December 10, 2023

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Repossessing Pretty Boy Floyd

The year was 1931.

A bank robber who had made J. Edgar Hoover’s Department of Justice list of top outlaws had rented a quaint rent house in Fort Smith, a little house that still stands today at 710 N 36 Street.

The house was for sale this year, and it went under contract Jan. 22. It was advertised as the home of the bank robber’s hideout. A metal detector or two may have checked the backyard over the years for buried coffee cans or glass jars filled with coins.

The renter signed his name as Mr. Jack Hamilton. His son and ex-wife settled in from 1931 to 1932. The renter’s real name was Charles Arthur Floyd. The story is pretty well worn and told. It is the story of Pretty Boy Floyd.

There was a loan officer working at the People’s Loan and Investment Company in Fort Smith by the name of Harold Herbert Hedges Jr. His friend, Harmon Asa Durden Jr. had gone to school with him at Northside High School. They had both worked at International Harvester too where Durden sold farm implements for a spell of his life. In 1992, two years before Durden would die, he told the story of how Hedges, Fort Smith loan officer, had single-handedly repossessed a Ford belonging to that notorious and murderous bank robber, the one who was glorified by Woody Guthrie and would live in Depression-era folklore.

Here is how Harmon told it.

In the 1992 book, “Pretty Boy,” by Tulsa author Michael Wallis, the Fort Smith connection starts when the man with the alias Jack Hamilton moved his ex-wife Ruby and son Dempsey into the rental home. He would pop in for visits, but by that time Pretty boy Floyd was mostly on the scout, on the lam, hiding out at various places in the Cookson Hills on the other side of the Garrison Avenue bridge in Oklahoma, and was wanted for then an undetermined number of bank robberies across the United States.

Hedges was at work when he came across a car loan note that was more than a year delinquent. The name on it was C.A. Floyd.

The Ford had been bought at a Sallisaw dealership. The address was north of Akins in Sequoyah County, Harmon Durden said.

If the name on the loan was C.A. Floyd, whoever signed off their final approval may have done the worst background check in U.S. history. But as the story goes, the name on the car loan was just initials, C.A. Floyd, and Hedges Jr. did not connect that to Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy Floyd,” Durden said.

Hedges Jr., born in Paris, Arkansas, Logan County in 1909, died in 1978. He is the hero of this tale. A tall one it could be. A written document about all this has yet to be found.

But Jeremy Scott, a Tahlequah filmmaker who recently completed the story of a 1930s sheriff, “Grover Bishop: Making of A Legend,” a documentary that premiered Saturday, Feb. 19, said there are untold numbers of stories from the 1930s era that have only been passed down by word of mouth, all remaining as oral history not yet written.

Durden had heard the story from Hedges a number of times and never forgot it.

“We were good friends. We went to school together and Mabel, his sister, was older than I. I had been to their house and everything,” Durden said in the 1992 taped interview with his grandson.

So as the story goes, as it was told by Durden, then 81 years old, Hedges set out in his own car, traveling up the cow trails, wagon paths, dirt roads, fording creeks and streams and winding on switchbacks and narrow lanes to find the Ford he planned to take back.

Hedges was the collector on the debts, and thus became the repo man who would take back from the criminal taker.

On Tuesday, Nov. 1, 1932, three men, identified by witnesses as Floyd, George Birdwell and Aussie Elliott, had reportedly robbed the Sallisaw State Bank and eluded law officers in the Cookson Hills, according to the Democrat-American, a weekly newspaper in Sallisaw. The bank robbers, the first ever reported in Sallisaw, made off with $2,531.73, the newspaper reported.

Harold Herbert Hedges Jr. was born in 1909 in Paris, Arkansas in Logan County. He died in 1978. His son Harold Hedges III was born in Fort Smith in 1934. Hedges III has had a long career as a medical doctor and is retired today in North Little Rock. Hedges III said his brother, The Rev. Bill Hedges, still recalls how he heard the tale when he was just a boy about Floyd’s Ford as told to family members by his dad.

The Rev. Bill Hedges was inspired to become a historian by the tale.

“My first association with the story of my father’s involvement with the repossession of an automobile belonging to C. A Floyd was a conversation with my brothers Harold and Jerry Lee Hedges during a holiday and semester break from college in 1958,” The Rev. Hedges recalled. “I had known about our father’s businesses right after his graduation from U of A in Fayetteville but didn’t pay much attention to it at the time.”

” As a history major in college, the story piqued my interest enough to become a historian and an archivist later in my career,” said The Rev. Hedges, who lives today in Quitman, Texas

As the story went, Hedges Sr. navigated the hilly roads off of what is today U.S. Highway 59.

“He (Hedges) just kept huntin’ from one place to another. Every now and then he would stop and ask someone for directions. He couldn’t get anybody to tell him where anybody would live.”

As Durden knew the story, the name on the note was Charles Arthur Floyd, not the alias Jack Hamilton. Hedges still had not connected the Ford owner to the bank robber as he drove, deep into Belle Star Country, in the Oklahoma hills.

It was described as a shack in the woods where the Ford was located by Hedges, Durden said.

Hedges parked his car and got out. He knocked on the door. No one was home. He then matched the vehicle identification number to the number on the papers he had. It matched. Hedges’ did need to hot-wire the Ford because the keys were in it, and so left his car parked where it was. He then started driving to the Ford dealership in Sallisaw, Durden said.

Along the way he was spotted. The Ford was on a list of cars to watch out for that might be used by that one C. A. Floyd.

The Ford dealership in Sallisaw in the early 1930s was called Max Reagor Ford, said Earl Strebeck, president of the Sequoyah County Historical Society in Sallisaw.

As Hedges drove, the motor drowning out the busy work of a woodpecker, or the other critters in the woods, law officers were mobilizing in the area. Wiley Post, the famed pilot, had once used an airplane in an aerial search for Pretty Boy Floyd with no luck. With the Ford on the move, the telephones rang. The ammunition for the Tommy guns, shotguns and needed was unlocked and guns were loaded.

As Hedges’ drove the bandit’s car into Sallisaw he noticed the streets were unusually quiet. Then police officers on bullhorns started ordering him to pull over.

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