These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s

Larry Holzwarth - January 14, 2018

These Roving Criminals Terrorized the Plains during the 1930s
The death of four law enforcement officers and Frank Nash, seen here, led to the arrest of Deafy Farmer and the end of his safe house. FBI

Herbert Allen Farmer

Herbert Farmer was not a leader or a member of any of the depression era gangs which roamed the Midwest during the 1930s. His nickname was Deafy, and after serving time in the Oklahoma State Penitentiary for assault with intent to kill and his wife and he purchased a farm near Joplin, Missouri. Deafy was an accomplished pickpocket, grifter, and swindler. He was well liked by the underworld figures he met in prison and elsewhere, in the manner of most conmen, and his farm near Joplin became a well-known (to the gangsters) refuge from pursuit, as well as a place to hide ill gotten gains.

Fred Barker murdered a police officer in West Plains Missouri in 1931, and Barker, his mother and her boyfriend at the time, and Alvin Karpis all used Deafy’s farm as a safe haven until the resulting uproar died down. Over the course of Deafy’s ownership of the farm, Wilbur Underhill, Jelly Nash, Doc Barker, and several other gangsters were known to have stayed there. Many others are suspected of having been in temporary residence, but due to Deafy’s discretion it is nearly impossible to prove.

From the mid-1920s through the summer of 1933 the safe haven near Joplin was entirely unmolested by local authorities, despite Deafy’s known involvement in various criminal activities in the nearby towns of Kansas City, Missouri and Hot Springs, Arkansas. Not until the FBI began investigating the conspiracy to free Jelly Nash from custody in Kansas City was Deafy Farmer brought to the attention of the authorities.

After investigating the role of Farmer in the Kansas City Massacre, in which four law enforcement officers and Jelly Nash were killed in a botched attempt to free Nash, Deafy was charged with conspiracy and obstruction of justice. Fred Karpis had $2,500 of the money the Barker gang had recently obtained though the kidnaping of William Hamm sent to Joplin to help pay for Deafy’s defense. During the trial Deafy was the only one of the defendants not to testify, as he was said to be too deaf to understand any questions.

Deafy was convicted for conspiring to free Jelly Nash – several phone calls made as part of the conspiracy were traced to his farm, and Deafy had helped other conspirators flee the area by driving them to the airport – and he served two years in Alcatraz. After his release he sold the farm and he and his wife lived in Joplin until Deafy died in 1948. After his death his widow married Harvey Bailey, known as the Dean of American Bank Robbers, suspected of being complicit in the Urschell kidnaping, and a likely former user of the respite offered by Deafy Farmer’s safe house.

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