CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD: 'PRETTY BOY' FROM COOKSON HILLS
Kansas City to Akron
"We was doin' very well, but I didn't think we was doin' well enough so I opened up the First National Bank with a crowbar..."
Good-bye, My Suzie Gal
Choc was transferred to the Missouri State Penitentiary just before Christmas of 1925. Built in 1836, it had spanned out over a near-century to some forty-seven acres "the bloodiest forty-seven acres in America," it was called and was greatly overcrowded with three-thousand prisoners. Daily, from his dismal cell packed with seven other inmates, Choc could see Jefferson City below the bluff on which the prison sat. Screams at night were pattern. Rehabilitation sparse.
He discovered early that it was best to keep to himself and stay out of trouble. In his first few months he heard of other convicts being found beaten, even strangled and knifed, by cellmates in whose business they tried to interfere. Guards could be vengeful if pushed or insulted. All Choc wanted was to do the time and get the hell out.
For a spell, he worked as a cook on kitchen duty, then as a machine operator in the factory where the inmates made their own shoes and clothing, then as a plumber's assistant. Work days were twelve hours long. Laborers worked in silence, except when the jobs called for communication. A false move, a false step during time meant a billy club on the shoulder, maybe even solitary.
Choc knew whom to avoid, both in striped prison garb or in blue guard tunic. He picked his own friends after watching and listening, sorting out in his mind those who can and can't be trusted. Among his few camaraderie was Alfred "Red" Lovett, bank robber who proved to be a quiet speaker and a good listener. Lovett knew the ropes outside, he had connections in the boom town of Kansas City and, since he knew he'd be going home first, he invited the young Choctaw Floyd to look him up when he was released. "You'll be an ex-con," Lovett told him. "You ain't never going to find a decent job in a decent world. All you've got is your own kind."
Choc hesitated. He wanted to go home to Ruby and his son, Dempsey. But, two months before he received his freedom, he discovered that his wife had filed for divorce. The charge: neglect. A prison attorney told him that he had the right to contest the action, but Choc, knowing he might not have it in him to go straight not quite yet refused.
When he walked out of prison on March 7, 1929, he made a beeline for Kansas City.
If, when he alighted the train at the huge Union Railway Station there, Choc was curious what he would find in that town, his answers came quickly. It took only hours to discover that Kansas City, Missouri, was, in reality, an irreverent town what columnist Manley O. Hidson called in 1923, "busy, boasting and Babbitt-full"a Wild West still in existence, but now with all the modern conveniences.
"Red" Lovett met him at the depot and, being a good tutor, proceeded to introduce him to the right people in the right places, where others of their "cut" loitered, made deals, and earned a reputation. Bank robbers, confidence men, thieves, rumrunners and smugglers, needle men, safecrackers. All on the lam or ready for the big first step. As Lovett led him from one hangout to another, Choc noted that the darker the cave, the keener the senses of its dwellers. Instincts were sharp, like a buffalo knife. There were no pretenders in these places. Only the best. Choc Floyd felt content.
Big money was made in this town because Thomas J. Prendergast, lever of the crooked Democratic machine, let it happen. He preferred that it remain as loose as a goose and dangling for the golden egg, always. As long as he remained glutted and debauched, Prendergast was a happy man. Having become filthy rich in the beer business, he continued to make even more money by selling his foam for skyrocket prices as blackmarket under the government-induced dry law called Prohibition. With a baronial presence masquerading as a fine Catholic benefactor of the city since early in the century he literally owned the town. Under him were an alliance of crooked magistrates, attorneys, sheriffs, policemen, aldermen, businessmen, poll hackers and stooges who jumped immediately as to not ire Prendergast. Chief lieutenant was Mafia-backed John Lazia, a product of the town's "Little Italy," and who served to enforce the decrees of "Tom's Town".
Lovett was not a member of the organized syndicate; in fact, he avoided it like the plague, preferring to remain freelance and not under a puppeteer's control. He taught Choc to do likewise. To remain in the shadows, but to keep ears open for opportunities. To speak up only when necessary. To be mute all other times. To rub shoulders with the best. To promote oneself among the professionals, avoid the loud talkers and indolents. To succeed in the trade.
Kansas City. A man like Choc, with a brain and a sense of diplomacy and a gun could rise among its element fast. And oh, what a place! Farm boy Charles Arthur Floyd's pretty face gaped as Lovett brought him nightly from dive to dive under the glare of one neon light to another, to party and, more so, to learn big time.
"By 1929, Kansas City...had become the crown jewel on a gaudy necklace of lawless havens a corridor of crime ranging from St. Paul and Detroit in the North to Joplin, Missouri, and Hot Springs, Arkansas, in the South," says Michael Wallis in Pretty Boy. "Criminals with their mugs on wanted posters bought police protection. They moved about unmolested, showing up at gambling houses open twenty-four hours a day. The menu of choices at the sin palaces was as long as some of the patrons' tap sheets. There were the Cuban Gardens, the Reno Club, the Yellow Front Saloon and the Spinning Wheel. Customers got drunk as skunks (or) talked business at the Chesterfield Club. Gorgeous cocktail waitresses wore practically nothing but a smile...Boogie-woogie sounds from Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Bennie Moren and many others kept a steady flow of visitors coming to Kansas City."
