Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD: 'PRETTY BOY' FROM COOKSON HILLS

Destiny

"O bear me away on your snowy wings
To my immortal home..."

Angel Band

The pressure was on. By October, 1934, John Dillinger was gone, which left Choc the Number One Boy, the Public Enemy Supreme, the Torchbearing Target. In Kansas City, a grand jury on October 11 indicted both Charles Arthur Floyd and Adam Richetti for murder in the assassination of those policemen and that agent at the train station. Hoover vowed Choc would be dead before Christmas and, to prove it, put Melvin Purvis in charge of bringing him down.

Purvis, a former lawyer from South Carolina, was the G-Man who had gotten Dillinger. "FBI superagent Melvin Purvis, special agent in charge of the Chicago office, was a national hero who rivaled even the mythical J. Edgar Hoover," Jeffery S. King exclaims in The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd. "He was a small man who, like Floyd, enjoyed wearing good clothes. The polite and pleasant Purvis often changed his shirt three times a day. He came in eighth in a 1934 Literary Digest poll to determine the most important people in the world. He was involved in the major FBI cases of the time and was lionized by the press."

There was only one way, Choc figured, to elude Purvis' noose: leave the country and flee to Mexico. But, first, he would return to the hills of Oklahoma, gather his family and friends, and give them the choice to move with him there. He would love if his mother came with him and (he didn't tell Juanita this) Ruby and their son, too.

Choc and his three companions left Buffalo on the evening of Thursday, October 18, with the far-off Cookson Hills their destination. Adam and Choc took turns driving, cutting south across the state of New York, edging the shoreline of Lake Erie, then entering Ohio after midnight. A fog had drifted in across the hills south of Youngstown and East Liverpool and Charley, then at the wheel, was having a terrible time seeing the curves in the road through the pea soup. He slid the car into a telephone pole at the junction of Interstate 7 and the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks.

"Hunting party" for Floyd, Wellsville (AP)

No one was injured, but they could see in the moonlight that the front wheel fender was dented inward so that it rubbed against the tire tread. Worse, a gush of steam hissed from a hole in the radiator grille. Juanita had spotted what she thought looked like an all-night mechanic's shop a little bit back on the road and, while she and her sister Rose sought it out, Choc and Adam took blankets from the trunk and hid themselves up a slope, bundled back behind a row of pines that grew along it. Shortly, the girls returned with a driver who hooked the damaged vehicle to his tow truck. Choc recalled his last experience in a mechanic's shop, when he and Richetti were nearly trapped by the law, and chose not to repeat that experience. Slipping Juanita a wad of money, he asked the girls to wait with the car and drive it back to meet them as soon as possible. He and Adam would rough it for a few hours in the greenwood.

Dawn came, and the men remained awake, watching every car that approached them below the ridge, anticipating their own. Seven o'clock, eight o'clock, nine o'clock. Only passersby. A little after ten, Joe Fryman and his son-in-law drove by with a load of coal on their way to nearby Wellsville. They spotted the two men through the trees and wondered why strangers in city suits and neckties would be sprawled on the grass on the side of the road miles from town. It looked suspicious. They drove into Wellsville across the ridge and notified Police Chief John H. Fultz. The lawman agreed to investigate.

Adam had just glanced at his watch it was 1033 a.m. when three men came from over the top of the ridge on foot. The fellow leading them wore a badge. Before Fultz could inquire as to their business, Richetti was on his feet darting into the brush. Two of the men pursued the runner while the one with the badge, Fultz, started in Choc's direction. Choc, aware of what was happening, instinctively pulled his automatic and fired. The bullet whizzed past the police chief who returned the shot, also missing. A close gun battle occurred between the men until one of Choc's shots struck the other's foot. When the lawman fumbled, just for a moment off balance, Choc broke free and rolled over the steep incline of the ridge, then into the safety of the forest beyond.

All Choc could think of as he dashed through the woods, snapping through the twigs that scratched at his pinstriped suit, was how he had never had any luck in Ohio.

