Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Ma Barker haunts Florida house

Aerial view of the town of Oklawaha (historic image)
Historic image of tiny Oklawaha is part of a presentation, "The
 Records and Legend of the Kate "Ma" Barker Shootout at
Ocklawaha," by George Albright III and Carson Good.
Looking for a real haunted house this Halloween season? Try the country home made famous by the 1935 gun battle between the FBI and the Ma Barker Bang in the Florida hamlet of Ocklawaha. The 1930 house is named the Bradford-Ma Barker House and is open for tours by appointment. But watch out for ghosts. More than one person believes Ma's spirit still lurks there.

In the 1930s, Ma Barker was said to be the mastermind behind the gang, which consisted of her sons and other men. Gang members robbed banks, killed, kidnapped, and hijacked with cold-blooded ruthlessness. At the time, Ma was in the nation's collective consciousness as a Most Wanted Woman, a harridan who presided over an evil empire. But modern history discounts that theory as something promoted by J. Edgar Hoover and the FBI.

Ma's full name was Arizona Clark Barker, but she used the name Kate. Three of her four sons were active in the famous gang along with other young men. She traveled with them and seems to have served as a protective cover. For example, she was the one who arranged to rent the rural hideaway on Lake Weir in Ocklawaha. But her full role remains murky, at least to me.

On the one hand, her four sons were in and out of trouble and prison, starting at young ages. Something was seriously amiss from the start in that household. Online sites that borrow heavily from one another portray her as an early version of today's helicopter parents. She thought her boys could do no wrong and she intervened with the law to save their hides more than once.

Face of Ma Barker
Ma  Barker
On the other hand, Ma's husband left her after the boys were grown. Like many another woman during the Great Depression, Ma seems to have done what was necessary to survive. Somehow that evolved into being a permanent member of a vicious gang. Yet one of the group's most notorious members - Alvin Karpis - wrote in a memoir that Ma was just a country woman who didn't have the smarts to organize kidnappings and bank robbings. He says gang members hid their activities from Ma. They'd leave her home or send her to the movies when they went out on a job. According to the Alcatraz History website, Karpis claims that "Ma saw a lot of movies."

So who knows. Ma's true story is buried beneath lore, legend, and speculation. What is a known fact is that she and her son Fred were in the lakefront house in Ocklawaha the day the FBI came gunning. The other gang members had left for reasons unknown to me.

Ma and Fred refused to surrender. The gun battle lasted hours, and burned itself into local lore. With good reason! You see from the photo that Ocklawaha was about as small and quiet as a Florida town could get in that era. Having bank robbers, the FBI, and a Wild West shootout in town sent shockwaves through the region.

Among local residents who witnessed the shootout was the great-grandfather of Marion County Tax Collector George Albright III. In fact, the younger Albright grew up next to the famous house. He's done a  lot of research on the subject and is involved in the renovation effort, which included relocating the house to the Carney Island Recreation and Conservation Area in Ocklawaha.

Before, during, and after the project, stories surfaced about how Ma haunts the house. These recollections came from reputable people. Don't laugh. Read at least this article from the Tampa Bay Times before you decide to dismiss the idea.

If you prefer only verified facts, check out the treasure trove of shootout documents and photos collected in a presentation by Albright III and Carson Good, whose family owned the house. The PDF and an accompanying video are generously shared online. Go to the Online Forms page of the Marion County Tax Collector website and scroll down to the "Other" heading near the bottom of the page. There, you'll find links to "The Records and Legend of the Kate 'Ma' Barker Shootout at Ocklawaha."

After that, go visit and tour the house. If you dare.

Here's a video of the house tour by the Ocala Star-Banner:

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