Ma Barker: A Word Portrait



PERHAPS NO WOMAN in history has been as tragically misunderstood as Ma Barker, for the uniqueness of her life lies in its very ordinariness—the round of cheerfully accepted duties and the infrequent, simple pleasures that characterized woman’s lot in the Missouri of those days. For if Missouri was no longer exactly frontier in 1872, the year of her birth, yet it was a land still rough around the edges, where a small girl in a calico dress might stand on the steps of her prairie home and thrill to the sight of Indian braves riding by in desperate packs, looking for “firewater” in their colorful war clothing; and where the long wagon trains (prairie schooners) trudged slowly west, drawn by patient mules and followed by the noisy, playing children whose names she would never know.

“Ma!” cried a stern voice. “Come in here and stop dreaming, you little nogood!” (Rough? Yes, yet if rough, there were ample reasons for it: years of futile scratching at the remorseless soil of Missouri.)

Reluctantly, the little girl, for she was only eight years old, turned away from the colorful scene, and, with the harsh discipline so common in the Show Me state, entered the dark cabin.

“Here!” exclaimed her mother, putting a basin of slops in the little girl’s arms. “Slop the pigs now, or I‘ll tell your papa!”

“Yes, Mama,” said the little girl, and moved to obey, while a twinkling sparkled in the eyes of the disappointed Mrs. Clark, as she watched the girl walk carefully out to the pigpen, afraid of spilling a drop, “lest Papa find out!”

The years rolled by as irrevocable as the great prairie winds. Our little dreaming girl grew into a tall, willowy young Missouri woman, well known for her wholesome beauty and sweet disposition. Many a handsome rural lad admired her, but Ma was not conscious of this, or, if she was, didn’t “do anything about it.” Why rush into adulthood, with its stern realities? she might have reasoned. For there was the range to ride, on her little wild pony, Trixie, on which, while she rode, she looked like “some fair Atalanta.” There were slumber parties, too, with her girlfriends from the village school, where more giggling and quiltmaking was done than sleeping, I’m afraid! And on winter nights, after “chores,” young Ma would sing—lonely sad songs of a new nation in a voice that reminded friends of the great Lillie Langtry, whom a king had loved.

Deeply feminine, Ma made her own clothes.

In the year 1888, a young neighbor, Mrs. Guthrie, whose motherly instincts yearned toward young Ma, rode over with exciting news that was to expand Ma’s horizons forever beyond the area bounded by the dirt path from the cabin to the pigpen and the turnpike fence.

“Ma, Mrs. Clark,” began the young woman as she got down from her ox, “There is goin’ to be a dance this Saturday at the Grange. All the cowhands and itinerants will be comin’. That’ll be fun, you bet!”

Ma’s eyes sparkled with longing, but she dared not speak until her mother had given her consent.

“Well,” began the fifty-year-old, “sounds like a nice element of people. You kin go, Ma.”

Up jumped Ma at these words, threw her arms around her mother’s neck, and then shook the hand of Mrs. Guthrie as if she would break it off.

All that afternoon and all the days following, Ma’s young mind was teeming. What should she wear? Who would she meet? Would she have a good time?

The story of that May evening—how two young souls met and became as one—that story has been told and retold, becoming the most famous in the Ma Barker canon, as well as an enduring piece of Missouri social history.

It was one of Ma’s nights, everybody said, one of those times when simple good grooming combined to make her something the whole state could be proud of.

But the first Ma heard of her greatest triumph came near the end of that magical evening. A stranger, a cowpoke, told her that somebody outside wanted to meet her. Ma peered out, trying to follow the stranger’s pointing finger.

“Who? That big swarthy guy, ya mean?”

“That’s him. G’wan out there.”

Hesitating only a moment—for sensitive as she was, Ma was never timid— Ma joined the solitary man out under the stars. What he said, what she said, we can only speculate, but sure it is that George Barker, whose wife she was to become the very next day, was the one great love of her life.

And now commenced that happy period in the life of any young couple, the anticipation of their first baby. George Barker protected his wife as well as was in his power from the heavy work of their farm, but Ma strove to carry her load as usual. Though these were no doubt hard times, they must have been happy ones, too. For like generations of Americans always have, the Barkers believed they were as good as anybody and that with hard work they would soon be rich.

January, 1889. In an impenetrable snowstorm that was worse than anyone in Missouri had ever seen, a baby girl was born to Ma and George Barker. She was christened Cheryl, but fondly called Pinkie by all.

Now work on the farm resumed. George Barker, always a quiet man, soon became obsessed with one thing: George Barker wanted sons. The couple prayed, but nothing happened. Pinkie was to be their only child. In the hard financial conditions of 1927, Ma and Pinkie were forced to move away, to Tulsa, Oklahoma.

There they were able to purchase a rooming house, of which Ma’s efficiency and charm made an instant success. Pinkie soon met and married a young Tulsa merchant, yet still found the time to help her mother in the varied business pursuits that marked the later years.

With the rooming house now a profitable and smooth-running concern, Ma turned her mind to banking. Associates Lloyd, Freddie, Herman, and “Doc” Barker (no relations) describe the Ma of those years as follows:

Ma was always ... a restless innovator, banking-wise. She was always thinking up new ways to . . . keep us busy.

Another who knew her, J. Ed. Hoover, put it this way:

Ma Barker never closes her doors to anyone, especially if they are in trouble and have the dough.

By now a rich woman, Ma invited George to come to Tulsa, but, reluctant, perhaps, to “live off” his wife, he decided to remain in Welch, Oklahoma, where he had founded a filling station.

In 1935, Ma Barker died while taking a secret vacation in Florida. She has been much misunderstood, and much maligned.

Some people seem to need to think badly of others, and to these people Ma’s favorite response was always to pat the sidearm she wore as a protection against snakes and say mischievously, “Care to discuss it with my little friend here?” And then the room would fill with the echo of her great, fond laugh, and her blue eyes would sparkle and be, once again, the eyes of a lovely prairie girl.