In 1934, when my father was only 13 years old and my mother only 7, 2 notorious outlaws were killed by a posse in my home state of Louisiana. Their names were Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.
I’ve never been much interested in “true crime” stories. As a scientist, I do find forensic analysis fascinating. The process by which crimes are solved is increasingly sophisticated. The tiniest traces are now used to track down perpetrators. Criminality is harder and harder to get away with, and that of course is a good thing.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker, though, are pretty unique in the annals of crime. The clearest evidence of that is that when people refer to them, which many people do even in 2018, they seldom refer to Clyde Barrow’s little criminal enterprise as the “Barrow gang.” No, it’s usually “Bonnie and Clyde.” Without Bonnie Parker, it’s very likely that Clyde Barrow, despite his obvious skill at evading law enforcement, would have gone down in history as just another of many Depression-era outlaws.
The glamorization of the Barrow gang, which continues to this day, has everything to do with Bonnie Parker. At the time she was heavily promoted by the media as a cigar-smoking, gun-toting sociopath, anxious to kill police officers. The glamorization of criminals is an old story in America, and a female criminal is entertainment gold in the world of “true crime.” A pair of lovers, both engaged in criminality, is even more sensational.
The result is often a curious convergence of opposites. On the one hand there are those who despise them for being ruthless thrill-killers, joy-riding through a blood-soaked crime spree. On the other than there are those who seem to adore them – for being ruthless thrill-killers, joy-riding through a blood-soaked crime spree. The one thing many people cannot abide, seemingly, is the notion that their lives were full of very unglamorous horror, desperation, suffering, and infighting. The result is that the disconnect between image and reality is rarely as great as it is in the story of Bonnie and Clyde.
When I was in college, I happened to come across an old paperback entitled The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde. First published in 1934, it relates the story of the gang from the perspective of Bonnie’s mother, Emma Parker, and Clyde’s older sister, Nell Barrow Cowan, who he was very close to. This book is freely available at the link at the bottom of this post. Their stories have clearly been quite edited to make them more readable, but the book makes no attempt to whitewash the crimes committed by the Barrow gang or to justify them. It does, however, paint a very different picture of events from the sensationalized and glamorized portrayals that are so common to this day. Another of Clyde’s sisters, Lilian Marie, who was a teenager during the gang’s run from the law, lived until 1999 and offered fascinating insights in interviews.
Many other books about the gang have been published, as new information has come in. The picture that emerges is surprisingly detailed, including first-hand accounts by gang members like W.D. Jones and Blanche Barrow. Blanche wrote a memoir during her time in prison. Remarkably, most people were quite unaware of its existence. It was only discovered among her effects years after her death. There are a lot of things we don’t know about Bonnie and Clyde. But there are a lot of things we can be pretty sure about.
One thing many people don’t realize about these 2 people is how young they were when they died. Clyde was only 24. Bonnie only 23. They met when Bonnie was 19. Prior to this, Bonnie Parker had no criminal history whatever. She worshipped her mother, was a good student, and enjoyed writing and performing in front of others. She was quite mischievous though, and seems to have had quite a temper. She often got in fights with other children. More significantly, she had a history of attaching herself to criminals. Her husband Roy Thornton, who she married at the age of 15, had frequent brushes with law enforcement, and was in prison at the time of her death. Her younger sister Billie Jean also married a man who had run-ins with the law and served time. Billie Jean did give assistance to the gang during their time on the run and was imprisoned for a year. But unlike Bonnie, she went on to live a quiet, law-abiding existence, living to the age of 81.
Bonnie’s poetry gives considerable insight into her personality. She had a fatalism about her, and she obviously had no illusions about her relationship with Clyde. It is clear that she developed a cynicism about the world in general. It is equally clear that she had no intention of leaving Clyde, and was well aware of the consequences of that decision. In her poem “The Story of Suicide Sal,” she writes:
There I fell for “the line” of a “henchman,”
A “professional killer” from “Chi;”
I couldn’t help loving him madly;
For him even now I would die.
This poem was written in the spring of 1932, when Bonnie was in jail awaiting trial for robbery and was only 21. Her poem “The Street Girl” is even more revealing. In it she declines an offer of marriage from a fictional suitor, describing herself as “only a girl from the street.” She writes:
Back there on the farm in Nebraska,
I might have said, “yes” to you then;
But I thought that the world was a playground
Just teeming with Santa Claus men;
So I left the old home for the city,
To play in its mad, dizzy whirl,
Never knowing how little of pity,
It holds for the slip of a girl.
