Surviving the Dust Bowl

Depression-era gangsters turned Oklahoma folk heroes

Morbid curiosity attracted thousands of people to a little hilltop at the cemetery in Atkins, an otherwise slumbering community seven miles northeast of Sallisaw. Witnesses estimated there were at least 10,000 people in all, many of whom trampled graves, toppled headstones and elbowed their way closer to the gray coffin.

Thousands of people flocked to the funeral of Charles Arthur 'Pretty Boy' Floyd in 1934 to view his corpse.
(above)Thousands of people flocked to the funeral of Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd in 1934 to view his corpse.
(below)A battered and chiseled marker is all that covers the grave of the famed gangster at a cemetery in Atkins, Oklahoma.
- The Oklahoman Archive

Four hours earlier a caravan of cars first began to wind down the dusty road from Sallisaw to deliver the excited throng. Many brought lunches they now ate atop tombstones or bags of peanuts they munched in the presence of the grieving family. Sequoyah County Sheriff’s deputies vainly tried to keep the crush of humanity at bay. And as Pastor E.W. Rockett delivered the eulogy, his voice was often overridden by shouting friends, wise-cracks and laughter.

Finally, above the din of the circus-like atmosphere, an old woman hollered, “Air they gonna let us see the corpus?”

This is how Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd – America’s Public Enemy No. 1 – was laid to rest on a crisp October day in 1934. Reluctantly, funeral directors allowed the thousands in attendance to file past the body until sundown when a member of the Floyd family asked that the procession end. Special guards were posted that night at the gravesite.

Floyd’s celebrity was common during the Depression Era where gangsters were held in such high esteem as larger-than-life sports legends like Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey. Newspapers, magazines and radio broadcasts routinely romanticized their exploits, portraying them as “Robin Hood” figures to an economically starved public angry at the world and the wealthy who monopolized power. Even the gangsters themselves played to the sympathies of the masses.

Charles Arthur 'Pretty Boy' Floyd became the FBI's 'Public Enemy No. 1.'
Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd became the FBI's "Public Enemy No. 1."
-From original FBI document

Oklahoma Lt. Gov. Robert Burns, who was acting governor while Gov. William H. "Alfalfa Bill" Murray was away, once announced a $1,000 reward for Floyd’s capture. Floyd promptly answered Burns with his own, ominous warning in a letter dated Jan. 20, 1932:

“You will either withdraw that $1,000 reward at once or suffer the consequences; no kidding. I have robbed no one but monied men.”

The human drama that became the “Public Enemy” era is now forever rooted in Oklahoma history. If Oklahoma wasn’t a breeding ground for the greatest gangsters of that time period, it was usually a stage for their notorious adventures. Outlaws such as George “Machine Gun” Kelly, Kate “Ma” Barker, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, and of course, Floyd were all lured by Oklahoma’s rural banks, remote hideouts and mostly sympathetic population.

The reality of their deeds painted an entirely different portrait of their character
The farm home of Mrs. Emma Conkle near East Liverpool, Ohio, where the notorious Charles 'Pretty Boy' Floyd was slain by federal agents Oct. 22, 1934. Mrs. Conkle, unaware of Floyd's identity, gave him a meal. - Photo dated 10/24/1934
The farm home of Emma Conkle near East Liverpool, Ohio, is where the notorious Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd was slain by federal agents Oct. 22, 1934. Conkle, unaware of Floyd's identity, gave him a meal.
- Photo dated 10/24/1934 AP Photo

In 2007, Tulsan James Kelley sat down with a freelance writer and recalled Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The 85-year-old Kelley remembered not the celebrity gangster, but rather the cold-blooded outlaw who gunned down his uncle Ervin A. Kelley on a chilly, moonlit night west of Bixby.

“Erv” Kelley had served more than a decade as McIntosh County sheriff and Checotah police chief when he donned his white hat one more time in pursuit of the famed fugitive. Lured by a bounty, Kelley left no doubt he knew about the dangers he might encounter. James remembered his uncle’s chilling words two weeks prior to his death on a visit to his family’s home.

FBI agents display the lifeless body of Floyd after he was killed in a shootout Oct. 22, 1934. One controversial account claims Floyd was murdered by FBI agents as he lay wounded and disarmed.
FBI agents display the lifeless body of Floyd after he was killed in a shootout Oct. 22, 1934. One controversial account claims Floyd was murdered by FBI agents as he lay wounded and disarmed.
-AP Photo

“He wanted us to know he was on a special assignment to catch ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd and that something was about to happen and we may never see him again,” James recalled. “He wanted to tell us goodbye just in case.”

Kelley’s words proved prophetic.

The ex-sheriff stepped from behind a chicken coop April 7, 1932, into the blinding beams of an idling Chevrolet sedan, and aimed at the men stepping through a farm gate.

“Stick ’em up!” he shouted.

Gunshots suddenly pierced the air in rapid succession – 21 in all. Within seconds, Kelley lay dead.

Four days later, an estimated 3,000 people attended Kelley’s funeral at the Greenlawn Cemetery in Checotah – a large turnout, but a mere fraction of the number to turn out for Floyd’s funeral two years later. FBI agents killed Floyd Oct. 22, 1934 in a shootout near a corn crib outside Clarkson, Ohio.

“Why is that an outlaw can be so glorified?” James Kelley told the writer. “It gets to you. All the time a man tries to keep the world straight, he has been forgotten, and the guy who kills him gets all the recognition.”

Floyd also left his own family with sorrow.

