Herbert Allen Farmer

Last updated
Herbert Allen Farmer
Born(1891-03-09)March 9, 1891 [1]
DiedJanuary 12, 1948(1948-01-12) (aged 56)
Other namesHerb Snyder
Herb Black
Harry J. Garner
Deafy Farmer
Occupation gambler, con artist
Spouse(s)Esther Farmer
Conviction(s) Conspiracy
Criminal penalty2 years imprisonment,
$10,000 fine
Herbert Allen Farmer Mugshot Herbert Allan Farmer.png
Herbert Allen Farmer Mugshot

Herbert Allen Farmer (March 9, 1891 – January 12, 1948), was an American criminal who, with his wife Esther, operated a safe house for underworld fugitives from the mid-1920s to 1933.

A safe house is, in a generic sense, a secret place for sanctuary or suitable to hide persons from the law, hostile actors or actions, or from retribution, threats or perceived danger. It may also be a metaphor.


In the 1920s his farm in southwest Missouri was safe harbor for bank robbers and other criminals of the Cookson Hills region such as Harvey Bailey, Frank Nash, Wilbur Underhill, "Big Bob" Brady and the Holden-Keating Gang. In the Public Enemy era, as organized crime strengthened and expanded in the United States, the farm became part of a network of safe houses for gangsters along "the midwest crime corridor."

Missouri State of the United States of America

Missouri is a state in the Midwestern United States. With over six million residents, it is the 18th-most populous state of the Union. The largest urban areas are St. Louis, Kansas City, Springfield, and Columbia; the capital is Jefferson City. The state is the 21st-most extensive in area. In the South are the Ozarks, a forested highland, providing timber, minerals, and recreation. The Missouri River, after which the state is named, flows through the center of the state into the Mississippi River, which makes up Missouri's eastern border.

The Cookson Hills are in eastern Oklahoma. They are an extension of the Boston Mountains of Arkansas to the east and the southwestern margin of the Ozark Plateau. They lie generally between Stilwell, Sallisaw and Tahlequah. The area became part of the Cherokee Nation in the early 20th century until 1907, when Oklahoma became a state.

Harvey Bailey American bank robber

Harvey John Bailey, called "The Dean of American Bank Robbers", had a long criminal career. He was one of the most successful bank robbers during the 1920s, walking off with over $1 million.

On June 16, 1933, Herbert and Esther Farmer were involved in the plan which set into motion the Kansas City Massacre, "a pivotal event in Depression-era crime." [2] With five others, they were convicted of conspiracy to free a federal prisoner, Frank Nash, in January 1935.

Great Depression 20th-century worldwide economic depression

The Great Depression was a severe worldwide economic depression that took place mostly during the 1930s, beginning in the United States. The timing of the Great Depression varied across nations; in most countries it started in 1929 and lasted until the late-1930s. It was the longest, deepest, and most widespread depression of the 20th century. In the 21st century, the Great Depression is commonly used as an example of how intensely the world's economy can decline.


A career grifter and gambler, Herbert Farmer was in and out of local jails in Texas, Missouri and Oklahoma for much of his youth. In about 1910 his family settled in Webb City, Missouri, a community near Joplin in the then-booming lead- and zinc-mining region known as the Tri-State district. [3] As an adult Farmer made the Joplin area his home.

Gambling wagering of money on a game of chance or event with an uncertain outcome

Gambling is the wagering of money or something of value on an event with an uncertain outcome, with the primary intent of winning money or material goods. Gambling thus requires three elements be present: consideration, risk (chance), and a prize. The outcome of the wager is often immediate, such as a single roll of dice, a spin of a roulette wheel, or a horse crossing the finish line, but longer time frames are also common, allowing wagers on the outcome of a future sports contest or even an entire sports season.

Texas State of the United States of America

Texas is the second largest state in the United States by both area and population. Geographically located in the South Central region of the country, Texas shares borders with the U.S. states of Louisiana to the east, Arkansas to the northeast, Oklahoma to the north, New Mexico to the west, and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo León, and Tamaulipas to the southwest, while the Gulf of Mexico is to the southeast.

