Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

George "Machine Gun" Kelly

Kidnapping of Charles F. Urschel

The Kellys and Bates soon decided on a new kidnap target. Shortly after 11:00 p.m. on Saturday night, July 22, 1933, Kelly and Bates walked onto the front porch of a mansion owned by Charles F. Urschel, a millionaire oil man in Oklahoma City. Mrs. Urschel looked up from her bridge hand and seeing Kelly with a tommy gun, raised her hands and screamed.

Stop that! Kelly ordered. Keep quiet or well blow your heads off. Which ones Urschel? demanded Kelly. When neither man spoke up, Bates herded them both into an automobile and they took off. Outside the city, a quick search of the mens wallets revealed the real Charles Urschel. The bridge-playing partner, Walter Jarrett, was then relieved of $51 and deposited on the road.

Urschel and his wife had recently been married. Urschels first marriage had been to the sister of Thomas B. Slick, another oil magnate, who was known as the king of the wildcatters. Ironically, the second Mrs. Urschel, Bernice (sometimes written as Berenice) was married earlier to Thomas Slick until she was left a widow. The couple had a daughter together, Elizabeth Slick. There is some evidence to believe that possibly Elizabeth Slick may have been the first target of the kidnappers. Later, after the kidnappers were described by Mrs. Urschel and the Jarretts to the police, Elizabeth recalled seeing two men fitting those descriptions following her twice within the past week.

After the men were hustled out of the Urschel household, the two women ran to Elizabeths bedroom and telephoned police. Mrs. Urschel was told immediately to call J. Edgar Hoover in Washington D.C. Within the hour local police and federal agents, as well as the press, were swarming over the Urschel home. Soon Walter Jarrett made his way back to the house. By Monday morning, newspapers across the country printed front-page stories about the kidnapping.

In the book, Kidnapping: The Illustrated History, authors Hank Messick and Burt Goldblatt state that Urschel was a friend of newly elected president Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would take a personal interest in the case, making it essential in Hoovers mind that he crack the case fast.

The afternoon following the kidnapping, Urschel, Kelly and Bates arrived at the Shannons 500-acre ranch in Paradise, Texas, which was owned by Kathryn's stepfather "Boss" Shannon. Blindfolded, Urschel was kept in the garage until after dark. He was then led into the house where he was chained to an iron bed; cotton placed in his ears and taped down.

The following morning, July 24, over breakfast Urschels captors read the headlines to him regarding his kidnapping. That evening he was moved to a small shack-like dwelling where the Shannons son, Armon, lived with his young wife, Oletha. He was handcuffed to a babys high chair and slept on a quilt placed on the floor.

Meanwhile, Kathryn attempted to establish an alibi for herself and met with one of her supposed detective friends. She told him that she had just arrived back from St. Louis. When the detective noticed red dirt on the wheels of her car and Oklahoma newspapers on the front seat, he suspected otherwise. He immediately informed the F.B.I. who showed Mrs. Urschel a mug shot of Kelly, which she quickly identified.

Urschel would remain a captive for nine days, during which time he noted that twice each day he could hear airplanes fly over. When they did, he would wait five minutes and ask his captors what time it was. He determined that the times were at 9:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. He noted a distinct mineral taste to the water he drank and the sound of the pump from which the water was drawn. He also planted his fingerprints wherever possible. He made mental notes about sounds and rainfall, all of which he would provide to the FBI for their later use.

Urschel also had conversations with the men holding him captive. During one talk with Bates, the outlaw expressed his feelings about Bonnie and Clyde.

Theyre just a couple of cheap filling station and car thieves, he said. Ive been stealing for twenty-five years and my group doesnt deal in anything cheap. I wouldnt hesitate to rob the Security National Bank.

Even more talkative than Bates was Kelly, who revealed this tidbit to Urschel, This place is as safe as it can be. All the boys use it. After they pull a bank job or something they come down here to cool off.

There are various stories regarding the request for the ransom money. The best explanation of events comes from John Toland in his classic, The Dillinger Days. On July 25, Kelly informed Urschel that there were too many federal agents in Oklahoma City and that it wouldnt be safe for them to contact his family there. Urschel suggested a family friend in Tulsa, John G. Catlett. Urschel was given paper and a pencil and told to write two notes, one to Catlett, and one to Mrs. Urschel. The following morning, a messenger delivered an envelope to the Catlett home that contained three letters. The note to Catlett urged him not to discuss the matter with anyone other than those mentioned. The second letter was for Urschels wife, and the third was addressed to E. E. Kirkpatrick, another friend of the family.

