October, 1934. In the farmland of Columbiana County in southeastern Ohio, farmers and hired hands are busy with the harvest season. Hard times have held the country in their iron grip for nearly five years. But now the sleepy rural landscape is astir. In this world of hazy autumn hills, weathered barn buildings, and trees aflame with fall color, a man scrambles desperately across a field. He runs, a pistol in his hand, and behind him follow a group of policemen and federal agents firing at the fugitive. He is hit. The men run up to him. Standing above the fallen man is federal agent Melvin Purvis, who just the past summer brought an end to the career of John Dillinger outside the Biograph Theater in Chicago.
“Are you Pretty Boy Floyd?” asks Purvis.
“I am Charles Arthur Floyd.”
It was a long, lawless road that brought Pretty Boy Floyd to his death at the age of thirty in rural southeastern Ohio. He was born in Georgia on February 3, 1904, and moved with his family to the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma at seven years of age. He grew up knowing the hard work of rural life firsthand. He was likable and charming, a hard worker, but he grew up in the bootlegging culture of the Oklahoma hills, and a spell wandering the rural Midwest as a harvest hand exposed him to people who made a living on the other side of the law.
He came to know well the world of gambling dens, speakeasies, brothels, and hideouts. It was in one such place—a boarding house run by a woman who offered sanctuary to criminals—that Floyd was first called “Pretty Boy.” This was from the owner’s daughter, a woman named Beulah Baird. Floyd came to loath the nickname.
He was caught stealing cookies from a store when he was a child, but graduated to more serious crime—mainly bank robberies. His first crossed the line stealing coins from a post office when he was eighteen—a hijink with some friends to get coins for gambling, but still a federal violation that brought government investigators to his hometown. He was able to escape jail for this, but a more serious offense occurred two years later—Floyd was arrested for a payroll robbery in Missouri. This crime put the budding criminal behind bars for three and a half years of a five-year sentence.
Other crimes followed, one leading to a conviction for a bank robbery in Sylvania, Ohio. He was sentenced to prison in Toledo, Ohio, but was able to escape and made his way back west. Floyd was soon responsible for the murders of two police officers.
Floyd may also have been involved in the “Kansas City Massacre.” These murders occurred on June 17, 1933. Four lawmen were killed transporting a criminal named Frank Nash. The FBI named Floyd and his right hand man Adam Richetti as perpetrators of the crime—and the official FBI website still insists that the two men were involved—but considerable doubt remains that Floyd and Richetti were there. Floyd always denied involvement, and even sent a note to authorities not long after stating he did not participate in the attack.
Floyd’s notoriety made him one of a number of criminals J. Edgar Hoover was eager to take down. Hoover devised his “Public Enemy No.1” as a way to focus public attention not only on the criminals, but on his agency: the U.S. Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, which would later be renamed and known as the FBI in 1935. After the killing of John Dillinger, the first Public Enemy No. 1, the title shifted to Floyd.
Floyd occupies an interesting place in American outlaw history. He earned considerable renown then as a Robin Hood kind of figure, and the image persists today. There is some reason for the comparison. He was known for destroying mortgage notes when robbing banks, freeing people of their debts—at least for a time anyway. But Floyd, who was usually called “Choc” or Charley by the people who knew him best, murdered a number of men, and cost the public no small share of treasure trying to track him down. We can only imagine what the widows and children of the men he killed might say about the “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.”
Floyd and Richetti had laid low for most of 1934. They spent time in hideouts in Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo. In October of 1934, Floyd decided it was time for him to return to the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma. He and Richetti drove back roads with two women. They had some kind of car accident and sent the women with the car into the town of Wellville, Ohio so it could be repaired. Floyd and Richetti would remain in the woods.
The beginning of the end for Pretty Boy came on Saturday, October 20. John Fultz, chief of the Wellsville Police Department, received a call about two men with firearms camped out on a hill. Fultz approached with two officers. The two men opened fire, and one fled up a hillside, firing as he went and wounding Officer Grover Potts in the shoulder. Chief Fultz fired repeatedly at the man closest to him, who was taken into custody and determined to be Adam Richetti. Fultz then notified federal authorities, and enlisted the help of the county sheriff’s department and other local police. The two unknown women, apparently getting the picture of what was going on, vanished from town.
