The straight story on 'Machine Gun' Kelly


OK, for the last time: George "Machine Gun" Kelly did not rob a bank in Fort Wayne in 1930. It wasn't him. He was innocent, at least of that particular crime. It was another George Kelly.

But because the two-bit gangster who held up the Broadway State Bank at the corner of Broadway and Taylor Street shared a name with the more famous Kelly, the "Machine Gun" handle eventually was added by those who told the story.

It became common knowledge, however incorrect, that the dastardly Machine Gun Kelly took $5,912 from the bank on Aug. 20, 1930.

Fort Wayne historian John Ankenbruck attributed the robbery to Machine Gun Kelly in his 1976 "Twentieth-Century History of Fort Wayne, Indiana."

But by the time Ankenbruck's "The Fort Wayne Story" was published four years later, the author had corrected the mistake, attributing the robbery only to "George Kelly and his Chicago mob."

Ankenbruck says someone cleared up the mistake for him and he fixed it in the second book.

He thought, in fact, it might have been Walter E. Helmke, Mayor Paul Helmke's grandfather, who set him straight. Walter E. Helmke was the prosecuting attorney on the case after Kelly was arrested in Chicago and brought to Fort Wayne for trial.

Walter P. Helmke, the mayor's father, remembers the confusion over the name.

He was a teen-ager at the time. Many people during those dark days of The Depression thought of gangsters as heroes, even if they weren't giving what they robbed to the poor.

It was glamorous to be able to say you saw John Dillinger or Al Capone or any of the other famous hoods of the day.

If a car backfired while driving by a bank back then, half a dozen "witnesses" would be telling their friends and neighbors that night that they saw Dillinger.

And, as the years pass, the stories are embellished. The Associated Press ran a story recently about an Ohio woman who said she was kidnapped by Dillinger during a famous bank robbery in a small town there. Newspapers from that era verify the bank was robbed when she said it was. But Dillinger was in Chicago at the time.

Michael Hawfield, director of the Allen County Fort Wayne Historical Society, had been including the Machine Gun Kelly story in talks he gave about the city, but stopped after he learned the truth.

Stories change. People change. Names change. George "Machine Gun" Kelly, in fact, didn't earn the "Machine Gun" handle until after he robbed his first bank in Tupelo, Miss. That wasn't until 1931.

When the State Bank was robbed in Fort Wayne in 1930, the Kelly later known as "Machine Gun" was finishing up a prison term at Leavenworth, according to Jay Robert Nash, author of "Bloodletters and Badmen" and the six-volume "Encyclopedia of Crime."

Kelly was serving time for bootlegging, Nash explains. He had been arrested by Prohibition agents while driving a truckload of whiskey onto an Indian reservation.

After his release, goaded on by a wife intrigued with the exploits of Bonnie and Clyde and Pretty Boy Floyd, Kelly connected with what Nash calls a "two-bit bankrobbing gang." The few banks they robbed, before Kelly turned his attention to kidnapping, were in Southern states. They never made it as far north as Fort Wayne.

The George Kelly who did rob the bank in Fort Wayne was part of a Chicago gang. But he wasn't their leader. And he didn't carry a machine gun.

The story of the bank robbery and the search for the culprits filled the front page of The News-Sentinel for days. One man was arrested in Toledo and brought to Fort Wayne. He was released.

Then, on Sept. 4, Kelly, William Naecker and Abe Shultz were arrested in Chicago. They were brought to Fort Wayne and positively identified by witnesses. Walter E. Helmke took over, prosecuting the gang. They were found guilty and sentenced to 15 years in prison.

So there you have it: The true story of two thugs with the same name. The next time someone starts to tell you about the time "Machine Gun" Kelly robbed a bank in Fort Wayne, set them straight. And while we're at it, I'm not sure Fort Wayne really was seventh on Hitler's list, either.

But let me tell you about the time I met D.B. Cooper on a flight to Chicago.

--Aug. 9, 1990

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