The letter to Kirkpatrick a newspaperman, rancher, and oilman was handed to him after he was called out to the Urschel home. The note was a ransom demand asking for $200,000 in genuine used federal reserve currency. The kidnappers left instructions that the following ad was to be placed in the Daily Oklahoman newspaper:

FOR SALE 160 acres land, good five-room house, deep well. Also cows, tools, tractors, corn and hay. $3,750.00 for quick sales TERMS.

An air mail letter postmarked Joplin, Missouri was received at the Daily Oklahoman two days after the ad was placed. Kirkpatrick was instructed to board the Sooner train bound for Kansas City on the night of July 29. Told to travel alone, he was to look for two successive bon fires on the right side of the tracks. Once he saw the second fire, he was to toss the ransom money from an observation platform. The letter claimed Urschel would be at the second bon fire and would be permitted to return home after the money was transferred to a sack.

The ransom money was brought to the Urschel home from the First National Bank of Oklahoma City. All of the serial numbers had been recorded. Catlett boarded the train with Kirkpatrick, which he was not supposed to, and headed for Kansas City. In Tolands narrative, Kelly had trouble with his automobile and could not get to where he wanted to set the fires.

In Bruce Barnes account of the incident, he claims his father and Bates actually boarded the train at Arcadia, Kansas and grew suspicious after they saw Catlett was with Kirkpatrick. How Kelly and Bates would have known what either man looked like is not explained by Barnes. However, Kelly in his note had provided for a Plan B. Kirkpatrick was told if something went wrong, he was to check in to the Muehlebach Hotel in Kansas City when he arrived.

Kirkpatrick and Catlett arrived at the Union Station where the five men had been slaughtered a month earlier. This left an eerie impression that was not lost on the minds of the two men as they climbed into a taxi and headed for the hotel. Once there, Kirkpatrick registered under the name E. E. Kincaid. The following morning a telegram arrived:

UNAVOIDABLE INCIDENT KEPT ME FROM SEEING YOU LAST NIGHT WILL COMMUNICATE ABOUT 6:00

E. W. MOORE

The telephone rang at 5:45 p.m. on Sunday, July 30 and Kirkpatrick was instructed to take a cab to the La Salle Hotel and walk west with the suitcase containing the money in his right hand. Toland gives us this account of the exchange:

Kirkpatrick asked if he could bring a friend along. Hell, no! We know all about your friend. You come alone and unarmed.

Kirkpatrick stuck an automatic in his belt, put on his hat, and picked up the Gladstone bag containing the money. Godspeed and good luck, said Catlett.

A few minutes later Kirkpatrick reached the La Salle Hotel and began walking leisurely along Linwood Boulevard. Then a heavy-set man about six feet tall approached in a nervous shifting stride, and when Kirkpatrick saw his furtive glances he guessed the moment for pay-off had come.

Machine Gun Kelly kept walking, eyes straight ahead, then stopped a few feet to Kirkpatricks right. Ill take that grip, he said.

Kirkpatrick took a few seconds to memorize everything about the man so he could identify him he had black hair, dark skin, and wore a stylish summer suit, two-toned shoes, and a turned-down Panama hat.

Hurry up, said Kelly

How do I know youre the right party?

Hell, you know damned well I am.

Kirkpatrick said $200,000 was a lot of money and he wanted assurance.

Dont argue with me, said Kelly, on edge. The boys are waiting.

Kirkpatrick stalled, asking when Urschel would be home. He put the bag on the sidewalk between his legs. Tell me definitely what I can tell Mrs. Urschel.

Kelly, growing red-faced as he nervously shifted his feet, promised that Urschel would be home within twelve hours. Kirkpatrick, leaving the bag, walked away without looking back...

On the afternoon of July 31, Bates and Kelly returned to the Shannon ranch with the ransom money. After dividing the money, the two men each gave Harvey Bailey $500, supposedly to settle an old debt. Bailey was holed up at the ranch, recovering from a leg wound he suffered during his prison escape.

There was some debate over the fate of Urschel. One of the options the trio discussed was to kill him. The two men and Kathryn finally decided it was best to return him unharmed. Bates went out to the shack where Urschel was being watched by Armon Shannon to tell him he was being released. Urschel was cleaned up and his nine-day beard shaved. On the way to drop him off, he was warned repeatedly about what would happen to him if he talked.

Twenty miles outside of Oklahoma City, Urschel was handed ten dollars and told to walk to a gas station where he could call a taxicab. Kelly watched as Urschel staggered toward the gas station in the drizzling rain. Unfortunately for Kelly, this would not be his last memory of Charles F. Urschel.

Just before 9:00 p.m. on July 31, Urschel arrived at his home. The following morning, the grilling would begin and the determined FBI would begin a manhunt for his kidnappers.

 

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