Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods


Wrong Place, Wrong Time

"Then he took to the trees and rivers to lead a life of shame.
Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name."

The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd

Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd rose from callus-fingered cotton picker to trigger-fingered desperado, one of the most colorful, nervy bank robbers in the history of Depression-era America. Less a bad man than a symbol of a turbulent era in the saga of the sagebrush. A Robin Hood who enjoyed hitting back against the wealthy for the defense of the poor, he is remembered in legend and in song, recalled not with a shudder but with almost a fond salute. In Oklahoma's Cookson Hills, where he grew up, he is an icon. "Pretty Boy," says biographer Michael Wallis, "is the stuff of legends."

But, Floyd was born too late, when the world was caught in a turmoil between past and present, from horse to horseless carriage, from telegraph to radio, from spoken legend to recorded deed. Even though his beloved Cookson Hills was slower to enter the 20th Century than much of the more populated areas of the country, it was maturing nevertheless, daily, impacted by an undeniable financial depression and a series of soil-sucking droughts that weakened even the leathery Okies' ability to endure their own growing pains.

Floyd transcended the discomfort of a backwards country boy thrust dizzily from the old world into the brink of the modern era. Like so many others who found it humanly impossible to cope with the ravages of a newer and less tranquil world, he fought back. And when he did so he found a fight unexpected not the romantic glory gained by Jesse James, Henry Starr, Cole Younger and other boyhood heroes who had grown up on the same roads here he lived.

Because the world was changing swiftly, because highwaymen now moved quicker behind the wheel of a Ford Sedan than in the stirrups of their old gray mare, a new way of battling those highwaymen became apparent. Technology radio and telephone produced a communications system that, even in infancy, outdid the old days when Jesse could ride faster than the news of his latest bank robbery. Floyd couldn't ride faster, but he tried. To the death he tried.

"He modeled himself after the desperadoes of the Wild West," says a special chapter of the popular television program, Biography. "While much of his heroics have been greatly exaggerated, there was an element of truth."

A popular magazine from the 1930s (Ruth Ring Morgan)
A popular magazine from the
1930s (Ruth Ring Morgan)

Many say that Charles Arthur Floyd , they called him Choctaw, or Choc in an earlier setting, might never have resorted to crime. "He robbed banks, but he had morals, he had truth," nephew Glendon Floyd tells us in that same telecast. He was a boy who needed to "sow wild oats," attest his defenders, but unfortunately for him he was beginning to sow them at the time when the Oklahoma State Bureau of Criminal Identification, despite and because of its newness, was out to get its man. Even though the 1920s in this country practiced a flippant attitude to many social wrongs, it was the big city gangster in Chicago, New York and Kansas City who enjoyed that benefit. But, Choc could not buy the politicians who wanted to be bought nor pay off the brilliant lawyers who proved brilliant only when well-paid; Choc stole just enough from the banks to keep himself and his gang members fed, their automobiles gassed and his fellow Oakies out of the poor house. And, therefore, his oats were sowed to consequence.

In the end, Choc Floyd was betrayed. Not by a woman in red, as was Indiana bank robber John Dillinger; not by his own taste for blood, as was the mad-boy child "Baby Face" Nelson; not by a death wish that was Bonnie and Clyde's. But, allegedly, by an ambitious protector of American Justice called J. Edgar Hoover who thought Floyd would be better a stepping stone to higher things if killed and not incarcerated. In short, America betrayed him when it forecast an end to its tolerance for wild oats to make way for progressiveness and modernity.

Charles Arthur Floyd couldn't keep up.


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