Oklahoma State of the United States of America

Oklahoma is a state in the South Central region of the United States, bordered by Kansas on the north, Missouri on the northeast, Arkansas on the east, Texas on the south, New Mexico on the west, and Colorado on the northwest. It is the 20th-most extensive and the 28th-most populous of the fifty United States. The state's name is derived from the Choctaw words okla and humma, meaning "red people". It is also known informally by its nickname, "The Sooner State", in reference to the non-Native settlers who staked their claims on land before the official opening date of lands in the western Oklahoma Territory or before the Indian Appropriations Act of 1889, which dramatically increased European-American settlement in the eastern Indian Territory. Oklahoma Territory and Indian Territory were merged into the State of Oklahoma when it became the 46th state to enter the union on November 16, 1907. Its residents are known as Oklahomans, and its capital and largest city is Oklahoma City.

In Webb City, Farmer's family became acquainted with the Barker family, and for a while Ma Barker's sons "were practically raised by Herb Farmer's mother." [4] Though the Barkers left Webb City for Tulsa, Oklahoma around 1915, Fred Barker returned often to visit the Farmers, and he and Herb Farmer remained friends, though Farmer was perhaps 13 years older. The FBI's official summary of the Karpis -Barker gang's career stated, "It is safe to assume that Fred Barker received considerable education in the school of crime from Farmer," [5] and later an agent noted that "Barker and Karpis are known to be henchmen (especially Barker) of Herbert A. Farmer." [6]

Ma Barker American mother of several criminals who ran the Barker gang

Kate Barker, better known as Ma Barker and sometimes as Arizona Barker, was the mother of several American criminals who ran the Barker-Karpis gang during the "public enemy era" when the exploits of gangs of criminals in the Midwest gripped the American people and press. She traveled with her sons during their criminal careers.

Tulsa, Oklahoma City in Oklahoma, United States

Tulsa is the second-largest city in the state of Oklahoma and 45th-most populous city in the United States. As of July 2016, the population was 413,505, an increase of 12,591 over that reported in the 2010 Census. It is the principal municipality of the Tulsa Metropolitan Area, a region with 991,005 residents in the MSA and 1,251,172 in the CSA. The city serves as the county seat of Tulsa County, the most densely populated county in Oklahoma, with urban development extending into Osage, Rogers, and Wagoner counties.

Federal Bureau of Investigation governmental agency belonging to the United States Department of Justice

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the domestic intelligence and security service of the United States, and its principal federal law enforcement agency. Operating under the jurisdiction of the United States Department of Justice, the FBI is also a member of the U.S. Intelligence Community and reports to both the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence. A leading U.S. counter-terrorism, counterintelligence, and criminal investigative organization, the FBI has jurisdiction over violations of more than 200 categories of federal crimes.

In 1916 Farmer began serving a five-year sentence for assault with intent to kill in the rehabilitation-oriented Oklahoma State Reformatory, but in a few months he was transferred to the state penitentiary. During this time he schooled younger inmates in the ways of pickpocketing and con games [7] [8] [9] [10] and in the penitentiary made friends with veteran bank and train robber Jelly Nash. He served less than two years and upon his release headed west, adding to his record more arrests for assault, larceny and swindling in Colorado, California, Utah and Texas.

The Oklahoma State Reformatory is a medium-security facility with some maximum and minimum-security housing for adult male inmates. Located off of State Highway 9 in Granite, Oklahoma, the 10-acre (4.0 ha) facility has a maximum capacity of 1042 inmates. The medium-security area accommodates 799 prisoners, minimum-security area houses roughly 200, and the maximum-security area with about 43 inmates. The prison currently houses approximately 975 prisoners. The prison was established by an act of the legislature in 1909 and constructed through prison labor, housing its first inmate in 1910. The facility is well known for the significant roles women played in its foundation and governance, most notably having the first female warden administer an all-male prison in the nation.

Oklahoma State Penitentiary

The Oklahoma State Penitentiary, nicknamed "Big Mac", is a prison of the Oklahoma Department of Corrections located in McAlester, Oklahoma, on 1,556 acres (6.30 km2). Opened in 1908 with 50 inmates in makeshift facilities, today the prison holds more than 750 male offenders, the vast majority of which are maximum-security inmates.

