When we think about Prohibition-era gangsters, it is Chicago, Al Capone, and the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre that often come to mind. Tulsa, however, was where some of the most violent gangsters of this period got their start and honed their skills. Many would profit from the lessons they learned in Tulsa by working for syndicates in Chicago, St. Louis, and Detroit, contributing to the rise of gangster empires such as Al Capone’s in the mid-1920s.
In Tulsa’s Central Park district at 6th Street and Peoria Avenue during the years bracketing World War I, juvenile gangs ran rampant. The roster of ruffians reads like a Who’s Who of notorious Midwestern gangsters in the late 1920s and 1930s. Volney Davis, Wilbur Underhill, Ray Terrill, and Elmer Inman were just a few. Pretty Boy Floyd had a Tulsa connection. The infamous Barker gang led by Ma Barker got their start in this district as well.
Volney Davis was an early member of the Central Park Gang. He made his way to Tulsa in 1921 after serving a three-year sentence for grand larceny in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. He launched his career as a ruthless killer and opportunist when he teamed with Arthur “Doc” Barker to burglarize St. John’s Hospital in Tulsa. Thomas J. Sherrill, a hospital night watchman, was killed during the robbery. Barker was arrested a few months later, but Davis eluded capture for almost a year. For his role in the robbery and murder at the hospital, he received a life sentence in 1922.
Participating in a mass escape from the prison at McAlester, Oklahoma, Davis managed to remain free for less than two weeks. In 1932, he again fled prison, reunited with longtime girlfriend Edna Murray, also a prison escapee, and joined the Karpis-Barker gang. He was later implicated in the kidnapping of St. Paul, Minnesota, banker Edward Bremer, a crime that would result in a second sentence of life imprisonment. Hiding in Aurora, Illinois, he provided a haven for John Dillinger and Homer Van Meter. After a running gun battle with police, Dillinger left the mortally wounded John “Red” Hamilton in the care of Davis and Murray. Davis was captured in St. Louis on January 22, 1935, but escaped the following day. Four months later he was arrested in Chicago. He would join many of his associates from the Central Park Gang in Alcatraz.
In about 1910, Arthur “Doc” Barker, Davis’s future accomplice in the Tulsa hospital robbery and murder, moved with his family—George Elias Barker, his father; Arizona “Ma” Barker, his mother; and brothers Herman, Lloyd, and Fred—from Missouri to Tulsa. By the mid-teens the Barker brothers were well known in the Central Park district for theft and robbery. They were even linked to several murders. On July 18, 1918, Doc Barker was arrested for automobile theft and after his conviction was sentenced to the penitentiary in Joplin, Missouri. On February 19, 1920, he made his escape.
A series of robberies in Oklahoma were attributed to Doc Barker. After being arrested in Tulsa on January 14, 1922, Barker was convicted of Sherill’s murder and received a sentence of life imprisonment to be served at Oklahoma State Penitentiary. On September 10, 1932, he was pardoned for good behavior, and immediately joined his brother Fred and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis on a violent crime spree. Barker was identified as a participant in the robbery of the Third Northwestern Bank in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on December 16, 1932, and as the gunman who shot and killed two police officers during the robbery. His brother Fred shot and killed a civilian during the robbery. The gang struck again on August 30, 1933, robbing a payroll at Stockyards National Bank of South St. Paul, Minnesota. Barker displayed his vicious, cold-blooded nature by fatally shooting Leo Pavlak, a disarmed police officer.
Would you like to read more about the Central Park Gang? Would you be interested in stories about murder and mayhem on Route 66? Order a signed copy of Murder & Mayhem on The Main Street of America: Tales From Bloody 66 today!