80 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.
Channing Tatum as Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, charismatic but violent Depression-era outlaw
Clarkson, Ohio, October 1934
After dedicating the majority of my life to researching the Depression-era crime wave that saw guys like John Dillinger, “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and Alvin Karpis roaming the American countryside with the support of the public and the rage of the government, I was elated when I learned that Bryan Burrough’s masterful docu-novel Public Enemies was finally being turned into a film. I wondered how a two-hour movie could capture the intricacies of each colorful individual in each of the various gangs over a two-year period, and I assumed that – like Burrough – director Michael Mann would focus primarily on Karpis, the lone survivor of the original batch of Public Enemies.
Unfortunately, the film – which would’ve best served its source material as a mini-series, in my opinion – chose to focus only on the best-known of them all, John Dillinger, with some of the era’s major players like Floyd and Karpis reduced to cameo appearances. While Floyd’s death was one of the closing moments of the FBI’s 1934 War on Crime, it is used instead to kick off the drama of the film, totally ignoring the significance of the event both for the FBI and for its ace special agent Melvin Purvis.
Eighty years after his death, Floyd still hasn’t received a proper film portrayal. (Whether or not a man blamed with the death of ten men over a five year period deserves it isn’t the question.) Dillinger’s life has been portrayed countless times, with varying degrees of accuracy, beginning with Lawrence Tierney’s steel-lipped murderous performance in 1945. Warren Oates notably played a picture-perfect Dillinger in John Milius’ 1973 film, and Johnny Depp played a more romantic vision of the outlaw in Public Enemies.
The latter two films, Milius’s Dillinger and Mann’s Public Enemies, also portrayed Dillinger’s associates – again with varying degrees of accuracy. Milius’s film made each outlaw stand out; Geoffrey Lewis’ Harry Pierpont was the doting husband, Harry Dean Stanton’s Homer Van Meter was the cheeky jokester, John Ryan’s Charlie Makley was the weary veteran, and Richard Dreyfuss’ “Baby Face” Nelson was – true to life – the violent psychopath. In Public Enemies, each of these characters might have had a personality-establishing line or two, but they all blend into the background with Dillinger’s other associates to allow his romance with Billie to be at the forefront. (With the exception of Stephen Graham, turning in another excellent performance as Nelson that rivals Dreyfuss’ bratty interpretation.)
I was dismayed to learn that Floyd would be played by Channing Tatum. All I knew about him was that he was an ex-stripper who had done the Step Up movies and a few military meathead roles. Of course, two 21 Jump Street films later, I’m more convinced that he is a talented, self-aware actor who could have made a fine Choc Floyd if he had been allowed to expand the character beyond a single action scene.
It doesn’t help that the scene itself differs far from reality. For my breakdown of events from Floyd’s death on a lonely Ohio cornfield in October 1934, check out my post from when I wrote about Kanaly in 1973’s Dillinger.
In real life, Floyd had been traveling with his alcoholic partner-in-crime Adam Richetti and their girlfriends, the Baird sisters. Floyd had been dating Juanita “Beulah” Baird for a few years ever since his first arrival in Kansas City. Beulah traveled with him and was even rumored to have participated in a few bank robberies with him. An April 1931 gunfight in Bowling Green, Ohio left her wounded with a bullet to the head. Her sister Rose had been dating Floyd’s then-partner Bill Miller, who was killed in the battle. Later, Beulah and Rose rejoined Floyd and his new partner Richetti. After Floyd and Richetti were suspected of complicity in the Kansas City Massacre on June 17, 1933, the foursome split town and headed to Buffalo, living in relative peace for more than a year.
