Life is like a hurricane, here in Duck Burg. Race cars, lasers, aeroplanes, it’s a duck blur. But amid the millionaire mallards, mischievous ducklings, and noble Gizmoduck, there’s a family of bandit masked beagles who only want to run amuck!
On DuckTales, the Beagle Boys were a gang of brothers dedicated to theft and stirring up trouble for Scrooge McDuck. And they were led by their menacing matriarch Ma Beagle. It’s she who masterminds the Beagle Boys schemes, and she who springs them from jail, sneaking in break-out tools (a hand grenade here, a chainsaw there) hidden in cakes and pastries. Even when foiled, Ma Beagle will always rise again to have a go at robbing the mansion-owning, money-diving old quack atop the hill. You might remember fondly the wacky mayhem of Ma Beagle and her Beagle Boys. But did you have any idea that she and her criminal clan are based on a real family of gangsters.
Arizona Donnie Barker was called Kate by her friends, but became notorious as Ma Barker, mother of four sons infamous for pulling off highway heists and bank robberies from the early 1910s into the ’30s. The Barker family’s reign of terror ended in bloodshed on January 8, 1935, when the FBI stormed Ma Baker’s hideout in Florida. When she and her son Fred found themselves surrounded, her youngest opened fire, and both went down in a hail of gunfire. Legend has it that Fred’s body was riddled with bullets, while a single shot succinctly killed Ma. She was reportedly found dead with a tommy gun still in her hands. But the curious thing about one of the most infamous female gangsters of all time (or really one of the most infamous gender be damned) is that her lethal legacy has been called into question.
Her four sons were no doubt violent criminals, who thieved and murdered. In a shootout with cops in 1927, her eldest Herman killed one police officer with a single shot to the face at point-blank range. Then after a failed getaway ended in a ruthless wreck, Herman shot himself to escape the clutches of the law. Earning nationwide outraged, Fred fatally shot a sheriff in 1931. Their rap sheets were long, their prison sentences often too short.
Spilling blood and stealing cash, the not-so-fabulous Barker boys snagged newspaper headlines, and their Ma arose as an intriguing figure and focal point. Story goes she first found her lust for the outlaw life as a child, when she saw Jesse James and his gang roar through her town on horseback. It’s said her first husband and the boys’s father, George Barker, was so put off by her support of their criminal kin that he ran out on her. But was she the mastermind behind their crimes? Did they do her bidding? Did she purposefully sabotage the romantic relationships of her sons to keep them always for herself? This was the popular image of her for years. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover famously described her as “the most vicious, dangerous and resourceful criminal brain of the last decade.” Yet over the decades, historians have found little proof that Ma was as bad as she sounded.
Don’t get me wrong, Ma Barker was no patsy or victim of circumstance. Few believe she was only a devoted mother, sticking by her children even when they did wrong. The truth seems to be somewhere in between ruthless matriarch and naive nurturer.
Ma Barker undoubtedly knew about her boys’ criminal undertakings (she’d have to have been living under a pile of rocks not to), and she went on the lam with them. It’s believed Ma was the mother hen to the Barker-Karpis Gang, caring for them, tending their bullet wounds, feeding them, and making herself scarce by jaunting to the movies when she’d need an alibi. In her book War on Crime: Bandits, G-Men, and the Politics of Mass Culture, historian Claire Bond Potter declares that Barker utilized her age and gender essentially as a disguise to help her hoodlum sons hide in plain sight. With her by their side, they weren’t suspicious men, but attentive sons out on a family excursion with their elderly mother. On the lam in Florida, she and Fred told locals they were vacationing together, mother and son. “As ‘Mrs. Hunter’ and ‘Mrs. Anderson’,” Potter writes, “She rented houses, paid bills, shopped, and did household errands. Age made Kate more socially invisible than a moll.”
This more complex characterization of Ma Barker and its moral ambiguity had not carried over to DuckTales, or at least it wasn’t in the 1980s series. But with news that the steely and sensational Margo Martindale will give Ma Beagle voice in the rebooted series, perhaps the cartoon bitch on wheels will get a bit more nuance and pay more appropriate tribute to her complicated inspiration.