After fleeing Fultz and his officers, Floyd commandeered one car and rode shotgun, but the Model T soon ran out of gas. Floyd took the driver with him and flagged down another vehicle, this one a Nash Rambler driven by a Wellsville florist named James Baum. Seeing a sheriff’s roadblock in the distance, Floyd ordered the car turned around, arousing suspicion. A deputy gave chase, and shots were fired, Baum being hit in the leg. Floyd left the car and fled on foot.
The search for Public Enemy No. 1 intensified throughout the rest of the day and continued into Sunday. Federal agent Melvin Purvis, who had helped nab Dillinger, arrived in the area on Sunday. His heavyhanded manner caused strain with local police chief John Fultz, especially when Purvis set up his command center in East Liverpool, a town four miles away, and not Wellsville where the incident began.
Floyd eluded his searchers. But on Monday, October 22, 1934, Floyd emerged from the woods and approached the farmhouse of Ellen Conkle, a widow whose brother was out working in the fields. Floyd claimed to be a lost hunter and asked for a meal. She fed the desperado, and Floyd gave her a dollar and asked to see any local newspapers. He also asked about getting a ride to Youngstown.
Her brother, Stewart Dyke, agreed to drive him. But Floyd noticed two cars coming down the road and ordered Dyke to pull the car behind a corn crib. Floyd jumped out and ran towards the fields.
The story of whether it was federal agents or local police who gunned down the notorious Oklahoma outlaw remains contested. Both were chasing Floyd. But gunned down he was, and Floyd was carried over to the shade of an apple tree where he died.
The course of events following his death followed the pattern often seen with the capture or killing of Depression-era bad men. A mad circus erupted. Floyd was taken to a funeral home, and his body was photographed and eventually displayed. Thousands walked past the body of the dead man, only his head showing above a covering on the bier. The mortician noticed that the former hardworking farm hand, who had spent countless hours of his childhood and youth laboring beneath the Oklahoma sun, had both manicured fingernails and plucked eyebrows.
Plaster death masks were made, most of which were distributed to local lawmen. The body was returned to Oklahoma for burial.
Floyd left behind an ex-wife and a young son named Dempsey. The son would grow up, serve in the military in World War II, and live an honest life. And the legend of his father would grow as well. Pretty Boy Floyd has become the subject of songs, books, and movies. He would be portrayed by actors as diverse as Martin Sheen, Channing Tatum, Fabian Forte, and John Ericson. Steinbeck’s Ma Joad referred to him in The Grapes of Wrath. Renowned novelist Larry McMurtry and his writing partner Diana Ossana wrote a novel about Floyd. And he became the subject of a famous song by Woody Guthrie: “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” which contains the following famous lines:
“As through this world you travel, you’ll meet some funny men,
Some rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”
It is eighty years to the day since Pretty Boy Floyd was shot dead in a field in Columbiana County. But in myth and memory he lives on, conjuring a world etched in the sharp black and white hues of the Great Depression, where gangsters and outlaws still ride, and grim men of the law follow in hot pursuit.
Pretty Boy Floyd: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd by Michael Wallis. 1992 and 2011. W.W. Norton and Company, New York and London. There have been a couple of other books on Floyd since this came out in 1992, but this is an excellent biography of Floyd. Well written and deeply researched (including many interviews with Floyd relatives). Rich, brisk narrative by a historian noted for his works on the American west. Also really creates a feeling for the world he grew up in, and the America of the 1920s and 1930s.
“Pretty Boy Floyd” by Timothy R. Brookes. Timeline: A Publication of the Ohio Historical Society. August/September 1990. Volume 7, No. 4. Excellent article on the Floyd pursuit and killing in October of 1934 by the (then) President of the East Liverpool Historical Society.
Wikipedia article on Pretty Boy Floyd.
FBI website entries on Floyd and the Kansas City Massacre.
Many thanks as well to the impressive East Liverpool Historical Society in East Liverpool, Ohio.