Floyd’s suspicious and restless mind began to worry, and the gang left Buffalo one cold night in mid-October 1934. Not long after they set out, Floyd grew tired at the wheel and smashed their Ford into a pole near Wellsville, Ohio. The women were dispatched to find a mechanic, and Floyd and Richetti stayed with the car and the guns. Suspicions grew around the well-dressed men keeping to themselves with their new car outside of town, so local police chief John Fultz headed to the scene armed only with his .32 revolver and two unarmed deputies. Immediately, Floyd and Richetti drew down on the lawmen. After a brief gunfight, Floyd abandoned his Thompson submachine gun and escaped, and Richetti was in police custody. Richetti’s identification was confirmed, and the FBI was called in. Most films that I’ve seen about Floyd skip this exciting sequence of events and cut straight to -
Monday, October 22, 1934. Floyd looks like a wild man, as he himself acknowledges, from living outdoors for two days trying to make his way to Youngstown, the nearest major city. His blue business suit is ragged, his white dress shirt is dirty, and his black oxfords weren’t meant for his sort of hiking. He’s been living on whatever food he can find in nature, and he’s covered in thistles by the time he emerges on the farm of widowed Ellen Conkle near Clarkson, a small town outside of East Liverpool. Mrs. Conkle, though suspicious, reverted to country hospitality and gave the dirty, well-dressed stranger some food. After declaring the ribs, potatoes, rice pudding, and pumpkin pie “fit for a king”, Floyd asked Mrs. Conkle if he could borrow the dilapidated Ford Model A he noticed in her backyard.
A few minutes later, Melvin Purvis and his team of FBI agents and local police were driving up the country road, checking for any possible sign of Floyd. Suddenly, he is spotted. The agents and policemen jump from their cars, simultaneously drawing guns and ordering Floyd to halt. Both sides of the law must have known how the day would end as Floyd kept running desperately for the trees. The order was given to fire, and the rifles, Thompsons, shotguns, and pistols blazed. A few .45-caliber shots knocked Floyd down from FBI agents McKee and Hopton’s Thompsons with an extra shot from East Liverpool cop Chester Smith’s Winchester .32-20 rifle for good measure.
Floyd was now down. After fifteen minutes of questioning, during which he confirmed his identity and denied involvement in the Kansas City Massacre, Floyd emitted his last gasp and died at 4:25 p.m.
Public Enemies changes things up a bit, getting the basic fact down that Purvis and a team of local FBI agents and cops shot and killed Floyd – who was wearing a blue suit – somewhere in Ohio, asking him a couple questions before he died including the confirmation of his identity.
What’d He Wear?
Although Floyd was certainly wearing a similar outfit as Tatum when he was killed, the film takes a few liberties that wouldn’t be unlike something the real Floyd may have worn another time.
Tatum’s Floyd wears a blue wool serge suit. The blue is brighter and more vivid than the navy blue often used to described the real Floyd’s business suit, but it is ultimately too light to resemble the suit Floyd was wearing at the time of his capture.
Due to the camerawork and angles of the scene, Tatum’s suit jacket doesn’t get much detail exposure. The wide peak lapels have inward-slanting gorges. The single-breasted front likely has two buttons, and single-breasted jackets with peak lapels were very fashionable in the 1930s. It is ventless with 2-button cuffs.
Tatum wears a pair of matching flat front trousers with cuffed bottoms (also called “turn-ups”). When Floyd hits the ground, we see both on-seam side pockets and jetted rear pockets that close with a single button.
The trousers have both belt loops and buttons inside the waistband for suspenders. Although it is typically considered a faux pas, Tatum’s Floyd wears both a belt and suspenders.
The suspenders are dark blue with two light gray vertical stripes. They have silver adjuster clips and connect with black leather fasteners that button to the inside of the trousers.
Tatum’s belt is rugged black leather with a small silver square buckle that pulls off to the right side. The most likely reason for Floyd’s belt is to give his heavy shoulder holster something to fasten onto. The real Floyd supposedly wore a very similar belt, and the buckle on his was inscribed with a “C”.
Belts were also much more of a rural style choice around this time as suspenders were still the preference for suited gentlemen. Born in Georgia and raised in Oklahoma, Floyd maintained his agrarian tendencies even when living in big cities like Kansas City and St. Louis. It was this comfort with nature and the outdoors that gave him an edge over other outlaws and allowed him to enjoy five years of relative freedom while committing his crimes.
While we’re on the subject, Floyd wears a dark brown well-worn leather shoulder rig for his 1911 pistol in the film. It holds the pistol under his left armpit, low enough to nearly be worn on the hip. It connects around the back with a thinner dark leather strap worn down the right side of his torso and fastened to that side of the belt. In real life, Floyd merely carried his pistols in his waistband.
