The Scales of Justice
Who was “Old Joe” and how did he lead the FBI to Ma Barker’s hideout?
Around the lake town of Ocklawaha in the 1930s, Old Joe had acquired a reputation for being vicious and fearless. The locals steered clear of him, but apparently no one told the family that rented a nearby two-story vacation home around January of 1935. That family was actually the notorious Barker–Karpis gang, which needed a place to lay low after their criminal activities in the Midwest had put them at the top of the most-wanted list. Arizona “Ma” Barker and her son Fred happened to run afoul of Old Joe and, not to be outdone in the meanness category, Fred shot at Old Joe with his Tommy gun. Old Joe was wounded but survived the encounter—and he’d have his revenge soon enough.
When Arthur Barker was arrested in Chicago that same month, the FBI discovered a letter describing the place that Ma and Fred had rented along with a map that wasn’t specific enough to give away their exact location … until they read the part detailing Fred’s encounter with Old Joe. That was just the sort of detail that the feds needed to narrow down their search.
On January 16 agents surrounded the lake house and demanded that the gang surrender. Fred replied with gunfire, and what ensued was the longest gunfight in FBI history, lasting over four hours. Curious neighbors are alleged to have set up lawn chairs and picnic blankets to watch.
Following the shootout, both Fred and Ma were found dead inside the bullet-riddled second-floor bedroom. The shootout also strengthened FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s resolve to legitimize and empower the nascent FBI.
The story doesn’t end there though. There’s still one final twist that makes this story bizarrely and uniquely Floridian: Old Joe, if you haven’t already guessed it, was a fifteen-foot-long alligator.
Just a few minutes from the house where Ma and Fred Barker made their last stand is the eponymous Gator Joe’s Beach Bar and Grill, which proudly displays one of Old Joe’s massive reptilian feet.
The Barker Gang’s Last Stand
What: Ma Barker House Museum
Where: 13279 SE 115th Ave., Ocklawaha
Cost: There is a $7 fee per vehicle to enter the Carney Island Conservation & Recreation Area.
Pro Tip: Tours of the house are available, but due to the popularity of the site, you’ll want to book it in advance at mabarkerhouse.org.