In a 2002 interview with The Oklahoman, Ruby Spear – Floyd’s last surviving sibling – conjured up the painful memories of her famous brother on her 100th birthday. Spear, who died five months later, said she chose to remember Floyd as the brother who played horseshoes with his six siblings on the farm, attended weekly Baptist church services with his family, and eagerly rode to Sallisaw in a horse-drawn wagon to shop.

The family never spoke of Floyd’s criminal life, but followed his exploits through newspapers.

Spear added somberly, “We prayed the Lord would take care of him and that he would eventually be saved.”

Gangsters left a bloody trail in Oklahoma
The infamous Kate 'Ma' Barker and her family can be traced to the Tulsa area.
The infamous Kate "Ma" Barker and her family can be traced to the Tulsa area.
-The Oklahoman Archives

The criminal deeds of Kate “Ma” Barker and family can be traced to eastern Oklahoma as early as 1921. That year, Arthur “Doc” Barker – one of “Ma” Barker’s three outlaw sons – attempted to rob a Muskogee bank. He was sent to prison, but served less than five months.

Arthur Barker and his partner, Volney Davis, were involved in the murder of Tulsa night watchman Thomas J. Sherrill two months after Barker’s release from prison. Barker was again sent to prison, and amazingly set free Sept. 10, 1932.

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Arthur "Doc" Barker is shown here (at right) with William Gates, chief jailer of Ramsey County, Minn., as the gangster stood outside the cell where he would await trial for the kidnapping of Edward G. Bremer, a St. Paul. banker who was abducted
-Photo dated 1/20/1935 - AP Photo

A month before his release, Barker’s family was suspected in the murder of Tulsa attorney J. Earl Smith, who was found dead at Indian Hills Country Club north of Tulsa. Smith had defended a member of the Barker gang over a bank robbery, but the man was convicted.

Authorities suspected Smith’s murder was payback for his failed defense. To date, the case has never been solved.

As for “Ma” Barker, FBI agents gunned down the old lady and son, Fred, Oct. 1, 1935, in Florida. The two were buried in Welch next to her eldest son, Herman. Arthur Barker was shot and killed Jan. 13, 1939, by guards as he tried to escape Alcatraz.

Clyde Barrow cut a deadly path through Oklahoma on at least two occasions during the 1930s, although his beloved Bonnie didn’t appear to play a role in either episode. On Aug. 5, 1932, Oklahomans learned firsthand about Barrow, who along with Raymond Hamilton, gunned down Atoka County Undersheriff Eugene C. Moore at a dance in Stringtown.

Moore, the father of three, took the job to help feed his family during harsh, economic times.

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Clyde Barrow has been linked to the murder of two Oklahoma lawmen.
-AP Photo

Two years later, the machine-gun toting Barrow again appeared in Oklahoma when his car became mired in mud outside Commerce. Constable William Calvin “Cal” Campbell stopped to see if the strangers needed help. As Campbell approached, Henry Methvin and Barrow showered him with a rain of gunfire. A bullet struck Campbell’s abdomen, piercing his spinal chord and killing him instantly.

Campbell, 61, was the single father of eight.

bullet holes break

George “Machine Gun” Kelly engaged in perhaps the most famous Oklahoma crime during the entire “Public Enemy” era in Oklahoma City.

Kelly and Albert L. Bates boldly abducted oilman Charles F. Urschel from his home July 22, 1933. As Urschel and his wife played bridge with Walter Jarrett and his wife, Kelly and Bates emerged from the shadows wielding machine guns. They ordered Urschel and Jarrett into an awaiting car as their wives watched helplessly.

A few miles away, the kidnappers ordered Jarrett out of the car. They drove on, but only after placing tape over Urschel’s eyes and shoving him against the floorboard of the sedan. All through the night and into the next day they drove until reaching a ratty farmhouse in Paradise, Texas. Urschel had no idea where he was, but logged every minor detail in his memory – a plane flying over the farmhouse twice a day at the same times ... the mineral taste in the water ... the feel of paved or country roads on his journey out of Oklahoma City ...

Urschel later shared every detail with the FBI.

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George "Machine Gun" Kelly (above) received a life sentence for the 1933 kidnapping of Oklahoma City oilman Charles F. Urschel (below).
video of machine gun kelly trial

On his fourth day of captivity, Urschel was ordered to write a ransom note. In Oklahoma, local and national pressmen swarmed the Urschel house, hustling for any new information they might report. Behind the scenes, Bernice Urschel played a major role in negotiations with her husband’s abductors.

Kelly and Bates eventually released Urschel July 31 as promised in exchange for a $200,000 ransom. The outlaws received their money, but unbeknownst to them the serial numbers on the bills had been cataloged.

Agents eventually nabbed Bates Aug. 30 in Denver after he was arrested for passing bad checks.

Investigators hunted for nearly another month for Kelly until cornering him Sept. 26 in Memphis. Unarmed during the raid, Kelly supposedly cried, “Don’t shoot, G-men! Don’t shoot, G-men!”

Justice arrived swiftly and harshly for Kelly and Bates. U.S. Judge Edgar S. Vaught sentenced both to life in prison Oct. 12 in a packed Oklahoma City courtroom, ending yet another chapter in the storied annals of Oklahoma’s Depression Era-gangster crime.

Kelly died of a heart attack in the Leavenworth Federal Prison on July 18, 1954, on his 59th birthday.

Note: News researcher Robin Kickingbird contributed to this story.

(pictured below) George "Machine Gun" Kelly is flanked by police and a G-Man with a submachine gun at the ready as he heads for an airplane in Memphis after his arrest in the kidnapping of Oklahoma City oil man Charles F. Urschel.
- AP Photo