The mythology that surrounds the bank-robbing duo of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has taken numerous twists and turns since their deaths on a warm Louisana afternoon. They have shifted in the public's eye from being poor approbate thugs to Depression-era heroes of the working class; from rash and desperate criminals to cold-blooded killers; from close friends to star-crossed lovers. Sadly, it is virtually impossible to separate the myth from the truth that surrounds the pair. Here is an attempt to do just that, a look at the 20th century's most infamous couple.
I got ramblin
I got ramblin all on my mind
Hate to leave you my baby
but you treats me so unkind
Robert Johnson, "Ramblin on My Mind"
The Parkers were, like so many other families in early 20th century Texas, constantly poor and constantly on the move. Bonnie was born in Rowena on October 1, 1910. Her father died young, and the family moved in with Mrs. Parker's mother in Cement City, just outside of Dallas. She showed tremendous promise as a writer in high school, but at 16 she dropped out to get married to her childhood sweetheart Roy Thornton. One year later, Roy got in a bar brawl and killed a man. He was sentenced to five years in prison. Bonnie began working as a waitress to make ends meet.
Now as I look around, it's mighty plain to see
This world is such a great and a funny place to be;
Oh, the gamblin' man is rich an' the workin' man is poor,
And I ain't got no home in this world anymore.
Woody Guthrie, "I Ain't Got No Home"
Clyde Barrow was, improbably, born to an even poorer family than the Parkers. His father was a tenant farmer, his mother a cook, and Clyde and his six brothers and sisters struggled to survive. His father was given a job running a gas station outside of Dallas, but Clyde had other plans. Tired of being poor, he and his brother Buck made a night raid on a store safe. A patrol car witnessed the theft, followed the Barrows, and captured Buck, who was sentenced to 8 years in prison in Huntsville. Later, Clyde wrote his brother a letter in prison saying, "They'll never take me alive." Meanwhile, he continued to rob stores with his friends and cousins in Waco. (Personal side note: my great-grandfather was a cousin, and two of his brothers helped Bonnie and Clyde escape from the law early on in their capers.)
The two lived out their quiet desperation for nearly twenty years, watching their world pass by, as the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. It was no way to live, and they both wanted out. When Black Tuesday struck, the ramifications for both Bonnie and Clyde were staggering. The restaurant Bonnie worked at closed; Clyde's father was put out of the job as well. The urge to escape was stronger than ever in this, the darkest hour in this new and roaring American century.
Well I'm sorry that I can't come sheriff
Dead or alive, poor boy
I don't like your hard rock hotel
Dead or alive, no sheriff
Woody Guthrie, "Poor Lazarus"
Near Christmas, 1929, Clyde went to visit a friend who had broken her arm. While at her house, he first came to meet Bonnie Parker. The two talked for hours that night, and for two months afterward, they were hardly ever seen apart, despite Bonnie's marriage. Rumors circulated that the two were lovers, but they showed few public displays of affection.
In February of 1930, policemen came to west Dallas looking for Clyde, who was wanted for a string of robberies in Waco and Temple. He planned to make his escape that very night, but was arrested leaving his house and put in the county jail to await trial. His cellmate was a beefy alcoholic named Frank Turner. When Bonnie came to visit Clyde in jail, Frank engendered her to help him (and Clyde) escape. He drew up a map to his parent's house, where his father kept a gun in a closet. She retrieved the gun and slipped it to Clyde on a subsequent visit. That night, Frank and Clyde held up the guard and walked out of jail.
The heat from the police was enough to send the two escapees to Illinois and Ohio, where they became grocery store robbers. Clyde was especially fond of fine automobiles (once writing a letter to Henry Ford, admitting that "when given a choice, [he always stole] Ford Motor Company cars") and he would frequently steal new cars to avoid detection by the police. He even picked up the novel habit of changing license plates on cars. This lesson in trickery became a permanent one after he and Turner were spotted near a train depot that had just been robbed. An alert passerby memorized the license plate and called it in to the police, who arrested the duo and shipped them back to Waco.
