WORDS: Brenda Baskin
IMAGES: Public Domain
In 1930, nineteen-year-old Bonnie Parker was working as a waitress at Hargraves Café in Glass City, near Dallas. In her spare time, she read romance novels, wrote stories and poetry and dreamed of a far more glamorous life than her Depression-era reality. A petite, pretty girl, she’d married Roy Thornton when she was only fifteen years old. From the beginning, it was obvious that things weren’t going to be all hearts and roses. “I have a roaming husband with a roaming mind,” she confessed in her diary.
After Roy was imprisoned for robbery, Bonnie tried to make ends meet while he served his five-year sentence. Although she’d given up on their marriage, she felt guilty about divorcing him while he was in the slammer. Hargraves Café had fallen on hard times, and she began picking up extra money doing housework for a neighbor. That neighbor was dating Clyde Barrow, a petty thief with a fifth-grade education, but their relationship ended when he met Bonnie. The two were instantly smitten with one another.
The youngest son of a sharecropper, Clyde also had big dreams. Like Bonnie, he yearned to escape his harsh, impoverished life. He taught himself to play the saxophone, and at one time considered a career in music. Aspiring to join the U.S. Navy, he’d even had “USN” tattooed on his arm. But he was rejected due to the aftereffects of a childhood illness, and instead continued the life of petty crime that had begun in his adolescence. By age eight, the court system deemed him “incorrigible.” His first formal arrest was for car theft at age seventeen. Shortly after he and Bonnie met, he was jailed on an old burglary charge. He escaped using a gun she smuggled in during a visit, but he was soon recaptured and sent to Eastham Prison Farm in Waldo, Texas, where he was to begin serving a fourteen-year sentence.
His experience was so brutal that at one point, he cut off two of his toes with an axe to avoid the hard labor prisoners had to endure. He was unaware that he was to be paroled six days later, after having served two years of his sentence. When he was released, Bonnie was waiting for him. She was still wearing Roy’s ring, but Clyde had won her heart.
The two immediately teamed up with various criminals, and after Clyde’s brother Buck was released from prison in 1933, he and his new wife Blanche joined them. For the next two years, the Barrow Gang traveled the country, robbing banks, gas stations and grocery stores from Texas to Minnesota. They stole cars, held up strangers and kidnapped (then later released) the occasional law enforcement official, just to prove they could outsmart the men who were on their trail. When they kidnapped ordinary citizens, it was usually to steal their cars and get directions, and they’d often give their victims a little money for their time and trouble.
Bonnie saw romance in it all, and wrote poetry to describe their adventures. In the “Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde,” she seemed unrepentant of their crime spree, and described her man Clyde as a desperate, misunderstood sort with nothing left to lose.
They call them cold-blooded killers;
They say they are heartless and mean;
But I say this with pride,
That I once knew Clyde
When he was honest and upright and clean.
But the laws fooled around,
Kept taking him down
And locking him up in a cell,
Till he said to me,
“I’ll never be free,
So I’ll meet a few of them in hell.”
Both were small in stature (Clyde was five-feet, six and three-quarters inches, Bonnie was four-foot-ten), but they left a huge impression on the American public. During those tough, Depression-Era days, poor folks often rooted for the outlaws. Tabloids published stories of gangsters’ exploits, and few were as salacious as those of Bonnie and Clyde. Not only was the couple “living in sin,” but Bonnie was still married to someone else.
The gang holed up in Joplin, Missouri for a while, and were anything but low-key. They held loud, all-night card parties, and drank a case of beer a day. Neighbors reported them to police after hearing gunfire. When officers decided to raid their hideout, Clyde, Buck and another gang member killed two of them and wounded one before escaping. Police discovered some of Bonnie’s poetry, and a roll of film the couple had left behind. The flowery words and scandalous images were posted in newspapers across the country. There was little Bonnie, chewing a cigar and holding a gun, one foot propped up in a most unladylike fashion on the bumper of a car. Another image showed the lovebirds kissing; in another, Clyde hoisted Bonnie on his shoulder like a first-place trophy. The photos burned the couple’s iconic image into the public’s mind. Bonnie never fired a shot during her years with Clyde, but from then on, she’d always be known as a gun-toting gangster moll.
