Pretty Boy Floyd

Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd (February 3, 1904October 22, 1934) was an American bank robber and alleged killer, romanticized by the press and by folk singer Woody Guthrie in his song "Pretty Boy Floyd".

Early life

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 Ruby). The popular history says that Floyd committed his first crime when he struck down a sheriff's deputy who had been rude to Floyd's wife, but contemporary sources agree that Floyd simply needed a way to make ends meet.

Life of crime

The Time magazine of 22 October, 1932, mentions a robbery of $3.50 in pennies from a local post office as his first known 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." 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 did not only include active law enforcement, but retired personnel as well as private detectives.

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.

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. He was accompanied by two female companions and Adam Richetti. Fearing they would be recognized, they 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 laying 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 Chief 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.

What happened next has at least three accounts, one given by the FBI, one by other people in the area, and one given by local law enforcement. After obtaining some food at a local pool hall, where the owner, Charles Joy, was friends with Floyd, he hitched a ride in an East Liverpool, Ohio neighborhood on October 22nd, 1934. Floyd 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 Melvin Purvis, and four members of the East Liverpool Police Department, led by Chief of Police Hugh McDermott, were searching the area south of Clarkson, Ohio, in two separate cars. They spotted a car moving 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.

In music

In March of 1939, five years after Floyd's death, Woody Guthrie, also a native of Oklahoma, wrote a song romanticizing Floyd's life, called "The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd." The song has the form of a Scottish "come-all-ye" ballad opening with the lines

"If you'll gather 'round me, children, a story I will tell
'Bout Pretty Boy Floyd, an Outlaw, Oklahoma knew him well."
The lyrics play up Floyd's generosity to the poor, and contain the very famous line:
"Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen."
This song has been performed by many of the great figures in country and folk music, including Joan Baez, Ramblin' Jack Elliott, Bob Dylan (on the Smithsonian's tribute to Guthrie in 1988), The Byrds (on their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo), Wall of Voodoo, the folk-punk band Ghost Mice, Alastair Moock Guthrie's son Arlo Guthrie (on his album Precious Friend with Pete Seeger), the Canadian folk-rock/bluegrass group The Duhks (on their debut album Your Daughters & Your Sons), Dana Cooper , Irish folk singer Christy Moore (on his album Live in Dublin with Donal Lunny), and Jimmy Faulkner.

Pretty Boy Floyd is mentioned in Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's "The Message" at 05:27:

"Now you're unemployed, all null an' void;
Walkin' round like you're Pretty Boy Floyd."

There were also two glam metal bands called Pretty Boy Floyd, a Canadian band that has broken up and an American band who are still together. See: Pretty Boy Floyd (American) and Pretty Boy Floyd (Canadian).

In comics

It has been suggested that Flattop Jones, a villain from the Dick Tracy comic strip, was modeled on Floyd. Like the real-life figure, Flattop hailed from Oklahoma's Cookson Hills.

Floyd features front and center in Image Comic's 2008 mini-series " Pretty, Baby, Machine" that teams Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson and Machine Gun Kelly together. PBM is by Clark Westerman and Kody Chamberlain.

In film

A film, Pretty Boy Floyd, was made in 1960 by Herbert J. Leder, starring John Ericson.

Another film, A Bullet for Pretty Boy, was released in 1970, starring Fabian.

Floyd was played by Steve Kanaly in the 1973 film Dillinger.

Martin Sheen took the title role in the 1974 TV movie, The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd.

Floyd was portrayed by Bo Hopkins in the 1975 TV-movie, The Kansas City Massacre

In literature

Many books have been written about Pretty Boy Floyd or contain mentions of him.

Floyd was mentioned in the novel The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, in which Ma Joad claims that she knew Floyd's mother and that Pretty Boy Floyd was a good man who just got backed into a corner. When her son Tom sets out on his own, she reminds him of Floyd and is afraid that even though he is trying to help people, he might be similarly driven and cut down by the police.

A semi-fictionalized biography about Floyd was written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana in 1994. In this work, Floyd is sympathetically portrayed as a good natured man and a reluctant killer, popular with women but devoted to his family. He is more a victim of the poor social conditions of the time than a cold blooded criminal.


  • Time, 22 October 1934
  • "Sister of infamous gunslinger 'Pretty Boy Floyd' recalls a kindly brother," Associated Press; May 14 2002
  • King, Jeffrey, "The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd" Atlas Books, 1998; ISBN 0-87338-582-9
  • McMurtry, Larry and Ossana, Diana , "Pretty Boy Floyd," Simon & Schuster; ISBN 0-671-89167-7


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