Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Alvin Karpis: Pursuit of the Last Public Enemy

Career Criminal

Alvin Karpis was a career criminal from the age of ten. Growing up in Topeka, Kansas he started out running errands for petty gamblers, pimps and bootleggers, saying later, I just naturally liked the action. Jumping ahead fifty yearsafter serving thirty-three years in prisonhe summed up his crime career:

My profession was robbing banks, knocking off payrolls, and kidnapping rich men. I was good at it. Maybe the best in North America for five years from 1931-1936. In another set of circumstances, I might have turned out to be a top lawyer or a big-time businessman or made it to any high position that demanded brains and style, and a cool, hard way of handling yourself. Certainly I could have held the highest job in any line of police detection work. I out-thought and defeated enough cops and G-men to recognize that I was more knowledgeable about crime than any of them - including the number-one guy, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI.

Not much of an argument for prison rehabilitation.

Karpis and Fred Barker had met in a Kansas prison. When they both were free in 1931, the gang began to develop. At first, there were nighttime burglaries of various shops, like jewelry and clothingstores, but soon they moved into daylight bank robberies. The participants were almost always Fred Barker and Karpis (and Doc Barker when he was out of prison in 1932). Then, depending on the conditions and requirements of the targeted bank, in the early 1930s there was an informal underworld workforce of experienced thieves and stickup men from which the remaining crew was selected (resembling todays Temporary Help agencies.)

Mugshot of Fred Hunter
Mugshot of Fred Hunter

A partner with Karpis in crime, Fred Hunter, described him as super-smart. The friendship between Karpis and Fred Barker, who shared an organized, planned approach to each job, helped the gang to be so prolific and earn them so much money that they lost count of the grand total. In 1932 alone, they robbed eleven banks that Karpis - who had a nearly perfect photographic memory - could recall offhand. Apparently there were even more.

Consider what the fluctuating, part-time members of the gang represented to the FBI and potential prosecutors; they had to sort through several aliases trying to find matches with particular (but not all) crimes known to be perpetrated by the Barker-Karpis mob. Not only were there multiple crimes across many states, but also several suspects using numerous aliaseseven the informants co-operating with the FBI may not have known the offenders correct name. On one occasion, Karpis and Fred Hunter were using the same alias (King) simultaneously.

This was long before the computerized instant identifications available today which can sort and match the aliases, eyewitness testimony, fingerprints, photos, etc. in seconds and reach automated conclusions about which suspects committed certain crimes. Also, surveillance cameras in the 1930s banks were non-existent. It actually may have been easier to track Karpis and Fred and Doc Barker because they were more recognizable due to their notoriety and were full-time robbers, whereas the other gang members came and went.

Karpis pointed out several times in his autobiography the charges and even convictions leveled at other outlaws for crimes the Barker-Karpis bunch actually committed. Some of these arrests/convictions were supported by eyewitness testimony - well meant, but incorrect.

Investigations complicated by aliases resulted in the FBI departing on incredibly time-consuming wild goose chases into states like North Dakota pursuing leads on possible gang members, or people that might have had a fleeting role in the Karpis-Barker gang. And, at least on one occasion, the search was for a person who was already dead - Doc Moran. He was a real doctor who had performed gruesome fingerprint removal operations on Fred Barker and Karpis. His downfall came when the two patients found out that he was telling hookers about his unusual medical skills. When he vanished, Fred Barker informed Karpis, Doc and I shot the son of a bitch; anybody who talks to whores is too dangerous to live.

In early 1936, the typewritten FBI memos recording the pursuit of Doc Morans Ghost in the Dakotas and elsewhere, and attempts to track down a con man named William Mead to determine if he was a Barker-Karpis kidnapping conspirator (he wasnt), represent approximately 15%-20% of an FBI file. Mead had used twenty-five aliases.

In 1931, when the gang started forming, Alvin Karpis was twenty-three years old, Fred Barker thirty, and FBI director J.Edgar Hoover, who was to become the personal nemesis of Karpis, was thirty-six. Hoover had been appointed Director of the Bureau seven years earlier.

During 1931-1933, the Barker-Karpis gang successfully looted banks at such a rapid pace, it became routine. As part of the planning and strategy for each bank, the gang tried to carry more firepower than they anticipated the police would have. The machine guns came from either a connection in New York or the gang members walked into a (rural) police station after midnight and told the officer on duty, at gunpoint, they wanted the machine guns. In other words, armed robberies of police stations.

Their operational area was the Midwest, and they shuttled back and forth among St. Paul, Chicago, Toledo, and Cleveland. Other secondary cities they hit were Reno, Kansas City, Tulsa As the heat became more intense, beginning in 1934, Hot springs, Cuba, Florida, New Orleans, east Texas. Also, they began to scatter, rather than move en masse, at this latter time.

They followed the old fugitive adage of continuously shifting locations. As Karpis stated in his autobiography, It wasnt good for our nerves to spend too much time in the same few rooms.