Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD: 'PRETTY BOY' FROM COOKSON HILLS

Kansas City Massacre

"...Now the federals are on his tracks,
'Cause he still owes a dollar on the whisky tax."

Run, Johnny, Run

An incident took place in Kansas City, Missouri, on June 17, 1933, that would haunt Charles Arthur Floyd to the day he died. More accurately, it would lead directly to his death a little more than a year later. What became known as "The Kansas City Massacre," which snuffed the lives of four policemen, including an FBI agent, steeped up the pursuit of "Pretty Boy" Floyd. After June 17, law agencies across the country chased him without pause. The FBI chased him without mercy. The massacre had been Choc's death warrant.

Yet, it appears that Choc had nothing to do with it.

Sue L. Hamilton in her brief biography of "Pretty Boy" Floyd clearly explains what happened that infamous day in Kansas City:

"On the morning of June 17, killer Frank Nash was being escorted by four police officers from the Union Railway Station (to the parking lot). Nash had escaped from Kansas' Leavenworth State Penitentiary on October 19, 1930. That following year, while himself still hiding from the law, Nash had helped seven other Leavenworth prisoners escape. Now, almost three years later, he had finally been recaptured (in Hot Springs, Arkansas). Nash's outlaw friends were determined to help him get away once again.

"FBI agents Frank Smith and F. Joseph Lackey, together with Police Chief Otto Reed, arrived by train with their prisoner early in the morning. FBI Special Agent R.E. Vetterli of the Kansas City office, together with Agent R.J. Caffrey and Kansas City police officers W.J. Grooms and Frank Hermanson met them at the station...The group (hurried Nash outside) to Caffrey's Chevrolet Sedan. The doors were unlocked, and Nash was pushed into the front seat. As the agents were taking their places in the car, Lackey saw three men running from behind a car parked only six feet away from the Chevrolet...

"Gunfire echoed...Officers Grooms and Hermanson died instantly. Special Agent Vetterli was shot in the arm, but scrambled to hide behind the car just in time to see Agent Caffrey shot in the head. Agents Lackey and Smith, with Police Chief Reed, dropped low from their seats (in) the car. Lackey took three bullets, but survived...Reed was killed. Smith, in the middle, came out without a scratch. However, Nash...sitting in the front seat was riddled with bullets."

The country raged, damning the killers but not so badly as it damned the weak-kneed government that permitted killers like this to fire at will in public places. Miraculously, no pedestrian was struck by the fusillade of bullets. Memories of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre in Chicago, where seven members of one gang were deliberately ambushed in the back by a rival gang, resurrected to remind the public that times hadn't gotten any better since that February of 1929, four years earlier.

In speaking for itself, the government (through spokesperson Attorney General Homer Cummings) responded, "The gauntlet has been thrown down. The murder of a Department of Justice agent is an open challenge. The entire department has been asked to assist in this case."

J. Edgar Hoover, chief of the Bureau of Investigation (later to be known as the FBI), quickly identified as the killers "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Adam Richetti and a former World War I hero turned sour, Verne Miller. The latter was a hit man for the mob and had concrete connections with John Lazia, who ran the Kansas City underworld.

Radio listeners across America heard Hoover's eloquence the next day: "No time, money or labor will be spared toward bringing about the individuals responsible for this cowardly, despicable act. They must be eliminated. And to this end we are dedicating ourselves."

Death car in the Union Railway Station; note the windshield (FBI)
Death car in the Union Railway Station;
note the windshield (FBI)

Choc's involvement in the massacre is extremely questionable, his presence in Kansas City that morning appearing to be a simple case of "bad luck," as Floyd acquaintance Elmer Steele had said years later. Of the many witnesses to the massacre at the train station, the most verbal was a woman caseworker for Travelers Aid, which was housed there. Her identification of a man she saw blazing away in the parking lot skipped back and forth; one minute she thought he looked like "Pretty Boy" Floyd, the next minute she was reticent. Three years later, she phoned the FBI to say that she had seen a photograph of another criminal named William Dainard in the newspaper and that he resembled the man she saw! Aside from that, she had described her suspect as bracing a machine gun, but ballistic tests had proven the police were killed by shotgun blasts.

According to most scholars, Choc had absolutely nothing to do with it. Many strongly argue that it was "not his style" of outlawry. Theories abound. One school of thought suggests that the assassins (all Mafia-hired hit men) were not trying to free Nash, but silence him. A very strong speculation is that the mob had charged Miller with the assignment of freeing Nash without bloodshed by overpowering his guards at gunpoint, but that someone on either side of the law had been too quick-fingered. California State College history professor Kent Ladd Stackmesser believes that the massacre was just such a mission gone haywire. He writes in The American West, "The FBI charged Floyd with being one of the gunmen, but they never proved their case...The job is too much at variance with the usual Floyd pattern. The actual machine gunners were killed by the mob for having botched their assignment."

The car used by the killers was found burned, execution style, with an unidentified body in it, and Miller's body turned up in November.

Some sources allege that J. Edgar Hoover's real interest in the case was not who the culprits were, but how he might wrangle the incident into a stepping stone to get what he'd been itching for: more funding, more agents and, with his position as top lawman in jeopardy with the new Roosevelt administration, a sturdier balance of power for himself. He sincerely did grieve over the loss of lives, Michael Wallis says, but "the crime was very important to him also because, with the death of those officers, he was able to enhance his own position and enhance his bureau."

On a Biography telecast, Paul Hutton, professor of history at New Mexico University and subject expert, supports Wallis. "It was easier for Hoover to blame Floyd than go after the politicians and gangsters who ran everything in Kansas City...Floyd had a tommy gun, a couple of .45s and a fast car and little else but a big reputation constantly covered by the popular press, newspapers and pulp magazines. By making Floyd Public Enemy Number One Hoover knew the importance to himself and his organization by bringing him down. J. Edgar Hoover owed a lot to 'Pretty Boy' Floyd."

Three separate witnesses to the killing that June day, when shown fugitive cards after the event, bypassed Choc's photo to identify Verne Miller and two runaway guns-for-hire, Wilbur Underhill and Harvey Bailey. Unlike the woman who at first thought she might have seen Floyd, these witnesses never recanted. Sadly enough, their comments were buried from the press. Underhill, Bailey and even Miller their names just weren't big enough to make headlines. Floyd's was.

"To his own dying day, Floyd swore on his father's grave that he had no hand in the massacre," says Wallis. "He even sent a message on a postcard to that effect to the Kansas City police."

While he had never denied any of his crimes, among them the unfortunate death of Sheriff Erv Kelley, he was denying this one. He wrote:

Dear Sirs

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

Charles Floyd

It probably would have made all the difference in the world had Choc known at the time that the one he adored most in this world, Dempsey, would grow up assured of his father's innocence to that particular charge. "My father wasn't a hired killer," he told Biography interviewers in 1995. "He robbed banks and got all the money he needed. Why would he take a fee killing policeman who were trying to transfer another criminal?"

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