Tatum’s Floyd wears a light cream tonal-striped shirt. It has a large spread collar, unbuttoned, with large white buttons down the front placket.
The double cuffs have squared edges and are fastened with round gold disc links.
Tatum’s knit tie has a black ground with a white print throughout. It is tied with a small four-in-hand knot.
As opposed to the black oxfords Floyd was reportedly wearing when he was killed, Tatum wears a pair of more utilitarian black leather combat boots that would have made a weekend of tromping through the woods much more bearable for the outlaw. They are very similar to the boots that Jimmy Darmody wore with his blue suit on Boardwalk Empire, and they send a much different message than wearing dress shoes. The boots rise high on Tatum’s calves with five eyelets and five upper lace hooks.
Floyd’s black socks rise even higher than his boots, allowing the ribbing and elasticized top to peek out.
Go Big or Go Home
Since Public Enemies doesn’t tell us much about Floyd other than the fact that he was killed, we can look to the real Floyd for information about the life of a ’30s Public Enemy.
The real Floyd was very much a product of his environment. The first twenty years of his life were very rural, moving with his large family from Georgia to the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma at a young age where he continued working on the family farm. Before Prohibition had even started, he was involved in making illegal liquor as moonshine remains one of the oldest traditions for folks in these regions. He married a young, lively neighbor named Ruby when he was twenty (and she was sixteen) and they soon bore a son named Charles Dempsey Floyd, whom they just called Dempsey.
Less than a year after Dempsey’s birth, the Floyds desperately needed money. Like many of his friends, he had dabbled in crime – most notably stealing 350 pennies from a local post office and having his father cover for him when the feds came looking – but most of his work had been legitimate manual labor. At this point, Floyd reached a crossroads. He was certainly smart enough to be successful, especially in the booming ’20s, but who would give a chance to a poor farm boy with two shirts and a starving family? Pair that with his cheeky impulsiveness and an outlaw was born.
Floyd’s first robbery, grabbing more than $11,000 from a Kruger payroll in St. Louis, was his most successful… until he was nabbed in the Cookson Hills two days later when he tried to show off his brand-new blue Studebaker. The local sheriff, naturally a family friend, begrudgingly arrested the young criminal and Floyd was sent to the Missouri state pen for a five year sentence.
Though he was released in 1929, he emerged as a divorced man in an unfamiliar city. Unable to return home without money or a welcoming wife, he followed some criminal contacts from the pen to Kansas City where the easygoing Choc Floyd evolved into the bank-robbing “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Having been denied any honest work due to his prison record and now needing money more than ever as the Depression hit, Floyd became one of the most prolific bank robbers of all time.
Supposedly, Oklahoma’s bank insurance rates doubled in 1931 due to Floyd’s constant harassment. His career dominated headlines for four years with a series of daring escapes, easy robberies, and deft killings. Floyd was hardly a brutal, calculating murderer, but shooting became an impulse for him when threatened. Between 1931 and 1934, he shot his way out of any trap the police set for him; often with deadly results.
Friends and family, especially his young son, always regarded him as the same cheerful guy who loved every minute of life, but there is no denying that he changed. Always aspiring to be better than his origins, it was the unnecessary chances he took that led to all of his mistakes. His initial arrest in 1925 was the result of the attention from his newly-purchased car. A policeman cornered him in Bowling Green when he and his associate Bill Miller were getting expensive new haircuts at a local barbershop; both the cop and Miller were killed in the ensuing gunfight.
Finally, it was Floyd’s sharp appearance that made many suspicious as he lurked around the East Liverpool area the final two days of his life. Clad in a dark navy blue subtly-striped two-piece business suit and white shirt, his excuse that he was “just going to work” didn’t jibe with the rural Chief Fultz and Floyd found himself on the run for the last time in his life.
Two days after the fatal run-in with Fultz, Floyd’s effects were catalogued and hardly resemble those of a man born into poverty:
- 14-carat white gold double-faced cameo ring, a gift from his wife Ruby three Christmases earlier
- green gold octagonal Verithin Gruen pocket watch
- silver watch chain attached to a U.S. silver half-dollar (minted either 1928 or 1929)
The watch is worth noting for the ten notches behind the crystal, each supposedly representing a life taken by Floyd.
