Beneath the aged cedars the small country cemetary at Akins, Oklahoma seems like any other – save for the simple gray stone beneath tall trees that marks the final resting place of one of American’s most notorious criminals. The man once J. Edgar Hoover’s Public Enemy No. 1 lies among his kin, cotton farmers and rural folk. The marker is chipped where souvenior hunters have chipped away slivers. This is the third marker here. Each previous one was damaged by such chipping. The no Nothing indicates that when Charley Floyd was laid to rest, thousands of people knocked down fences to spread into surrounding pastures or that by dusk, not a single bloom of the many floral tributes remained. All had been taken to press into the pages of a book in memory. Charley’s family hated the crowds and the media attention. Many came because they were curious, and others came because it was a once-in-a-lifetime event, the burial of a notorious bank robber among his own kin. But the majority of people came for the same reason that any of us attend a funeral: to pay their respects to a man they admired.
In his home country, Charley Floyd wasn’t always viewed as infamous. He was just that Floyd boy who went wrong after he and some friends broke into the post office to steal a jar of pennies as a prank. During a decade when the crop – then mostly cotton – had worn out the land just as the nation entered a dark period of hard times, most folks couldn’t see that Charley did much wrong, especially when he was generous with his loot. He often gave away much of what he took to his own family and to friends who desperately needed the funds to survive.
In Oklahoma, more folks saw the handsome robber as more saint than sinner, although there were those who sought his capture as much as any lawman. But when “Pretty Boy” slipped home into the rugged Cookson Hills, most people never dreamed of snitching to the law. They let the young man visit his mother without harm. When he robbed a bank in Sallisaw, he bantered merrily with friends and acquaintances. The robbery was far from a surprise, yet not one citizen had alerted the authorities.
History distorts the man as it so often does. Charley Floyd is often seen today as the vicious bank robber and killer in gangster movies, just another Depression-era bandit who had few morals. He’s not so easily categorized. He was a loving husband to his wife, Ruby, even after she remarried and then left that husband to return to Charley. He was a good father to his son, Dempsey, but he also had a longtime lady friend. Dividing his time between his family and Beulah Baird while eluding the law must have made for a hectic pace, to say the least.
Charley Floyd didn’t kill willfully like George “Baby Face” Nelson or the infamous duo of Bonnie and Clyde. Save for the Union Station Massacre in Kansas City – something Floyd claimed he had no part in – he killed only when he felt “it was them or me.” Despite his occupation, he wasn’t a violent man, and he was eventually caught in his own trap. He was wanted all over the nation, blamed for simultaneous robberies in different parts of the country, and by the end of his life, he felt hunted. After his last meal at a farmhouse, he was hunted through the Ohio fields and woods until he was shot.
When asked if he was indeed Pretty Boy Floyd, the outlaw answered, “I am Charles Arthur Floyd.” He died moments later and made the transition from infamous bandit into legend. Legend he remains today, but it would seem that Charley Floyd was actually a troubled, complex man who made choices that put him on the wrong side of the law. I left a simple bouquet at his simple gravestone, not in memory of the bandit who robbed and sometimes killed, but for Charley Floyd, who hated picking cotton and loved his little boy.
Sometimes black and white are not clear cut – few of us are completely good or bad. Nor was Charley Floyd. He was human like us all.