Born at the Wrong Time Essay

Now gather round me, children,
There’s a story I would tell
About Pretty Boy Floyd, an outlaw
Oklahoma knew him well.

— Woody Guthrie, “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd”

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Depression-era outlaws were partly produced by the mass unemployment, fury and despair of their times - Born at the Wrong Time Essay introduction. There were enough of them to make a social phenomenon, not just an aberration. Often they came out of the poorest sections of the country. There was Dillinger, his sometime associate Baby Face Nelson, Ma Barker and her sons (‘the Bloody Barkers”) Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, George “Machine Gun” Kelly — and Pretty Boy Floyd.

REH took an interest in them, as he did in other desperadoes. He wrote to H.P. Lovecraft:

At present Oklahoma is being ravaged by a thug called “Pretty-boy” Floyd, who seems to be a reversion to the old-time outlaw type. He has eleven men to his credit, seven or eight or which are officers of the law, which probably accounts for the failure of the authorities to apprehend him. It’s a lot easier to beat a confession of some sort out of some harmless poor devil than it is to nab a young desperado who wears a steel bullet-proof vest, and draws and shoots like lightning with either hand. (Letter of 24th May 1932.)

Whether or not REH was right about the rest, he seems to have been right on the money with his view of Floyd as a “reversion to the old-time outlaw type.” Charles Arthur Floyd was born on February 3rd, 1904, in Georgia. He came from a family of revival-meeting Baptists and grew up on hard work and the Bible, as one of (eventually) eight children. As a kid he was a good-humored joker, and like the other boys around, he reveled in the stories of the old-time outlaws like Jesse James, the Younger Brothers, and most of all, train and bank robber Henry Starr, a long-time outlaw whose record included a presidential pardon from rough-riding, trust-busting Theodore Roosevelt. Nobody guessed in his childhood just how thoroughly he’d follow in their footsteps.

His parents, Walter Lee and Minnie Floyd, were a farming couple who moved to Oklahoma when he was seven, to take up tenant farming in the green Cookson Hills, their crops corn and cotton. Walter Floyd was a bulldog for work, and he made his family one of the most prosperous in the area. He even had a car, which wasn’t common in Oklahoma before World War I. In 1915 he moved to the town of Akins, where the farming soil was more fertile, and continued to prosper. He managed to buy a truck and made good hauling freight locally. After that he opened a general store.

The Cookson Hills had been part of Choctaw Indian Territory in the old days, and the local brand of beer was called “Choctaw.” Young Charlie Floyd was fond of it, to the extent that he was soon wearing the nickname “Choc.” There was nothing vicious or violent about him as a kid; in fact, there seems to have been nothing about him that wasn’t completely normal.

He began turning towards the wild side when he travelled around picking crops with a work crew at the age of fifteen. Some of the other workers were roughneck vagabonds, hard drinkers, gamblers, skirt-chasers, some hiding from the law, and Charlie had to learn how to handle himself in a brawl to avoid getting bullied – something to which, easy-going or not, he was never willing to submit. REH would have fully agreed with him.

In 1922, Charlie and a mate broke into the Akins post office and made off with the colossal haul of a few dollars in dimes from the counter. Still, it was a post office, and that made it a federal rap, but they got away with it because the witnesses – local people who liked the lads – didn’t show in court. Charlie went to work on a farm after that, and then in an oil field, which may have turned him further away from his father’s honest example. Oil workers weren’t shrinking violets. REH’s letters hold various anecdotes about oil field bullies and head-breaking fights. One of his better known quotes is, “One thing about an oil boom – it’ll show a kid that life’s a pretty rotten thing faster than anything else I can think of.”

It probably wasn’t half as bad as the brute labor of picking cotton, which Charlie Floyd did after his stint in the oil fields. It was hell and he dreamed of a larger, wilder life. But he also met a girl named Ruby Hargraves, tall and dark with Cherokee blood, sixteen years old to his twenty, and married her in June of 1924. A son soon arrived, a boy “Choc” Floyd had wished to name after Jack Dempsey, but his wife demurred, and they compromised on “Dempsey” as the middle name. Like many other young married couples of the time, they found it rough making ends meet, and Charlie still dreamed of a wild life and plenty of easy cash. He encountered a nineteen-year-old two-gun thief named John Hilderbrand, who fancied himself both slick and impossible for women to resist, and promised “Choc” that as Hilderbrand’s partner in crime he could send his wife and son more money than he’d ever imagined.