Fultz's deputies had overtaken and disarmed Richetti, who gave a false name and no other information. Back at the Wellsville station house, Fultz later in the day identified the captured man and sent out an all-points alert. He knew they had "Pretty Boy" Floyd in their midst.

Melvin Purvis was notified immediately. He had been in Cincinnati investigating another crime when Hoover relieved him of that duty and sent him scurrying to Ohio. Purvis brought along with him his aide and confidante, an agent named Herman Hollis, and wired for others to meet him in Wellsville. A private plane was ordered and Purvis arrived about 4 p.m. Once there, he met with Sheriff Ray Long of the Ohio State Patrol and set up the local Travelers Hotel in East Liverpool as his headquarters. Throughout the evening other FBI agents continued to pour into the area; they came on special duty from Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and other midwestern cities to reinforce the manhunt already in play by the local police.

Roadblocks appeared on all exits from the East Liverpool/Wellsville/Youngstown district. All bridges closed. Despite the rain that fell in buckets Sunday night and into Monday morning, teams of armed men with flashlights and dogs combed Spencer Woods into whose denseness Choc had vanished. Piles of damp Fall-colored leaves squished beneath their boots as the posses trod on.

Purvis at first worried that his prey might have slipped through the net and had scooted to Youngstown where, it was known, various criminals lived who might have offered him refuge. He phoned the officials there to be on the lookout. But, then came something encouraging: someone resembling the fugitive, pin-striped suit and all, had been seen Sunday morning wandering in the vicinity of the Bell Schoolhouse, ten miles from East Liverpool. Checking details personally, a farmer told him he had fed the man when he came to his door begging for food, not realizing who he was. The transient looked like Floyd's wanted photo, the farmer explained, but had a day's chin stubble. He sported a dark very expensive suit, but it was wrinkled and dirty, and pricked at the cuffs and lapels by pine needles and thistles.

At Purvis' side were three of his best agents, D.K. Hall, W.E. Hopton and S.K. McKee. While they were questioning the farmer, a band of four Liverpool policemen, part of a larger posse, spotted Purvis and pulled their auto alongside his; they asked if they could help in any particular way. Purvis advised them to stay close. "I have a feeling we're closing in," he said. One of the four volunteers was Officer Chester K. Smith, a World War I sharpshooter.

Monday afternoon, October 22, 1934. Choc was tired, wet and hungry when he dared to pop his head from the woods. Up the road beyond that barbed wire fence was an amiable-enough-looking farmhouse, sitting on the edge of a cornfield and the woods on the other side. His pocket watch read three o'clock and he hadn't had a half-decent meal all day in fact, since yesterday morning when that old farmer who lived near that schoolhouse opened his kitchen to him.

Widow Conkle with Floyd's last dinner dishes (East Liverpool Historical Society)
Widow Conkle with Floyd's last dinner
dishes (East Liverpool Historical Society)

All weekend he'd been living on apples, pears and berries. He knew where he wanted to go, Youngstown, but he had no idea how to get there, nor how far it was. He was so dizzy, had gone around in so many circles, that he couldn't tell east from west anymore. The compass in his head had clicked and clattered and, confused by the runabout, just quick working flat. For days he'd been ducking groups of silent men with yapping mongrels, parades of black leather-top autos from which protruded a half-dozen gun barrels, even a low-flying scout plane that circled the woods for hours back and forth, back and forth, droning, until he thought he would go crazy. All he wanted now was a chair, a small bite of real food and a cigarette. He had a half-pack of Camels, but no matches.

Before Choc completely emerged from the trees, he glanced up and down the road. Not a sign of life, except for two people working afar in the fields of that farm ahead. He crossed the road a lopsided post-sign in front of the farm called it Spruceville Road and knocked on the screen door of the little gray house. A pleasant-faced middle-aged woman in striped housedress and white apron answered.

"Ma'am, I'm hungry and I'm lost," Choc muttered. "Could ya please spare something for my stomach? A little bread and a little meat would do me just dandy."

The lady, who introduced herself as Widow Conkle invited him in and told him she would be glad to fix him a meal. In the meantime, she showed him to the pump that he might wash his hands and face. She was suspicious, but tried not to show it. "What brings you out these parts?" she asked.