Call For Desperate Measures
Night and day, you are the one
Only you beneath the moon or under the sun
Whether near to me, or far
It's no matter darling where you are
I think of you
Cole Porter, "Night and Day"
Although Clyde had faced a relatively light sentence for his crimes before the jailbreak, holding up a guard at gunpoint was too much to let him off easy. He was sentenced to fourteen years at a labor camp in Huntsville at Eastham Prison. The camp was known locally as "Dante's Inferno." Besides the sweltering Texas heat in the summer, the guards were almost worse than the inmates, frequently exerting their authority with grand displays of torture and violence. Clyde was terrified of spending the prime of his life at this hellhole. He wrote to Bonnie frequently, begging her to try and break him out; Bonnie just couldn't come up with a foolproof plan to do so.
Clyde's mother Cummie was more forthright. She gave a brokenhearted plea for her son's parole to a judge, citing financial responsibility on the young man. The speech worked, and Clyde's sentence was reduced to two years. Still, this wasn't good enough for the young man, and so he made a calculated but gruesome move. On a cold February night, Clyde convinced another inmate to hit him in the foot with an axe to speed his parole process. The charade worked - his released was signed three days later - but it cost Clyde two of his toes.
Now he and Bonnie were stuck in the same rut as before: broke, desperate, and aimless. Clyde decided to return to what he knew best, and assembled a small gang to commit robberies. Hesitantly, Bonnie asked if she could help, and Clyde was overjoyed, giving her the job of getaway driver. Their first robbery as a tandem was on March 16, 1932, in Kauffman, Texas, where they held up a hardware store. They were caught midway through, but made their escape. When they came to a small clearing, Clyde made Bonnie stop the car and get out, offering his concerns, "I don't want you caught up in this!" Still, the legend of Bonnie and Clyde had begun.
No Turning Back
You hear Jesus pleading to come to the fold
The time is flitting away
He will strengthen your spirit and sweeten your soul
Why not righten each wrongs today
The Carter Family, "You Better Righten Each Wrong"
On April 30, Clyde and a fellow gang member Ray Hamilton walked into Bucher's Grocery Store in Hillsboro and stuck up the place at gunpoint. While Clyde emptied the cash register, Bucher took a swipe at Hamilton's pistol. Hamilton fired, and Bucher slumped the floor, dead. Now the fugitive thieves were murderers, too. Clyde made a break for Dallas, telling his parents and family one last goodbye. He also made another stop, at the Parker house, where he re-engaged with Bonnie. He offered her a choice: come with me, or leave me forever. Bonnie, without hesitation, grabbed a small bag, threw in her favorite dress and several hats (over which she obsessed), and ran out the door and into oblivion.
That night, Clyde, Bonnie, Hamilton, and a drunkard named Everett Milligan made their way north to the Oklahoma border. Finally they stopped in Springtown at a dance hall. Hamilton went in, excited about the possibility of meeting some pretty girls. The party ended abruptly, however, when two patrolmen who had spotted Milligan drinking (in 1932, Prohibition was still in full effect) began asking questions. Ray and Clyde, fugitives from justice, pulled their guns and fired, killing one of the cops instantly and gravely wounding the other. Bonnie and the two made their escape, but Milligan was detained by the crowd at the hall. He quickly gave the names of his accomplices, and an APB was put out on the deadly trio.
Next, the three made a break for New Mexico, where one of Bonnie's aunts lived. They were spotted speeding, however, by a cop, who noted the license plate number and called it in. Finding out it was stolen, he visited the home of the aunt. There he was ambushed by Clyde and company, who put him at gunpoint and drove all the way to San Antonio, releasing him unharmed in the city. They had told him of their various misdeeds up to that point, and their intentions to rob the entire state of Texas dry. When he asked their names, they unabashedly told him: "Why, we're Bonnie and Clyde!"
