The air was cold and bitter the day George Birdwell robbed the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Boley, Oklahoma. Normally bustling, the town was quiet the morning of November 23, 1932, the day before Thanksgiving. Birdwell and his accomplices, Charles Glass and C.C. Patterson, ate breakfast at a farmer’s house before heading toward Boley on Highway 62 in their roadster. The men were silent as they drove into town.
Birdwell was the accomplice and “chief lieutenant” to Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, the infamous outlaw who wreaked havoc on American banks in the early 20th century. That morning, though, Floyd was not with his trusty sidekick.
After pulling off a string of robberies in Earlsboro, Maud, Mill Creek, Roff, and Henryetta, Birdwell set his sights on robbing the Farmers and Merchants Bank in Boley, despite Floyd’s warnings against it. Friends had warned Floyd of the dangers of robbing a bank in Boley. Floyd knew that Birdwell, who was part Irish and six feet tall, would stand out in the all-black town and that it could be too risky. Birdwell ignored his advice.
The criminal sauntered into the bank, taking the five or six steps to the white marble counter. Pointing his gun, he barked orders at bank president D.J. Turner to hand over the money in the till.
When Turner retrieved the last dollar, an alarm sounded. Birdwell was furious. He asked Turner if he pulled the alarm. Defiant, Turner said he had; Birdwell shot him in the chest with his .45 pistol.
George Birdwell murdered a prominent citizen in Boley, and, in an instant, changed the history of Boley forever. I know this story, not because I read it in a book, but because George Birdwell was my great-great-grandfather.
LISTEN: Jamie Birdwell Branson talks about living with her great-great-grandfather’s legacy.
Birdwell grew up in Oklahoma and was Irish, Cherokee, and Choctaw. He married a woman named Flora, who was always referred to as “Bob” by friends and family, and they had four children together. Birdwell worked in the oil field and moved to Earlsboro, Oklahoma, with his family when he got a job with Magnolia Oil.
Birdwell befriended his neighbor, Bradley Floyd, who later introduced him to his brother Charles Floyd. In early 1930, Birdwell was laid off at his job at Magnolia and desperately needed a way to feed his wife, four children, and two nephews who lived with the family. He began bootlegging whiskey and had some poker winnings, but it wasn’t enough. He started robbing banks with Pretty Boy and soon became known as a Robin Hood figure, frequently doling out $20 to friends and neighbors in need.
“I don’t really think that he would have turned out like that if the times hadn’t been what they were,” Birdwell’s grandson, Robert Birdwell Sr. — my grandfather — told me. “When you’ve got a family to feed, there isn’t money or jobs — that’s just what he felt like he could turn to.”
Birdwell’s life reads like a John Wayne script. A story in The Daily Oklahoman on October 17, 1931, details an account of Birdwell kidnapping a deputy sheriff in Earlsboro and detaining him so that Birdwell could go to a funeral home to view his father, who had recently died. If Birdwell had attended his father’s funeral, he would have been arrested for robbing banks in Earlsboro, Maud, Mill Creek, and Roff, Oklahoma. After Birdwell saw his father’s body, he returned the deputy sheriff’s gun on the outskirts of town, and rode into the sunset with Pretty Boy Floyd.
But Birdwell and Floyd’s days were numbered. Their names and faces were routinely in the papers, and the FBI was just waiting for one of them to make a mistake. Boley was Birdwell’s biggest mistake.
“Pretty Boy told the gang, ‘Go anywhere else, but do not rob Boley. The people there need
their money and they do not have much of it in the bank,’ ” said Henrietta Hicks, Boley municipal judge and unofficial historian. “They just would not listen. You know how Napoleon met his Waterloo? Well, George Birdwell met his Boley-loo.”
Boley was one of about 50 all-black towns in Oklahoma settled by former slaves of Native Americans. After the Civil War, the U.S. government forced tribes in Indian Territory to free their slaves and give them all the rights of a tribe citizen, which included land ownership. From this land ownership, black “freedmen” settled together and became business owners, creating a haven in the South that acted as a shelter from the harsh reality of Jim Crow.
Boley was incorporated in 1905 and built on land that was given to Abigail Barnett, the daughter of a Creek freedman. Boley boasted a thriving economy and even dazzled the famous Booker T. Washington, who called the town “the most enterprising, and in many ways the most interesting, of the Negro towns in the U.S.”
