originally published November 24, 2013
Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd was fortunate to have chosen the life of a bank robber back when media-hyped crooks still had the ability to turn into folk heroes. He earned his nickname not from hubris but from a colorful post-robbery description to the police by the victim. And he hated it. He didn’t hate the job – in fact he was quite good at it. And while I’m sure he appreciated the adulation that was shoveled his way by his somewhat misguided but adoring fans, he knew that his career choice was not one that promised a lengthy and comfortable retirement. Something would have to give.
Floyd was known as the Robin Hood of the Cocksoon Hills in Oklahoma. He had a habit of burning mortgage papers when he robbed banks, absolving people of their debt while he disappeared with his loot.
One might have wondered if it would be over-confidence or a poor calculation of risk that would lead to Pretty Boy Floyd’s inevitable downfall. As it turns out, it was neither. Depending on whose story you believe, it was self-defense, misidentification, or possibly an excessively trigger-happy FBI that did him in.
Charles Floyd was not destined to end his story inside a prison cell. He had been pinched for a payroll robbery in St. Louis in 1925, serving three and a half grueling years behind bars. After that, he swore he’d never see the inside of a jail cell again; it would be a clean getaway or a hail of bullets for Floyd. While his vow wasn’t quite met – he did some time for vagrancy and suspicion of highway robbery, though nothing that doled out too much time – it helped to define the criminally brash approach he brought to his day job.
After having allegedly murdered an Akron, Ohio police officer, Floyd was picked up in Toledo in 1930. He was sentenced to 12-15 years in the can, but managed to escape. It was in these first few years of the 1930’s, while Americans crumpled beneath the weight of the Great Depression, that “Pretty Boy” Floyd made his bones and cultivated his fame. In a time when so many Americans were wanting, perhaps it was encouraging to see someone with the cajones to take. Plus, using a match to rid some bystanders of their mortgage debt probably helped his case.
What undid Floyd’s climb to criminal stardom (he was #2 on the Most Wanted list at this time, behind John Dillinger) was something known as the Kansas City Massacre.
It was June 17, 1933. Vernon Miller, a freelance gunman, was aiming to free robber Frank “Jelly” Nash from custody. A small contingent of Kansas City police officers were escorting Nash to a car parked at Union Station. This was not a finesse job – Miller and his accomplices charged in with guns a-blazin’, opening fire on the officers present.
And a massacre it was. Detective William Grooms and patrolman Grant Schroder were slain, as was the police chief of McAlester, Oklahoma, Otto Reed. FBI special agent Ray Caffrey was also killed in the gunfight. Unfortunately for Vernon Miller, Frank Nash – the guy targeted for extraction – was mortally wounded by a bullet. Two police officers were saved only because they slumped down in the back seat and pretended to have been shot while Miller’s men searched the car. A cop fired on them from the station, and Miller and his men fled. Among those men was Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
Or was he? Floyd had never shied away from admitting his part in various crimes before, but he was adamant that he’d had nothing to do with the massacre in Kansas City. He and fellow notorious crook Adam Richetti were known for robbing banks, not for acting as hired guns. Floyd even sent a postcard to the Kansas City police, insisting upon his innocence. But FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover would have none of it – he wanted to point his resources in Floyd’s direction, and the massacre gave him further cause to do so.
John Dillinger died on July 23, 1934, which bumped Floyd to the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Three months later, someone else would get the honor.
On a foggy October night near East Liverpool, Ohio, Charles Floyd and Adam Richetti hit upon some bad luck. Their car hit a telephone pole, and while their female companions had gone into town with the tow truck, Floyd and Richetti were spotted hiding beside the road. Wellsville police chief John Fultz and two officers showed up, then a gunfight ensued. Both criminals split up and took off into the woods.
Richetti would be caught, would deny his and Floyd’s involvement in the Kansas City Massacre, and would nevertheless be found guilty and sent to the gas chamber four years later. Floyd stayed on the run, surviving off found fruit and his wits for three long days. He was hitching a ride on October 22, when he was spotted by local cops. He burst out of the vehicle and headed for the treeline. Retired officer Chester Smith scored a hit in Floyd’s arm, knocking him down. What happened next is unknown – there are a few conflicting stories, the truth no doubt hiding its goodies among all of them.
Some members of the local police say that Floyd stood up and tried to run, at which point they plugged him full of lead, cueing his closing credits. The FBI claimed that they had spotted Floyd and taken care of him, and that the local cops weren’t even present when it all went down. Chester Smith – who had been a police sharpshooter – claimed that after he’d winged Floyd, he was pushed aside by FBI agent Melvin Purvis, who questioned the criminal for a few minutes. When he received nothing but curse-word replies from Floyd, Purvis allegedly ordered agent Herman Hollis to open fire on Floyd with a machine gun at point-blank range.
Chester Smith claims the FBI’s official story was a complete cover-up for an unnecessarily violent termination of Charles Floyd’s life. Some 45 years later, FBI agent Winfried E. Hopton asserted that Smith’s version was out to lunch. He says that Smith and the local cops showed up only after Floyd had been terminally wounded, and that they only opened fire again when Floyd pulled his gun to fire at the agents. It was self-defense.
The folks who actually know the reality of the bloody timeline of October 22 are long dead now, and the unfiltered truth has floated away with them. The moral of the story is quite clear though: crime may pay, but only until you end up blasted with bullets in an Ohio cornfield.