Bonnie Parker was a person with big dreams, in a slum of West Dallas during the Depression. It is very apparent that in time she became quite cynical about the world, even as she maintained her loyalty to Clyde Barrow. In “The Street Girl,” she continues:
Don’t spring that old gag of reforming,
A girl hardly ever comes back,
Too many are eager and waiting
To guide her feet off the track.
A man can break every commandment,
And the world still will lend him a hand,
Yet, a girl that has loved but un-wisely
Is an outcast all over the land.
From the day she met Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker began to be involved in robberies. For the first few years of this, no one was killed. In the summer of 1932, when Clyde was 22 and Bonnie 21, Clyde was involved in the murder of a police officer. Bonnie was not present. But from that time, as long as she clung to Clyde, her fate was sealed. Clyde Barrow had no intention of being captured alive. Why let yourself be captured if you are quite sure you will end up in the electric chair?
Clyde Barrow became involved in crime at a young age, primarily with the encouragement of his older brother Buck. By the time he was 16, he and his brother were routinely stealing cars and were well known to law enforcement. Ironically, Buck had no fondness for guns and never used them in these early days. Clyde, on the other hand, demonstrated a love of guns from his earliest years.
At the age of 20 he was sent to the notorious Eastham prison, where he acquired a burning hatred for police officers and prison guards. Yet the reputation of Bonnie and Clyde as ruthless thrill-killers is blatantly contradicted by at least 3 episodes in which they kidnapped police officers rather than killing them, eventually releasing them unharmed. On one occasion, after stealing a car belonging to an undertaker, the owner and his girlfriend jumped into another car and gave chase. Clyde was amused and decided to teach them a lesson. He stopped, taking them captive. He released them that night with $5 expense money.
In the spring of 1934, less than 2 months before they were killed, Bonnie and Clyde were involved in a brief gun battle with 2 police officers near Commerce, Oklahoma. Constable Cal Campbell was killed. Chief of Police Percy Boyd was wounded, though not severely, and raised his hands in surrender. The gang’s car was stuck in a ditch, and rather than kill Boyd, Clyde took him captive while the car was extracted. The car was freed and the gang raced away with Boyd in the back seat. Over the next several hours, Bonnie and Chief Boyd conversed freely about their families. Bonnie had a white rabbit at the time and asked Boyd to get it to her mother if anything happened to them. Eventually the gang let Boyd out, with a new shirt, a tie, and expense money. “Bonnie, what shall I tell the world when I go back?” he asked. “Tell them I don’t smoke cigars!” was her reply. Every single instance of murder involving the Barrow gang involved heat-of-the-moment situations.
There was one instance, related by Clyde’s sister, in which Clyde did vow to kill police officers. This was following a shootout in in which both Bonnie’s and Clyde’s mothers were present. Clyde was furious at law enforcement for putting his mother, and hers, in such danger – a violation of his “code.” By his sister’s account she was able to talk him out of premeditated murder.
As for Bonnie, there is zero evidence of any blood lust, and plenty of evidence to the contrary. Clyde’s sister Nell relates a conversation with her brother in which he tells of an old man in Okabena, Minnesota, who tried to stop them by throwing log in front of their car. Clyde had told Bonnie “Honey, shoot him before he wrecks us.” Bonnie did nothing, and Clyde had to swerve sharply to avoid the log, almost turning the car over. “Why in the name of God didn’t you shoot him?” he demanded. “It’s a wonder we weren’t all killed.” “Why Honey, I wasn’t going to kill that nice old man,” she replied. “He was white-headed.”