The town eventually grew large enough that it needed its own banks, one of which was the Farmers and Merchants Bank, managed by David Johnson Turner (or D.J., as he was known). Turner was an influential businessman who owned a pharmacy in Boley and was instrumental in starting one of the only black-owned banks in the country at the time. Birdwell didn’t know this, and didn’t anticipate the preparation of Boley’s citizens against the attack.
You know how Napoleon met his Waterloo? Well, George Birdwell met his Boley-loo.
“They [Birdwell and his gang] came in on the first day of bird-hunting season,” Hicks said. The townspeople were armed with rifles, shovels, picks, and hoes.
“They had known Pretty Boyd Floyd was robbing these banks, so they were on alert,” Hicks said. “They had rigged an alarm system in the bank, and when the last dollar was pulled out, the alarm would go off.”
Birdwell didn’t get the opportunity to make a clean getaway. Just moments after he killed Turner, bank bookkeeper H.C. McCormick took a shot at Birdwell from the safety of the bank vault. It was a clear and fatal one.
Birdwell’s ragtag team of bandits didn’t fare well, either. C. C. Patterson, who had run to his leader’s aid after he heard the commotion, was greeted by the townspeople, who were armed with guns intended for the birds. Charles Glass, driver of the getaway car, tried to speed out of town but was quickly caught by the gunfire of Langston McCormick, the town sheriff. He survived and was driven to the hospital.
Hicks said that Langston McCormick chose not to kill Patterson because he didn’t want to incite a race riot.
“We were not looking for a militia,” she said. “The town was looking to protect their assets. The assets they had belonged to only black folk, whereas black folk at one time could not even put their money in some banks. We had our own bank, and that’s what they were trying to protect.”
If you visit Boley today, you can see a glimmer of the gem that this town must have once been. The wilting brick buildings and the bullet holes in the broken windows lend to a deep sense of sadness for a decaying town.
Sadness turns into hopefulness, however, when powerful group of Boley ladies — Municipal Judge Henrietta Hicks, Mayor Joan Matthews, and Chamber of Commerce President Fran Shelton — huddle together to figure out who to call to patch up the broken window.
“Boley is still alive and will stay alive based on those who continue to know its history,” Shelton said.
Although George Birdwell’s robbery was traumatic for the town, it wasn’t crippling. Hicks said they tell the story of the Boley robbery, not because the story is great, but because it shows the strength and tenacity of African American people.
“There’s no way [the robbery] could have been debilitating,” Hicks said. “They had come from slavery. The people in Boley were a loving group and were so glad to be away from the oppressive regime of Southern white folk.”
The robbery at the Farmers and Merchants Bank may not have been debilitating for the town of Boley, but was life-changing for Birdwell’s young family. Wade Birdwell, my great-grandfather, George’s son, lost his father when he was just 13 years old and was forced to support his three younger siblings and mother while completing his education.
“I think my dad always had an inferiority complex because of what his dad did,” my grandfather told me. “I know it bothered him a lot. It put a big hardship on my dad because he was the sole supporter of the family. I always admired my dad for that.”
The Birdwell family moved to California after George’s death, and his wife eventually remarried. My great-grandfather Wade moved back to Oklahoma shortly after his first son was born. I believe he struggled over whether or not his father was a good man. Though he suffered the traumatic loss of his father, Wade was able to raise a family and lead a somewhat normal life.
Wade obliged a few of the historians who dropped by his house to interview him, but he rarely spoke of his infamous father to his family. He granted Michael Wallis a rare interview for his book Pretty Boy: The Life and Times of Charles Arthur Floyd. Wade was still willing to defend his father’s name, even after his classmates had teased him mercilessly in school for being the son of a bank robber, and after he was forced to support his entire family off a grocery store clerk and paper route salary when his father died. He never spoke a bad word about his father, even though his family was looked down upon by those who knew the story. He wanted so badly to believe his father was a good man and shared some of his father’s advice to Michael Wallis, saying: “He said way back then that there were two kinds of people who robbed — some who did it with a gun and some with an ink pen.”
I just wish he hadn’t chosen the gun.
Originally published in This Land, Vol. 5, Issue 14, July 15, 2014.