Robin Hood of the Depression

Many a starving farmer

The same old story told

How the outlaw paid their mortgage

And saved their little hold.

Others tell you ’bout a stranger

That come to beg a meal,

And underneath his napkin

Left a thousand dollar bill.

It was in Oklahoma City,

Twas on a Christmas Day,

Came a whole car load of groceries

With a letter that did say:

“Well, you say that I’m an outlaw,

You say that I’m a thief.

Here’s a Christmas dinner

For the families on relief.”

Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered

I’ve seen lots of funny men;

Some will rob you with a six-gun,

And some with a fountain pen.

–Woody Guthrie

 

Medieval England’s Robin Hood had troubadour Alan a-Dale to sing of his exploits. The Depression-era Pretty Boy Floyd had folk singer Woody Guthrie to sing of his. While Robin Hood had numerous folk tales told of him, in John Steinbeck’s classic novel of the Great Depression, The Grapes of Wrath, the character Ma Joad, the moral and emotional bedrock of her family, several times describes Pretty Boy Floyd as a young man driven to a tragic fate by economic hard times.

 On Monday, October 22, 1934, local law officers and FBI men, led by a top agent named Melvin Purvis, shot and killed 30 year old Charles Arthur Floyd in a cornfield near East Liverpool, Ohio as Floyd tried to evade capture. With unemployment at 21.7%, President Roosevelt demanding $10.5 billion to cure America’s economic problems and a corporate coalition including Dupont, Montgomery Ward, General Motors and Sun Oil opposing every New Deal measure, Pretty Boy Floyd was a hero to many poor, honest working people. When the burial took place back in Floyd’s home area in Oklahoma on October 28, 1934, an estimated crowd of twenty thousand people made it one of, if not the largest funeral in Oklahoma history.

Grave of Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd

 Charles Floyd was born February 3, 1904 in Bartow County, Georgia to a poor farming family of Welsh descent. When he was seven years old, the Floyd family, searching for better opportunity, moved to Sequoyah County, in the mideastern part of Oklahoma near the Arkansas border. By the time he was sixteen, Charles, nicknamed “Choc” for his fondness for home-brewed Choctaw beer, had worked as a hired hand here and there and become involved in a few minor run-ins with the law. As Prohibition led to bootlegging which attracted people anxious to make some quick money, Floyd grew involved, even though by 1924 he was married and had a baby son, whom he named Jack Dempsey Floyd after the famous boxer. Invited by friends, Floyd participated in a payroll robbery on September 11, 1925, which netted $11,929 for the bandits. (That would equal about $148,000 today). However police captured Floyd. He was tried and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.

 Following his release from prison, Floyd went to Kansas City, ready to apply his prison education in crime to making some serious money in hard times. In a boardinghouse he met his future girlfriend, Beulah Baird, who gave him the nickname “Pretty Boy.” For the next four years Floyd and several accomplices carried out a string of thirty or more successful bank robberies from Ohio to Oklahoma. Eager to impress the general public of Pretty Boy’s evil character, law enforcement implicated him in several serious crimes which he did not commit.

From a Wanted Poster for Floyd

On October 18, 1934, Floyd and an associate, with two women companions, left Buffalo, New York, headed west. While driving through northeastern Ohio in fog, Floyd lost control of his car and hit a telephone pole. No one was injured, but the car was inoperable Fearing they might be recognized from wanted posters, Floyd and his associate sent the two women to find a tow truck. The women accompanied the tow truck driver into a town to have the vehicle repaired while the two men waited in a field.

 Later that morning (October 19), a passing motorist saw two men dressed in suits lying by the roadside with no vehicle around. Feeling it was strange, he told Wellsville, Ohio, Police Chief John Fultz, who with two other officers, went to investigate. When Floyd’s companion saw the officers coming, he fled into the woods, pursued by two officers, while Fultz went toward Floyd. Floyd immediately drew his gun and fired. In the exchange of fire, Chief Fultz was wounded in the foot. Floyd fled into the nearby woods. The other two officers enlisted the help of local retired police officer Chester Smith, a sniper during World War I. Eventually they captured Pretty Boy’s colleague. Floyd remained on the run.