How to Get the Look
While not strictly what the real Floyd was wearing when he died, Channing Tatum’s Floyd still wears a very fashionable suit for a ’30s tough guy.
- Blue wool serge suit, consisting of:
- Single-breasted jacket with 2-button front, wide peak lapels, 2-button cuffs, and ventless rear
- Flat front trousers with belt loops, on-seam side pockets, button-through jetted rear pockets, and cuffed bottoms
- Light cream tonal-striped shirt with large spread collar, front placket, breast pocket, and double/French cuffs
- Black & white printed knit tie
- Gold round disc cuff links
- Black leather laced combat boots
- Black ribbed dress socks
- Dark brown leather shoulder holster (RHD) for 1911-type pistol
As I discussed in my previous “Pretty Boy” Floyd post, there remains no doubt as to what guns were in Floyd’s hands when he was killed in Ohio. The well-witnessed circumstances of his death without any sort of Dillinger-esque controversies and the very thorough FBI paperwork (in the wake of the Dillinger controversies) chronicled both of Floyd’s pistols. Both were Colt-manufactured M1911 pistols just like you’ve seen in all World War II movies. They were both blued and chambered in .45 ACP with seven rounds per magazine.
One of the M1911 pistols, pictured below, was a U.S. Army model with the serial #18001. This one was in Floyd’s hand, cocked and chambered with a fully loaded magazine. The other – the one taken from his belt after he was shot down – was a civilian version, also known as the Colt Government model, with a removed serial number. Criminals have been filing off the serial numbers from pistols ever since the first serial numbers were introduced to keep their weapons untraceable. This second Colt had an interesting customization, though, with welding on both the firing pin and the safety guard indicating a conversion to fire fully-automatic. Had Floyd actually gotten his hands on this pistol, the arresting officers would have been in considerable danger as they moved in to closer proximity. All Floyd would’ve needed was to press his finger down on the trigger for eight powerful rounds of .45 ACP to spit out the muzzle in the direction of the officers.
The Public Enemies version of Floyd places a nickel-plated M1911 in his holster and gives him a Thompson M1928 submachine gun as his weapon of choice when fighting back against Purvis’s men. Surely the real Floyd wished he did have such a powerful weapon at the time, but instead he only had his two semi-automatics. The Thompson carried by Tatum reflects a common outlaw customization of the era; to ease concealability and portability, gangsters often removed the buttstock from their Thompsons. As the buttstock served mainly to give policemen and soldiers stability when firing, the gangsters didn’t need it for their “spray-and-pray” massacre sensibilities.
When Floyd and Richetti were first approached by Chief Fultz outside Wellsville, Floyd did indeed fire at the officers with a Thompson, and it did have a removed buttstock. However, he was forced to abandon the weapon when he went on the run after Richetti’s arrest. It was soon recovered by policemen during a general search and was found to have a broken vertical foregrip. This same Thompson is seen above in the hands of one of Fultz’s deputies.
Do Yourself a Favor and…
Buy the movie.
I believe you’ve killed me, so you can go rot in hell.
After repeating viewings of both Public Enemies and 21 Jump Street, I’ve come to terms with the decision to cast Tatum as Floyd and think he’s got the chops to play the outlaw who was known to be charismatic but mercurially impulsive.
I’ve mentioned in several posts on this blog that I was the writer, director, and star of a two-hour homemade film about the real “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Though some of the suits are pretty good – as my Get Carter-like pose for the DVD cover may convey – the lack of any actual budget, vintage cars, legitimate locations, or consistent cast somewhat hampered things. Still, it came together relatively nicely for a $50 budget and three years of production, so I’d like to try and post some trailers from it soon. (Thank you, blog commenter Mohammed, for your interest!)
One major source of my research on this fascinating era in American history has been Dusty Roads of an FBI Era, a well-researched site maintained by a former FBI agent that offers plenty of primary research documents from this time. The site also keeps things in perspective; while the colorful lives of the outlaws may be distracting, most were still murderous criminals who went up against brave agents that sacrificed their lives to protect others.