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Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd — Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills

Charley Arthur Floyd

If violent, charismatic idol of the common folk Jesse James had a twentieth-century heir, surely it was Charles Arthur Floyd (1904-1934). This farm boy son of the Cookson Hills of eastern Oklahoma was weaned on the exploits of James and his fellow Confederate Guerillas. When the South surrendered, they did not halt their war against a Federal government who had ravaged their homeland. Floyd’s own legend loomed large enough while he lived that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named him America’s Public Enemy Number One. It grew larger still on the pages of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and when sung by Woody Guthrie as he strummed his guitar.

Floyd endures as one of the most fascinating and enigmatic figures in Oklahoma history. A lighting quick and deadly accurate marksman even when under fire, he committed spectacular felonies and killed lawmen. The final year of his life, American law enforcement from coast to coast threw its collective might, including numerous legendary individual lawmen, into the pursuit of this country boy criminal from Sequoyah County. Polite and good natured, however, he never shot first, did not commit most of the crimes attributed to him, and was so well liked from childhood onward by those who knew him and even many who did not, including numerous law enforcement officials, that the Cookson Hills became a virtual haven for him from the law.

The Cookson Hills of eastern Oklahoma, highlighted in green, where Charley Floyd grew up and often returned until the end of his life. Akins, the tiny rural community nearest his boyhood home, lies a few miles northeast of Sallisaw.


He despised his famous nickname of “Pretty Boy.” It reflected his striking, squared-jawed handsomeness, and was variously attributed to a girlfriend, a man describing him when reporting the first serious crime in which Floyd participated, and others. His family called him Charley, and they and friends called him “Choc,” apparently due to his appreciation for the well-known homebrew concoction credited to, at least with partial truth, the Choctaw Indians. (Southeastern Oklahoma-based Choc “beer” can be comprised of many ingredients, including barley, hops, sugar, yeast, rice, oats, mash, apples, peaches, raisins, fishberries, tobacco, and even a small amount of alcohol.)

Charley Floyd when first jailed at age 19 or 20

Charley Floyd when first jailed at age 19 or 20.


The People’s Gangster

One reason for the conflicted views that have persisted regarding Floyd with many Oklahomans is the sense of Greek tragedy overarching even his entrée into crime. He possessed a gregarious, daredevil spirit like countless other energetic American boys who excel in athletics, which he did. Some Cookson Hills observers remembered him as the greatest basketball player ever produced by the area when he was in high school. Lawmen later remarked on his remarkably powerful and muscular physique, and, in their final pursuit of him, his blazing foot speed.

Charley with his Oklahoma childhood sweetheart and wife Ruby and her aunt Bessie Mayberry in Tulsa.

Charley with his Oklahoma childhood sweetheart and wife Ruby and her aunt Bessie Mayberry in Tulsa.


His daring led, however, through his own mistakes but also some bad breaks, to that life of crime. In particular, after completing his first prison term, he attempted to secure legitimate employment and “go straight.” Probably due both to his record and the onset of Great Depression economic calamity, he could not find work. He was also badgered by lawmen, including arrests for vagrancy, in various states. He eventually turned back to crime, and thus began the downward spiral that ended only with his death. Still, innumerable witnesses suggested that he was a very different sort of violent criminal.

William Cunningham’s acclaimed 1936 novel Pretty Boy helped lionize the image of this infamous desperado as some sort of Robin Hood character who robbed from the rich (bankers) and shared the proceeds with friends, family, and other poor folks. For a long time in the early 1930s, Muskogee reporter Vivian Brown dismissed such claims, numerous as they were. According to the Kansas City Star, however, Brown “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.” Brown herself eventually wrote in the Oklahoma City Times:

Like the famed marauder of the English forests, he took money from those who had it—the banks—and divided the proceeds with the poor. The penniless tenant farmers kept their mouths shut; they had no scruples about taking contraband wrested from bankers.

Mug shot of Floyd around 1930, the last time the law had him in custody until his death in 1934.

Mug shot of Floyd around 1930, the last time the law had him in custody until his death in 1934.


Eastern Oklahomans’ attitudes toward lawmen in a multitude of cases when they broached the subject of Floyd supports that notion. Shannon Magness of Sallisaw provided just one example:

The folks all around here knew Charley Floyd. And they liked him….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.

