Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd
February 3, 1904 – October 22, 1934
Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd was an American bank robber
and alleged killer, romanticized by the press and by folk singer
Woody Guthrie in his song "Pretty Boy Floyd".
Floyd was born in Adairsville, Georgia, on February 3, 1904,
where his family lived until he was ten years old. They then
moved to the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma. At the age of seventeen,
Floyd married Lee Hargrove (also known as Ruth) and later had a
son, Demsy. The popular history says that Floyd committed his
first crime when he struck down a sheriff's deputy who had been
rude to his wife, but contemporary sources agree that he simply
needed a way to make ends meet.
Life of crime
The Time magazine of 22 October 1922, mentions a robbery of
$3.50 in pennies from a local post office as his first known
crime. People said that he was realy cute and funny at the time
and that people were cheering for him when he did his first
crime... He was eighteen years old at the time. Three years
later he was arrested for a payroll robbery in St. Louis,
Missouri and served five years in prison.
When paroled, he vowed that he would never see the inside of
another prison. Partnering with more established criminals in
the Kansas City underworld, he committed a series of bank
robberies over the next several years; it was during this period
that he earned the nickname "Pretty Boy." When the payroll
master at one robbery first described the three perpetrators to
the police, he referred to Floyd as "a mere boy — a pretty boy
with apple cheeks." Like his contemporary Baby Face Nelson,
Floyd hated his nickname.
Robberies and notoriety
The Floyd gang's string of crimes was interrupted in Sylvania,
Ohio, where they were caught during a bank robbery. Floyd was
sentenced to fifteen years in prison. However, he escaped on his
way to prison and rebuilt his gang. In the years that followed,
he was blamed for a long string of bank robberies and vilified
as a "Public Enemy" by the FBI.
Popular legend holds that he was not, in fact, responsible for
all of these, and that his name was being attached to robberies
committed by others. In the words of Woody Guthrie, "Every crime
in Oklahoma was added to his name."
Floyd would hide out between crimes in towns near the one in
which he had grown up, protected by the locals. Popular legend
says that they did this out of love for his generosity and their
hatred of the banks, which were at that time foreclosing on many
farms. However, the contemporary press claimed that he simply
bribed them for their silence. Whether that was true or not has
never been proven, but it is believed likely, as many people
were unemployed at the time, and Floyd having funds and being
generous would have been well received in some circles, although
not in all.
With his partner George Birdwell, Floyd robbed the banks in
Earlsboro, Konawa, Maud, Marble City, Morris, Shamrock,
Tahlequah, and on December 12, 1931, two banks in one day at
Castle and Paden, Oklahoma. Bank insurance rates doubled, and
the governor of Oklahoma placed a $56,000 reward on Floyd. A
task force was organized to bring Floyd down, which included not
only active law enforcement, but retired personnel as well as
On April 3, 1932, Floyd and Birdwell engaged task force lawmen
in a gunfight in Bixby, Oklahoma, after the lawmen set up a
surveillance which worked perfectly up to the gunfight,
resulting in Floyd being wounded in both legs and the scrotum,
shot by retired McIntosh County, Oklahoma Sheriff Erv Kelley,
who was shot seven times himself and killed. Sheriff Kelley had
hand-chosen his posse, which consisted of Agent Crockett Long of
the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, Sheriff Jim Stormont
from Okmulgee, Tulsa, detectives M.L. Lairmore and J.A. Smith, a
private detective from Oklahoma City named A.B. Cooper, and
former Eufaula Deputy Sheriff Will Counts. Floyd and Birdwell
escaped after a gunfire exchange with the rest of the posse.
Floyd, up until that shootout, had often been viewed almost
sympathetically by the public. However, Sheriff Kelley was a
heroic figure in Oklahoma, having brought down many criminals
during his long career. At that time, it was believed that
Kelley had arrested more bank robbers than any other lawman in
Oklahoma history. Whether that was actually true or not, to say
the least Kelley had captured many, and his murder did not show
Floyd in a good light with the public.
Vernon Miller. Photo from FBI Files.
Floyd was also accused of participating in the Kansas City
Massacre, a shootout, at Union Station, that resulted in the
deaths of five men, on June 17, 1933. He denied being there, but
the authorities and the press were sure he was involved. The
FBI maintains that Floyd, Vernon Miller, and Adam Richetti, were
involved. Other witnesses say that the three at Union Station
were Miller, Wilbur Underhill, and Harvey Bailey.
Floyd narrowly escaped ambush by the FBI and other law
enforcement agencies several times. On October 18, 1934, Floyd
and some companions left Buffalo, New York, and as a stroke of
bad luck slid their vehicle into a telephone pole during a heavy
fog. No one was injured, but the car was disabled. Floyd was
accompanied by two female companions and Adam Richetti. Fearing
they would be recognized, the men sent the girls to retrieve a
wrecker, then gave them money to accompany the wrecker driver
into a town and have the vehicle repaired, while the two men
waited by the roadside.