Charlie went for it. They started small, robbing food stores and service stations, and then carried out their first really professional heist, an armored car payroll robbery that netted $11,500 to be split three ways. Unfortunately they were still green enough to buy a pricey new car and cruise the streets in it, tooting at girls, which attracted police attention. Charlie Floyd went down for five years, and the newspapers gave him the nickname “Pretty Boy” at that time – a moniker he always hated.

Woody Guthrie’s “Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd” doesn’t mention that. It says he became an outlaw after going to Shawnee with his wife, and taking exception to some foul language used in her presence by a deputy sheriff. In the well-known words of the song, he grabbed a log chain, the deputy grabbed a gun, and the lawman got the worst of it, after which Pretty Boy had to make for the tall timber. That appears to be more romantic than the facts. Some later verses of the ballad, though they paint a glamorous picture of the outlaw, also describe his generosity to the poor. Pretty Boy WAS a multiple killer, and his victims did include lawmen, among them one patrolman cop and one Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent. Still, he wasn’t as vicious as the Barkers, or Francis “Two Gun” Crowley, who was described as being willing to “kill at the drop of a hat,” and went to the electric chair at twenty. The Kansas City Massacre, the worst of the crimes Floyd was alleged to have committed, seems to have occurred when he was actually nowhere near.

He didn’t like prison any too well, and swore he’d never go there again. However, his wife divorced him while he was inside, and he may have felt he had nothing to lose after that. One of the few friends he made in the joint was bank robber Alfred “Red” Lovett, who told him bleakly that there was no going back now. “You’ll never find a decent job in a decent world. All you’ve got is your own kind.”

Charlie served his time without bitching or making trouble, got out, and headed for Kansas City with Lovett. Kansas City’s political machine was under the control of Thomas J. Prendergast, so crooked he made Pretty Boy and Lovett look like models of probity. Red Lovett introduced Pretty Boy around to the no-nonsense professional crooks of the town. Lovett was no tool of the machine’s, though; he liked his independence and didn’t trust the big boys of Kansas City. Pretty Boy followed his example, as his own nature inclined him to do, anyhow; he also didn’t care to be a puppet. But he liked the wide-open, nothing barred milieu of Kansas City. It had indeed, as the song said, “gone about as far as it could go.”

Being an ex-con, he was hassled by police and questioned over every holdup that took place. The questioning probably wasn’t gentle. This was 1929. Pretty Boy was discovering that Red Lovett hadn’t misled him about the slim chances of going back.

In November he returned to his home region of the Cookson Hills for a sad purpose; he had to attend his father Walter’s funeral. Walter Floyd had been killed by a fellow townsman, Jim Mills, in a petty dispute over the price of some lumber. Only days after Walter’s funeral, while Pretty Boy was still in town, Jim Mills disappeared without trace and was never seen again. Hiding a body in those boondocks would have presented no problem to a man who’d known the area from boyhood. Pretty Boy Floyd left for Kansas City again with no-one hindering him. But this writer feels morally sure he knew in exact detail what had befallen his father’s killer.

In Kansas City he joined the Jim Bradley gang. He’d known Bradley in prison and they got along. Bradley, Pretty Boy and seasoned bank robber Nathan King, with professional thief Nellie Maxwell (her specialty was shoplifting) went to Ohio and pulled a number of bank jobs there, but in Akron their luck ran out and they were captured. Bradley had shot down a police officer who tried to arrest him, and he drew the death sentence for murder. Floyd and King were given fifteen years each in the Ohio State Penitentiary. Pretty Boy, true to his oath that he’d never do time again, escaped from the train on his journey to prison, through the astoundingly simple ploy of asking to have his handcuffs removed while he went to the train toilet. He vamoosed out the window and was gone. “Astoundingly simple” would seem to have described his guards as well.

He made his way back to Kansas City to hide out. He knew it wouldn’t be a haven for very long. When he’d first arrived there, he’d stayed at a boarding house recommended by his friend Red Lovett. A former Sunday School teacher ran it, “Mother” Sadie Ash, but her Sunday School days were long over. Her two sons were small-time dope peddlers and bootleggers. Her establishment catered to criminals just out of jail, or keeping a low profile because the law was too interested in them for comfort. Pretty Boy had become the lover of Wallace Ash’s wife Beulah, nicknamed “Juanita”, who had divorced Wallace in the end, and now Charlie Floyd was back in town, they resumed their affair.