In The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd, Floyd’s biographer Jeffery S. King chronicled the bank robber’s generosity in cash to those who helped him, such as letting him hide out in their home. According to King, Floyd provided groceries to a dozen poor families.

“It got to be common knowledge that Pretty Boy was around there, and had a good-lookin’ wife,” Thomas Pinson recalled of his early 1930s Tulsa boyhood. “But nobody was afraid or lived in terror or anything like that. In fact, he helped my dad change a flat tire down on the corner of Garrison Avenue one day. We all knew that Pretty Boy wasn’t such a bad guy. We always heard that he was good to most folks, and that he’d steal from the rich and give to the poor. He was no crazed killer.”

Floyd pulled over another time in the middle of the night to change the flat tire of a man who turned out to be a state legislator from Seminole. Deputies soon pulled over on the lonely road as he finished the task. When they lingered, Charley swung out his machine gun, disarmed them, and ordered them to “Get…out of here!” They did so, without harm, while Floyd skedaddled the opposite direction.

J. Edgar Hoover, enigmatic genius most responsible for building the FBI. Catching “Pretty Boy” Floyd became a raging obsession for Hoover. He would eventually stop at little—if anything—to do so

J. Edgar Hoover, the enigmatic genius most responsible for building the FBI. Catching “Pretty Boy” Floyd became a raging obsession for Hoover. He would eventually stop at little—if anything—to do so.


Earlsboro native Pauline Alfrey recounted her and twin brother Buck’s experiences with Floyd:

We were just young teenagers trying to get through the Depression, and after school Buck and I would head for the old drugstore and each of us would get a nickel ice cream cone. One afternoon we were sitting there with our cones and in walks Pretty Boy Floyd. Everybody was buzzing about him. He was so handsome! His clothes were neat and he wore gloves. He ordered himself a Coca-Cola and drank it down, and as he turned to leave, he gave us a wink. Well, we were ready to leave, too, and when we went to pay for our ice cream, we found out he had already taken care of it for us. Were we ever happy! We had enough money to get a slice of pie!

The Floyd family—Charley, son Jack Dempsey, and wife Ruby—while living in Tulsa around 1932

The Floyd family—Charley, son Jack Dempsey, and wife Ruby—while living in Tulsa around 1932.


Legendary Gunfighter

Another factor helped forge Floyd’s legend. It garnered him interest, respect, and contempt, depending on one’s station in society. This was a singular series of daring, even sensational exploits. Hollywood epics then and now fabricated such deeds, but Choc Floyd actually did them. He lunged from a speeding, rolling, flaming car he was driving, then dragged his colleague to safety. He escaped from FBI custody in 1930 by leaping undetected off a moving train in the dark in rural Ohio while shackled. In 1931, a large posse of Kansas City detectives and federal agents sacked a bootlegging center. They captured everyone in the place except Floyd, who coolly feigned drunkenness at a card table, then pitched an object across the room to distract the cluster of lawmen, whipped out his .45, and bolted for the door. A ferocious gun battle erupted between Floyd and the laws. With nearly every officer in the building firing at him, he shot two of them in the card room, burst through a splintered door, and shot two more while racing down a hallway and stairs and out of the building, then speeding away.

The legion of false accusations against Charley Floyd—some of them historic crimes— far surpassed his actual number of crimes

The legion of false accusations against Charley Floyd—some of them historic crimes— far surpassed his actual number of offenses.


A scarcely believable series of shootouts and escapes on the streets of Tulsa in 1932 catapulted Floyd to near-mythical status in the national consciousness. On February 7, a carload of heavily armed detectives ambushed him and colleague George Birdwell at the intersection of Peoria and Apache. He emerged from his vehicle and raked the police car from stem to stern with machine gun bullets, wounding one lawman and sending the others scurrying. A running gun battle in speeding autos ensued in which one detective swore that he fired six shots at Floyd from point blank range without phasing him. Floyd and Birdwell escaped.

Three nights later, other lawmen ambushed Floyd and Birdwell at the intersection of Fifth and Utica. The bandits’ guns again roared back. Floyd shot out the police car’s illumined headlights and riddled its radiator, raced his own car up a steep hill and along the Frisco railroad tracks, then escaped on foot through the darkened area, through which he knew the pursuers could not follow him.

