CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD: 'PRETTY BOY' FROM COOKSON HILLS
Charlie Gets a Nickname
"...Five pence in my pocket,
Five pence in my bill,
If I had another five
I'd tear down to Bunker Hill."
Cold winds swept the green mountains of Bartow County, Georgia, the day that Charles Arthur Floyd came into this world on February 3, 1904. He was the fourth of an eventual eight children born to Walter Lee Floyd and Minnie (Echols), a hard-working farming couple whose combined familial roots went back many decades in Southern tradition. There wasn't a pampered one among the Floyd siblings Carl Bradley, Rossie Ruth, Ruby Mae, Charles, Emma, Lucille, Edward and Mary Delta; they were expected to pitch in with the farmwork and housecleaning chores and, before sunset, learn the Bible as taught by mother Minnie. Young Charlie tended to his tasks without argument. He showed a good nature and often told jokes and pulled pranks on his brothers and sisters, tricks to lighten the workload.
"Everybody was Baptist and yellowdog Democrat," says Michael Wallis, author of Pretty Boy The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd. In a Biography television special on Floyd's life, Wallis explains that the children of these rural Baptists were taken "to the revivals where they got long doses of the Old Testament, fear of the Lord, and they sung hymns until they lost their voices. And they were there long into the night under the brush harbor."
Walter Floyd, industrious and always on the lookout for ways to make extra income for his growing family, heard that there was good money to make in the cotton fields in Oklahoma, which was recently admitted to the Union. In 1911, he packed brood and bundle and headed west to Sequoyah County at the southern foothills of the lush, verdant Cookson Hills. From their little wooden abode on the outskirts of the town Hanson, the Floyds, as a tenant farming family, rented land and produced cotton, corn and other crops. Never-tiring Papa Walter took odd jobs in the off-season for the county and it wasn't long before the Floyds were one of the most prosperous families in the area, one of the few to be able to afford an automobile.
A description of tenant farming, written by journalist Burton Rascoe in 1923, pretty much describes the Floyd family's business: "A tenant farmer has his own team and implements, cows, hogs and chickens; he undertakes to till the land, pay for the extra farm labor, and market the crops. If he does not rent outright he pays over to the landlord a stated share of the gross proceeds on the farm for the year."
In custom and habit, the Cookson Hills had changed little since their days when Oklahoma was the Choctaw Indian Territory. Inhabitants made do and, when they couldn't, they knew other means. Often, families made moonshine, illegal liquor produced by homemade stills in their barns, corncribs and basements. This they drank instead of paying the high prices of established distillers. "Runnin' likker" became a phrase and a by-living, and the Floyd neighbors were not averse to taking up the trade. Nor were the Floyds, whose teenage sons, including Charley, helped peddle it between the little smoky hamlets that dotted the bluish mountainsides. The country folk didn't see it as law-breaking; it was a way to earn extra income, a way to clothe and shoe the young'uns, to pay the rent, the bills. In The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd, Jeffery S. King states that the "Cookson Hills (were) four hundred square miles with only a few poor roads and underbrush, so thick that a man could walk within thirty feet of someone without seeing someone or being seen...Everyone there was suspicious of the law and of strangers, and lawmen there got little aid."
The Floyd family moved to nearby Akins about 1915, where the soil provided better crop growth. Here, they raised most of their own food such as potatoes, apples and peaches; they raised and canned their own vegetables. "They cured their own meat, produced lard, made corn meal, and raised sorghum for molasses," adds King. "Walter made enough money to buy a truck and earned extra income by hauling freight between Sallisaw and Akins. Finally, he opened a general store in Akins."
Schooling was a luxury for the children of Cookson Hills families. There was too much work to do at home, and fathers saw a boy's apprenticeship on the farm as a much more practical way of preparing for manhood than readin', writin' and 'rithmetic. The Floyd kids graduated from the sixth grade, and that was, for that time and place, considered an essentially good education. At that point, Charley and the others were expected to leave the confines of the schoolhouse and learn the real basics of earning dollars the hard but honest way.
