session guitarist, songwriter, and producer who has worked with not only Taylor but also Carole King, Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt, and Don Henley.

Here's a live performance of "Machine Gun Kelly":

Click below to order the song from Amazon:

No comments:

Post a Comment