Ohio wife and mother Ellen Conkle and the dishes with which she fed Floyd his last meal. When she politely refused payment, he surreptitiously placed a $1.00 bill—worth around twenty dollars in 2017 currency—under his plate.

Ohio wife and mother Ellen Conkle and the dishes with which she fed Floyd his last meal. When she politely refused payment, he surreptitiously placed a $1.00 bill—worth around twenty dollars in 2018 currency—under his plate.


The next day, at least twenty officers, armed to the teeth and accompanied by an armored car, surrounded Floyd, and Birdwell, at his house. They fired tear gas into it. After no one emerged, they stormed the structure and found it empty. The robbers had blithely slipped through a cordon of officers in the back yard by using two rows of laundry hung on clotheslines as a shield from detection. The Tulsa World newspaper called it a “cool and daring” escape.

At this point, one of Oklahoma’s most respected lawmen, forty-six-year-old retired McIntosh County Sheriff Erv Kelley, volunteered his services to the state authorities to catch Floyd—and the enormous bounty now on his head. Kelley had hunted down and brought in fourteen bank robbers and six murderers in his career, without ever having to fire a shot. After three months of birddogging him, he succeeded in tracking down Floyd as well. Kelley and another man surprised the outlaw in the middle of the night when he attempted to visit his ex-wife Ruby and son Dempsey of Bixby. Perhaps the most famous gunfight in Oklahoma history ensued.

Though bushwhacked, the wary Floyd was alert and wary when Kelley drew down on him with a machine gun from eight feet away. Choc swung his Colt .45 up and blazed away in the face of furious and deadly fire. He was hit four times by Kelley’s machine gun, though all below the waist. Floyd’s aim was deadly. He hit Kelley five times in seven shots, two of them kill shots. So determined were these brave men that Kelley fell to the ground and died still pressing the trigger with his finger and spraying bullets into the dirt. Birdwell and a bleeding Floyd again outraced a phalanx of pursuers to safety. Soon, five hundred lawmen blanketed eastern Oklahoma in search of them. Sometime during this period, world-renowned Oklahoma aviator Wiley Post led a two-airplane search patrol.

In view of all these, and many other adventures, coupled with the general sense that he was at least partly “driven to it” by circumstances and an unforgiving system, as well as his congenial attitude and “never shoot first” ethos, it is not surprising that Floyd was roundly considered a latter-day outlaw in the romantic vein of Jesse James. Nor that Thomas J. Higgins, Kansas City Chief of Detectives, remarked that Floyd “had one of the quickest draws I’ve ever seen, and he’s the best shot with a pistol I’ve ever seen.”

Famed FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis, who helmed the killings of America’s two greatest Depression Era outlaws, John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. A jealous J. Edgar Hoover would soon railroad him out of the Bureau. Purvis committed suicide a quarter-century after Floyd’s death. Several famous actors, including Christian Bale and Oklahoman Dale Robertson, have portrayed Purvis in motion pictures.

Famed FBI Special Agent Melvin Purvis, who helmed the killings of America’s two greatest Depression Era outlaws, John Dillinger and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. A jealous J. Edgar Hoover would soon railroad him out of the Bureau. Purvis committed suicide a quarter-century after Floyd’s death. Several famous actors, including Christian Bale and Oklahomans Ben Johnson and Dale Robertson, have portrayed Purvis in motion pictures.


A Bank Robbery Like No Other

Floyd’s most audacious exploit may have been robbing the bank at Sallisaw, around where he grew up. Best-selling author Michael Wallis set the stage in his seminal Floyd biography, Pretty Boy:

It was not as if (the job) was a well-guarded secret. Several of Choc’s friends, and practically the entire Floyd clan, including various in-laws and cousins, knew it was going to take place….Choc’s grandfather, Charles Murphy Floyd, who had just turned seventy-five the past September, got duded up in fresh overalls. He came into town from Akins that morning just to watch the proceedings. The old man took up a place of honor near the train station, directly across the street from the bank. Several of his cronies also gathered there. While they waited for Charley and his two friends to arrive, the men chewed tobacco and talked drought, the Depression, and politics.

