Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD: 'PRETTY BOY' FROM COOKSON HILLS

Back to Cookson Hills

"The preacher preached till his tongue couldn't wag,
But he couldn't stop their sin..."

Old Bill Jones

Choc returned to Kansas City to hide out, no place else to go. He knew that to return straight to the Cookson Hills would be foolish, as he was sure the government would show up there in droves over the next couple of months or so, driving through Akins and Sallisaw and Bixby and across the back roads in between ready to pop at the first sight of Charles Arthur Floyd. The headlines screamed, "PRETTY BOY" ESCAPES TRAIN TO PRISON and, while he hated the nickname, he loved the attention. He felt, in a way, like a hero.

Police photo of Pretty Boy Floyd, 1931
Police photo of Pretty
Boy Floyd, 1931

He couldn't stay too long in Kansas City, either. That he knew. After reuniting with Juanita, who was thrilled to have read about his escape, he looked up a fellow whom the grapevine said was in town, a gunman named William Miller. Like himself, Miller was on the run from the cops after recently breaking from the same prison Choc had been bound for, and was itching for an opportunity to get out of Kansas City for a little excitement on the road. Because he was considered hot property, few outlaws wanted his company. But, Choc was game. He heard that Miller was afraid of nothing. Called "Billy the Baby Face Killer," he had served as a bank robber and torpedo for some of the top city mobs.

Miller was overjoyed when Choc approached him. Together the two men planned a series of bank jobs in the East and South. But, before they left Kansas City, there was one chore that needed attending. The Ash brothers, William and Wallace, were up to their old tricks, this time more vehemently. William's wife, Rose (and a sister of Juanita Baird) had left him and was staying with Juanita and Choc. The Ashes, Choc heard, had notified the police that he was back in town, openly betraying the "comrade code" of Kansas City. As well, they were traveling from one hangout to another, loudly proclaiming that they would see Choc dead or captured. And they would imitate "Pretty Boy" in a pansyish manner, alluding to his nickname.

After the Floyd-Miller combine left town, William and Wallace Ash were found dead in a ditch outside of town. The police knew who had committed the murders, but Choc and Miller were long gone. And with them, Juanita and Rose Baird.

Rose Baird (left) and Juanita (Beulah) Baird (FBI archives)
Rose Baird (left) and Juanita
(Beulah) Baird (FBI archives)

The duo of Choc and Miller was destined to be short lived. After helping themselves to $2,000 from the Mount Zion bank in small-town Ellison, Kentucky, and another $1,000 at the Whitehouse (Ohio) bank, police closed in on the group in Toledo. A salesperson at Uhlman's Clothing Store, where the girls were shopping, accompanied by the men, recognized Choc from wanted posters and phoned the police. In no time, Police Chief Galliher and Patroleman Castner were on the scene, waiting outside. When the four suspects emerged, Galliher demanded that they raise their arms and surrender. Miller and Choc drew their revolvers and engaged the police in a shoot-out, there on the busy streets of Toledo. While citizens ducked for cover, the pitch battle continued as the outlaws tried to maneuver down the sidewalk, edging closer to their parked auto.

Miller took a bullet in the chest; he was dead before he hit the ground. Juanita collapsed when a missile ricocheted from a wall and entered the back of her head. Sister Rose, seeing this, threw herself down over her sibling and wailed. Now on his own, Choc dodged between fenders of cars, still making his way closer to the gang's vehicle. When Castner stepped out from behind the squad to get a better view of the escaping criminal, Choc squeezed off several shots into his abdomen. The police chief retorted, but his aim was off. Floyd, feeling like the mark in a shooting gallery, scurried behind the wheel of his awaiting roadster. Hearing the ping of Galliher's bullets on the rear fender, he ground the gears. Up sidewalk, through wrong-way intersection, over lawns and down alleys Choc sped out of Toledo.

So far, Ohio had been bad luck to him and he vowed never to return.

By April, 1931, he was heading west towards the Cookson Hills, hotter than ever. After spending weeks in the thick brush of the cascades near Akins, Oklahoma, he came down to visit his widowed mother, brothers and sisters, then hit the road again, newly armed, and this time determined to stay in the area he knew best: the mountain country.. As he quickly found out, his own people loved him. There would be no tattlers here, no pimps, no big guys expecting a payback, no Ash brothers, no city slicker flatfeet hungry for a promotion. The state cops and the newly created Oklahoma Bureau of Criminal Investigation, well....he could outstep them. They didn't know the hills like he did, never drove the back roads as he had, didn't know the maze of forests where he grew up. Choc knew every trail, every cave, every leaf.

Since Choc's last visit to Oklahoma, the Depression had hit hard. Wall Street had crumpled and had sent America into a confusing down-spiral of economic loss. In the rural areas of the Southwest, the plague struck with cruelty. With the price of farm produce falling and the prices of farm gear rising, croppers were losing their homes to unsympathetic bankers. Small-town economies dwindled and entire towns went bankrupt. Then came the drought. "With little or no rain, this area was growing into what became known in the 1930s as the Great Dust Bowl," pens Sue L. Hamilton in "Pretty Boy" Floyd, America's Most Wanted Public Enemy. "The wind picked up the dry dirt, blowing it eastwardly across the country."

"Pretty Boy" Floyd had come home and with his homecoming he found a new crusade. He no longer robbed banks for pleasure, for a restlessness, now he had a reason to kick the money people in their money belt, to punish those who had it all and wouldn't share. The thrill of what he had been doing had been wearing thin; any fulfillment, he realized now, had been surface and not personal. But, it was time he got personal, to send a message from the Oakie to Uncle Sam. The message read, If you ain't gonna do nothing to help the little guy, "Pretty Boy" Floyd will!

