79 years ago today, Depression-era outlaw Charles Arthur Floyd was shot down by federal agents and local police in a farm outside East Liverpool, Ohio.
Steve Kanaly as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd
Midwest U.S., October 1934
Release Date: July 20, 1973
Director: John Milius
Costume Designer: James M. George
Want to know something that truly bothers the hell out of me? The life of Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd has never been accurately, accessibly, and fully portrayed on film.
A 1960 attempt was made, appropriately titled Pretty Boy Floyd with wannabe matinee idol John Erickson in the role. The film certainly relied on facts for its conception and the name changes can be excused (Adam Richetti becoming “Al Riccardo” won’t have me losing any sleep) and budding stars Peter Falk and Barry Newman turned in unexpectedly good performances, but the film’s budget – which was probably somewhere in the $17 range – kept it from reaching heights of greatness.
My excitement grew when it was announced that Bryan Burrough’s terrific documentary-style novel Public Enemies would be turned into a movie. Upon its 2009 release, I was impressed by it as a 1930s action movie that showed John Dillinger’s crime saga with remarkable accuracy and detail with action scenes on par with Bond or Bourne. However, the great thing about the book was its broadness – Dillinger’s story was told in addition to Bonnie and Clyde, the Barker-Karpis Gang, and my personal favorite, “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
In the movie, Floyd was relegated to one scene towards the beginning, played by Channing Tatum, regarded to be a modern day “Pretty Boy” by people who would know. (I would not.) In fact, Public Enemies pushed Floyd’s death back a year. I’m sure that the real life Floyd would have greatly disliked dying a year before he actually did.
There were a few other attempts made; apparently Martin Sheen played Floyd sometime in the ’70s. If anyone can get this on DVD for me, I’d be very curious to see it. Who knows, maybe it nails Floyd’s life story.
In the meantime, we have Steve Kanaly’s performance as Floyd in the underrated 1973 biopic Dillinger to fulfill our Floyd needs. I first saw Dillinger in 7th grade and was immediately impressed by Kanaly especially. It’s very possible that my appreciation for Floyd comes from Kanaly’s performance as a kind, pragmatic desperado who will kill when cornered but with an easy smile without coming out looking like Vic Vega. Dillinger greatly exaggerates Floyd’s role within the gang, but with a talent (and all around nice guy) like Kanaly in the role, who can blame them?
Although the film deviates in many ways, it comes as close as any film before it in showing the death of “Pretty Boy” Floyd as accurately as possible. Other film adaptations show:
- Pretty Boy Floyd, 1960: After murdering his former partner “Al Riccardo” and running away from the police, John Ericsson’s Floyd spends two days in the woods before encountering a sultry and lonely farm widow. She stitches up his shirt as he sits, shirtless, and eats the lunch she prepared for him. The two come this close to making out before he hears her brother’s car pull up outside. Floyd goes out to ask him about a ride into town, but the police pull up. Floyd, his shirt still unbuttoned down to his belly, draws his two .38 snubbies and tries to shoot it out. After hiding behind a corn crib, Floyd takes off across a field. Before he can get to safety, a Thompson-gunning FBI agent dramatically cuts him down. Though the details are inaccurate, this is an OK start.
- Public Enemies, 2009: No mention is made of the widow or Floyd’s former partner. We just see Channing Tatum – as a lighter-haired Floyd – running through the woods in a shocking blue suit and tie. He turns back to the pursuing police and agents, firing off a few rounds from a Thompson to no avail. The crusading police keep after him before Melvin Purvis, hunter extraordinaire, chambers a round in his German hunting rifle. He takes careful aim and fires a shot, downing Floyd.
Of the two portrayals, the one in Public Enemies is the more egregious of the two. Pretty Boy Floyd set out to be a low-budget pulp film, taking thrills where it could get it. Not to mention, it actually gets the details straight. Sure, Floyd didn’t kill his partner and Ellen Conkle was too scared of him to even consider asking him to take his shirt off and embrace her, but they get the basics OK enough for the small budget flick it was. Public Enemies readapts Floyd as a mere bookmark in the story of the Public Enemy era, unnecessarily changing the details of his death and reimagining the whole incident to make Purvis look like a super cop. That being said, it’s still a fun movie for ’30s gangster fans.
So what really happened?
After more than a year in hiding, Floyd, his criminal partner Adam Richetti, and their girlfriends Beulah and Rose Baird took off from Buffalo on the night of Friday, October 19, 1934. They drove all night long but ran into a telephone pole in the middle of the night near Wellsville, Ohio. The girls went off to have the car repaired while Floyd and Richetti waited. They were eventually spotted by a suspicious local farmer who called the local police. After a confrontation that left Richetti wounded and captured, Floyd ditched his Thompson and went on the run with his two .45 pistols.