From the moment Floyd got to Sallisaw till he left a half hour or so later, he chatted with friends and acquaintances. Casually toting his submachine gun in the crook of his arm, almost as though it were a formality, he cordially asked the barber next door to lay off his phone while he robbed the bank. “You bet we will,” the barber replied. “Good to see you fellas,” Floyd said, touching his cap.

“Howdy, what you doin’ in town, Choc?” a farmer in the street greeted him. “How you, Newt? We’re gonna rob the bank!” Floyd replied. “Give ‘em hell!” Newt responded.

The 1934 East Liverpool, Ohio Police Department, whose men played a crucial role in bringing down Charley Floyd

The 1934 East Liverpool, Ohio Police Department, whose men played a crucial role in bringing down Charley Floyd.


In Wallis’s classic account of the robbery, as customers entered the bank, Floyd “greeted each of them with a big smile and shook their hands.” He called one friend out of the “captives” line and engaged him in a friendly conversation.

Sheriff Bert Cotton was an intrepid lawman who knew Floyd and had arrested him in Sallisaw years before for the crime that first sent him to prison. He sat in his police car around the corner, just seventy-five feet from the front door of the bank. He stated that he knew nothing of the robbery until friends informed him of it after Floyd left town.

“It was like the hometown performance of a great actor who has made good on Broadway,” wrote one newspaper reporter.

“Once again, Pretty Boy had taken the public’s mind off farm foreclosures and bank failures,” said Wallis of the handsome, athletic, winsome “Phantom of the Ozarks.” “His life was a continuous gangster movie for the disenfranchised to relish. The little people of the land fed vicariously from his exploits. Through Floyd, they were able to punch back.”

“I never shot at a fellow in my life unless I was forced into it by some trap and then it was that or else,” he told reporter Vivian Brown in her exclusive interview. The common folks knew it, and that it was different from other gangsters of the era.

A lawman holds the Colt pistols Floyd was carrying when he was shot down.


The Kansas City Massacre

During Floyd’s life and since, he has caught blame for far more deeds than the many he actually committed. These included a supposed “Supergang” robbery of a South Bend, Indiana bank with John Dillinger, “Baby Face” Nelson, and others. In some cases, he was accused of as many as three different crimes, all in different states, at the same time. Witnesses and even lawmen would mistakenly—or sometimes on purpose—identify him in crimes, and criminals would often claim to be him when caught. The grip this latter day Jesse James held on the collective American consciousness—from an obsessed Hoover, to the national media, to unemployed sharecroppers—contributed to this.

Indeed, the most famous exploit of Charley Floyd’s life was one he had nothing to do with. The June 1933 Union Station Massacre in Kansas City proved a watershed event in American history. The apparent slaughter of several lawmen—federal as well as local—triggered a national fury that delivered Hoover, deftly playing upon it, the authority and power he had long desired for the (soon-to-be-named Federal) Bureau of Investigation.

It also smeared Floyd’s name. As has often been the case in tragic events in American history, much if not most of the “official” story was wrong. Here, several gangsters supposedly ambushed and murdered a posse of lawmen escorting another notorious criminal from the KC train station to Leavenworth Federal Prison. Enraged at Floyd’s continued embarrassment of his Bureau, as well as law enforcement agencies around the country, Hoover used selective evidence and unreliable testimony—especially that of his chief witness, who described a non-existent wound to Floyd—to, unwittingly or not, frame the Oklahoman for the heinous crime.

“Pretty Boy” Floyd’s death was historic national news, as reflected by headlines in Oklahoma’s Tulsa World and the Detroit (Michigan) Free Press.


In reality, Floyd’s worst mistake had been, to his eternal regret and consequence, to have been in the same city at the same time as the massacre. In addition, as chronicled by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Unger in The Union Station Massacre, forensic evidence later indicated that as many as four of the five men killed in the bloodbath, including three lawmen, died from errant shotgun blasts by one of the ambushed FBI agents. Numerous prominent lawmen, including the afore-mentioned KC Chief of Detectives Higgins, dismissed the Oklahoman’s involvement.

Even the surviving trio of federal agents filed official eyewitness reports absent of any identification or even suspicion of Floyd’s presence. In a sad echo of later FBI investigations such as the OKC Bombing, all three survivors suddenly changed their minds many months later and pegged him as a participant!

