Photo: John Pendygraft/Tampa Bay Times
Bullets before breakfast: Ma Barker's house is for sale
The house where Ma Barker died 80 years ago is being offered to the state. The price: $1 million.
Before dawn on Jan. 16, 1935, as many as 25 FBI agents surrounded a two-story home in Ocklawaha near Ocala. They hid behind moss-covered oak trees and crouched behind an embankment that sloped from the yard into nearby Lake Weir. Inside the house, most members of the Barker-Karpis gang were already gone, apparently tipped off to the coming raid. Only Ma Barker and her son, Freddie, were left, and they were packed and ready to leave town.
The gang had reason to be nervous. After nearly five years of robbing banks, kidnapping and killing people throughout much of the Midwest, Barker’s partner Alvin Karpis had recently been named “public enemy No. 1” and, during the time of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, public enemy No. 1’s and their partners didn’t usually last very long. John Dillinger, who followed Al Capone in the top slot, died in an FBI shootout in July 1934. Pretty Boy Floyd, named public enemy No. 1 following Dillinger’s death, died in an FBI shootout three months later. Karpis and Barker knew Hoover was coming for them next — hence the hideout overlooking out-of-the-way Lake Weir.
The FBI might not have found them if one of the gang’s members hadn’t been arrested in Chicago on Jan. 8, 1935, while carrying a Florida map that had the Ocala area circled. A little more than a week later, the agents surrounded the Lake Weir house. One knocked on the front door. Shortly after, shooting commenced.
Bullets broke windows, splintered furniture and tore holes through the plaster walls.Tear gas filled the house. A neighbor, awakened by the noise, said a bullet grazed her head. A man living next door ran to his kitchen and hid in the oven. The shootout lasted four hours, a record during the FBI’s public enemy era. More than 2,500 bullets were fired.
In the end, FBI agents found Ma Barker — described by Hoover as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade” — dead in an upstairs bedroom, a tommy gun near her body. Freddie was dead, too, shot seven times in the chest.
The house did not belong to the Barkers. They had rented it that winter from the Bradford family of Miami, which used it as a summer and weekend retreat. The family usually didn’t rent the house, which they called “Belle Air.” But Carson Bradford, the family’s patriarch, had been approached by someone who said he was a representative of a Mrs. T.C. “Kate” Blackburn, whom he described as a “sweet little old lady” looking for a quiet, out-ofthe- way cottage to spend some quality time with her sons.
Bradford’s wife didn’t want to rent out the house, and he refused the offer, but he changed his mind after Blackburn offered cash in advance for the whole season. “That was the only time the house was ever rented,” says Carson Good, Bradford’s great-grandson.
Good, a 47-year-old developer from Orlando, is among eight Bradford descendants who own the home, which looks a lot like it did when Barker and her son died there. Much of the same furniture is still there, including a white rocking chair sitting by a bedroom window. The rocker has two bullet holes through its back.
For years, the Bradford descendants have debated what to do with the property, which includes 372 feet of Lake Weir frontage. Some want to sell it. Good, who grew up visiting the house on weekends and summers, has fond memories and has been among the faction that wants to keep the house in the family.
The cost of maintaining the more than 100-year-old house is increasing, however, and fewer family members are visiting it. Security has also been an issue. Strangers have shown up wanting to get inside and see where Ma Barker died. One group staged a séance, hoping to communicate with Barker’s spirit. After coming to terms with the realities, Good has come over to the sell side — but with reservations.
“We don’t want a bunch of condos built here,” he says. “I would feel better if the state buys the property, preserves the house and makes it a place that people can visit and enjoy.”
George Albright III, Marion County’s tax collector and a longtime friend of Good’s family, is championing that cause. Albright, a Republican state representative from 1988 to 2000, is asking the Legislature this session to buy the Barker property. He envisions a tourist attraction and a law enforcement memorial.
“It’s amazing how intact this house is, even down to the furniture,” Albright says. “You can still see the patches in the plaster where the bullet holes were filled. I get chills every time I visit. This place has to be preserved.”