In April 1932, one the most famous of Oklahoma’s many outlaws was involved in a gun battle with lawman Erv Kelley at a farm west of Bixby. Both fired their guns and both were hit by at least four shots but only Kelley died from these wounds. His killing was the first of a fellow Oklahoman by Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and some say this changed everything for the bank robber.

Floyd was accused of several murders during his criminal career that lasted more than a decade. But the only one he ever spoke of was that of Erv Kelley. His glowing image of “robbing only from the rich” and “befriending the poor” became tarnished after this incident. The hill folks of eastern Oklahoma might still look the other way when Floyd rode into town in a shiny new car, but now it was from fear and not admiration.

Floyd began his crime spree in 1922 when he stole $350 in pennies from the post office in the general store in Akins where he grew up. Tired of the hard life of a tenant farmer, Floyd left his wife and son in Akins and began to travel the region with other like-minded individuals who found it easier to rob banks than to pick cotton.

During part of the decade between his first crime and the shooting of Erv Kelley, Floyd spent time in prison in Missouri. But his time behind bars did little to discourage Floyd, who had grown up admiring men like Jesse James and Emmett Dalton.

So in November of 1932, Floyd and his long-time associate George Birdwell drove a new car into Sallisaw on a crisp fall morning. They were back in Floyd’s home area, and most of the people out on the street that morning knew Floyd by sight; many were related to him.

His driver, a young pup named Aussie Elliott, pulled right up to the Sallisaw State Bank. Floyd and Birdwell got out of the car, dressed in suits and shiny shoes and sporting their weapons of choice — Thompson submachine guns, known as “Tommy” guns. Before entering the bank, Floyd stepped into the barbershop next door and warned everyone to stay inside. 

“We’re going to rob the bank,” he informed them.

No doubt lots of eyes from lots of windows waited expectantly for Floyd and Birdwell to emerge from the bank. Even the local lawman, Bert Cotton, was said to have been parked just a short distance away. The two robbers came out with the bank president and forced the man to ride on the running board of the car while they slowly drove away. The hostage was released after they were out of town, unharmed but probably very frightened.

They had stolen over $2,000, which was a great deal of money at that time, but was not nearly as large as some of their hauls. But the killing of Erv Kelley had tilted Floyd toward greater violence. In the next two years, other lawmen were killed and Floyd found himself on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Rewards for his capture increased, and he spent the last two years of his life constantly on the run and always looking over his shoulder.

Federal officials caught up to Floyd on a farm in Ohio and shot him twice. He did not survive these wounds and was brought back home to Akins for his burial.

Reach Jonita Mullins at jonita.mullins@gmail.com.

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