An homage to a public enemy

Sun Journal

Robber: In a time and place that reviled banks, Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd shared his loot and became a benefactor and folk hero.

January 16, 1999|By JOE POPPER | JOE POPPER,KANSAS CITY STAR

SALLISAW, Okla. -- On Oct. 28, 1934, a dust cloud visible for miles rose from the dirt and gravel roads around here as a vast crowd -- some estimated it at 40,000 people -- converged on a local cemetery to attend the largest funeral Oklahoma had ever seen.

The deceased, who lay in state beneath a graveyard arbor, was 30-year-old Charles Arthur Floyd, who had spent much of his life in the area.

"He was a sort of hero," says Earl Strebeck, president of the local historical society. "Charley robbed banks, and in those hard times, banks were foreclosing on small farmers every day. People here didn't think much of banks."

The press always called Floyd "Pretty Boy," a nickname he supposedly picked up in one of the Kansas City night spots he often frequented on his forays through the Midwest. But in the rolling, wooded hills around Sallisaw, his friends, neighbors and kin always called him Charley or "Choc" and protected him from the law.

In Washington, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called him Public Enemy No. 1. That deadly ranking was based on Hoover's assertion that Floyd had been a triggerman in Kansas City's 1933 Union Station Massacre.

Floyd denied it. The chief of Kansas City's detectives privately doubted it.

And a great deal of modern research, including much done by Robert Unger, author of "The Union Station Massacre," has cast grave doubt on Hoover's allegation.

But in those days, Hoover's word could be a death sentence, and on Oct. 22, 1934, under circumstances that remain murky to this day, a posse led by federal agents shot and killed Floyd in an Ohio cornfield.

Hoover issued a jubilant press release. But a different emotion seized the heart of eastern Oklahoma.

"The pall of death fell over Sallisaw as a sorrowing hill country people heard the news," wrote a reporter for the Muskogee Phoenix.

In Sallisaw, the townspeople took up a collection to bring Charley back to Oklahoma. Four days later, on Friday, Oct. 26, his body, encased in a cheap casket, arrived home at 2 in the morning aboard a Kansas City Southern train. More than 500 people waited in silence at the station.

"I can remember that train coming, and it kept blowing its whistle," Floyd's son, Dempsey, told Michael Wallis, his father's biographer, many years later.

The next morning, more than a thousand people filed past Floyd's open casket at a local funeral home.

"And then, on Saturday afternoon, people started coming into town from all over," a retired schoolteacher named Loris Dickey recalls. "They came from everywhere."

Her father, Walter Goodwin, owned a little restaurant. "So many people came to my father's cafe on Saturday," she says, "that they cleaned it out." They ate every last ounce of redtop stew, chili, chicken-fried steak and homemade pie in the place. "There wasn't a bite left. My father had to close. The town was filling up so fast we couldn't believe it."

On Saturday night, people camped out at the cemetery in Akins, eight miles from Sallisaw, where the burial was scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Others slept in their cars or on the side of the road.

By Sunday morning the fast-growing crowd was estimated at between 20,000 and 40,000 people, more than 10 times the population of Sallisaw in the 1930s.

"You see, the folks all around here knew Charley Floyd," says Shannon Magness, a Sallisaw resident. "And they liked him. Most came out of respect. My uncle, Taft Reed, told me that once when he was working on a local WPA road project, Charley pulled up in his car and handed the men on that job a bag full of money -- just gave them all that bank money."

That story doesn't surprise Jerene Taylor, whose sister was married to Floyd's brother, E.W. "It wasn't unusual for Charley to do that sort of thing," she says, "and the people around here appreciated it. Of course they did in those days. The truth is, if you saw Charley around town you didn't think twice about it. When he visited his sister Emma out in Akins, he'd hide his car down in the trees. Everybody knew it. We all saw it."

But no one talked to the law. And Floyd knew why.

"I have robbed no one but moneyed men," he wrote on a postcard sent to some Oklahoma lawmen.

"Around here Charley Floyd could come and go as he pleased," says Dickey. "He even robbed the bank in town once, and lots of people saw it and didn't do a thing."

That was on Nov. 1, 1932. Charley's grandfather, Earl Floyd, came over to watch his kinsman casually hold up the Sallisaw State Bank in front of a crowd of friendly onlookers. But the scene was so calm that the old man fell asleep on a bench with a plug of tobacco in his mouth.

A Muskogee reporter named Vivian Brown, doubting the Robin Hood stories surrounding Floyd, traveled through the region and concluded that the tales were true: Floyd did give money to the poverty-racked farmers he befriended in those hardscrabble hills.

"The penniless tenant farmers kept their mouths shut," she wrote. "They had no scruples about taking contraband wrested from bankers."

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