Over the next two days, federal agents led by Purvis butted heads with the local police over custody of Richetti. Meanwhile, the manhunt for Floyd continued. By late afternoon on Monday, October 22, Purvis and seven other lawmen – three agents and four policemen – were scouting through East Liverpool when they found a man matching Floyd’s description getting into a Ford Model A behind the farm of Ellen Conkle. Mrs. Conkle, a widow, had reluctantly cooked Floyd a big country lunch when he showed up at her door an hour earlier, claiming he had gotten lost the night before while drunkenly hunting squirrels. The agents and police leapt from their cars, drawing their guns. Floyd immediately took it on the heel, leaving Mrs. Conkle’s brother and his wife by their car. He ran through the field before the order was given to fire. The shots that knocked him down likely came from the Thompsons of FBI agents McKee and Hopton as well as a .32-20 rifle round from local cop Chester Smith’s Winchester.
The police closed in on Floyd, who lay dying and gasping in the grass. They questioned him for fifteen minutes, mostly trying to get him to admit to participating in the Kansas City Massacre – a brutal event in American criminal history that resulted in the death of a prisoner and four lawmen – before he expired at 4:25 p.m., denying his role in the massacre to the end.
What’d He Wear?
Dillinger pretty much gets the details right, simplifying where necessary. Since the film paired Floyd up with Dillinger earlier in the film (making it more about actual Public Enemies than Public Enemies did), Floyd is shown to be part of Dillinger’s gang during the Mason City bank robbery a few days earlier. According to the film, the wounded gang scrambled to Little Bohemia to recover before FBI agents closed in on them. The gang shoots its way out, gradually losing members in the aftermath.
In real life, Floyd was not with the gang during the April 1934 gunfight at Little Bohemia. His only supposed participation was during the June 30, 1934 bank robbery in South Bend – Dillinger’s last – and this is purely speculation. However, Floyd’s role in the film allows for him to be armed, scared, and on the run when he shows up at a lonely farm. The rest of the scene plays out about 80% true with the known facts of Floyd’s death, and when Floyd eventually dies, both the audience and Purvis are a little sorry to see such a good guy go. Poor Floyd is probably just sorry that he hadn’t gotten a chance to change his clothes over the last three or four days.
When we first see him robbing the Mason City bank with the rest of the gang, Floyd is wearing a black bulletproof vest with the rest of his clothes. This vest is unlike the others used in the film, as it looks like a pullover vest with a solid front and rear. It fastens on each shoulder and appears to have adjustable straps on the sides. The real Floyd was also rarely seen without a bulletproof vest; legends spread through Oklahoma that he was invincible as police would swear that they shot him directly in the chest, but he would keep on running. Soon, they all realized he was almost always suited up in a steel vest.
With the vest, Floyd is wearing a pair of charcoal trousers with a narrow white pinstripe. The flat front trousers have a traditional rise, standing at Kanaly’s natural waist. The only pockets are on each side, which Floyd uses often for his hands.
Floyd’s trousers have belt loops, although he wears them with suspenders instead. The suspenders are black with light brown leather fixtures and brass snaps and hardware.
The trousers are evidently part of a three-piece wool suit, as Floyd is wearing a matching charcoal pinstripe vest when they get back to Little Bohemia. The 6-button vest has a notched bottom and four pockets – two upper and two lower. There is a dark gray silk lining and an adjustable rear strap across the back which comes untied during Floyd’s days on the run.
The whole time, poor Floyd is wearing a white dress shirt with a moderate spread collar and a breast pocket. The shirt buttons down a plain, placket-less front. The squared cuffs fasten with a button, but Floyd wears them rolled up once he and the gang get to Little Bohemia.
Floyd also wears a very ’30s-style silk tie with a blue ground and a crowded pattern of reddish ovals in a white border, tied in a small four-in-hand knot. Floyd’s tie gets looser and looser as he spends more time on the lam, but – ever the gentleman – he doesn’t take it off.
On his feet, Floyd wears a pair of black leather plain-toe dress shoes with black laces. A pair of high black dress socks covers the leg between the shoe and the break of the trousers.
The only other item Floyd wears during this sequence is a dirty straw boater with a wide brown ribbon during the bank robbery. This appears to be part of the gang’s bank-robbing “uniform”, as boaters are also sported by Dillinger, Homer Van Meter, and Harry Pierpont.
In real life, Floyd indeed wore the same outfit from the time he crashed his car in Ohio to the time he was killed on the farm. This has often been described as a dark navy blue two-piece business suit with a subtle stripe, a white collared shirt, a belt with a silver buckle (engraved with a large “C”), and a pair of black oxford shoes. Unlike both Kanaly’s and Tatum’s depictions, Floyd wore no necktie, but a blue tie was stuffed into his coat pocket. He also wore no hat, which all adaptations got right.