Pickpocketing form of larceny that involves the stealing from off of a victims body without their notice

Pickpocketing is a form of larceny that involves the stealing of money or other valuables from the person or a victim without them noticing the theft at the time. It may involve considerable dexterity and a knack for misdirection. A thief who works in this manner is known as a pickpocket.

In about 1927 he and his wife bought a farm of 23 acres (93,000 m2) roughly 7 square miles (18 km2) south of Joplin, Missouri. Deafy Farmer's farm was not only a safe place to "cool off," it was "one of the best underworld postal offices in the country." [11] The Joplin safe house operated with no recorded interference from authorities until June 1933, when the Kansas City Massacre drew federal attention.

When Fred Barker or his partner Alvin Karpis shot to death a county sheriff in West Plains, Missouri in December 1931, Barker took Karpis, as well as his mother and her boyfriend, across the state to Herb Farmer's place. [12] When Farmer was indicted on conspiracy charges in 1934, the gang gave him $2500 of the Hamm kidnapping ransom to help pay his legal expenses. [13] However, during questioning in respect to that crime Farmer, unprodded, twice slyly wondered aloud if Fred Barker might have been involved in the Union Station killings.

Farmer made his official living in the hotels and gambling halls of two nearby "safe cities," [14] the resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas and Kansas City, with occasional forays into Reno, Nevada [15] and St. Paul, Minnesota, where at the time of his arrest in July 1933 he was negotiating for control of a lucrative craps concession. Though Hot Springs chief of detectives Dutch Akers knew Farmer to be "the number 1 man for the [St. Paul-Kansas City-Hot Springs] gang organization at Joplin," [16] and though six months before his arrest for obstruction of justice in the Kansas City Massacre case he "took an old man and his wife from Hot Springs to Reno, where he cleaned them for $50,000 in the race track con," [17] when he was arrested he was trading chickens and butter for groceries and he alone of the conspiracy defendants could not make bond. [18]

Deafy Farmer was indeed almost completely deaf. In the 1934 conspiracy trial all of the defendants took the stand, except Deafy Farmer; he was so deaf, his wife said, that questioning him would be useless. [19] In 1933 he was described to the FBI as "a very dangerous man, a killer, and his best known line is the con game.... his favorite weapon being the knife." [20]

Farmer served two years in Alcatraz for his participation in the conspiracy to free Jelly Nash. After his release he returned to Missouri. He and Esther sold the farm and moved into Joplin, where they lived until his death on January 12, 1948. [7] [8] [9] [10]

In October 1966 Esther married Harvey Bailey, "dean of the American bank robbers," after a year-long courtship. She died in 1981. [8]

Role in the Kansas City Massacre conspiracy


Federal agents had been on the trail of Jelly Nash [21] for three years, since his escape from the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas in 1930. At noon on June 16, 1933, Nash was finishing a beer inside the White Front cigar store and pool hall on the main street of Hot Springs, Arkansas when two special agents of the Department of Justice and the police chief of McAlester, Oklahoma grabbed him, hustled him into a waiting car and drove away. Their goal was to get Nash from Hot Springs back to Leavenworth to finish his sentence for armed robbery.

Dick Galatas, owner of the White Front and "the official representative of the gangster world in Hot Springs," [22] went directly to the police station in City Hall to the office of Dutch Akers, chief of detectives. Dutch Akers was deeply entangled with the racketeering operations of Hot Springs and at the same time was an informant for the FBI. It was he who, that morning, had notified his contact that Nash was in Hot Springs and at the White Front. [23] Akers began calling every police station between Hot Springs and Little Rock to report that a visiting businessman named George Miller—the name Nash went by around town [24] —had been kidnapped. He and Galatas left the police station around 1 p.m. and Galatas went to collect Jelly Nash's wife Frances.

In Benton, Arkansas, halfway to Little Rock, the agents' car was halted by a police roadblock: "three men with rifles and sawed-off shotguns." They were stopped again at the edge of Little Rock by "two police cars with riot guns." [25] The agents and Nash were aware that the stops were delay tactics. "I hope we make it out of this state alive," Nash said, cryptically. [26]

At 2:34 p.m., from Galatas's house in Hot Springs, Chief Akers called the Little Rock police station. The officer in charge explained that there had been no kidnapping, that a fugitive was simply being returned to prison. The officer told Akers that the car had turned west at Little Rock, onto "the Joplin road." [27] Until then Akers and Galatas had not been certain who had taken Nash, or where they were going.

