by Janice Oberding, author of The Boy Nevada Killed: Floyd Loveless and the Juvenile Capital Punishment Debate
History and true crime, is there a better topic to write about? Is there a better topic to read about? As a historian and a true crime buff, I doubt it. But then again, I am drawn to historical crime… and punishment, punishment that was much more severe than that which is handed out today. Cold-blooded killers like Bonnie and Clyde and Baby Face Nelson never got their day in court, they were gunned down in the streets by officers of the law years before the words Miranda Rights
would mean anything. This was during the great depression, a different world. There was no middle ground, the law was less compassionate. Hardened criminals such as Bonnie, Clyde and Baby Face, lived by the gun and died by the gun. No questions asked.
Floyd Burton Loveless was a seven year old boy about the time the FBI closed in on Bonnie and Clyde. He himself had ten years left to live. Ten years before he would face the wrath of a justice system that could have been better, but wasn’t. Ten years before he would walk into the Nevada state gas chamber.
I happened upon Floyd Loveless’ story while researching another story altogether. Buried deep in forgotten microfiche of decades old newspapers, the articles about Loveless’ case grabbed my attention. Intrigued, I read through every article. What a tragic denouement to a sad, short life. I am no attorney but the whole thing seemed so wrong, so unjust; I knew this boy’s story must be told. If for nothing more than to hopefully prevent anyone else from ever falling through the cracks, alone and forgotten and sent to the gas chamber like seventeen year old Floyd Loveless had.
Like most writers of history, I am happiest when writing about a person or an incident that has grabbed my attention and affected me deeply. Floyd Burton Loveless was such a person. As I came to discover more about his life I realized that, except for his loving grandmother, everyone in his life failed Floyd Loveless. The world failed Floyd Loveless. Sure, I know that’s a big statement to make, but I also know it is true. Early on I decided that in order to write about a boy who lived most of his life in Indiana, I would have to go to the small town in which he was born and lived. I went to Stockwell, Indiana twice. What came of those visits was a better understanding of just how small his world had been.
Given today’s more enlightened views of juvenile offenders it is hard to imagine that the death penalty could be handed down to someone under the age of eighteen. Until abolished by the Supreme Court as unconstitutional in 2005, the practice of executing children was completely legal—those as young as fourteen years old were put to death. What were these people thinking to punish a child so severely?
There are no easy answers. As a historian, I may marvel at events of the past, but whenever I question history too severely, from my vantage point of the 21st
century, I realize I am being unfair to those who resided in a very different world than I do today.