OCKLAWAHA, Florida—Little has changed in 75 years here on County Road 25, about 32 kilometres south of Ocala. As you look toward the two-storey frame house fronting Lake Weir it’s easy to imagine yourself on this spot in the pre-dawn hours of Jan. 16, 1935.
In your mind’s eye you can see vintage Fords and Packards glide up, their motors cut and their lights doused, and watch as the FBI agents alight and take up positions behind the oak trees and in the orange grove.
At 7 a.m., the shooting started. When it was over Arizona Kate (“Ma”) Barker and her son Fred were dead. They had been the last two members of the Ma Barker gang still at large.
In the previous year Ma and sons Fred and Arthur (“Doc”) had mounted a crime spree across Depression-era mid-western America, robbing banks and killing 10 people in the process. Just how involved Ma Barker, 58, was in the actual crimes is still a matter of debate. But the gang kidnapped a banker – a federal offence – and that brought the FBI into the chase.
Hours after the gun battle, FBI director J. Edgar Hoover met the press. He didn’t tell who gave the “bandit queen” away, but the locals will tell you that Ma and Fred were undone by an alligator called Old Joe.
The four-bedroom house, with a screened patio out front, today looks pretty much as it did in 1935. A few years ago its then-resident showed me around, pointing out some of the bullet holes in the walls (the FBI pumped in 1,500 to 2,000 rounds). And in the upstairs room where Ma and Fred went down shooting, he spoke about Old Joe.
He said that early in January 1935 the G-men had captured Doc Barker in Chicago and grilled him about where Ma and Fred were hiding. “Doc wouldn’t talk,” my contact said, “but the agents had found part of a letter which they believed was from Ma or Fred. It said that where they were holed up there was good hunting for a three-legged alligator called Old Joe.
“So Hoover sent agents through Georgia, Louisiana, Florida, all through the southeast. In less than a week they found there was just such an alligator in Lake Weir.”
The agents asked around and found that an elderly “Mrs. Blackburn” and her son “Blackie” had rented the lakefront house off Route 25. A neighbour recognized them as Ma and Fred from FBI mug shots.
The house is private property, off-limits to tourists. But for several years it was open to the public for a day each year, when a re-creation of the shootout was staged.
“We had antique cars, and sheriff’s department staffers played the FBI agents,” says Richard Lillie, president of the Lake Weir Chamber of Commerce. “But then we found it difficult to get enough volunteers so the re-enactment hasn’t been held since 2006.”
But visitors can still hear the story from the patrons in Ma Barker’s Hideaway, a tavern a few hundred metres down the road.
For information on travel in Florida go to the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation website at visitflorida.com.