The OG Machine Gun Kelly Was An Actual Original Gangster

Who knew?

Grant Piper


Mugshot of Machine Gun Kelly (Public domain)

If you mention Machine Gun Kelly today’s youth will associate that name with the popular rap artist. 21st century Machine Gun Kelly produces top hits and has featured with artists such as BlackBear, Camila Cabello, Ty Dollar $ign and more. But the original Machine Gun Kelly was a notorious prohibition era gangster.


George Kelly Barns began his criminal career as a bootlegger. Early in his career, he seemed to have no taste for anything larger than small smuggling operations. Beginning in the early 1920s George Barns was content to run his own small operation smuggling alcohol for himself and close clients.

After catching some heat in his hometown of Memphis Barns moves west to Oklahoma. He continues to participate in small local crime gangs and continues to run a personal bootlegging operation. Compared to some of the famous gangsters of the time George Kelly Barns is a small fish.

In 1928, Barns fell afoul of the law while smuggling alcohol onto a reservation in Oklahoma. His crimes landed him a three year sentence for bootlegging but he was quickly released for good behavior. It was around this time that George Barns changed his name to George Kelly in order to cover his tracks.

Upping the stakes

Kathryn Kelly (Public domain)

After being released from prison on good behavior George Kelly marries Kathryn Thorne. Thorne is already an established criminal element with big ideas. She convinces Kelly to think grander. Thorne does not want to continue small time bootlegging for small change, she wants a big haul.

Kathryn Thorne takes George’s name and becomes Kathryn Kelly. In order to increase Kelly’s infamy she procures for him a Thompson submachine gun and urges him to familiarize himself with its use. If they were going to land big fish, they were going to need a better fishing rod. Kelly takes her advice to heart and begins to practice with the weapon. Up until this point George Kelly had not had proclivity for guns or violence but his wife was intent on changing that.



Grant Piper

Professional writer. Amateur historian. Husband, father, Christian.