The most compelling exculpatory evidence for Floyd remains the utter lack of precedent at any time in his life for such actions. He was never a “torpedo” or hired gun for pay, and the Union Station Massacre ran counter to his temperament and character, despite his other crimes. Floyd himself, upon hearing he was suspected, immediately sent a note to the Kansas City Police, who did not consider him a suspect. It read:

Dear Sirs:

I—Charles Floyd want it made known that I did not participate in the massacre of officers at Kansas City.

Charles Floyd

Charles “Choc” Floyd’s funeral at Akins, Oklahoma remains the largest in Oklahoma history. At least 20,000, and according to historian and Floyd biographer Michael Wallis, as many as 30-40,000 people attended.


End of the Trail

With the death of John Dillinger, Charley Floyd ascended to the (Federal) Bureau of Investigation’s Public Enemy No. 1. A national dragnet stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific for him. He shrewdly laid about as low as a man could lay in a Buffalo, New York apartment for nearly a year and a half. When he did finally emerge, his luck ran out. A fog-shrouded nighttime car wreck set in motion a chain of events that led to Floyd’s pursuit by hundreds of lawmen. They included Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia officers, and a company of federal agents led by Dillinger’s famous nemesis, Special Agent Melvin Purvis.

Nonetheless, Floyd eluded the enormous posse, which included aircraft reconnaissance, on foot for days. Because he refused, though armed, to steal the car of a man related to a woman from whom he had purchased a meal, he wound up fleeing on foot from Purvis and a large portion of the force. Though the FBI issued a clear and simple official account of what followed, subsequent claims and revelations again cast suspicion on that splendid organization and its leaders.

What is known is that Purvis and his combined posse of federal, state, and local agents unleashed a volley of rifle, pistol, and machine gun fire at the Oklahoman. He fell wounded and died minutes later after the lawmen reached him. Beyond that, nearly everything is in dispute more than eighty years later. A few of the questions follow.

  • Who, in what combination and in what order, fired the shots that hit Floyd? Ohio deputy Chester S. Smith (the best marksman present) and federal agents both claim the shots that initially felled him.

  • Posse members claim they ordered Floyd to surrender before firing on him. Several civilian witnesses, however, insisted the lawmen fired without warning. Hoover and other FBI officials had previously issued shoot on sight orders, though they denied they had.

  • Did Purvis call Hoover to report Floyd’s capture, but refuse to call an ambulance for the still alive and alert outlaw? This was claimed by posse member and East Liverpool, Ohio Police Chief Hugh Dermott.

  • Did Floyd have three bullet wounds or four? The autopsy suggests both numbers. The answer, assuming the autopsy is otherwise reliable, could have much larger implications.

By far the most controversial issue is Deputy Smith’s electrifying contention that Purvis ordered a fellow Bureau agent to murder Floyd where he sat, after the wounded but coherent outlaw defiantly refused to answer questions about the Union Station Massacre. The Los Angeles Times newspaper reported the career lawman’s accusations in 1974. Time magazine and other publications did so in 1979. But Smith’s Ohio family and acquaintances had known of them for decades, and believed them. In addition, Lisbon, Ohio Deputy Sheriff George Hayes, who shot it out with Floyd during the pursuit and was nearly killed by him, claimed he was told the same account of Floyd’s death by other posse witnesses.

Smith told Time the FBI “didn’t want it to get out that he’d been killed that way.” Implying that the FBI did not want a folk hero Choc Floyd emerging from yet another shootout, with Ohio lawmen rather than the Feds possibly receiving what accolades there would be, he told the Lisbon (OH) Morning Journal, “It was a cover-up. They (the FBI) wanted the credit.” Assuming Floyd’s innocence in the Kansas City debacle, the close observer of his bloody conflict with the Bureau might also ponder the latter’s possible temptation to silence his potentially explosive testimony regarding that crime. He was probably unjustly accused of it, and the event—sensationalized by Floyd’s supposed prominent role in it—catapulted Hoover and his organization to unprecedented power and prominence.