The Ash brothers were no friends of his. That didn’t worry Pretty Boy in the slightest. He became partners with a gunman named Miller, who had recently broken jail himself and was hotter than bubbling cheese, but Pretty Boy liked his nerve. Besides, and conveniently, the other Ash brother’s wife Rose (Juanita’s sister) had also left her husband, and taken up with Miller. The two robbers decided to get out of Kansas City forthwith and pull a series of jobs elsewhere.

Wallace and William Ash made the mistake of shooting off their mouths. Furious at being deserted by their wives, they gave the police information about Floyd and Miller, and swaggered about town in the criminal hangouts, boasting about it, saying they would soon see Pretty Boy dead or captured. Maybe worst of all, from Pretty Boy’s point of view, they mocked him and questioned his masculinity, claiming he had his nickname (which he hated) because he was queer. It doesn’t appear that Juanita thought so. Probably the Ashes didn’t convince their audiences in the dives and fleshpots, either, but still gunman’s honor called for those insults to be answered – and for squealing to be punished.

The brothers were shortly found shot to death in a burnt-out car, outside Kansas City.

Miller, Pretty Boy, Juanita and Rose crossed Kentucky and Ohio on a bank robbing spree. When the gunmen took their girls shopping for clothes in Toledo, Floyd was recognized in the store and the police were tipped by phone. The result was a shootout in which Miller was killed by one of the first bullets fired and Juanita stopped a ricochet in the back of her pretty head. An enraged Pretty Boy shot a patrolman (R.H. Castner) several times in the gut and escaped, bullets slamming into his car as he burned rubber out of Toledo. He believed Juanita was dead, but she wasn’t. She even won an appeal later and was released.

Back in Kansas City on July 22nd, Pretty Boy killed an Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agent, Curtis C. Burks, when Burks tried to serve a search warrant on him.

He returned to Oklahoma and the Cookson Hills in that year of 1931. The “Okies” were suffering the twin afflictions of drought and depression. They lived in what had become known as the “Dust Bowl.” Banks were foreclosing on homes and farms right, left and center. They were about as popular as tuberculosis, then as now. People saw Pretty Boy as a local hero for robbing them. He recognized this, loved it, and played the role of the Oklahoma Robin Hood to the fullest. When he robbed a bank he made a point of having the mortgage papers brought out and forcing the bank officers to burn them, in the hope that they wouldn’t be recorded elsewhere and the mortgagees would find themselves off the hook – as in numerous cases they did. When that didn’t work, Pretty Boy sometimes took more direct and personal action. As Guthrie’s song declares,

There’s many a starving farmer
The same story told,
How the outlaw paid their mortgage,
And saved their little home.

He was trying to live the folk images of Jesse James and Henry Starr. As REH observed, “ … Pretty-boy Floyd … seems to be a reversion to the old-time outlaw type.” But he’d been born at the wrong time for that. He didn’t live in the days of six-guns, horses and the telegraph. It was the thirties, the era of the telephone, radio, aircraft, machine-guns, fingerprints – and the re-organised U.S. Bureau of Investigation, run by J. Edgar Hoover. It wasn’t renamed the Federal Bureau until 1935, but in this article I’ll refer to it by its better-known initials, the FBI.

Hoover had been born in 1895. In 1919 he became a special assistant to the U.S. Attorney-General, A. Mitchell Palmer. Even as a young man he was conservative as they come. Palmer, with Hoover’s assistance, used the Espionage Act and Sedition Act as clubs with which to beat radicals and left-wingers of all kinds. In 1924 he was chosen to head the FBI. He demanded high professional standards and promoted by performance. He may not have introduced the crime laboratory, but he did raise the standards of scientific detection and FBI record keeping in general; his worst enemies couldn’t deny that he was a superb organizer – and image-maker.

He was also a jealous, vindictive S.O.B. and a complete prima donna. He didn’t want any legends in law enforcement except himself, least of all within his own bureau. He persecuted and sabotaged one of his all-time best field agents, Melvin Purvis, when the Purvis star began shining too brightly. Knowing the Mafia would be a tough nut to crack, and taking it on might lead to failure, with the FBI looking bad, he stubbornly denied that there was such a thing as organized crime in the U.S.A. Denied it in public, anyway. He tried, with considerable success, to exert tight control over the way G-Men were portrayed in movies, and by whom. Icons of decency like James Stewart were all right in such roles, but he didn’t want actors who’d often played gangsters representing his clean-cut boys.