Clyde, determined to never again return to prison, killed anyone he deemed a threat to his freedom. Thirteen people died during the Barrow Gang’s crime spree, almost all of them law officers who cornered them. Bonnie and Clyde’s faces were now famous — they appeared in newspapers and on wanted posters. Anonymity was impossible. The more people they killed, the more public sentiment turned against them. No longer able to rely on sympathetic citizens to help hide them, the gang often traveled back roads and hid in the woods. But things changed after Clyde crashed their car while speeding around a curve in Wellington, Texas in his stocking feet. The car rolled over several times and landed on its side, pinning Bonnie underneath. Battery acid poured over her legs, burning her so badly that it appeared she’d die from her injuries. She refused to leave Clyde to go to the hospital. The Barrow Gang needed to find a place for her to recuperate. They decided to head for Arkansas.
On June 15, 1933, Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and seventeen-year-old gang member W.D. Jones checked into unit sixteen, a small cabin at the Dennis Tourist Camp, at the corner of Midland and Waldron Avenues in Fort Smith. Bonnie and Clyde identified themselves to the proprietors as the “McCrays.” Before long, the gang had run low on cash. It was time for another crime spree. On the evening of June 22, Buck Barrow and W.D. Jones headed to Alma, while Clyde and Blanche stayed behind to tend to Bonnie’s wounds.
The two men tied up Henry Humphrey, Alma’s town marshal, as he patrolled the sidewalk in front of the Alma Commercial Bank. After stealing his flashlight and his gun, they tried unsuccessfully to rob the bank’s safe.
The following day, Buck and W.D. held up Nell Brown’s Grocery Store on Lafayette Street in Fayetteville, escaping with twenty dollars and a delivery truck, which they ditched a few blocks away. They decided to steal a less conspicuous vehicle instead, a sedan with Indiana tags.
Police were alerted as the pair headed back toward Ft. Smith. This time, as they passed through Alma, Marshal Humphrey was on the lookout for them. Barrow and Jones would have made it through town without incident, but coming over a hill, they crashed into the back of another car. Unaware of the crash victims’ identities, Humphrey and his deputy, A.M. Salyer, raced to the scene to help them. By the time they saw the Indiana tags, it was too late. Using one of their car doors as a shield, Buck Barrow and W.D. Jones began shooting as the lawmen approached. Marshal Humphrey, who had only been on the job for two months, was killed.
The outlaws fled in Salyer’s car. They abandoned it down the road and commandeered another, which they deserted near Van Buren. Later accounts stated that they caught a ride into town with a farmer, hid out until nightfall, then crossed the Frisco Railroad Bridge and walked back to the Dennis Tourist Camp, at which point the entire Barrow Gang escaped.
By the end of their ten-day Arkansas stay, the Barrow Gang was wanted for a number of offenses, including robbery, murder and assault. Albert Maxey, Van Buren’s sheriff, offered a $250 reward for the capture of either Clyde or Buck, but no one ever got the reward. Buck died of a gunshot wound the following month, in Platte City, Missouri.
On May 23, 1934, Bonnie and Clyde were killed in a police ambush on a dusty rural road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. Over 130 rounds of bullets were fired into their stolen car. Bonnie was twenty-three years old; Clyde was twenty-five.
Two weeks prior to their deaths, the fugitive sweethearts secretly made one final visit to Texas, to see their families. Bonnie handed her mother a poem, prophetically entitled “The Trail’s End,” which ended with the lines:
“Some day they’ll go down together
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.”
Twenty-thousand people attended Bonnie’s funeral. Despite her daughter’s wishes, Mrs. Parker wouldn’t allow the couple to be buried together, and Clyde was interred at a cemetery ten miles away, beside his brother Buck. Despite the distance, in the world’s imagination, Bonnie Elizabeth Parker and Clyde Chestnut Barrow will forever remain inseparable.