Galatas had brought Frances Nash to a neighbor's house to make phone calls. At 2:50 p.m., at Galatas's direction Mrs Nash called nightclub owner Louis "Doc" Stacci in Chicago. Stacci's subsequent phone calls to Fritz Mulloy, a friend of Verne Miller's in Kansas City, drew Miller into the plan to free Nash. Mrs Nash called Esther Farmer in Joplin.

Thirty minutes west of Little Rock the agents stopped in the town of Conway and called Ralph Colvin, the special agent in charge in Oklahoma City who had given the go-ahead to apprehend Nash, and let him know they were being tracked. Colvin told them to proceed to Fort Smith and call again from there. [28] The agents had left the Little Rock officers "with the impression that we were proceeding to Joplin, Mo., but at a given point we left the Joplin road and dropped into Fort Smith." [29]

Galatas and Frances Nash hired an airplane to fly Frances and her young daughter to Joplin. Mrs. Nash was afraid to fly in the Ryan B-1 monoplane. Galatas tried to calm her fears by telling her it was just like The Spirit of St. Louis, but she insisted he come with her. They arrived in late afternoon, at 6:20 p.m. Deafy Farmer met them and drove them to his farm. [30]

At about the same time Galatas and Frances Nash arrived in Joplin, the federal agents arrived in Fort Smith and called Colvin. He told them to abandon the car and catch the 8:30 p.m. train to Kansas City. Colvin then called Reed Vetterli, the special agent in charge at Kansas City, and told him the new information. Shortly after Colvin and Vetterli spoke, "Mrs. Galatas called Galatas on the telephone and advised him that Nash was not to be brought to Joplin, but that the federal men were taking him from Fort Smith, Ark., by train "on in." [28] By the time the agents and their handcuffed charge arrived at the station platform, their secret had already reached the press wires, [31] and "at 8:46 p.m., 8 minutes after the train pulled out of Ft. Smith, a phone call was made from Ft. Smith to [Mrs. Nash's neighbor's house in] Hot Springs." [32]


Around 9 p.m. Farmer and Galatas left the farm and drove into Joplin. "Galatas and Farmer went down town for the avowed purpose of seeing if they could find out if Nash had been brought to Joplin, saying that they would do what they could to get Jelly back to his wife; but when they returned, they reported that he was not in town." [28] Galatas called his wife in Hot Springs from Frank Vaughn's Midway Drugstore in town at 9:37 p.m. "It is apparent Galatas and others... were making plans up to that hour to have appropriate assistance at Joplin to release Nash; that was evidently the reason why [Stacci] at Chicago was trying to reach Miller and the reason [Galatas and Mrs. Nash] flew to Joplin." [33]

"At 10:09 pm the Hot Springs number [which had received the 8:46 call from Fort Smith] called Farmer's house." [34] At 10:17 p.m., Esther Farmer called Verne Miller's house in Kansas City and spoke to Miller's girlfriend, Vivian Mathias. "Mrs. Farmer was heard to say over the telephone on June 16th: 'They got by us here at Joplin. We watched from every angle but they got by us.'" [28] At 12:05 a.m. June 17, Verne Miller called Herb Farmer's house from Union Station, Kansas City. Galatas told him what time the train would arrive at Union Station. Miller's phone calls earlier that evening were first to John Lazia in Kansas City, then to associates in Chicago and New York and to Harry Sawyer's Green Lantern restaurant in St. Paul to try to interest the Karpis-Barker gang, but on such short notice he could find no out-of-town takers (the Barkers were occupied at the time with the Hamm kidnapping) and the Kansas City mob did not want to get involved.

At 6 a.m. June 17, Deafy Farmer drove Galatas and the aviator from the Connor Hotel in Joplin back to the airport, and returned home. [35] Dutch Akers later told his FBI contact that as soon as Galatas reached Hot Springs "he ordered every gangster in town to leave." At 9:51 a.m. a call was made from a pay phone in Hot Springs to the Farmers' house. When the Joplin police chief heard the news of the shootings at Union Station he immediately suspected Herb Farmer had something to do with it. He and detectives arrived at the farm at noon, but the Farmers and Mrs. Nash had fled.