 At least three differing accounts exist of Floyd’s capture and death. The accounts agree that, after obtaining some food at a local pool hall owned by Charles Joy, a friend of Floyd’s, Floyd hitched a ride in East Liverpool, Ohio, on October 22. From that point on, the reports vary. He was spotted by police at which point he jumped from the vehicle and ran for a line of trees. Local retired officer Chester Smith fired first, hitting Floyd in the right arm, knocking him to the ground. FBI agents later attempted to claim all the credit, denying local law enforcement were even present at the actual shooting. According to the local police account, Floyd regained his footing and continued to run, at which point the entire team opened fire, knocking him to the ground. Floyd died shortly thereafter from his wounds.

 According to the FBI, four FBI agents, led by Purvis, and four members of the East Liverpool Police Department, led by Chief Hugh McDermott, were searching the area south of Clarkson, Ohio, in two separate cars. They spotted a car move from behind a corn crib, and then move back. Floyd then emerged from the car and drew a .45 caliber pistol, and the FBI agents opened fire. Floyd reportedly said: “I’m done for. You’ve hit me twice.”

 However, Chester Smith, the retired East Liverpool police officer and World War I sharpshooter, described events quite differently in a 1979 interview for Time Magazine. In an article entitled “Blasting a G-Man Myth,” Time Magazine, September 24 1979, Smith, was credited with shooting Floyd first. Smith said that he deliberately wounded, but not killed, Floyd. He added, “I knew Purvis couldn’t hit him, so I dropped him with two shots from my .32 Winchester rifle.” According to Smith, after being wounded, Floyd fell and did not regain his footing. Smith then disarmed Floyd. At that point, Purvis ran up and ordered, “Back away from that man. I want to talk to him.” Agent Purvis questioned Floyd briefly, and receiving curses in reply, ordered Agent Ed Hollis to “Fire into him.” Hollis shot Floyd at point-blank range, killing him. When asked if there was a cover-up by the FBI, Smith answered, “Sure was, because they didn’t want it to get out that he’d been killed that way.” Others denied Chester Smith’s allegations.

 In March 1939, almost five years after the death of Pretty Boy Floyd, troubadour Woody Guthrie, a native of Okemah, Oklahoma, wrote the song praising the outlaw’s life and adventures. Guthrie, one of the best known American singer-songwriters and folk musicians, left a vast musical legacyof political protest songs, traditional ballads, blues and children’s songs. Often he performed with a guitar bearing the slogan “This Machine Kills Fascists.” Guthrie traveled with migrant workers from Oklahoma to California and learned traditional folk and blues tunes. Many of his songs are about his experiences in the Dust Bowl era during the Great Depression, earning him the nickname the “Dust Bowl Troubadour.” Those hard times and those down-on-their-luck farmers inspired songs such as “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd.” Songwriters and singers including Bob Dylan, Odetta, Phil Ochs, Judy Collins, Richie Havens, Bruce Springsteen, Joan Baez, Pete Seeger, Billy Bragg and Tom Paxton have acknowledged their debt to Guthrie.

 

Woody Guthrie and his guitar

On September 26, 1992, The Peace Abbey, a multi-faith retreat center in Sherborn, Massachusetts,”dedicated to creating innovative models for society that empower individuals on the paths of nonviolence, peacemaking, and cruelty-free living. . . . by offer[ing] a variety of programs and resources that teach, inspire and encourage one to speak out and act on issues of peace and social justice,”posthumouslyawarded Guthrie their Courage of Conscience Award for his social activism and artistry in song which conveyed the plight of the common person.

 About song writing Woody Guthrie declared, “I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good. I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose. Bound to lose. No good to nobody. No good for nothing. Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim too ugly or too this or too that. Songs that run you down or poke fun at you on account of your bad luck or hard traveling.I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood. I am out to sing songs that will prove to you that this is your world and that if it has hit you pretty hard and knocked you for a dozen loops, no matter what color, what size you are, how you are built. I am out to sing the songs that make you take pride in yourself and in your work.”

 Maybe, just maybe, that’s why, when times are tough, ballads about characters like Robin Hood and Pretty Boy Floyd will find singers and appreciative audiences. Because in days like these, lots of us feel a bit angry about those who rob us with a fountain pen . . . or a computer . . . or a stock market scheme.

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