I am happy to announce that a revised paperback version of “G-Men, Gangsters, and Gators” is now available on Amazon! Please see the links above to purchase it.
To coincide with this announcement, I am including the new introduction below:
Someone doesn’t want you to see this.
That was my first thought as I drove by the Bradford house on Lake Weir in 2012. I couldn’t even glimpse the two-story lake house from the road. As I drove east on County Road 25, hugging the north shore of the lake, tidy yards and fences lined the road. The cabins and houses weren’t big, but people clearly had a pride of ownership. And then the Bradford property loomed up like a leafy tsunami. Vines and bushes erupted from the ditch in unkempt swirls. A thick 10-foot wall of foliage blocked out sunlight for the length of the property line.
This place hasn’t just been let go, I thought. It wants to be forgotten.
I wanted to see the house where Ma and Fred Barker met their fates in a famous 1935 shootout with the FBI. I was researching a story about the events that led up to that day. Pulling my car over on the gravel side of the road, I peered through a gap in the bushes. Faded and water-stained PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING signs were nailed to nearby trees. I could see the wood clapboard siding of the house and not much more. Part of me expected someone with a shotgun to appear and ask me to leave.
At some point in the past, there had been a lot of curiosity seekers. Immediately after the shootout, the Bradford family had charged $0.50 for the curious to traipse through the house. As the gangster era ended and World War II transformed the country, the house was forgotten. Toward the end of the twentieth century, nostalgia returned. The Lake Weir Chamber of Commerce staged annual reenactments of the shootout on “Ma Barker Day.” Tommy gun toting G-men stood on the running boards of antique cars as they raced into town. A replica of the Bradford house had been reconstructed like a Hollywood prop, a façade of wood and plaster connected to a trailer and wheeled into an open lot. The G-Men stopped their cars and surrounded the house. One honorary person got to play lead FBI agent E.J. Connelley (remembered as C.F. Connally – the historical details were fuzzy) as he walked up to the front door and called out his apocryphal words, “Ma and Fred Barker, come on out. It’s the FBI. We’ve got the house surrounded.” A local mother and son got to play the Barkers and utter their lines, “Let’s see what Freddie has to say about that.” Blank cartridges popped and exploded for a few minutes as onlookers cheered. The performance was repeated two more times later in the day, with picnics and other activities in between the reenactments.
But the legend lost its luster. The reenactments stopped in 2006. The house languished. Now, people like myself were more of a nuisance than anything. You trotting out that old tired saw about Ma Barker? I imagined a local telling me. The place carried that forlorn feeling. I got back into my car and drove away. What had really happened that day? Who were the FBI agents who risked their lives? How did they track down the Barker gang to this small house in the middle of nowhere Florida?
The tangle of overgrowth protecting the Bradford property from the road kept creeping back into my mind. The Barkers were dead. The agents who participated in the raid were dead. The town had stopped celebrating its’ own history.
The past just wants to be forgotten.