Charley was a good boy. Neighbors liked him, Akins liked him. They called him Choc, after the popular local Choctaw Beer, for which, early in his teens, he displayed a liking. He could usually be seen, when not on his parent's farm at work, hanging on the walk beyond the family store. His pals mirrored him, Huckleberry Finns who dreamed of adventure beyond the mountain ridges where, they learned in Geography class, another world existed. They doted on tales of exciting people like Jesse James, the Younger Brothers and the Coles, outlaws who had used the Cookson Hills as their hideout. The boys knew, had heard tales, of the many caves in the hillsides that these legendary figures had used to store their bank-robbing booty. Of course, rumors dripped of buried treasure.
Cookson Hills' most famous desperado was Henry Starr, a cowpoke turned roustabout just before the turn of the century. Starr, according to Michael Wallis, "graduated from horse theft to train and bank robbery during his more than thirty years on the outlaw trail...Because of pardons, one from President Theodore Roosevelt, court dismissals and some lucky breaks, Starr waltzed away from the hangman's noose at Fort Smith and elsewhere. He used his Winchester to shoot his way out of several confrontations with law officers." And he had his good side. Being a gentleman who never bothered ladies or working men, Starr, says Wallis, "was the classic social bandit at least in the minds of the public."
As a boy, Choc would often sit on the front stoop of the Floyd home and, at twilight, while the thrush birds sang from the trees over the porch, dream of far-away places. He would be, for a moment or two, on a saddle, six-gun in hand, riding to that twilight, to a destiny. Biographers all agree that it was Starr whom Choc would later emulate and his modus operandi imitate.
Choc rarely got into trouble. Once, he stole cookies from J.H. Harkrider's Grocery in Sallisaw. When caught eating the box of cookies in the alley behind the store, Choc immediately confessed. But, at age 15 things began to change. That year, 1919, he had gone off to harvest fields in Kansas and Oklahoma with a paid work crew. On the surface, it afforded an adolescent like Choc a good opportunity to learn the prime elements of a useful trade, simultaneously learning the rules of hard work. Unfortunately, these traveling work crews were often peopled by drifters who joined them to earn a buck between seasons of carousing. Some of them were on the lam from the law. From these vagabonds, Choc was brimmed with colorful tales of fun and frolic, of getting money the easy way, of debauchery. To a teenager, these men were the voice of life's experience, the men who could work magic without bothering their time executing the essential trade of the tricks. From these men, he learned how to fight and kick and gouge and win the KO.
His older sister, Rossie Ruth, summarized: "That's when my brother met the wrong kind of men. They changed his way of thinking and doing."
Back in the Cooksons after the harvest, Choc's familiar habits of fishing and mild fanfare turned to loafing at Sallisaw's billiards parlors and music halls. Once mild-mannered, he no longer walked away from a fight; he often generated one. On a mid-May evening in 1922, Choc and a friend, Harold Franks, broke into the Akins post office and made off with the only money the two inexperienced crooks could find $3.50 cents worth the dimes left on a counter. A meager take notwithstanding, robbing a government post office was a federal offense and, when arrested, Choc got off only because witnesses failed to appear in court. They were neighbors of the Floyds and, it is assumed, felt sorry for the boy. After all, every boy sows his wild oats.
Choc seemed to straighten out after the near-mishap and went to work, first at a farm in Muskogee, then on an oil field, then eventually on a cotton plantation where the work was cruel but the pay was a little better than his previous employment. At nights, he would relax at a pie supper, dance at the usual evening socials in town, or play baseball with friends. He was quickly becoming a favorite with the young women who liked his sturdy frame, crop of dark brown wavy hair, glinting eyes, dimples and sense of humor. He recognized their attraction and, with a wink and grin, played the charmer to the hilt.
In many ways, he was more intelligent than most of the other young men who attended the male/female functions in Akins or Sallisaw. His manner was more aggressive and his way of speaking at times almost erudite. Choc, the ladies noticed, showed a certain ambition and determination. He would frequently vocalize his dreams to move out of the hills and scout the world.
But it was not yet time to move on. A local girl from Bixby had captured Choc's heart in early 1924; by June they were married. Ruby Hargraves was 16, Choc 20 years old. Part Cherokee, she was tall, lean, very pretty, very dark, and in complement to her husband's fair good looks. They bought a two-room house in Akins and a son followed in December. Choc hoped to name him Jack Dempsey Floyd after the well-known heavyweight boxer of the day, but Ruby, less a sports fan, compromised with Charles Dempsey Floyd. Papa didn't argue.