We Were Young And Needed The Money
she had a dream about the King of Sweden
he gave her things that she was needin'
gave her a home built of gold and steel
a diamond car, with the platinum wheels
Cab Calloway, "Minnie the Moocher"
Hamilton left for Michigan (where he was subsequently arrested), but Bonnie and Clyde remained in Texas, robbing convenience stores and gas stations whenever they could. Clyde's anger and twitchy nature added a few more notches to his gun before the couple split for Missouri. There, they decided to take on a major haul: the city bank of Oswego. After Bonnie cased the joint the day before, Clyde walked in on November 10, 1932, stuck a pistol in the teller's face, and demanded all the money she could give him. An alert undercover guard pulled his gun and shot at Barrow, narrowly missing him and grazing the teller's right arm. Afraid for his life, Clyde grabbed the $80 sitting on the counter in front of him, fired a warning shot at the guard, and made a break for the getaway car.
It had been a dismal failure. The two made plans to rob another bank, and this time, Clyde took a "take-no-prisoners" attitude. He rushed in to the small-town institution, guns in the air, whooping and hollering - only to discover the building had been deserted for some time, closed due to the Depression that had swept the nation. Despondent, the homesick couple headed back to Dallas to visit their families. There, they recruited 16 year old W.D. Jones as a getaway driver and lookout. On Christmas Day, 1932, while driving through Temple, Clyde spotted a Ford Coupe V8 that he simply had to have. He instructed Jones to start up the car, but the nervous teenager fumbled with the ignition, choking the engine unbearably. The stir awoke the owner of the car, John Doyle, who ran outside to see what the commotion was. Appraising the situation, he ran up to Clyde, who was frantically pumping the gas to start the engine, and grabbed him by the collar. A struggle ensued, and Clyde pulled his gun, shooting Doyle in the chest. The three roared off in the stolen car, tallying up more death and destruction in their bloody path.
One of these mornin's, you're gonna rise up singin'
You're gonna spread your wings and take to the sky
But til that mornin', ain't nothin' can harm you
George Gershwin, "Summertime"
By now, the Barrow Gang had robbed in four states, and a large multi-jurisdictional force was on a manhunt for the bandits. In early 1933, the gang was caught in a large dragnet on a highway, but managed to shoot their way out of the barricade, killing a policeman in the process. They began successfully robbing banks on an almost daily basis, and a break-in at an armory had produced a large cache of weapons - submachine guns, Browning automatics, and gas bombs.
The killer gang was not without its soft spots. Besides donating money to their families, they also were noted for being polite throughout most of their robberies, bookending "please" and "thank you" to their demands for money. They also frequently spared the lives of those who tried to apprehend them. One such incident occurred when they were pulled over by James Persell, a Missouri motorcycle cop. The gang kidnapped him at gunpoint, drove to a nearby gas station, and had the cop steal a battery and install it in their sputtering car. Thanking him for a job well-done, the gang left the grease-stained Persell alive at the station.
In March of 1933, the Barrow Gang was joined in Joplin, Missouri by a paroled Buck Barrow and his new wife, Blanche. They robbed a few stores in the area, and then holed up in an apartment above a garage to wait for the heat to die down. Suspicious neighbors spotted the men carrying an arsenal of weapons, and the police determined one of the cars in the garage had been stolen in Kansas a few weeks earlier. On April 13, 1933, a bevy of police cars drove up to prevent any escape and surrounded the house. The gang sat idly inside, going about their daily business. Clyde heard a noise outside, and peered out the window.
"It's the law!" he cried, pulling out his Browning and firing into the crowd, striking two policemen dead where they stood. The police returned fire, showering the small apartment with bullets. Blanche, a rather tightly wound woman, screamed in panic and raced out the front door, dodging bullets as she fled down the street. The gang themselves piled into the Ford in the garage and roared out through the barricade, stopping to pick up a hysterical Blanche and zooming off. The gang had once again narrowly escaped the long arm of the law. They left behind most of their possessions, including the now-famous photographs of the pair playfully posing with their weapons, parodying their claim to fame with self-aware smiles on their faces.