On his right pinky was a 14-carat white gold double face cameo ring, a Christmas gift from his wife Ruby three years earlier. His final accessory was a green gold octagonal Verithin Gruen pocketwatch, attached by a silver chain to a 1928 (also reported as 1929, the year of Floyd’s release from the Missouri State Penitentiary) U.S. silver half-dollar. The watch, a gift from early criminal partner Bill “the Killer” Miller, was found to have ten notches behind the crystal. Each notch supposedly represented a life taken by Floyd during his career as an outlaw.
Go Big or Go Home
Kanaly portrayed Floyd as cool, polite, and pragmatic; remorseless without being blood-thirsty. Many argue that, under different circumstances, Floyd would’ve just been another hard-working family man of the Depression. A restless youth, early fatherhood, and the poverty of his region – even during the booming ’20s – may have led Floyd toward a life of crime. Indeed, his earliest crimes – shoplifting cookies and stealing a sack of pennies from a post office – don’t indicate a future as Public Enemy #1.
Despite his many “sprees”, as Tom Buchanan might call it, Floyd was always dedicated to his son, Charles Dempsey Floyd (named after Jack Dempsey), and his ex-wife, Ruby, who was also the mother of his child. While he was on the run, Floyd reconciled with Ruby, who had divorced him during his first stretch in prison. The three spent the last three years of Floyd’s life living as a happy family whether in the suburbs of Fort Smith and Tulsa or the back woods of the Cookson Hills.
At the end of the day, Floyd was a good ol’ boy who loved time with his family, especially when celebrated with a big country dinner and, since he spent most of his youth as a country bootlegger, moonshine whiskey.
What to Imbibe
Floyd’s nickname in real life was “Choc”, derived from Choctaw beer, one of his favorite libations. According to Michael Wallis in his well-researched 1992 biography Pretty Boy:
After the first batch of bran or corn whiskey was run off, any respectable moonshiner knew that the “singlings”, a cloudy liquid corrupted with pollutants, had to be purified and the still pot thoroughly cleaned before a second run could be made. Spent mash, or the slop, was thrown out in the barnyard and emptied into feed troughs. It often made roosters that imbibed fall down dead drunk. Likewise, it soothed cattle that managed to get a snootful. Once the slop was pitched, the pot was washed out with some of the unstrained sour beer, or the “choc”, that was left in the mash barrel. A good many folks were satisfied by just drinking the murky choc. It was considered a neighborly gesture to put some in a jar and offer it to thirsty friends who came calling.
The word choc no doubt came from Choctaw beer, originally a synthetic drink made of barley, hops, tobacco, fishberries, and a small amount of alcohol, which had been schemed up in the old days of the Choctaw Nation. For many years, the law had made it illegal to sell or manufacture choc beer, but the prohibition statutes were often ignored. Wives from the mining commiunities that dotted Oklahoma supplemented their husbands’ wages by selling the beer. It seemed miners especially enjoyed sipping choc. They swore by the renegade brew and insisted it was an essential tonic for their good health. In the oil-field camps – frequented by bootleggers, gamblers, and two-bit whores – a basic 120-proof alcoholic drink that was colored with tobacco juice or creosote was a favorite. Choc beer and “Jamaican” gin – nothing but raw alcohol flavored with gingerroot or bitters – were also much sought-after intoxicants. Those who invested their paychecks at the saloons and barrelhouses or with the local bootlegger often were stricken with “jake leg”, a paralysis caused by the consumption of too much strong liquor. Men with muscles hard as walnuts shrugged it off as an occupational hazard.
How to Get the Look
There shouldn’t really be a situation where you need a bulletproof vest, so these are the items you need to create the rest of the outfit:
- Charcoal pinstripe wool 6-button vest with a notched bottom, 2 upper pockets, 2 lower pockets, and an adjustable rear strap
- Charcoal pinstripe wool flat front trousers with side pockets, no rear pockets, belt loops, and cuffed bottoms
- White long-sleeveshirt with a moderate spread collar, plain front, breast pocket, and squared button cuffs
- Silk necktie with a blue ground and a pattern of reddish ovals in a white border
- Black leather plain-toe bluchers/derby shoes
- Thin black dress socks
- Black suspenders with brass hardware and light brown leather straps
- Straw boater with a wide brown ribbon
Try to keep everything from getting as bloody, torn up, and dirty as Floyd does. It’s unbecoming.
The real life Floyd was also never without his two .45-caliber Colt M1911 semi-automatic pistols, which saved his life – or at the very least, his freedom – on multiple occasions. Although it replaced them with the more blank-friendly 9mm Star Model B pistols, Dillinger again gets it right where Pretty Boy Floyd and Public Enemies got it wrong.