Although Hoover fought no serious campaign against organized crime, independent outlaws like Dillinger and the Barkers were a different thing. Hoover publicized the men he wanted most as “Public Enemy Number One” and milked the news value attendant on getting them. This often involved puffing certain criminals up like blowfish, as more dangerous than they really were. George “Machine Gun” Kelly, for instance, was in fact a henpecked loser who never pulled the trigger in anger on a machine gun (or any other firearm) in his miserable life. The most genuinely dangerous outlaws and killers, like Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy in the end, were taken in operations led by Purvis, with Hoover far from the bloody, bullet-riddled scene.

The glory-hunting Hoover’s FBI was more concerned with Dillinger and others for the time being. Charlie “Choc” “Pretty Boy” Floyd became the headache of the Oklahoma Bureau of Criminal Investigation. With the local folk on his side, that organization had its work cut out. The line in the Woody Guthrie song, that “Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name,” wasn’t too far wrong. He was reported at three or four places in the state at once. With a new partner, George Birdwell, a former preacher who’d grown tired of pious starving, Floyd almost made that true, robbing banks many miles apart in quick succession – unbelievably, over fifty in 1931 alone! The papers gleefully turned the whole thing into a joke.

Late in 1931 he looked up his former wife and their son. Even though she’d divorced Charlie and remarried, the old flame hadn’t died and she left her new husband with nothing but a note, in order to take off with the outlaw. She took her son. Despite that, when a recovered Juanita showed up again, Pretty Boy couldn’t resist her and bounced back and forth between her and his former wife, to the delight of neither woman. The Floyds moved to Arkansas and settled down under false names, but that couldn’t last; the police were tipped and the idyll was over early in 1932. Pretty Boy, Ruby and little Dempsey made it out the back door barely ahead of the arrival of a police squad with guns and tear-gas. They split up. Ruby and Dempsey were caught but they had really no charges on which to hold her, and Pretty Boy was away.

Desperate, the state authorities prevailed on retired sheriff Erv Kelley to try capturing Floyd. Kelley was a legendary manhunter in Oklahoma, and he staked out the farm where Ruby and Dempsey were living. He had plenty of backup, but the cagey Pretty Boy didn’t appear for some time, and Kelley made the mistake of sending his companions away for a while. He was by himself when Pretty Boy appeared, and he wasn’t as young as he’d once been. He called on Floyd to surrender, but the bank robber had his pistol drawn and was firing before Kelley barked all the words out. Kelley had a machine gun, but it didn’t save him; Floyd all but emptied his .45 automatic into the veteran sheriff. He’d been hit three times himself, but he could still move, and he did, getting out fast. He left Erv Kelley dead on the ground.

There were, however, at least two hellish multiple murders in which Charlie Floyd did not take part, though he was rumored to have done so at the time they happened. One was the Young brothers’ slaughter of six lawmen in Missouri, in the New Year of 1932. For the details, see Damon Sasser’s excellent post “Young Brothers’ Missouri Massacre,” of June 29th, on this website. As Damon says, Pretty Boy Floyd was later shown to have been in Texas at the time. Robert E. Howard considered the popular rumor to be probably true. He wrote to H.P. Lovecraft on July 13th, 1932:

Referring to “Pretty-Boy” Floyd, he’s still at large, as near as I can learn, having recently shot his way out of a trap where the police had him surrounded. It’s rumored that he was in the farm-house in Missouri the night the Young brothers massacred those six officers, and I think it quite probable. You know the Youngs were cornered in Houston and killed themselves. I don’t think Floyd will go out that way. He’ll probably be shot in the back by one of his own gang who wants the big reward.

The second multiple killing, bloody and public, was the “Kansas City Massacre” of June 17th, 1933. It was precipitated by the return to custody of robber and murderer Frank Nash. Nash had been sent to Leavenworth on a twenty-five-year sentence in 1924, but he escaped late in 1930. He apparently – to be fair and share his good luck around – came back just over a year later to help seven other cons escape from the same facility. The nation’s law enforcement bodies, including the FBI, took this personally and cast a wide net searching for the fugitive. He was captured by FBI agents in June 1933, and they took him back to Kansas City.

Friends of Nash’s were already making plans to free him. The leading spirits behind the scheme were Richard Galatas, Herb Farmer, Louis Stacci and Frank B. Mulloy. It so happened that Pretty Boy Floyd and his current partner in crime, Adam Richetti, were on their way to Kansas City that same month, but whether they had been invited to take part in Nash’s rescue from justice is doubtful – or whether they would have accepted the offer. Nash wasn’t that dear a pal of theirs.