Things Fall Apart
Will the circle be unbroken
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye
There's a better home a-waiting
In the sky, Lord, in the sky
The Carter Family, "Will The Circle Be Unbroken"
By now, the gang was on the lam full-time, with rarely any time to settle down. They stole cars continuously, evading any signs of the police, running from town to town throughout the Texas Panhandle. This constant high-speed pursuits finally caught up to the gang in a bad way. In mid-1933, as Clyde sped along towards the small town of Wellington, none of the crew noticed a BRIDGE OUT warning sign on the side of the road. As they approached the chasm, Clyde was made aware of the situation in a quick way, and spun out while applying the brakes. Bonnie flew out of the side of the car, and her dress caught beneath a wheel, pinning her beneath the car. The engine caught fire, but miraculously nobody else was badly hurt. As they pulled Bonnie from the wreckage, Clyde and Buck saw a sickening sight: Bonnie's thigh had been badly burnt, exposing all the way to the bone. She writhed in pain as they dragged her from the burning car, and moments later it exploded. Now the gang was in trouble - no car, no money, and a girl in pain.
A local farmer offered to help, but upon recognizing who he was helping, slipped off to call the police (the reward for Bonnie and Clyde was nearly $1000!) The gang wisely left before the cops could surround them, and they made their way to Arkansas, Bonnie still lingering in and out of consciousness. Finally, with the help of Bonnie's sister Jean, she recovered, although the wounds never healed and required constant doctoring. Finally in June of 1933 they pulled into a small lodge in Platte City, Missouri. They acquired a room, but the innkeeper was suspicious of the shadowy figures in the car waiting outside while Blanche paid the bill. While Clyde went out for salve and cream-filled donuts (Bonnie's favorite), the owner called the police. At midnight, an armored truck was pulled in to block the gang's stolen Chevrolet's exit. A policeman knocked on Buck's door, and Blanche bought them some time, claiming she needed to "put on some clothes."
Clyde stuck a Browning out the window and fired. The volley that returned literally tore up the entire room. Buck, standing near the window, was hit twice in the head and slumped over. All of the glass in the two adjacent rooms shattered; the door to Bonnie and Clyde's room fell off its hinges from the blast. Over 1000 bullets were pumped into the room. Blanche began screaming for her stricken husband, and W.D. Jones saw the armored truck blocking their only chance to escape. He began firing at the door of the truck, and several shots penetrated, striking the driver in the legs. The wounded driver was forced to retreat, and Jones took the time to get in the car and start it up. With Blanche dragging the mortally wounded Buck and Clyde carrying the still ill Bonnie, the group jumped in the car and with blinding audacity, drove straight at the cordon of police cars blocking the driveway of the lodge. The cops continued to fire at the escaping vehicle. One bullet struck Jones in the shoulder. Another shattered the back window, sending a shard of glass into Blanche's right eye, blinding her.
Still, they had escaped, but Buck lay in the back of the car, rambling his final words as his head wounds worsened. They parked the car near some abandoned woods, but an early morning hunter spotted the car (and its bullet-riddled condition) and alerted the police. Again, another gunfight ensued, with both Bonnie and Clyde taking bullets to the arm. The car died, and the entire crew rushed out of the car, making their way for the woods. Blanche remained with Buck in the car and both were arrested. Buck Barrow passed away three days later at a local hospital, and Blanche was given ten years in prison for her role in the Barrow gang. Meanwhile, Jones abandoned Bonnie and Clyde, who lived in a barn for several days recovering before stealing another car and racing off again, ultimately to their doom.
