Fred “Killer” Burke

Fred “Killer” Burke

Fred Burke (May 29, 1893 – July 10, 1940) was a Midwestern armed robber and contract killer responsible for many crimes during the Prohibition era. He is considered a prime suspect in the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929.

Born Thomas Camp on a farm near Mapleton, Kansas, he ran afoul of the law at the age of seventeen after being roped into a land fraud scheme by a traveling salesman who had befriended his family. Fleeing in disgrace, he cut his teeth in the underworld of Kansas City and turned up in St. Louis by the end of 1915, when he first joined up with the infamous Egan's Rats gang.

Tall and well-built, Burke was known for his ability to pose as an honest businessman. Under indictment for forgery, Burke enlisted in the U.S. Army at the beginning of World War I, serving as a tank sergeant in France. Upon his return to America, Burke was arrested in Michigan for a land fraud scheme and sentenced to a year in prison, to be followed by another year in Missouri for his forgery beef.

By early 1922, Fred Burke had rejoined the Egan's Rats, along with his best friends, all St. Louisans and World War I vets, Gus Winkler, Bob Carey, and Ray Nugent. Close-mouthed and competent, Burke and his pals were suspected of robbing a St. Louis distillery of $80,000 worth of whiskey in April 1923. Burke disguised himself as a police officer to fool the plant's security guards. He also plotted and carried out the robbery of the United Railways office, the city's streetcar provider, on July 3, 1923. The heist netted $38,000.

With the imprisonment of the Egan leadership in 1924, Burke and his pals relocated to Detroit, where they began committing armed robberies and murders in the surrounding region, often at the behest of the Purple Gang. Burke was suspected of introducing the Thompson submachine gun to Detroit's underworld on March 28, 1927, when he mowed down three rival gangsters suspected of killing his friend, Johnny Reid, in the so-called, Milaflores Massacre.

By the summer of 1927, relations between the Burke crew and the Purple Gang had gone sour. Burke accused Purple boss Joe Bernstein of killing his friend Ted Werner in New Orleans on April 16, 1927. The Purples claimed that Burke and his friends were kidnapping associates of the Purple Gang. This feud culminated on July 21, 1927, when Fred Burke was accused of machine-gunning a number of Purples as they exited a bar on Oakland Avenue. Three men were wounded and one, Henry Kaplan, was killed in the attack. Purple bosses Abe and Joe Bernstein sent word that they wanted to meet with Burke and Gus Winkler at a downtown Detroit hotel. The St. Louis gangsters sent Raymond Shocker in their place, who was nearly killed in the trap.

After their falling out with the Purples, Burke and his crew relocated to Chicago, where they joined up with the Al Capone organization, establishing with them an autonomous relationship similar to the one they formerly had with the Purples. Burke and Winkler, especially, grew close to the Chicago crime boss, who referred to them as his "American Boys". Some Italian gangsters in the Outfit, notably Frank Nitti and Paul Ricca, allegedly resented how close Capone was to the pair.

Over time, Fred Burke and his crew were suspected of robbings banks and armored cars in St. Louis, Missouri, Louisville, Kentucky, Paterson, New Jersey, Jefferson, Wisconsin, Peru, Indiana, Los Angeles, California, and Toledo, Ohio. The latter job, on April 16, 1928, resulted in the murder of Toledo police officer [ George Zientara] . Burke and his partners were also linked by ballistic evidence and informants to the murder of Brooklyn mob boss Frankie Yale on July 1, 1928.

The Burke crew remain prime suspects in the notorious St. Valentine's Day Massacre of 1929. Burke was publicly named as a suspect by Chicago police in the weeks after the killings.
Barker Gang member Byron Bolton would give a detailed 1935 statement to FBI agents, in which he claimed to have taken part in the massacre at Al Capone's behest, along with Burke, Winkler, Bob Carey, Ray Nugent, Claude Maddox, Fred Goetz, and others. Bolton's claims were later corroborated by Gus Winkler's widow Georgette and a maverick Chicago detective named William Drury, who had stayed on the case long after everyone else had given up. Bank robber Alvin Karpis later endorsed Bolton's story to Capone biographer John Kobler.

Fred Burke's downfall came after he hit a motorist in St. Joseph, Michigan, on December 14, 1929, Burke, in a moment of alcohol-induced paranoia, then shot and killed Patrolman [ Charles Skelly] when he came to investigate the fender bender. When police raided his bungalow, they found a bulletproof vest, bonds recently stolen from a Wisconsin bank, two Thompson submachine guns, pistols, and thousands of rounds of ammunition. Ballistics tests revealed that Burke's Tommyguns had been used in the St. Valentine's Day massacre (one of them was linked to the murder of Frankie Yale as well.)

Named as America's most wanted man, Burke spent the rest of his criminal career on the run. He allegedly murdered a Chicago hood named Thomas Bonner at a Michigan cottage in June 1930, after Bonner had threatened to turn him in to Chicago police. Fred Burke managed to elude the police for over a year, until he was arrested at a farm near Green City, Missouri on March 26, 1931. Convicted of Patrolman Skelly's murder, he died in prison of heart disease at the age of 47.

Further reading

*Waugh, Daniel. "Egan's Rats: The Untold Story of the Gang that ruled Prohibition-era St. Louis" Nashville: Cumberland House, 2007.

*Helmer, William and Arthur J. Bilek. "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre: The Untold Story Of The Bloodbath That Brought Down Al Capone" Nashville: Cumberland House, 2004.

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