They encountered a lawman named Sheriff Jack Killingsworth in Bolivar, Missouri, while they were having their car repaired, and took him hostage at gunpoint, later releasing him alive. The sheriff was thus well able to report that Floyd and Richetti were active and still obstreperous, the former packing twin .45 automatics and the latter a Thompson submachine gun. That information would have been in the news, and on lawmen’s minds, at the time Frank Nash and his escort arrived at Union Station.

Nash emerged guarded by seven men – FBI Special Agent in Charge Vetterli, Agents Caffrey, Smith and Lackey, Police Chief Otto Reed, and two police officers, Detective Grooms and Patrolman Schroder. They were out of luck that day. Nash’s friends had organized an ambush outside the station, with a gunman named Vern Miller in charge; not the Miller who had once been a partner of Pretty Boy’s. That one had been six feet under the ground for some time. This Miller, Vernon C., as well as being a hired gunsel, was a former sheriff. The latter line of work became closed to him for good when he took off with four thousand dollars of county funds.

Just how Nash’s friends knew when he’d be arriving in Kansas City may never be certain. However, it’s likely that a Kansas City gangster, John Lazia, obtained the information from the town’s crooked political boss, Prendergast, and passed it along. Vern Miller and two or three other gunmen – the number isn’t certain – attacked the lawmen as they were climbing into a Chevrolet outside the station. The soulless chatter of at least one submachine gun yammered, and shotguns boomed. Men went down. Detective Grooms and Patrolman Schroder died where they stood, the first to be slaughtered. Vetterli was shot in the arm and took cover behind the Chevrolet. FBI Agent Caffrey was shot in the head. Another of the Feds, Lackey, was hit by no less than three bullets, but he lived. Police Chief Reed did not; he was fatally shot inside the car.

When the shooting was over, four lawmen were dead, two had escaped by slumping in the car and pretending to be out of action – and Frank Nash had perished, either through the incompetence of his would-be rescuers, or because it was really an assassination by his enemies, not an attempted rescue at all. It’s also possible that his escort, desperately shooting back at their attackers, had hit Nash by mischance. No matter how it happened, he was riddled with lead where he sat in the Chevrolet’s front seat.

Public outrage – and the Bureau’s – was intense. In a very curious parallel to the Massie case in Hawaii, no witness or survivor could make a definite identification of the culprits at first, but after J. Edgar Hoover entered the picture, he never stopped insisting that the gunmen with Miller had been Floyd and Richetti. One witness thought that a gunman “looked like” Pretty Boy Floyd, but later vacillated. She also described the killer she saw as gripping and firing a submachine gun. Pretty Boy certainly did tote a Thompson on occasion, as well as the twin .45 automatics for which he was known, but it appears that the lawmen guarding Nash died from shotgun fire.

With regard to the value of eyewitness accounts, even when there are plenty of witnesses (as there were then) it doesn’t seem to help a lot. We all think we’re good observers – and most of us are wrong. REH had some relevant comments, in the same letter that mentioned Pretty Boy Floyd and his lethal prowess with pistols:

Another thing that discourages me is the absolute unreliability of human senses. If a hunting hound’s nose fooled him as often as a human’s faculties betray him, the hound wouldnt be worth a damn. The first time this fact was brought to my mind was when I was quite small, and hearing a cousin relate the details of a camping trip, on which one Boy Scout shot another through the heart with a .22 calibre target rifle. I was never a Boy Scout, but I understand that they are trained to be keen observers. Well, there were about twenty looking on, and no two of them told the same story in court. And each insisted that his version was the correct one, and stuck to it. And I understand that this is common among all witnesses.

The car the killers had used at Union Station was later found, burned out, with a body in it that couldn’t be identified. Vern Miller also died, murdered. His body was discovered in November. Someone was making sure that the men involved in the massacre wouldn’t talk. Perhaps the third torpedo, and the fourth if there was one, were also killed – or fled the country. The corpse in the burnt car, at any rate, wasn’t that of Floyd or Richetti. Both were very much alive – for the time being.