Clyde’s sister Nell relates more than one conversation with her brother after he had been involved in a gun battle, in which she demanded to know if he had killed someone. One of those conversations is quite revealing:
“But how did you feel, Clyde,” I wanted to know. “How did you feel, knowing you’d killed another man?” “Like I always felt – sick inside – sick and cold and weak – and a sort of dull wishing I’d never been born. You see, Sis, it’s hard to make you understand, because you’ve never faced it. But it comes so quickly and it happens in an instant – you’re there and they’re there – they’ve got guns and you’ve got guns – you know it’s going to be you or them and there’s no time to think about anything else. You grit your teeth and come down on it – they do the same unless you beat them to it. In that case, they’re telling the story and not you, the next day. Then it’s over and done and no going back – you’ve killed a man. You see him lying there, if it’s daylight and you’ve time to wait and look. Life’s gone – you took it – and he’ll never live and breathe and laugh again. But if he’d beat you to it, you’d be lying there like that. It gets mixed up – it seems senseless – the whole business – them killing you – you killing them – you wonder why you were born – why anyone was ever born – why God should bother with the whole mess. And you feel so helpless, so unable to do anything about it – and then you run away and get sick, that’s all.”
I’ve tried to put it down like he told it to me, jerkingly, in little spurts, his hands passing nervously over his face as he talked. I thought perhaps it might interest people to know how just he said he felt when he’d killed a man. It interested me, for I knew if anyone else asked Clyde what I had ask him, he’d have said: “Hell, it was them or me – why should I feel anyway about saving my own neck, but glad?” But he wouldn’t talk that way to me, and I thought you might like to know what he said.
Clyde had a very bad temper, and in the heat of the moment he was quite capable of brutality. Even Bonnie did not escape his wrath – in Joplin he “knocked her across the bedroom a couple of times,” according to Blanche. Bonnie, however, was far from a submissive pushover under Clyde’s thumb, and was not shy about picking up a weapon. Ironically, it was a quarrel with Clyde over going to visit her mother that led Bonnie to pull a shotgun on him. His brother Buck was so alarmed that he yanked the gun out of her hands. Everyone, it seems, fought with everyone – Clyde with Bonnie, Clyde with Buck, Bonnie with Buck, Bonnie with Blanche.
It was the famous Joplin gun battle in 1933 that initiated Bonnie Parker’s image as a ruthless criminal. In their haste to escape, the gang had left behind undeveloped film. Among other pictures were those showing Bonnie and Clyde in playful poses, including Bonnie with a cigar in her mouth and pointing a shotgun at Clyde. Bonnie was quite bothered by the publication of these, especially the implication that she smoked cigars.
It was the murder of 2 young police officers, Edward Wheeler, only 26 years old, and H.D. Murphy, 22, in Grapevine, Texas on Easter Sunday of 1934, that galvanized law enforcement to put an end to the Barrow gang, and turned the public, which to an extent had romanticized them, against the outlaws. More specifically, it was the media’s portrayal of those murders that created the image of the pair as cold-blooded sociopaths, Bonnie in particular. There is no evidence that Wheeler and Murphy knew who they were approaching. They were gunned down before they could even ask a question. An “eyewitness” by the name of William Schieffer made the claim that Bonnie emptied a shotgun into one of the officers as he lay dying, even laughing and remarking that his head bounced as she shot him. This story was widely and prominently reported in the press. Bonnie and Clyde would be dead before the summer.
Clyde, in fact, who openly admitted his own killings to his family, told them that it was young gang member Henry Methvin who started shooting. Clyde had intended to kidnap the officers, and told Methvin “Let’s take ‘em.” Methvin was very inexperienced and assumed this meant shoot to kill. Methvin killed Wheeler and Murphy tried to retrieve his shotgun. At that point Clyde shot him. Clyde was reportedly furious at Methvin for firing on the officers without any provocation at all. Notably, Methvin was hardly even mentioned in press reports. Meanwhile, “eyewitness” William Schieffer changed his story a number of times before finally admitting that he was seeking publicity and any reward money that might be offered. Other than Schieffer’s discredited account, there is nothing to support the characterization of Bonnie Parker as a sadistic monster.
Methvin was never prosecuted for these murders. It is ironic that Bonnie Parker was vilified for the murder of 2 young police officers in Grapevine, while retired Texas Ranger Frank Hamer was able to track her down and kill her by arranging a pardon to Methvin for that very crime. The media of the time portrayed Hamer and the other posse members was heroes. In fairness, it is likely that other police officers would have died if Clyde Barrow had continued to roam the countryside. Justice, however, is another story.