Arrest and trial

Farmer went to Kansas City. He spent several days gambling in the Majestic Hotel, then returned to the farm. In hiding and out of money, [36] he traded chickens for groceries with a family friend, bootlegger Frank Vaughn. In early July Vaughn urged him to give himself up. Farmer said he would when the weather turned cooler, that he hated to be in jail in such hot weather.

When Farmer received his phone bill on July 8 and saw the long distance record for June 16, he sent Esther to the Joplin police station to tell Chief of Police Ed Portley that he would like to speak with him. Portley came out and arrested him at home. Esther Farmer came to visit her husband in the jail and was arrested there. [37] Frances Nash was arrested July 11 in Illinois. Galatas eluded apprehension until September 22. [38] The warrant for Galatas's arrest charged that he had "conspired to cause the escape of Frank Nash at Joplin, Missouri." [39]

Deafy Farmer and his wife, Dick Galatas and his wife, Frances Nash, Vivian Mathias, Doc Stacci of Chicago and Fritz Mulloy of Kansas City were indicted by a federal grand jury in Kansas City on October 24, 1934, and charged with three counts of conspiracy to aid "the escape of [a federal] prisoner properly committed to the custody of the Attorney General." [40] At the close of evidence counts two and three — conspiracy to harbor a federal prisoner and conspiracy to rescue a federal prisoner — were dropped. [19] Mrs Nash testified for the government and charges against her were dismissed. The rest were convicted on the remaining count, conspiracy to free a federal prisoner, on January 4, 1935. [41]

The flurry of phone calls on June 16 and early June 17, their times and connections, were the basis of the prosecution's case. They were also the basis of the defense's case.

The maximum penalty for conspiracy was two years and a fine of $10,000; all four men were assessed the maximum and all four were remanded to Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary. Farmer, Galatas and Mulloy were later transferred to the new federal prison in California, Alcatraz. The three women were sentenced to three years' probation and fined $5,000 each. [42]