Here is where his legend took off like a big bass drum leading a John Philip Sousa march on Independence Day. What sounded like drums was actually the staccato of Choc's Thompson gun echoing through the valleys of the mountain country, between Oklahoma, Arkansas and Missouri, all centered around Akins where he headquartered. . Before the year 1931 ended, the bandit would rob enough institutions, wobble enough banker's knees, tear up enough unrecorded mortgages, shake up enough civic committees, frighten enough of the greedy gusses and toss back to the poor enough money to be crowned "Robin Hood of Oklahoma" or "The Phantom of the Ozarks" by an adoring public.

Choc needed an assistant, someone who could serve as lookout and help carry the loot he planned to transfer. For a partner, he chose an old friend from the hills he knew as a boy, George Birdwell. Now in his mid-40s, Birdwell had been a novice preacher when Choc saw him last, but in the meantime he had traded his Bible for a gun. Tired of seeing his family go hungry with "this here Depression," he had robbed small markets nothing big, but enough to eat. Of Birdwell, Jeffery S. King states, "He had no police record; the only trouble he ever had was when a jealous husband shot him in the leg in 1913." Choc's invitation to ride along gave him a chance to do more good for his people than asking them to turn the other emaciated cheek.

Between 1931 and 1932, Choc Floyd and Birdwell held up more banks than anyone in Oklahoma's history. The list reads more like the state bankers' membership association. A very partial few are the Bank of Earlsboro, the Konowa Bank, the Bank of Shamrock, the Morris State Bank (Muskogee), the State Bank of Castle, the Bank of Padem, the Dover Bank (Oklahoma City), and many more in all directions. Fifty-one banks in all in 1931 alone, all attributed to "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

Every robbery followed the same format. Birdwell would first "case the joint" to determine its fire power (number of guards), its layout (where were the safes and how accessible were they), its alarm system (was it the new buzzer type that could be pressed from behind a teller cage or the old-fashioned chain/clanger type) and its present number of customers (Choc didn't want to invade a bank at its busiest and most dangerous hour).

The bandits would park close and keep the car running ("Gangsters would prefer the Ford V8 because of its roominess and speed," says writer Sue L. Hamilton). Brims of their Stetsons pulled low, they would enter the bank and whip out their armament, Birdwell's submachine gun on the guards, Choc's on the employees.

"Charles Arthur 'Pretty Boy' Floyd liked to carry Thompsons with the buttstock removed and a 20-round clip in place of the familiar drum magazine," Charles M.B. Smith tells us in an article written for Sharpshooter magazine. "This way, the gun could be concealed under an overcoat and, if shooting was involved, fired one-handed, leaving the other hand free to carry loot, grab hostages, or steer the getaway car." While Birdwell kept the guards at bay, Choc would vault the counter, usually collar a teller, and use him or her as ransom until the other tellers rounded up the cash that Choc demanded. If an alarm had been punched, the fleeing robbers would walk out calmly with a hostage until they were safely in their car. Sometimes they would make the hostage get in the auto with them to discourage any following, then leave the poor soul off at the end of town.

Bank insurance rates doubled after the start of the following year. Bankers were incensed and demanded that Governor "Alfalfa Bill" Murray call out the National Guard to catch the runaway ghost of a bank robber. His reply was right on the money: "National Guard? As long as he stays down there where he's at and is protected the way he is by those people, he will continue to rob banks National Guard or not!"

The Governor had evidently heard the stories of Choc's benevolence, his reputation among the Oakies as the quintessential knight attacking the governmental ogres. Stories were told and retold until they reached all parts of the country, making Choc a legend in his own time. Stories about how (to quote the television Biography special) "he brought money and groceries to families that weren't going to have a Christmas. These were families who didn't have anything, anything at all." According to Jeffery S. King, "He was generous to kids and old people...It was reported he was feeding a dozen families."

Choc (left) with his wife's uncle, Jess Ring, Muskogee, 1933 (FBI)
Choc (left) with his wife's uncle,
Jess Ring, Muskogee, 1933 (FBI)

He was so well liked that when he decided to knock over the bank in his own home town, Sallisaw, he informed his family and neighbors in advance. Kids, mothers, fathers, aunts and uncles, those on scooters and on walking canes turned out in a picnic mood and sat across the street under the shade of the boardwalk to view the action. Among these was Choc's grandfather. The bank president thought Choc was putting everybody on until his car pulled up out front the bank to the cheers of the spectators. "No offense," he told the surprised gentleman inside, "but, hell, I'm sure you wouldn't mind making a little contribution to the community."

Law officers and lawmakers remained unimpressed, however, with his charity or his sense of humor. Eugene Gum, secretary of the Oklahoma Bankers Association brought together an assembly of peace officers to meet with Adjutant General Charles F. Barrett and the governor on January 15, 1932. Through the association, a reward of $6,000 was put up for the capture of Charles Arthur Floyd, dead or alive.

The state's Bureau of Criminal Investigation led county sheriffs on a merry chase from town to town; they were loaded for bear. The posses accomplished nothing, except to give The Daily Oklahoman a belly laugh. It reported: "The quest for 'Pretty Boy' Floyd has become humorous, or less. He is reported seen at both ends of the state at once. Every town, every day, gets some report to his whereabouts, but he is not there when police arrive...If this tiresome hunt goes on much longer the public will be convinced bank bandits escape either through tribute or through fear on part of the police officer."

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