- The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd
The phenomenon of the outlaw hero—also known as the beloved badman, noble robber, and social bandit—has been of particular interest to folklorists, fascinated by the consistency of legends linking such historically disparate characters as Robin Hood, Jesse James, and John Dillinger. For reasons still being debated, these outlaw heroes usually emerge during periods of financial hardship and are cast by a folk group as noble champions against the larger economic forces (e.g., banks and railroads) that are believed responsible for the hard times.
John Dillinger is perhaps the most celebrated of outlaw heroes from the 1930s Depression, but Charles A. "Pretty Boy" Floyd seems to rank a very close second. Born on a Georgia farm in 1904, Floyd moved with his family seven years later to Oklahoma, on the southern edge of the rugged Cookson Hills. As a teenager, Floyd (according to his sister) "met the wrong kind of men [who] changed his ways of thinking and doing" (p. 14) and soon became involved in a series of thefts and robberies. Convicted of armed robbery in 1925, Floyd served slightly more than three years in the Missouri State Penitentiary but continued to associate with criminals following his release. Convicted in 1930 for robbing an Ohio bank, Floyd was being transported to another penitentiary when he escaped from a train and remained a fugitive from justice for four years. It was during this time, at the height of the 1930s Depression, that the legends surrounding Floyd's prowess, daring, and essential goodness were most widespread. After Dillinger was shot and killed in Chicago by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Floyd became the new "Public Enemy Number One." However, on 22 October 1934—exactly three months after Dillinger's death—Floyd met precisely the same fate in East Liverpool, Ohio. It is estimated that "over twenty thousand people from at least twenty states, some from half a continent away," attended Floyd's funeral in Oklahoma (p. 9).
The essential facts of Floyd's life and death are carefully chronicled in Jeffery S. King's aptly titled biography. Although King covers much the same territory as Michael Wallis's Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd (1992), he diverges from the previous study in several significant ways. Whereas Wallis (working with the cooperation of Floyd's family) concluded that Floyd probably did not participate in the notorious "Union [End Page 117] Station Massacre" on 17 June 1933, in which five men were killed, King (working mostly from reports and letters in the FBI files) definitely places Floyd on the scene. Historians may still debate whether Floyd was in Kansas City or not, but King is to be applauded for his rigorous attention to detail and his wider use of both newspapers and law enforcement records than previous scholars.
What King neglects, however, are precisely the issues of greatest interest to folklorists. For instance, the well-known ballad written by Floyd's fellow Oklahoman, Woody Guthrie, is not mentioned until the book's final few paragraphs, and then is quickly dismissed, along with several other celebratory accounts of the outlaw's exploits. Likewise, King begins several dozen sentences with such phrases as "According to legend," "Legend was that," "There was a story that," "It was rumored that." Folklorists will find much food for thought in tracing the legends and rumors that King does not pursue—for example, that "Floyd was a general in the Chinese army" (p. 137), that "he was generous to children and old people, and prevented corrupt bankers front stealing the land of poor farmers" (p. 52), that he would rob grocery stores in order to distribute the bounty to needy Cherokee Indians (p. 16), that he was thought to be "immune to gunfire" (p. 63), that he entertained friends in his spacious secret cave hideout (p. 96), that even as a fugitive he "visited his father's grave each Memorial Day" (p. 4) and similarly was...