"Ma'am, I was with a couple friends and we set out to hunting. But, well, ma'am, to tell you the truth, I got a little drunk last night and I don't know where I'm at." He grinned. "I sure appreciate your hospitality."

She nodded, covering her doubt. He wasn't dressed for hunting, she noticed.

While he sat outside, she fried him some pork chops, potatoes and rice. After he finished it, complementing it with a cup of coffee, a doughnut and a piece of punpkin pie, he remarked that it was "a meal fit for a king, ma'am," and insisted she take a dollar.

Earlier, Choc had spotted a Model A Ford parked behind her corncrib. He now asked her if it belonged to her.

"No," she responded, "it's my brother's. He's harvesting out back with my sister-in-law, but if you need a ride somewhere he might be able to give you one. He should be coming back anytime soon now." She gave permission for Choc to wait in her yard until he returned from his chores.

About 4 p.m., Choc spotted Mrs. Conkle's brother, who introduced himself as "Mr. Dyke," walking back from the field. When Choc asked him if he could steal a ride with him to a bus "any bus line will do," he shrugged Dyke shook his head. "Little too far for that at this late hour." But, after some coaxing, Choc convinced him to take him to at least Clarkson, which was the next town up the road.

It would be getting dark soon and Dyke wanted to get going. He wife didn't like the looks of this, something was wrong with the picture, but Dyke figured everything would be all right if they could unload the stranger in Clarkson before nightfall. The owner of the car motioned Choc into the front seat after the brief parley with his wife, then slid into the Model A himself. Choc felt safer immediately to hear the rattle of the engine as it caught. To him it meant no more walking today; it meant freedom; it meant getting to Clarkson and sleeping in a warm bed tonight.

But then Choc saw the two cars out front, cruising down Spruceville Road, and he knew by the way they halted, by the way those faces in the cars were looking his way, that it meant trouble.

Purvis and his agents were in the first car. The four East Liverpool policemen were in the following one. As a group, they had been stopping at every house along this road in search of "Pretty Boy" Floyd. Now, together, they spotted the tall man in a dark business suit climbing into that Model A. "That's our boy!" Purvis shouted. And the doors of both cars opened at once and spat out more than a half-dozen men carrying machine guns, shotguns and revolvers.

Choc leaped from the Dyke car and, pausing briefly, considered his next move. Instinctively, he found his .45 automatic gripped in his hand and himself already roaming towards what was the most obvious escape route the woods, some two hundred yards away through open field. Behind him, the Feds were gaining. He cut criss-cross up the gentle slope of ground, but the faster he ran the further away those woods seemed to be. Shouts behind him to surrender, he kept running nevertheless.

Chester Smith, the sharpshooter, aimed first, and fired a single bullet from his rifle, just enough to slow down their man. The bullet, as aimed, caught Choc in the right arm and its impact threw him to the ground. But, he was on his feet again, and running again. It was then that Purvis halted his men and told them to open fire.

Choc heard the command behind him and he knew what that meant, but he wouldn't stop. His legs wouldn't let him. As he ran he could hear only the wind whistling through his ears and the soft thud of his feet upon the grass. And his breath. And his heart pounding. All else was silent. Then...the mighty roar eclipsed all else and the pain God, the pain ripped through him like a thousand red-hot darts...

Chester Smith takes Pretty Boy's fingerprints (FBI)
Chester Smith takes Pretty Boy's finger-
prints (FBI)

He recognized the man standing over him now as Melvin Purvis. He looked just like his pictures in the newspapers. This shaven face, high cheekbones, staring eyes.

"Were you at Kansas City?" he heard Purvis ask.

"No," is all Choc replied, tasting the blood on his lips.

But, then the taste of blood vanished....and the sweet smell of cotton replaced it. And as twilight came, he heard the thrush birds singing from the trees overhead, and he dreamed of far-away places. He was, for a moment or two, on a saddle, six-gun in hand, riding to that twilight, to a destiny.

 

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