Smith delayed his public declaration to Time until he believed all direct witnesses to Floyd’s death were dead and beyond harm from his statements. Unbeknownst to him, however, former FBI Special Agent W. E. “Bud” Hopton still lived. Hopton vigorously and publicly denied Smith’s claims. He stated that the agent whom Smith accused of executing Floyd was not present at the robber’s death. Some who knew Smith also claimed he was a well-known teller of tall tales. Thus, Floyd’s true demise, like so many of history’s most tantalizing debates, may never be known for sure. Did Smith, for instance, simply misspeak decades later in claiming Herman Hollis killed Floyd, when he meant Bud Hopton? The preponderance of evidence lingering through the mists of time would seem to favor Smith’s account.

A jealous and obsessive Hoover ran the famed Purvis out of the FBI less than a year after his celebrated killings of John Dillinger and Charley Floyd. Not content with that, the Bureau leader attempted to torpedo Purvis’s future career as well. In a tragic close to a remarkable life, Purvis, still only fifty-six, committed suicide in 1960. Upon learning of it, according to his daughter, Smith frowned, shook his head, and said in reference to Floyd’s supposed murder, “I wonder if that was on his mind all these years.”

Death Marker of Pretty Boy Floyd

“I Want to be Saved”

“The pall of death fell over Sallisaw as a sorrowing hill country people heard the news that they had expected from day to day for a long time,” wrote the Muskogee Phoenix.

Floyd biographer Wallis depicted the widespread Bible Belt mood of inscrutable, contrarian Oklahoma:

Sequoyah County was in a state of mourning. In country villages scattered over the Oklahoma hills and in oil patch towns, people who had followed the bandit’s exploits for years had a difficult time accepting his death…(It) seemed to symbolize for many folks, particularly the poor, something in themselves that was now gone.

Withal, biographers such as King have chronicled Floyd’s “intensely religious” beliefs. The Floyd clan, including Charley’s mother, possessed a devout heritage. All five of his surviving siblings seemed to have followed in it. Even Floyd apparently never completely escaped the strong Christian influence of his upbringing. He lived a dangerous and bloody life where year after year, any breath could have been his last. Yet, the remembrances of numerous witnesses in various locations indicate that he apparently attended church services whenever and wherever able. One of his partners frequently read Scriptures aloud to Floyd from a Bible as they traveled.

A. M. Goodson, faithful member of a Baptist church in Shawnee, recalled Floyd attending a Sunday evening service there in January 1932. The robber left a “very large” donation in the offering plate. Goodson recognized him during the service and afterwards introduced himself, not hiding his recognition of the notorious outlaw. “Give my best wishes to the minister,” Floyd told him, “and tell him I want to be saved.” He also urged his son Dempsey (and other children) to attend church and school, and become a law-abiding citizen and lawyer. He supported his ex-wife Ruby’s desire that Dempsey be baptized, which he was.

As earlier noted, Floyd’s demeanor and actions toward nearly everyone, even whilst committing crimes, differed from the average criminal, especially those of violent national repute and “Public Enemy No. 1” stature. He repeatedly apologized to those whose lives he disrupted. He treated them respectfully and assured them he had no desire to harm them, and typically didn’t. He gave them cash and other things for their trouble, including a set of golf clubs to a Missouri sheriff he temporarily captured. Upon learning a man whom he and a colleague were striking was a sheriff and not a bounty hunter, he immediately stopped the beating, apologized to the lawman, gave him a much larger than needed amount for medical treatment, and released him.

Choc Floyd had attended Mother’s Day 1933 Sunday worship services with his mother at the First Baptist Church of Sallisaw. Twenty-seven Floyds faithfully attended there. As often they had, they, and a full house, heard the Rev. W. E. Rockett preach, with Charley in full, peacable view. Afterwards, Floyd and his mom visited his father’s grave near Akins and adorned it with flowers. Indicating a nearby spot, he told her, “Right here is where you can put me. I expect to go down soon with lead in me—perhaps the sooner the better.”


Where Dillinger was romanticized in the newspapers of the day, ‘Pretty Boy’ got the worst press of any outlaw in the 1930s, and for a crime—the Kansas City Massacre—many believe he never committed.

—Jay Robert Nash, Bloodletters and Badmen


(Click image to enlarge)

Charley Floyd and his dramatic story have been depicted many times in American drama and literature. L-R, Pulitzer Prize-winning Lonesome Dove author Larry McMurtry’s gripping 1994 novel, Martin Sheen as the Oklahoman in the 1974 film The Story of Pretty Boy Floyd, and sheet music for Woody Guthrie’s famed ballad.