There are as many theories about who was behind the Union Station Massacre, and who took part in it, as there are theories about the JFK assassination. Floyd always denied having any part in the bloody affray, and he had freely admitted to other serious crimes which he did commit. His notoriety did mean that any gaudy, spectacular crime was likely to be attributed to him. As he once said to a journalist (female) to whom he granted an interview for her paper, “I guess I’ve been accused of everything that has happened except the kidnapping of the Lindbergh child last spring.” Perhaps most significantly of all, Hoover was determined to pin the murders on him, come hell or high water.

Whatever it was for others, the Kansas City Massacre was a boon to Hoover. It provided his chance to make his fledgling FBI into THE federal law enforcement agency. He created a “public enemies list” with Dillinger, Floyd, the Barkers, Baby Face Nelson, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, and a few others, topping it. Laws were passed making it a federal offense to cross state lines for the purpose of evading arrest. Hoover’s agents were authorized to carry and use firearms. The criminals on the “most wanted” list knew it was in fact a roster of men – and sometimes women – slated for a mortician’s slab.

Pretty Boy and Adam Richetti went to ground with their lovers, the sisters Juanita and Rose, hardly stepping outside the house where they lived (under false names) for seven months. They were going crazy penned up like that. They finally went back to the Ozarks and visited their families, but while they were there – in May 1934 – the papers gave them the grim news that Bonnie and Clyde were dead, blasted to oblivion by Texas Rangers with BARs, their car – or its remnants – looking like metallic Swiss cheese. Charlie and Adam knew they were also headed for the last roundup. It appears that they joined forces with John Dillinger on one of the last bank holdups they ever carried out – in South Bend, Indiana, on June 30th. One of the gang murdered a traffic cop who tried to interfere, and they had to run out with only meager loot.

Three weeks later John Dillinger too was dead, shot down in front of the Biograph Theater in Chicago, betrayed by Anna Sage, the notorious “woman in red.” FBI Agent “Little Mel” Purvis was in charge of the operation. He had previously bungled, badly, an encounter with the Dillinger gang, in the April 20th shootout at the Little Bohemia Lodge, with the entire gang escaping, one FBI agent and one bystander dead, and four other people wounded. But there were no mistakes this time.

The papers gave Purvis’s role in finishing Dillinger more publicity that J. Edgar Hoover liked. The Bureau boss, in an exhibition of sour grapes, claimed that Purvis hadn’t been in charge at all – that another agent, Cowley, had replaced Purvis as the top man of the operation before they went to the theater. That was probably a damned lie.

Then it was Pretty Boy’s turn. The most wanted man in the U.S.A. since Dillinger’s death, a fugitive, he was hitching a ride in East Liverpool, Ohio, on October 22nd, 1934. Adam Richetti had already been captured in Wellsville, days before.

There are different versions of what happened next. One avers that local lawmen, including a former army sniper, nailed Floyd without FBI agents being present at all. The FBI version says that four of the Bureau’s agents, led by Purvis, shot Floyd as he was defying them with one of his trademark .45 automatics. Yet another was given by Chester Smith, the retired local cop and former sharpshooter. Smith declared that Pretty Boy, shot and disarmed, was questioned by Purvis and got nothing but abuse by way of answers. Purvis then ordered Agent Hollis to fire, and Hollis gunned the helpless Floyd down with a submachine gun.

That may well be true.

Baby Face Nelson, who had been at the Little Bohemia Lodge himself, had attacked the FBI agents there with his usual mad dog bravado, in a frontal assault. He’d exchanged fire with “Little Mel” Purvis on that occasion. Purvis was lucky. Nelson had murdered more Federal agents than any other gangster of the ‘thirties. He hated them.

Nelson went down at the “Battle of Barrington” in November. He added FBI Special Agents Hollis and Cowley to his homicidal tally before he died – Hollis being the man who according to Chester Smith had finished Pretty Boy at the command of “Little Mel” Purvis.

Such was the end of “Choc” Floyd, known as Pretty Boy, born at the wrong time. But he’d probably have ended like Billy the Kid and Hendry Brown even if he’d been born at the right time. As for Melvin Purvis, whatever his failings, he must have had the balls of a leopard to confront the likes of Nelson, Dillinger and Floyd in gun battles. He certainly comes across as better than his boss, who forced him out of the FBI in a jealous fit. It’s possible that Purvis committed suicide in 1960, with the pistol given him by fellow agents as a gift when he left the Bureau. It was either that or an accident. Of Hoover and his administrative bosses, Purvis might well have quoted – if he’d known the poem – lines from Robert E. Howard.

They cowered far from the battles
As I went to the strife …

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