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Was Pretty Boy Floyd ‘Known for Destroying Mortgage Papers on Heists, Freeing Hundreds … from Debt’?

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The outlaw "Pretty Boy Floyd" was known for destroying mortgage papers on heists.

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On August 5 2022, an Imgur user shared a meme about the historical figure “Pretty Boy Floyd,” an outlaw who purportedly destroyed records of mortgage debt in the course of heists:

The image combined two memes, one featuring the claim about Floyd, and one commending the action describing in the original meme. Alongside a black and white mugshot, text on the top of the meme read:

A bank robber named “Pretty Boy” Floyd was known for destroying mortgage papers on heists, freeing hundreds of people from property debt.

As was often the case with popular Imgur posts, no citations or links to information about Pretty Boy Floyd accompanied the post. At least one comment requested a citation for the claim; the most popular comment asserted that Floyd “was killed by an FBI deathsquad.”

On the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s website, a page in its “History” section partly covered the life of Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The page, titled “Kansas City Massacre and ‘Pretty Boy’ Floyd,” did not mention Floyd destroying debt records.

It began:

The sun rose on June 17, 1933 just like any other spring day in America’s heartland. But outside a massive train station in Kansas City, Missouri, a grand tragedy was about to unfold.

That morning, a mass murder committed in front of Union Railway Station shocked the American public into a new consciousness of the serious crime problems in the nation.

The killings that took the lives of four peace officers and their prisoner are now known as the “Kansas City Massacre.”

The Kansas City Massacre involved the attempt by Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Vernon Miller, and Adam Richetti to free their friend, Frank Nash, a federal prisoner. At the time, Nash was in the custody of several law enforcement officers who were returning him to the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, from which he had escaped on October 19, 1930.

According to the FBI, the Kansas City Massacre unfolded in the course of roughly 30 seconds. The Bureau went on to describe Floyd as a “fugitive” at the time of the 1933 incident, having escaped custody in 1930:

The FBI immediately initiated an investigation to identify and apprehend the gunmen. The investigation developed evidence that the scheme was carried out by Vernon C. Miller, Adam C. Richetti, and Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd. The evidence included latent fingerprint impressions located by FBI agents on beer bottles in Miller’s Kansas City home and identified as those of Adam Richetti, thus helping to link the latter to the crime.

[…]

Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd, about 29 years old at the time of the Kansas City Massacre, had been arrested on numerous occasions, the first by the St. Louis, Missouri Police Department on September 16, 1925 for highway robbery. He pleaded guilty to that charge on December 8, 1925, was sentenced to the State Penitentiary at Jefferson City, Missouri, and released on March 7, 1929.

Two days later, on March 9, 1929, he was arrested by the Kansas City Police Department for investigation and on May 6, 1929, for vagrancy and suspicion of highway robbery. In both instances, he was released.

On May 20, 1930, Floyd was arrested by the Toledo, Ohio Police Department on a bank robbery charge and on November 24, 1930, was sentenced to 12 to 15 years in the Ohio State Penitentiary.

Floyd escaped enroute to the penitentiary and was a fugitive when he became involved in the Kansas City Massacre.

Although the page was long, it primarily covered only that incident — not Floyd’s life or other actions.

It stood in significant contrast to information provided by Brittanica.com on Floyd’s life and death, which described Floyd as a former farmer who turned to crime due to “poverty.” The site added that Floyd was “protected” by working class Americans who supported him “for his destruction of mortgage papers during bank robberies.”

Most notably, that source injected some doubt into the FBI’s official record of Floyd’s death, noting that Floyd denied involvement in the Kansas City Massacre. Moreover, the site described speculation that Floyd was not initially mortally wounded — but that he was later shot by an angry FBI agent:

Originally a farmer, [Floyd] was drawn into crime by poverty. After serving a term in prison (1925–29) for a payroll robbery, Floyd mixed with gangsters in Kansas City, Missouri, and adopted the machine gun as his professional trademark. He teamed up with others to rob banks in Ohio (where he was captured in 1930 but subsequently escaped), Michigan, and Kentucky. After nearly being apprehended by the police in 1931, Floyd returned to Oklahoma, where he was protected by the locals, who called him “the Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills” for his destruction of mortgage papers during bank robberies. Floyd’s criminal activities continued, and in 1933 he was accused of having participated in the Union Station massacre, in which three police officers, an FBI agent, and a prisoner were killed in Kansas City. Though Floyd denied involvement in the incident, authorities intensified efforts to capture him, and the following year he was gunned down by FBI agents who were pursuing him in an Ohio field. There has been some speculation that Floyd was initially just wounded and that it was only after refusing to answer questions that he was fatally shot by a federal agent.

Biography.com’s entry on Floyd made similar points, adding that Floyd was known for “sharing” his robbery proceeds:

During his crime spree, bank insurance rates in Oklahoma were reported to have doubled. He became popular with the public by allegedly destroying mortgage papers at many of the banks he robbed, liberating many debt-ridden citizens. (These acts were never fully verified and may in fact be myth.) Known for sharing money he’d lifted with others, he was often protected by Oklahoma locals, who dubbed him “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills.”

In that retelling, the site observed differences between the FBI’s accounting of Floyd’s involvement in the Kansas City Massacre with that of his biographer, who questioned whether Floyd was even present:

[Prisoner Frank] Nash got caught in the crossfire [in Kansas City] and died, along with two officers, a police chief and an FBI agent. Floyd himself denied taking part in the events; a biographer later called into question Floyd’s presence at the massacre while the FBI, via its website, continues to assert his involvement.