Fresh out of prison, Choc had no money to "buy police protection," nor did he prefer to ingratiate himself with the underworld powers who could keep the boys in blue off his tail. Being an ex-con, the cops trailed him day and night, which, he discovered, became irritating and detrimental to his finding success in Kansas City. After all, those people with whom he might find work hung out evenings at the places where, if he was found idling, would harm his probation.
Lovett pulled strings the best he could and found Choc a room at Mother Ash's Boarding House on Holmes Street. Sadie Ash, a former Sunday school teacher gone haywire, now ran a cooling-off place for criminals. Helping run the establishment were her two dope-peddling sons, William and Wallace. No longer with a wife, Choc found himself enamored with Wallace's discontent and flirtatious dark-eyed wife, Beulah Baird and began an affair behind the husband's back. When the man discovered their secret, Beulah she preferred the name Juanita divorced him and took up residence with her "pretty boy" lover in a small apartment nearby.
But, because he was no longer under the Ash's sanctuary, Choc found the police badgering more constant. The couple moved repeatedly, he tried to keep his nose clean; they changed aliases like headwaiters change aprons, but it did no good. Probably at the root of his troubles was jealous Wallace Ash, who, it is believed, paid off police to heckle the Oklahoman. Throughout the summer of 1929, police brought him in for questioning after four alleged holdups, but couldn't find enough evidence to detain him.
Choc had been back to the Cookson Hills only once since his release from prison, and that had been a brief visit to his family and child, whom he missed dearly. In November, 1929, he returned again, this time to attend a sad event, his father's funeral. Walter Floyd had been killed by Akins neighbor Jim Mills during an argument over the price of a pile of lumber. Days after the funeral, while Choc was still in town, Mills vanished. Mills family accusations spouted loud, but local police never really investigated. Instead, they bid Choc goodbye when he left again for Kansas City, wishing him the best of luck in his endeavors.
This time around, Choc's stay in Kansas City was short term just long enough to tie up loose ends with the Jim Bradley Gang, which was taking Choc with them to Ohio, where they planned to "hit" a number of prosperous banks in and around Toledo and Akron. Bradley had known of Choc at the Missouri State Pen; they used to talk occasionally in the yard during break; and when they reacquainted in Kansas City, Bradley had been in the process of manning his Ohio enterprise with reliable men. He had remembered, and liked, the common-sense boy from the Cookson Hills. Now, in January, 1930, Choc kissed Juanita goodbye and went off with his new acquaintances. The band consisted of, besides Bradley, experienced bank robber Nathan King and thief Nellie Maxwell, a nationally known but elusive shoplifter.
The gang was, at first, semi-successful, cleaning several teller cages of money sacks. However, according to writer Jeffery S. King, their tour was disappointing; the most lucrative robbery accrued $2,000 from the Farmers & Merchants Bank of Sylvania, Ohio on Feb. 5. The take would have been much more, King says, but intuitive cashier John C. Iffland stashed "twenty thousand in cash, negotiable Liberty Bonds, and jewelry" into a timelock vault just as the brigands were bursting through the front door.
For three months they eluded roadblocks and car chases through the flat Ohio countryside. But, on March 8, their luck soured in Akron. Policemen had spotted two men who resembled Bradley and King curbside in the middle of the downtown district. When the patrolemen, whose names were Manes and Kovach, drew up alongside them to investigate, the desperadoes hit the gas pedal, only to crash into in another automobile King fell from the car, surrendering immediately. Bradley combustively opened fire point-blank into Officer Manes' stomach. He then managed to escape on foot, but not without bullet wounds from the other policeman's weapon.
Whether King talked or not is unknown, but that afternoon a squad of Akron-area detectives ramrodded through the front door of the gang's hideout and found Maxwell and Choc tending to the wounded Bradley. The three outlaws were taken completely by surprise.
On the premises, everything had been set for an obvious departure. King writes: "Bags were packed, a machine gun, with a clip of 150 bullets, was wrapped in a blanket where the gangsters were found. Three sets of license plates were found for Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan. There was also a set of very expensive luggage, nitroglycerine, and rubber gloves. Parked outside was a stolen car with glass removed from the back window to make room for a machine gun muzzle."
In an ensuing trial, Bradley was sentenced to death for the killing of lawman Manes. Choc Floyd and King, for their robbery spree throughout Ohio, each drew fifteen years maximum at the Ohio State Penitentiary. Supposedly, when Bradley was strapped to the electric chair in November, 1930, he muttered, "If you think I'm tough, boys, wait until you get a load of that Floyd."
The law might have sneered at that moment, but it was about to discover that his words were indeed a condemned man's altruism. En route to the penitentiary at Columbus, Choc talked his guards into uncuffing him so he could go to the bathroom. An armed guard followed him and waited outside, but within 10 seconds after Choc entered the tiny stall there was a sound of breaking glass. The sentry burst in to see an open rectangle of light where a window had been and a silhouette of a man racing towards the dusky horizon.
By the time the train halted and the police grouped outside, there was no sign of their fugitive. Only his footprint on the sheet of glass that lay on the embankment beside the tracks. Catching the moonbeam.