See also

Kansas City Massacre

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  1. Barrow p. 89.
  2. The Tri-State mining district, also called the Joplin district after the area's largest city, spread over 2,000 square miles (5,200 km2) of southwest Missouri, northeast Oklahoma and southeast Kansas. At its peak in the 1920s it was the world's leading producer of lead and zinc. Rosner pp. 136-38.
  3. FBI File Part 04, pp. 96, 126.
  4. FBI File 7-576.
  5. Part 12 p. 80.
  6. 1 2 King pp. 98, 111-112, 114, 124, 199.
  7. 1 2 3 Newton pp. 101-02.
  8. 1 2 Wellman pp. 337, 339.
  9. 1 2 Burrough pp. 34, 43, 47, 53-55, 60, 110, 146.
  10. King p. 114.
  11. FBI File 7-576. Farmer sent them on to Harry Sawyer in St. Paul, Minnesota. They thrived in the northern reaches of the country for about four years.
  12. Burrough pp. 109-10.
  13. Alvin Karpis wrote, "[Safe cities] were places where the fix was in from top to bottom, and guys like me could relax." Maccabee p. 60. "Once a criminal with local connections made it inside one of these cities he was home free. He was 'on base' and could not be 'tagged' by the authorities." Wallis p. 171. Other midwestern cities where the fix was firmly in were St. Paul, Detroit, Cicero, Illinois and Toledo, Ohio. Maccabee p. 60.
  14. In Reno the midwest gangsters "had good contacts with the political bosses." FBI File 7-576 p.
  15. FBI File 62-28915, Part 10, p. 50.
  16. FBI File 62-28915, Part 04, p. 88.
  17. FBI File 62-28915, Part 13, pp. 134-5; Part 70, p. 143.
  18. 1 2 "Verdict Delayed in Kansas City Slaying of Five." UP, unknown newspaper, Jan. 3, 1935.
  19. FBI File 62-28915, Part 04, pp. 88-9.
  20. He was nicknamed "Jelly" because he was a safe-blowing expert, FBI File Part 09, p. 51; "jelly" was jelly powder, an explosive made by combining nitroglycerin and colloidion cotton, which mixture resembled calf's-foot jelly.
  21. "[Galatas]... gets orders from the head of a big criminal organization in Chicago... it is Galatas's duty to arrange for and afford protection for gangsters sent to Hot Springs to cool off or for other purposes." Galatas was the "boss of a slot machine racket" in Hot Springs, in partnership with the mayor. FBI File 62-28915, Part 02, p. 101; Part 04, pp. 85-90.
  22. FBI File Part 10 p. 91. Akers specifically asked that agents apprehend Nash anywhere but the White Front.
  23. Nash had been putting together an identity as George W. Miller of Chicago for a year. He had grown a mustache and wore a toupee and glasses, and had had plastic surgery to change the shape of his nose. He and Frances had married a few weeks before, under the name Miller, and he had acquired a forged union card and Masonic lodge card to use as identification. FBI File 62-28915, Part 06. At their conspiracy trial the defendants protested that they had known the couple only as the Millers, and Galatas said that getting Mrs. Miller to Joplin was only a sympathetic gesture to try to aid the family of a brother Mason. King p. 113.
  24. FBI File 62-28915, Part 03, p. 9.
  25. Though speculation arose that the true purpose of the Kansas City Massacre had been to get rid of Jelly Nash, most FBI informants were of the opinion that his death was accidental. One pointed out that Nash "was in good standing with all the big shots, if they had wanted to put him on the spot they would have done it before he was arrested in [Hot Springs]. It was accidental that he was killed while they were trying to liberate him." FBI File 62-28915, Part 03.
  26. FBI File 62-28915, Part 13 p. 60; Part 11, p. 70.
  27. 1 2 3 4 Galatas v. United States, 80 F.2d 15 (8th Cir. 1935). Loislaw
  28. FBI File 62-28915, Part 03, p. 14.
  29. FBI File 62-28915, pp. 93-5.
  30. FBI Part 13 p. 55. A United Press story that Jelly Nash would arrive at the Union Station at 7:15 a.m. ran in the Kansas City morning editions on Saturday, June 17. In the wake of the shootings the breach of secrecy precipitated letters from an aghast public to J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, scolding the Bureau for having caused the tragedy through self-aggrandizing publicity. Hoover wrote back stiffly to each, saying the news had been leaked. FBI File 62-28915, Part 02.
  31. FBI File 62-28915, Part 13 p. 66.
  32. FBI File 62-28915, Part 11, p. 7; Part 13, p. 64. It's not known what Galatas and Farmer intended to do if they saw Nash and his escorts at Joplin, nor whether they considered boarding the train, nor whether they were watching alone.
  33. FBI File 62-28915, Part 07, p. 59.
  34. FBI File 62-28915, Part 02, p. 102.
  35. Harvey Bean
  36. FBI File 62-28915, Part 08, p. 123.
  37. Liberty magazine had offered a reward for Galatas's capture and reprinted an enlarged mugshot in its September 15, 1934 issue. His face was recognized by an alert reader and he was arrested in New Orleans. Harris, Richard G. "A Mad Dog Is Caught!" Liberty, Nov. 17, 1934, reprinted in Liberty, Spring 1972, p. 28.
  38. FBI File 62-28915, Part 08, p. 60.
  39. Galatas v. United States. Vivian Mathias pleaded guilty and also testified for the government. The names of Verne Miller, Adam Richetti, and Louise Connor, the neighbor in Hot Springs whose phone had been used, were included in the original October indictment. Verne Miller was murdered in November. Adam Richetti's indictment was held back in anticipation that the state of Missouri would secure a murder conviction against him. Louise Connor's name was dropped.
  40. "While the jury deliberated, some of the defendants frolicked like boys released from school. Louis Stacci, café proprietor, chased Herbert Farmer, gambler, about the courtroom, pointing a camera in a mock attempt at taking his picture." "Verdict Delayed in Kansas City Slaying of Five." UP, unknown newspaper, Jan. 3, 1935.
  41. "Union Station Gang Sentenced." UP, Palm Beach Daily News, Jan. 5, 1935.


Further reading