History.com featured Floyd’s death in its “This Day in History” entry for October 22 [1934], noting that Floyd’s dying words denied involvement in the Kansas City Massacre:

Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd [was] shot by FBI agents in a cornfield in East Liverpool, Ohio. Floyd, who had been a hotly pursued fugitive for four years, used his last breath to deny his involvement in the infamous Kansas City Massacre, in which four officers were shot to death at a train station. He died shortly thereafter.

Charles Floyd grew up in a small town in Oklahoma. When it became impossible to operate a small farm in the drought conditions of the late 1920s, Floyd tried his hand at bank robbery …

In that entry, History.com also referenced a dispute over the FBI’s description of the Kansas City Massacre, and noted that Floyd was shielded by people in his adopted home state of Oklahoma:

Once he was back in Kansas City, Floyd killed a federal agent during a raid and became a nationally known criminal figure. This time he escaped to the backwoods of Oklahoma. The locals there, reeling from the Depression, were not about to turn in an Oklahoma native for robbing banks … Although it was not clear whether or not Floyd was responsible [for the Kansas City Massacre], both the FBI and the nation’s press pegged the crime on him nevertheless.

A page on the website of the Carnegie Public Library in East Liverpool, Ohio (where Floyd was killed) detailed Floyd’s life and presence in local lore, saying that he was known for “stealing from the rich banks to help the poor eat by buying them groceries and tearing up their mortgages during the robberies.”

That source reiterated doubt about whether Floyd was shot by an angry FBI agent, and noted:

Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was born out of the trials of being a poor farmer in the times of the Great Depression. He was raised in a small farming community of Akins, Oklahoma, close to the Cookson Hills which later would become his refuge from the arm of the law.

The people throughout the area were losing their farms to the banks. The banks wanted the land for the expansion of farming and its profits. Small farms were unprofitable. The people had done everything that they could to keep their homes even holding off the bank’s tractors with shot guns, daring then to take what was rightfully theirs.

Into this story comes Charles Floyd, poor, out of work, with a young family. He would take odd jobs but that did not help. Many of the younger generation would not go hungry. They became armed bandits. Floyd was one of such people. [Floyd] would rob the banks that were robbing them and whilst he was in the banks taking their money he would destroy or steal the mortgages to the local farms. With no record of a mortgage how could the banks take the land? He would also use his ill gotten money by buying food and distributing it to the members of the community. In return they protected him, became his communication system, fed him and welcomed him to their homes when he “dropped by”.

[…]

During his crimes however he did manage to get 10 notches on his lucky piece which always carried with him. He was so well thought of by the community that he could walk around in public unmolested and even went to church in Earlsboro.

The newspapers called him the “Robin Hood of the Cookson Hills”. He was pleased with this nickname and once stated that, ” I have robbed no-one but moneyed men[.]”

At the end of the lengthy entry, the Carnegie Public Library included a “resources” section, attributing the information to archival news reports:

Most of the material for this page are from existing old papers and microfilm on record at the Carnegie Public Library of East Liverpool and from Records and Photographs in the possession of the Dawson Funeral Home.

A 2014 Time.com article mentioned Floyd’s purported redistribution of robbery proceeds to down on their luck Oklahoma residents, as did an archival piece from the same outlet in 1934. The Oklahoma Historical Society also described Floyd’s standing with the community at the time of his death, explaining:

This Robin Hood figure, beloved of America’s dispossessed and downtrodden of the Great Depression, was also a wanton bank robber and a man known to J. Edgar Hoover and the law enforcement establishment as “Public Enemy Number One.”

[…]

Floyd’s whirlwind bandit career began to unravel on June 17, 1933, when he and Adam Richetti became the chief suspects in the infamous Kansas City Massacre. This bloodbath at the Union Station resulted in the deaths of four law officers and allowed J. Edgar Hoover to further empower himself and the FBI. Although both Floyd and Richetti ultimately paid with their lives, it is now clear, based on new evidence, that neither was involved in the brutal slaughter. On October 22, 1934, local law officers and FBI agents led by Melvin Purvis shot and killed Floyd in a cornfield near East Liverpool, Ohio. Floyd’s body was returned to the Oklahoma hills, and he was laid to rest on October 28, 1934, at Akins Cemetery. A crowd estimated at more than twenty thousand made it the largest funeral in Oklahoma history.

Finally, a separate “history” source on FBI.gov begrudgingly conceded that Floyd destroyed mortgage notes in “one or two” robberies:

After his death, the legend of “Pretty Boy” just continued to grow. His myth even sparked a revisionist ballad by folk singer Woodie Guthrie, suggesting Floyd saved “many a starving farmer” from losing their homes. While Floyd reportedly destroyed mortgage notes from a bank or two that he robbed in hopes of saving a few farmers from foreclosure, his reputation as a humanitarian or a “Robin Hood” is undeserved. He robbed and stole to support a lifestyle of flash and ease and didn’t hesitate to shoot and kill when it suited him.

A popular meme claimed that outlaw Pretty Boy Floyd, a bank robber, was known for destroying mortgage records in the course of bank heists. Sources local to where Floyd operated substantiated claims that he was shielded by locals and distributed some of his robbery proceeds to people. Moreover, most neutral accounts cast doubt on the manner in which Floyd died at the hands of the FBI, with some indicating that his last words were denying involvement with the Kansas City Massacre.