As far as glamour goes, every first-hand account of the gang’s activities paints a picture that is anything but glamorous. In most Hollywood portrayals, Bonnie and Clyde seldom, if ever, get badly wounded by gunfire – not until the end. The truth is they were seriously wounded on more than one occasion, and had to endure their painful injuries without hospitals or even doctors. “Sometimes we was hurt so bad it seemed like the end,” says W.D. Jones in the Playboy interview. In the summer of 1933, Clyde missed warning signs of a bridge out and flipped the car in a ravine. A fire started, and Bonnie was badly burned. “The hide on her right leg was gone, from her hip down to her ankle. I could see the bone at places,” Jones related. Her leg never healed properly. Less than 2 months later, both of them were shot while fleeing a posse near Dexter, Iowa. In September of 1933, Bonnie and Clyde visited their families. “Bonnie was still unable to walk,” Nell relates. “She was miserably thin and much older. Her leg was drawn up under her. Her body was covered with scars. Clyde also showed signs of what he had undergone.”
Before the end of 1933, both Bonnie and Clyde would be shot yet again, fleeing an ambush near Sowers, Texas. The last year of their lives was characterized by constant suffering – painful gunshot wounds, sleeping in the car most of the time, exposure to the elements, and constant fear of detection. Expensive clothes would be the one thing they could indulge in, and they kept themselves clean. Clyde usually wore a suit and tie. Bonnie generally wore long, stylish dresses. Dressing well and staying clean undoubtedly helped them avoid being perceived as desperate outlaws on the run. They were also reportedly polite and were often mistaken as college students. Money was not usually a problem. The problem was spending it without someone recognizing them.
The last moments of their lives were in many ways the culmination of the divide between image and reality that surrounded Bonnie and Clyde. The circumstances were anything but glamorous. Various depictions on television and the big screen are almost always wildly at variance with any eyewitness accounts. To make matters worse, the witnesses (primarily the posse members) blatantly contradicted each other about many details in later years.
We can be reasonably sure that they died in a car on a very ordinary country road without firing a shot back. In many contemporary accounts of the ambush, one of the officers is reported to have shouted a warning. A NY Times article claimed that Clyde had tried to run down the posse with his car. Quite generally, the officers were made to look heroic and the outlaws monstrous. The details of what transpired we can never know with any certainty.
It is very likely that no warning was given, or if it was, the posse members did not wait for a response. A few of the posse members had already been in gun battles with Clyde and knew that he was very adept at escape if warning was given. Some of the posse members later stated plainly that no warning was given, that they were taking no chances. Ted Hinton, one of the posse members, later reported that Bonnie let out a long scream after the first shots were fired. Hinton, who had known Bonnie in earlier years, also later claimed that she was still breathing when he opened the passenger side door, and died in his arms. In addition, he made the claim that the posse had actually tied up Henry Methvin’s father to make sure he didn’t warn the outlaws about the posse, and that posse leader Frank Hamer had sworn all of the posse members to secrecy on this point. These claims by Hinton will probably never be either refuted or verified.
One reason Clyde had been able to escape so many gun battles previously were his stolen Browning automatic rifles. These were military weapons, with clips of 20 rounds, firing 8-10 high-velocity rounds per second. Of course, great firepower in the hands of criminals inevitably leads to great firepower in the hands of law enforcement. Ted Hinton used a Browning automatic rifle in the ambush. 2 other posse members had semi-automatic rifles. These powerful rifles were emptied before the car even came alongside their position. Shotguns were also emptied into the car, and finally, hand guns. Bonnie was tiny, only about 5 feet in height and weighing less than 90 pounds, yet her little body was as bullet-ridden as Clyde’s, if not more so. Most of the posse members, including Hamer, were out of their jurisdiction and were not properly sworn in. At the time there was little controversy about whether the posse acted lawfully. Bonnie and Clyde were gone, that was for the best, and the details were unimportant, most believed. Today there is plenty of controversy. But there is little doubt that Bonnie Parker was well aware, even determined, that her life would end violently alongside Clyde Barrow.
My point in all of this is that, as with so many things, the image of Bonnie and Clyde is far from the reality. They were not “Robin Hoods” stealing from heartless bankers to give to the needy. Most of the money they robbed came from company payrolls and cash registers. Nor were they ruthless thrill-seekers engaging in violence for its own sake. One cannot help but wonder, if Bonnie’s circumstances had been different, if she would have, like her sister Billie Jean, eventually lived a quiet, law-abiding life. One cannot help but wonder how many people we meet every day might be potential Bonnies or Clydes, if their circumstances were different.