After dawn on October 19, civilian Joe Fryman and his son-in-law
passed by, observing two men dressed in suits lying by the
roadside. Feeling it was suspicious, he informed Wellsville,
Ohio Police Chief John H. Fultz. Three officers, including Chief
Fultz, investigated. When Richetti saw the lawmen, he fled into
the woods, pursued by two officers, while Fultz went toward
Floyd. Floyd immediately drew his gun and fired, and he and
Fultz engaged one another in a gunfight, during which Fultz was
wounded in the foot. After wounding Fultz, Floyd fled into the
forest. Richetti was captured by the other two officers.
FBI Agent Melvin Purvis was notified, responding from
Cincinnati, Ohio, in the company of his three best agents, D.K.
Hall, Winfred E. Hopton, and S.K. McKee, and in the company of
his aid, Herman Hollis. He arrived by private plane, met by
local Sheriff Ray Long. Purvis also enlisted the help of local
retired police officer Chester K. Smith, a former sniper during
World War I. Floyd in the mean time was living on fruit,
traveling on foot, quickly becoming exhausted.
There are at least three accounts of what happened next, one
given by the FBI, one by other people in the area, and one by
local law enforcement. After obtaining some food at a local pool
hall, owned by Charles Joy, a friend of Floyd's, Floyd hitched a
ride in an East Liverpool, Ohio neighborhood on October 22nd,
1934. He was spotted by the team of lawmen, at which point he
broke from the vehicle and fled toward the treeline. Local
officer Chester Smith fired first, hitting Floyd in the right
arm, knocking him to the ground. Up until that point, the
accounts mostly match, although the FBI agents would later
attempt to claim all the credit, denying local law enforcement
were even present at the actual shooting. According to the local
police account, Floyd regained his footing and continued to run,
at which point the entire team opened fire, knocking him to the
ground, with Floyd dying shortly thereafter, and with Purvis
having the chance to speak to him briefly.
According to the FBI, four FBI agents, led by Purvis, and four
members of the East Liverpool Police Department, led by Chief
Hugh McDermott, were searching the area south of Clarkson, Ohio,
in two separate cars. They spotted a car move from behind a corn
crib, and then move back. Floyd then emerged from the car and
drew a .45 caliber pistol, and the FBI agents opened fire. Floyd
reportedly said: "I'm done for; you've hit me twice." Floyd died
about fifteen minutes after he had been shot.
However, Chester Smith, the retired East Liverpool Police
Captain, and the sharpshooter who all seemed to agree shot Floyd
first, stated in a 1979 interview, that he had deliberately
wounded, but not killed, Floyd. He then added;
"I knew Purvis couldn't hit him, so I dropped him with two shots
from my .32 Winchester rifle."
Smith claimed that Floyd did not regain his footing after he had
shot him, and that he then disarmed Floyd, and that Melvin
Purvis, the agent in charge, ran up and ordered: "Back away from
that man. I want to talk to him." Purvis questioned him briefly
and then ordered him shot at point-blank range, telling agent
Herman Hollis to "Fire into him."
The interviewer asked if there was a coverup by the FBI, and
Smith responded: "Sure was, because they didn't want it to get
out that he'd been killed that way." This account is extremely
controversial. If true, Purvis effectively executed Floyd
without benefit of judge or jury.
FBI agent Winfred E. Hopton disputes Chester Smith's claim in a
letter to the editors of Time Magazine, that appeared in the
Monday, Nov. 19, 1979 issue, in response to the Time article
"Blasting a G-Man Myth". In his letter he states that he was one
of four FBI agents present when Floyd was killed, on a farm
several miles from East Liverpool, Ohio. He also states that no
members of the East Liverpool Police Department were present.
The members of the East Liverpool police department arrived
after Floyd was already mortally wounded. He also says that when
the four agents confronted Floyd, Floyd turned to fire on them,
and two of the four killed Floyd almost instantly. Smith said
that Herman Hollis gave the final shot to Floyd on the order of
Purvis, but Hopton says Hollis was not present. Hopton also
states Floyd's body was transported back to East Liverpool in
his [Hopton's] personal car.
There are numerous articles on the incident, most supporting
Smith's claim that the local officers were present. In an ironic
twist, Agent Hollis was later killed in a shoot-out with famed
bandit Baby Face Nelson.
Floyd's body was embalmed and briefly viewed at the Sturgis
Funeral Home, in East Liverpool, Ohio before being sent on to
Oklahoma. The Sturgis Funeral Home is now a bed-and-breakfast.
Floyd's body was placed on public display in Sallisaw, Oklahoma.
His funeral was attended by between twenty and forty thousand
people, and remains the largest funeral in Oklahoma history. He
was buried in Akins, Oklahoma.
Floyd got his nickname from the paymaster's description of him
at his first major robbery: "a pretty boy." Though he hated the
name, it had staying power.
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This web page was last updated on:
23 December, 2008