During these months, Choc toiled in the fields of neighboring cotton farms. Picking "Old King Cotton" as the South called it was grueling labor. "Cotton was not only king," Michael Wallis asserts, "but it was a tyrant...Harvesting was unquestionably one of the most arduous of all the step in the process...A typical day in the cotton patch lasted twelve hours. It was strenuous work, pulling the bolls of cotton off the stalks and putting them inside the long cotton duck sacks. Most of the time, workers were so thirsty, it felt as if they had cotton stuffed in their mouths. Rest stops for a dipper of water or to wring out a sweat-soaked bandana were few and far between. The continuous act of picking the delicate fibers from the thorny pod was tedious. It also hurt like the dickens. By day's end, the cotton burrs had chewed through the work gloves of those lucky enough to have a pair and slit open their fingers and palms."
Choc wanted more out of life than this. He remembered what he learned from the smart guys on the work tour, the ones who taught him to look for easier routes through life. At harvest, Choc met 19-year-old John Hilderbrand, a thief who carried two guns and was hiding out from the police. Hilderbrand fancied himself to look like matinee idol Rudolph Valentino and referred to himself as "The Sheik". He boasted to Choc how he had just robbed an electrical manufacturing company in St. Louis of $1,900 and would like to commit more such thefts, with Choc's help. "I know joints, ripe for the pickin'," he gleamed. "And you could send your wife and kid more dough than you've ever dreamed of, Choc."
In August, 1925, Choc kissed his wife and boy, promised to return shortly, and lit out for the Mecca on the Mississippi, St. Louis. There, the partners went straight to work. By the end of August, they had robbed a half-dozen food stores and a series of service stations, netting about $565. It was small change, maybe, but Floyd found the experiences thrilling and unlike anything else he had ever done. And, like them rascals on the harvest field had told him and as Hilderbrand had confirmed it was all so easy.
Sometime in the first few days of September, a friend of Hilderbrand's, a roamer and two-bit hoodlum called Joe Hlavatry, telephoned the former to forewarn him of a large payroll delivery that Kroger's Food Store headquarters was expecting during the evening of Friday, September 11. For the tip-off, Hlavatry asked that he be included in the holdup. The other agreed.
On the scheduled morning, Choc, Hilderbrand and the recruit stole a Cadillac and parked it unobtrusively down the alley, katty-corner from the Kroger building. Noon came and went, and Choc figured that their contact had erred. But, a few minutes before 1 p.m., an armored vehicle drew alongside the dock. The spies watched the guard unload satchels of money from the back.
They waited until the cargo was unloaded and stacked on a wheel cart. Keeping their revolvers in the deep recesses of their trench coat pockets, they entered the busy office building and approached the cashier's office. Without hesitation, guns drawn now, the trio leaped over the counter and crashed into the back room to intercept the transferring of money.
"Hands up!" Hilderbrand cried. "All we want is the money." Whereupon Choc and Hlavatry grabbed the sacks of money and, with Hilderbrand, disappeared from the quarters and out of sight. Writer Jeffery S. King calls it a "quick, professional robbery" that grossed $11,500 in payroll cash.
But, the thieves showed their naivete several days later when they bought an expensive new Studebaker and decided to cruise the streets of Fort Smith, Arkansas, showing off. Suspicious police detained them, questioned them and recognized Hilderbrand who was wanted for earlier crimes. Under interrogation, Hilderbrand and Hlavatry confessed to the Kroger heist and implicated Choc.
Jurors at their November trial found all three guilty of the Kroger robbery. Choc and Hlavatry received five years imprisonment and Hilderbrand, who had been convicted of additional crimes, to eight years.
From the start, newspapers loved the expedient drama of the heist, perpetrated by three no-names. Reporters followed the subsequent arrest and trial with lively prose. In need of a good story, they hit it from every angle.
In truth, the story wasn't without its colorful tidbits. For instance, when the payroll master first described the three unidentified hoods to the police, he referred to Choc as "a mere boy a pretty boy with apple cheeks." Columnists found their cue and when a real name was at last applied to those "apple cheeks," they would savor the moniker "Pretty Boy" Floyd over and over again.
Much to Choc's chagrin he hated its effeminate sound the name had a lilt to it. It had longevity.