Paul Compton was Princess Pennie’s father.
It was Pennie’s grandmother, Clara, that answered the boarding house telephone on October 22, the night the bad news came.
Paul Compton’s friend, Jackie Dempsey Floyd, was interviewed on television twenty-eight years ago. Jackie was 68 years old at the time:
“When I was born, I was born at my aunt’s house – my mother’s aunt – and it was during the wintertime, and my father went to the mirror with me and held me up to the side of his face and says, ‘Oh, look! He looks just like me!’ And you know how kids will do their hands? I was doing my hands like that and he said, ‘Oh look, he’s going be a fighter. We’re going to call him Jack Dempsey.’ But my mother wouldn’t go for it. She went for part of the name, but I thought that was kind of nice, that he did that.”
Jackie’s father was born in 1904, three years before Oklahoma became a state, back when it was still called “Indian Territory.”
“My father had a nice sense of humor. He’d always keep people laughing and everything. And in the short time I got to be with him, I got to know him pretty well. And he was always kidding around with my mother and everything, and keeping her laughing, and he’d cook for us. I remember one time he took me fishing. So we went up in the mountains somewhere to a lake, and we couldn’t get the fish to bite, but it was a very clear lake and we could see them, and he said, ‘You know what we ought to do? We ought to shoot those fish, if we can’t catch them.’ So he let me shoot the gun into the water like we were going to shoot a fish, but we didn’t get one, but he thought it was something I might like to do.”
Jackie Floyd was born not many years and not many miles from where Mark Twain wrote The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.
“And my mother was always afraid that I was going to be kidnapped, for some reason or other, but anyhow, these larger boys had a pulley in one tree and it went down to another. And you could get up in this bucket and ride from one tree down to the other. Kind of like a carnival ride or something. It was fascinating fun and I stayed after dark. And I went home and my mother was scared to death. And she told my father, ‘You know, you’ve never given him a whipping. It’s your turn to discipline him.’ And it had been raining that day and I had a raincoat on, so he said, ‘Okay, I’ll whip him.’ So he took me in the bathroom and said, “You take that raincoat off and put it over the toilet stool, and every time I hit it with the belt, you yell.’ So he was beating the raincoat and I was yelling and my mother was trying to break the door down. She said, ‘I didn’t tell you to kill him, I just told you to give him a spanking!” But he didn’t hit me. Never in his life did he ever hit me.”
When Paul Compton’s mother, Clara, answered that boarding house telephone on October 22, 1934, “the night the bad news came,” she was informed that Jackie’s father had been shot and killed by the FBI.
“You’re constantly running and hiding and you don’t know when you’re going to get to see anybody. You might have to sleep in the woods. It’s just a miserable life. It might look exciting to somebody, but you look at the end, the way it came down and everything: he was constantly on the run. He might have had a lot of money at one time or other, but it never did him any good. And you’ve no place to go and really relax or have fun, like you should be able to.”
But Jackie understood why his father did what he did.
“This bank had taken his grandfather’s money – which he had in the bank – and his grandfather had asked the banker, the day before the bank went bad, if his money was safe. And he told him it was. And evidently the bank started up again. So my father went to his grandfather and told him, ‘Grandpa, I want you to sit across the street over there at the depot and watch as I’m going to rob the bank here today.’ So he robbed the bank and the next time he saw his grandpa, he said, ‘Grandpa, did you see me rob the bank?’ And he said, ‘No, it was nice and warm and I went to sleep and missed the whole thing.'”
The stock market crash of 1929 triggered the Great Depression. Small-town banks that had taken people’s money were closing their doors, but not before they also took their family farm.
“The banks were going under and taking people’s money and foreclosing on farms and everything, and I think the people felt that my father was just one of them, kind of striking back for all of them… and it was kind of like they were pulling for him to stay at large instead of being killed. He was probably the only criminal I ever heard of that people wanted for him to stay alive and at large, instead of being captured.”
“But a lot of people started using his method of operation and dressing like him, and he got blamed for a lot of banks that he really didn’t rob. ‘Cause I know one time when I first started to school, we, for about six months my father hadn’t been anywhere – he stayed right there when I first started to school – and every week we’d hear where he robbed a bank in Kansas or in Arkansas or somewhere. And the other guys got pretty smart, y’know? They’d dress like him and do his thing and he got blamed for it. And a lot of banks, when banks were going broke and everything, they got robbed by their own people; a brother-in-law or somebody would come in and rob them and the bank would be off the hook.”
I was working on today’s story about Pennie’s father and his friend Jackie, the son of a notorious-but-misunderstood bank robber, when a friend of mine said, “Don’t make excuses for horrible people. You can’t put a flower in an asshole and call it a vase.”
I agreed with my friend, of course, but I also disagreed. Sure, Jackie’s dad was a blue-collar criminal, but aren’t white-collar criminals also assholes wearing flowers? Yet we call them “successful business men,” and excuse their crimes by saying, “Well, that’s just how it is in the business world.”
You can put a flower in an asshole and call it a vase if you have enough money wrapped around it. Or at least that’s how it seems to me.
John Steinbeck wrote about Jackie’s father in chapter 8 of his 1939 novel, The Grapes of Wrath. And in 1940, the immortal Woody Guthrie wrote a song about him.
The next-to-last line of that song is piercingly insightful:
Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men
Some will rob you with a six-gun
And some with a fountain pen.
“Pretty Boy” Floyd was killed by the FBI on October 22, 1934. According to History.com, “he 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.”
Based on everything else we know about Pretty Boy Floyd, I, for one, am inclined to believe him.
Roy H. Williams
- audio clips of Jackie Dempsey Floyd provided by Washington University Film and Media Archive
When business leaders align their interests with the interests of their employees and their companies, the resulting “fusion” becomes a powerful force for success. Dudley Slater says we often put our egos and self-interest ahead of what’s best for our organizations. Listen in as Dudley tells roving reporter Rotbart how leaders and team members working together for a shared purpose can unleash powerful energies. And not just in business, but in society as a whole. Word. At MondayMorningRadio.com