By Patsy R. Brumfield/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – Novelist Ace Atkins was researching a story idea in Memphis two years ago when the court clerk said he should take a look a something really interesting – the legal case against one of the America’s most notorious gangsters, George “Machine Gun” Kelly.
Kelly lived his Memphis life as George Barnes, and as Atkins read the file on 1930s-era America’s Public Enemy No. 1, he knew what his next book would be about.
“I liked the idea because it was local,” said the 40-year-old Lafayette County resident, who’s built a solid reputation over the past 12 years as one of the country’s top crime writers. “Much of this story takes place in Memphis, and Kelly’s wife, Kathryn, is from Saltillo. I figured I knew these people.”
Friday, Atkins comes to Tupelo to sign that book, “Infamous,” a fictional look at the couple’s life of crime centering on their big-time kidnapping of Charles Urschel, a rich Texas oilman. It’s his eighth novel, all steeped in local color and edgy characters.
Atkins said he also was drawn to write about Kelly because he was “the Southern gangster” whose story had never been told, despite his 8,000-page file maintained by the FBI.
Last week, Atkins was in town to talk about the book and to see, for the first time, the former Citizens National Bank downtown and its vault that Kelly and sidekick Albert Bates robbed in 1932. It reportedly was Kelly’s last-known bank robbery.
The tall, former Auburn football player used a small flashlight to inspect the inside of the vault, which then-teller Homer Edgeworth opened for the gangsters and lived to tell about it. He also lived to tell Atkins about it last fall, just two weeks before his death.
In a videotaped interview with Atkins, Edgeworth recounted his encounter with Kelly, which began earlier in the day – Nov. 30 – when Kelly came into the bank ostensibly to get change for a $20 bill.
At 4 p.m. closing time, Kelly and Bates entered the Main Street bank. Kelly locked the door and put a 38-caliber pistol to the back of Edgeworth’s head. They proceeded to the vault in the rear of the building, filled pillow cases with $38,000 and exited a side door onto the alley. Edgeworth told Atkins how he watched them drive away, headed east.
“It was one of the most famous bank jobs that Kelly had pulled off, but I never would have guessed in a million years that Edgeworth was still alive,” Atkins says.
At 102 years old, Edgeworth vividly recalled how Kelly put a gun behind his ear and told him to unload the cash drawers and he wouldn’t get hurt.
“I’ll remember it for the rest of my life,” Edgeworth told Atkins.
“It was just like it had happened yesterday,” Atkins says, recalling Edgeworth’s recounting. “That’s one thing I always love about writing books based on true stories, is having that connection with people who were there and part of it. I was really fortunate to meet Mr. Edgeworth.”
While Kelly was known for robbing banks in Washington State, Texas and Oklahoma, Atkins speculates he must have had a personal reason for being in the Tupelo area, rather than intentionally planning a bank robbery here. Perhaps he and Kathryn were visiting her relatives in Saltillo.
While Kelly is the new book’s infamous character, Atkins’ story’s central character is Kathryn, who craved the high life and its publicity. Born Cleo Brooks, she also is credited with giving her husband his nickname as a device to make him more notorious.
“Kathryn really manipulated George,” Atkins observed. “He was happy robbing banks and buying nice suits and cars. But she wanted to go for the big money.”
Kelly ‘a rock star’
Researching the Kellys was fascinating, Atkins said, especially to see the locales they were associated with and the publicity their life of crime generated in the 1930s.
“George Kelly was so famous that he couldn’t go anywhere, when he was in Memphis,” Atkins noted. “He was a like a rock star today.
“He actually was a pretty nice guy – everybody liked him,” he said, blaming Kathryn for pushing him to bigger, more profitable crimes.
Kelly began his notorious life as a Memphis bootlegger, but as Prohibition came to an end and banks were drying up, he and other criminals were forced to seek new ways to make a dishonest living – that’s when many turned to kidnapping the rich.
Kidnapping was so popular back then that Time magazine published a weekly section of kidnappings, Atkins said.
Atkins spent a long time conducting research on the Kellys, using his experience as an award-winning investigative reporter. Their many letters to each other told him a lot about them as he wove “Infamous” into a novel.
Their kidnapping schemes to get rich quick led to their downfall, he said. George, Kathryn and her mother were arrested in 1933 in Memphis for the Urschel nabbing, and the Kellys were convicted less than a month later.
He spent the rest of his life in prison before dying of a heart attack on his 59th birthday in 1954. Kathryn was released from prison in 1958 and died in 1985 and at the age of 81.
Contact Patsy R. Brumfield at (662) 678-1596 or email@example.com.
‘Infamous’ book signing
* Friday, April 23, noon
* Reed’s Book Store
More about Machine Gun
* Many photos, videos, newspaper articles etc. about Machine Gun Kelly at www.aceatkins.com/Extras/Infamous/index.html
Tupelo bank robbery
* Citizens National Bank, Main Street beside Tupelo Hardware
* Nov. 30, 1932
* Take: $38,000
* Reported to be his last-known bank heist.