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Oklahoma: A Breeding Ground

Clyde Barrow, 1934 Bonnie Parker Posing Tough with a Gun and Cigar, c.1934

Depression era-gangsters did more than leave their imprint on Oklahoma during the tumultuous decade of the 1930s. They sometimes left their blood and the blood of others who stood in their path. From Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd to George "Machine Gun" Kelly, Oklahoma was often the scene for their most notorious deeds.

Morbid curiosity attracted thousands of people to a little hilltop cemetery in Atkins, a 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.

A caravan of cars had traveled the dusty road from Sallisaw. Many people brought lunches they ate atop tombstones, or bags of peanuts they munched in the presence of the grieving family. Sequoyah County sheriff's deputies tried in vain to keep the crush of humanity at bay. And as the Rev. E.W. Rockett delivered the eulogy, his voice was often overridden by shouting friends, wisecracks and laughter. Finally, above the din of the circus-like atmosphere, an old woman shouted, "Air (are) they gonna let us see the corpus?"

That 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, when gangsters were held in as high esteem as larger-than-life sports legends such as 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 at the wealthy who monopolized power. Even the gangsters themselves played to the sympathies of the masses.

Oklahoma Gov. Robert Burns once announced a $1,000 reward for Floyd's capture. Floyd promptly answered the governor 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 weren't a breeding ground for the greatest gangsters of that time period, it was often 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 hide-outs and often sympathetic population. The reality of their deeds painted an entirely different portrait of their characters.

In 2007, Tulsan James Kelley sat down with a freelance writer and recalled "Pretty Boy" Floyd. The aging 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 that he knew about the dangers he might encounter. James remembered his uncle's chilling words on a visit to his family's home, two weeks before his death. "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."

The ex-sheriff stepped from behind a chicken coop on 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 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 not as large as the number to turn out for Floyd's funeral two years later. FBI agents killed Floyd Oct. 22, 1934, in a shoot-out near Clarkson, Ohio. "Why is it 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, recalled 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."

The criminal deeds of "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. Doc 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 set free on Sept. 10, 1932. A month before his release, Barker's family was suspected in the death of Tulsa attorney J. Earl Smith, who was found dead at Indian Hills Country Club in Catoosa. 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. The case has never been solved.

As for "Ma" Barker, FBI agents gunned down her and her son Fred on Oct. 1, 1935, in Florida. The two were buried in Welch next to her eldest son, Herman. Doc 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, had taken the job to help feed his family during harsh economic times. 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 cord and killing him. Campbell, 61, was a single father of eight.

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 on 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 a waiting 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 time ... 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. On his fourth day of captivity, Urschel was ordered to write a ransom note. In Oklahoma, local and national newsmen 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 on July 31 as promised in exchange for a $200,000 ransom. The outlaws received their money, but the serial numbers on the bills had been cataloged.

Agents eventually nabbed Bates on 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 that Oct. 12 in a packed Oklahoma City courtroom. Kelly died of a heart attack in the Leavenworth Federal Prison on July 18, 1954, his 59th birthday.

Ron Jackson. Contributing: Robin Kickingbird. Gangsters attracted sympathy, scorn. The Oklahoman. October 25, 2009


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