First, let’s take a brief look back on the guns used by the real life Floyd. When he was released from the Missouri State Penitentiary on March 7, 1929, Floyd found himself in Kansas City, dazzled by this new urban criminal world. He got his hands on a whiskey, a steak, and a pistol, notably a Colt Model 1903 Pocket Hammer. The Pocket Hammer (not Hammerless, a more popular model) was a semi-automatic pistol using the now-obsolete .38 ACP (not .380 ACP) ammunition. Two days after his release, he was arrested by Thomas J. Higgins, Chief of Detectives, while placing this pistol – serial #19818 – on a shelf. Due to its resemblance to a 1911 pistol, it is often mistakenly cited as one of the pistols taken from Floyd when he died.
The next reported weapon in Floyd’s hands was used for his first bank robbery in Sylvania, Ohio on February 5, 1930. Michael Wallis describes this weapon as a .32-caliber Smith & Wesson double-action revolver with a six-shot swing-out cylinder. I can’t find the primary sources or any documentation of this, but it sounds like he was likely carrying a Smith & Wesson .32 Hand Ejector, an early revolver developed in conjunction with the .38-caliber Military & Police model. The .32 Hand Ejector was gradually phased out as the .38 Special round gained popularity. I own a .32 Hand Ejector and can testify that it is a very solid little sidearm with little to no recoil.
Evidently, Floyd adopted his trademark 1911 .45-caliber pistols after his next arrest, as he reportedly fired a pair at policemen above a Kansas City speakeasy in March 1931 and never looked back. Two years later, on June 16, 1933, Floyd and Richetti kidnapped Sheriff Jack Killingsworth in Bolivar, Missouri. Killingsworth, who was released later that night in Kansas City, testified that he noticed some details of Floyd’s two pistols on that date that matched the guns taken from him when he was killed a year and a half later.
When Floyd was eventually shot down by agents and police, he had his two loyal Colt .45s on him. The first, a U.S. Army M1911, was in his right hand. This pistol, serial #18001, was evidently Floyd’s main weapon as it was cocked and ready to fire with a fully loaded magazine and a bullet in the chamber. This pistol was later entered as exhibit no. 10 at Adam Richetti’s Kansas City Massacre trial.
After the pistol was removed from Floyd’s hand, officers noticed him reaching for a second in his belt and immediately took it away. This pistol was a Colt Government model, also .45-caliber, with the serial number removed by filing. This was – and still is – a common method for gangsters to remove any information that could trace a gun to them or their dealer. However, this pistol also had distinctive markings that indicated some customization. There was welding on both the firing pin and the safety guard, as well as an unusual “shield” on the firing pin. Evidently, this pistol had been converted to fire in fully automatic mode as long as the user’s finger was holding down the trigger. This sort of customization was commonly done on Colt .38 Super pistols for “Baby Face” Nelson by San Antonio gun dealer H.S. Lebman. Floyd’s automatic Government model .45 was entered as exhibit no. 8 at Adam Richetti’s Kansas City Massacre trial.
Being a ’30s-era outlaw, Floyd was also well-accustomed with the Thompson submachine gun, carrying one on most of his bank jobs. When he and Richetti were cornered by police in Wellsville, Floyd’s first instinct was to grab a Thompson and fire away. During the subsequent gunfight, the Thompson was damaged, so Floyd left it behind. It was later recovered by authorities and impounded.
Dillinger‘s version of Floyd appropriately sticks the pair of 1911s in his hands but also gives him some Mk II hand grenades on his belt. These military fragmentation hand grenades ignite about two ounces of TNT after a 5-second delay. They were first introduced by the U.S. military in 1917 and gained the nickname as a “pineapple” due to the grooves in the cast iron body. It was eventually phased out by the M26 during the Korean conflict but was used by the U.S. Navy well into the 1970s. I’ve never read any reliable reports of Floyd actually carrying any of these, but it’s certainly fun to imagine.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie. If you wanna see Floyd in action, check out the last half. But seriously, the whole thing is great. It’ll put hair on your chest just watching it.
I admit, I have sinned; I have been a sinner, but I enjoyed it. I have killed men, but the dirty sons-of-bitches deserved it. The way I figure it, it’s too late for no Bible. Thanks just the same, Ma’am.
I actually spent about three years (2007-2010) trying to make a Floyd biopic myself. Unfortunately, the actor playing George Birdwell – one of Floyd’s main partners in crime – moved to Colorado halfway through production, and the actress playing Floyd’s wife stopped talking to me after a few bad dates. The film has a few flaws, needless to say. The suits are actually pretty great, though!
A great source for original FBI files is the well-researched Dusty Roads of an FBI Era site, which gives me plenty of documents for primary research on one of my favorite eras in history.