Pretty Boy Floyd And The Kansas City Massacre: 7 Pop Culture Takes

Main photo: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd [FBI]

KANSAS CITY, MO — On the morning of June 17, 1933, the notorious Depression-era outlaw Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, backed by henchmen Vernon Miller and Adam Richetti, reportedly blasted their way into shocking criminal history just outside Kansas City’s Union Railway Station.

It’s said that the trio sought to roust Frank “Jelly” Nash, a fellow gangster who had escaped from Leavenworth Prison three years earlier, gotten caught, and was being transported back to jail.

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In the train depot’s parking lot, five U.S. Bureau of Investigation agents, three local police officers, and an Oklahoma police chief converged to secure the final leg of Nash’s journey. Upon loading the captured fugitive into a waiting Chevrolet, though, a voice wailed out, “Let ’em have it!”

Floyd, Miller, and Richetti blazed machine-gun fire all over the officers, killing four of them in the process. The storm of bullets also managed to take out Jelly Nash.

Cars shot up at the Kansas City Massacre [FBI]

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“The Kansas City Massacre,” as the ambush came quickly to be known, enraged the public and enabled top U.S. lawman J. Edgar Hoover to intensify his pursuit of Pretty Boy Floyd. The only catch is that Floyd may not have been present at the massacre at all. Historians continue to debate this notion.

Even Pretty Boy — so nicknamed due to his wearing “fancy” clothes while he worked oil fields as a youth — sought to distance himself from the bloodbath. A postcard sent by Floyd from Springfield, Missouri, arrived at Kansas City Police headquarters on June 30 and stated in no uncertain terms:

“Dear Sirs: I — Charles Floyd — want it made known that I did not participate in the massacre of officers at Kansas City. Charles Floyd”

Much like his contemporary criminal icon Baby Face Nelson, Charles Arthur Floyd actually hated to be called Pretty Boy. Poor him.

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Following the Kansas City Massacre, though, the fact of Floyd’s having been there or not may not have mattered to law enforcement. Floyd had already become world-famous as a bank-robber and eluded the authorities for more than a decade. Considerable portions of the public, suffering under unimaginable nationwide poverty, had even come to revere Pretty Boy Floyd as a folk hero.

Pretty Boy Floyd FBI file [FBI]

So present or not, the Kansas City Massacre presented the feds with a genuinely horrifying transgression to pin on Floyd and, thereby, turn popular opinion against him. Floyd spent the next year on the lam dodging traps and shooting it out with federal agents.

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After G-man Melvin Purvis’s men famously gunned down John Dillinger outside the Biograph theater in Chicago, Floyd became the United States government’s Public Enemy No. 1 in 1934.

Finally, on October 22, a battalion of law-enforcement officers, including Melvin Purvis, shot Floyd to death in East Liverpool, Ohio. He was 30. Who actually delivered the killing round also remains a topic of historic arguments.

In life, Pretty Boy Floyd had already become a household name. In death, he quickly became — and remains — a figure of almost mythical hugeness. What follows are seven popular culture takes on the legend of Pretty Boy Floyd.

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1. “THE BALLAD OF PRETTY BOY FLOYD” by WOODY GUTHRIE (1939)

Folk music giant Woody Guthrie lionized Charles Arthur Floyd in “The Ballad of Pretty Boy Floyd,” which is often just shortened to “Pretty Boy Floyd.”

The premiere songwriter of the Dustbowl makes clear that, however wrong Pretty Boy’s robberies might be, he’s no morally worse than — and, in fact, he’s superior to — the bakers and corporations who bilk the poor and middle class.

“Pretty Boy Floyd” is one of Guthrie’s most often covered numbers. Popular versions have been recorded by, among many others, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and Joan Baez. [The Island Press]

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Flattop Jones [Dick Tracy Wiki]

2. FLATTOP JONES

Comic strip detective Dick Tracy’s number-one nemesis, Flattop Jones, is largely regarded to be creator Chester Gould’s funhouse avatar of the real-life Pretty Boy Floyd.