On November 8, 1933, Texas sheriff Ted Hinton was called into service to arrest the violent criminals Bonnie and Clyde. W.D. Jones had been arrested in Houston and brought in for questioning. From him, Hinton gained valuable information about normal hideouts for the gang, as well as Clyde's patterns for escaping from the law. A big tip came when a couple with several rifles was spotted regularly picnicking in a rural area west of Dallas. Hinton discovered that Clyde's mother's birthday was November 21. He waited patiently until the day, and set up an ambush. Sure enough, a grey sedan rolled down the street to the designated spot, and out stepped Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, picnic basket in tow. The cops moved closer and closer until Hinton was nearly 100 yards away. He cried out, "Clyde Barrow, surrender in the name of the law!"
Clyde didn't hesitate for a moment, grabbing his Browning and firing at the police, who returned fire, striking Clyde in the kneecap. He hobbled back to the car, and he and Bonnie sped off. They had avoided capture once again, but clearly they were getting more and more desperate as the police centered in on their getaway plans. And, as in most cases, the gang would soon be unraveled due to treachery from within.
A Bullet For Every Year
Why don't you remember?
I'm your pal.
Say buddy, can you spare a dime?
Bing Crosby, "Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?"
On January 16, 1934, Bonnie and Clyde drove down to Clyde's old stomping grounds, Eastham Prison, and broke out their old accomplice Ray Hamilton, along with a fellow inmate and car thief, Henry Methvin. With a recharged force in tow, the gang began robbing again, hitting banks and armories throughout Texas in February. Finally, former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was called in. A professional bounty hunter, he had killed over 80 wanted men in his life. He teamed up with Hinton to track down the fearless Barrow Gang once and for all. On Easter Sunday, the ante was upped by a novice blunder on the part of their newest member of the gang, Henry Methvin.
Hamilton was upset over his share of the money in the holdups, and wanted out. The gang agreed to meet Hamilton on a lonely stretch of Highway 114 to split up the cash. Methvin and Clyde stood watch while Bonnie slept in the car. Soon, two motorcycle cops came upon the horizon, headed toward the vehicle. Methvin, in a panic, shot one of the cops immediately. When the other began returning fire, Clyde felled him with a single blow. A farmer witnessing the event claimed Bonnie had fired a fatal shotgun bullet into each of the cop's head; in fact, she had merely been checking to see if they were alive at all. Still, the deadly reign of the lovers was soon to come to an ignominious end. Continuing to steal cars to cover their tracks, the gang found themselves a lovely cream colored 1934 Ford V8 Sedan. It was the last car they would ever steal.
On May 12, Iverson Methvin placed a call to the police, offering a deal: Bonnie and Clyde for a reduced sentence for his son. He told them of the duo's daily trip to Sailes, Louisiana, a road he also took frequently. He would park his truck on the side of the road, which would make Clyde pull over to investigate. Henry Methvin himself was not with the gang, having been separated when a policeman had interrupted a visit to the barbershop. The timing was just right for an ambush, and Hamer and Hinton took it.
On May 23, the trap was set. As Bonnie and Clyde drove down the road, the slowed on cue to peer at the truck on the side of the road. Hinton gave the signal - Fire! - and the car was rocked by a hail of bullets. When the blaze of guns settled down, the two fugitives were dead. Legend has it that Clyde was struck by 25 bullets, and Bonnie 23 - their ages at the time of their deaths.
The Story of Bonnie and Clyde
Someday they’ll go down together
And they’ll bury them side by side
To few it’ll be grief, to the law a relief
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.
Bonnie Parker, "The Story of Bonnie and Clyde"
Since the deaths of the two outlaws, many stories have come and gone about the two: that Clyde beat Bonnie, that Bonnie had an abortion, that they had killed nearly twice as many people as was believed ... and the truth may never be known. A 1968 movie starring Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty as the titular characters recast the criminals as the lovable Robin Hood misfits that suited the era. The two have been heralded, cursed, and parodied in song and art, and their legend continues on into the 21st century, where the tale of young lovers at odds with the society that crushed them resonates even today. Their mythology is a powerful one indeed, and the facts only heighten the tragic, violent, and short lives of two of the most famous criminals in American history.