J. Edgar Hoover vs. the Young Muskogee Female Reporter

Acclaimed American author Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment) and Diana Ossana crafted the following fictionalized account in their novel Pretty Boy Floyd. It depicts feisty young Muskogee newspaper reporter Vivian Brown defying angry Bureau of Investigation (future FBI) Director J. Edgar Hoover over the telephone regarding her private interview with famed Oklahoma outlaw Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. It also provides a window into the enigmatic populist streak so prominent in Oklahoma history. No doubt contributing to this example of it was Charley Floyd’s apparent practice of sharing bank robbery proceeds with his economically modest family and friends. Brown’s actual interview with Floyd—the only such audience ever secured with him—revealed the Oklahoman’s good-old-boy cordiality, his self-effacing insights on and regrets about his life, his admission of various crimes, and his dispute of some accusations lodged against him by Hoover and the Bureau.

“Hello, what do you want?” (Vivian) asked, annoyed, tucking the phone against her neck so she could keep typing.

“Are you Miss Brown of the Muskogee Blade?” Hoover asked, not pleased by the temerity of the young lady’s tone.

“Yes, who is this?” Viv asked…

“I’m J. Edgar Hoover, weren’t you told?” the Director spat. “You’ve done a grave disservice to your country by printing those lies about two dangerous criminals. I’m sure you know who I mean.”

Despite her youth, Vivian Brown was not to be bullied…

“I beg your pardon, sir,” Viv said. “I’m an honest reporter. I don’t print lies. What I wrote about Mr. Floyd and Mr. Birdwell was the truth.”

The Director was not used to being talked back to, by brash girls from Oklahoma—or from anywhere, for that matter…

“You’re out of your depth, young lady,” Hoover said. “Not only that, you’re out of a job. I won’t tolerate front-page stories that glorify public enemies. Pretty Boy Floyd is a killer, wanted in several states. You’ve let him use you and your newspaper to help win public sympathy.”

“He already has public sympathy in these parts!” Vivian snapped back. “Bankers are no friends of the tenant farmers in Oklahoma, and folks down here look up to Charley Floyd and George Birdwell—they’ll remember things they’ve done for years and years, and their children will remember them, too!”

“Miss Brown, you’re clearly hysterical,” the Director replied. “Give me your editor. Perhaps he has more respect for law and order. You should have contacted the authorities at once!”

“What I did was give two men a chance to tell their side of the story,” Vivian informed him. “They’ve been accused of everything under the sun. I don’t think that’s fair.”

“Who told you to think?” Hoover asked. “These are serious matters, beyond your grasp. You should stick to writing up socials and leave serious reporting to men. Give me your editor, now!

Viv shrugged, and handed the phone to Sam Raines…

“Sam Raines, Muskogee Blade,” Sam said. “What can I do for you?

“You can fire that impertinent girl, and print a retraction on your front page tomorrow,” Hoover said. “That’s an order.”

“Print a what?” Sam asked.

“Retraction—retraction!” Hoover ordered. “The public should know there wasn’t a word of truth in that story you printed today.”

“Why, there were words of truth in it if Viv wrote it,” Sam said. “Viv’s our best reporter…in fact, she’s our only reporter. I wouldn’t fire her if the sky was to fall.”

“I’m the Director of the Bureau of Investigation,” Hoover informed him. “I won’t have this kind of palaver.”

“And I’m an American citizen. We got freedom of the press in this country, don’t we?”

“Yes, and you’re abusing it,” Hoover said. “You’re aiding and abetting public enemies—killers, robbers, disturbers of the peace. If you want to help your country, do what I tell you—fire that girl, and retract that story.”

“No, sir,” Sam Raines said. “You got your nerve, calling up a newspaper in the United States of America and trying to tell an editor what to print.”

He hung up the phone, and went back to squinting at a page of (newspaper copy) proof.

“Thanks, Sam…thanks for backing me up,” Vivian said.

“Honey, are you sure this basketball score’s right?” Sam asked. “Seemed like Chickasha beat us by more than six points.”

“It’s right, Sam,” Vivian said. “You left and got drunk, and missed the best part of the game. They got way ahead, but we nearly caught up.”

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