Like Floyd, Flattop hails from “Crookstoon Hills, Oklahoma” — a spoof of Floyd’s actual hometown of Cookson Hills. Even more unmistakably, Flattop was said in the strip to have participated in the Kansas City Massacre. [Dick Tracy Wiki]

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Pretty Boy Floyd, movie poster [promotional image]

3. PRETTY BOY FLOYD (1960)
Director: Herbert J. Leder
Cast: John Ericson, Barry Newman, Joan Harvey

TV actor John Ericson delivers a serviceable turn in the title role of Pretty Boy Floyd, a just-the-facts chronicle of the hooligan’s most famous crimes.

The only truly noteworthy element of the film is the actor who crazily shines in the role of “Machine Gun Manny”: Al Lewis, who’d soon enough achieve immortality as Grandpa on the horror sitcom, The Munsters. [History on Film]

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4. A BULLET FOR PRETTY BOY (1970)
Director: Larry Buchanan
Cast: Fabian Forte, Jocelyn Lane, Adam Roarke

A Bullet for Pretty Boy is yet another Bonnie and Clyde exploitation flick cash-in from drive-in powerhouse American International Pictures (see also Big Bad Mama, Bloody Mama, Boxcar Bertha, etc)

Self-proclaimed “schlockmeister” Larry Buchanan (Mars Needs Women) directs with his signature slam-bang style. In the lead, grown-up teen pop idol Fabian Forte makes a fine Pretty Boy. It’s fun to see him go berserk with a machine gun. [New York Times]

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5. THE KANSAS CITY MASSACRE (1975)
Director: Dan Curtis
Cast: Bo Hopkins, Dale Robertson, Lynn Loring

The Kansas City Massacre is a made-for-TV movie spin-off of the 1973 big screen hit Dillinger.

Dale Robertson reprises his Dillinger role as U.S. Bureau of Investigation Agent Melvin Purvis. Southern tough-guy character actor Bo Hopkins really tears it up as Pretty Boy Floyd.

Not shying away from the titular gun-down, The Kansas City Massacre is well made and stunningly violent for a primetime network production. [The Movie Scene]

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6. PRETTY BOY FLOYD: THE HAIR-METAL BAND (1989)

Unlike their criminal namesake, the musical quartet Pretty Boy Floyd fully embraced every implication of their moniker. At the peak moment of L.A.’s Sunset Strip glam metal, Pretty Boy Floyd emerged from Hollywood fully moussed-up, packed into spandex, coated with mascara and lipstick, and ready to rock.

The group hit big with its 1989 debut Leather Boyz With Electric Toyz, then broke up two years later in the face of grunge. PBF reunited in 1995, and they’ve kept at it ever since.

In addition, they remain memorable for inspiring the two-hit wonder Ugly Kid Joe, a band that was booked on a bill with Pretty Boy Floyd and wanted to come up with an “opposite” name. [Pretty Boy Floyd Official Site]

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Pretty Boy by Michael Wallis [Amazon]

7. PRETTY BOY: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF CHARLES ARTHUR FLOYD by MICHAEL WALLIS (2011)

Acclaimed novelist Larry McMurtry, who wrote his own fictionalized Pretty Boy Floyd book in 1995, said of Michael Wallis’s fact-based Pretty Boy: “This engaging biography exactly and vividly catches the tone of a region, a time, and a man.”

Wallis vividly conjures the likable, “good ol’ boy” side of Charles Arthur Floyd, making it credibly clear how he seemed to become more popular with each heist. It’s a read as a gripping and fitfully wild as one of the many chases and shootouts that the title figure survives … until he doesn’t. [Los Angeles Times]

Read more:
FBI
Kansas City Public Library
Annals of Crime

Main photo: Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd [FBI]

  • Martha Bartha

    Pretty Boy! Pretty Boy!