Theirs was the most Texan of love stories: the good-hearted woman in love with the two-timing man.
Bonnie Parker was generous, sensitive, adventurous, compulsive, and doggedly loyal, a small flower of a girl with reddish-gold hair and profoundly blue eyes, vulnerable and fragile and yet tough as nails and willful to the extreme. Clyde Barrow was a scrawny little psychopath with jug ears and the sense of humor of a persimmon, cruel, egotistical, obsessive, vindictive, and so devoid of compassion that he appeared to care more for his machine gun and his saxophone than he did for the women in his life. She had the soul of a poet; he had the heart of a rattlesnake. She wanted a home and children. He wanted revenge. Yet she loved him desperately, and over the course of their 21-month spree of robbing, killing, and running from the law, he came to love her too. Visiting their grave sites on a cold, blustery day in early December, I couldn’t help thinking: This is as good as it gets for people like them. Born losers, they made a pact with the devil and with each another. By himself, Clyde Barrow would today be a pathetic footnote, another gangster from that remarkable era when desperadoes such as John Dillinger, George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd captured the public fancy. Alone, Bonnie Parker would be long forgotten. Together, Bonnie and Clyde are an intrinsic part of our mythology. The ill-fated West Dallas lovers had no illusions that they would come to anything except the worst ending and had specifically requested that they be buried together. Bonnie’s mama nixed that idea. “He had her for two years,” Emma Parker said. “Look what it got her. She’s mine now.”
In the 66 years since they were shot to pieces by a posse on a lonely stretch of road near Gibsland, Louisiana, they have become cult figures, able to transcend generations. Thousands of Bonnie and Clyde devotees connect through dozens of Web sites. They argue over such minutiae as Bonnie’s shoe size (three), the real color of the 1934 Ford V-8 “death car” (cordoba gray), and who really pulled the trigger on Hillsboro jeweler John N. Bucher in 1932 (an obscure Barrow gang member named Ted Rogers). Relics are scattered across the country, some in the most unlikely of places. The death car is on display in the lobby of Whiskey Pete’s Casino in Primm, Nevada, 45 miles south of Las Vegas, as is Clyde’s blood-soaked and bullet-tattered shirt. The shirt alone cost the casino $85,000. A collector in Colorado is replicating the car to the exact condition as when it was stolen in Topeka, Kansas, in 1934. Another devotee is building a one-twenty-fifth-scale model of the car, complete with bullet holes, broken glass, and tiny models of the torn bodies of Bonnie and Clyde. Bonnie’s bloody eyeglasses are owned by a man in Massachusetts. Clyde’s sunglasses, one lens shot away, are part of the collection at the Red Man Museum in Waco, which also includes Bonnie’s makeup kit and a tablet of her poetry. Locks of their hair and pieces of their clothing, salvaged at the scene of the ambush by ghoulish spectators, reside in anonymous private collections. (Only quick action by lawmen prevented one trophy hunter from amputating Clyde’s trigger finger.) Many of the guns carried by the two outlaws ended up in the estate of Texas Ranger captain Frank Hamer, who led the six-man posse that performed the summary execution. The most intriguing of these weapons is a Colt .38 detective special that was taped to Bonnie’s inside thigh when she was killed. Hamer called it her squat gun, since she was “squatting on it” at the time of her death. He speculated that she hid it in one of the few spots “no gentleman officer would search.”
Their legend is depicted in songs by singers as diverse as Merle Haggard and Brigitte Bardot, and in poems, plays, books, and at least eleven movie versions. Four movies and companion books were produced by J. Edgar Hoover, whose intent was to glorify the FBI and destroy the glamour of the outlaws. “I’m going to tell the truth about these rats,” Hoover vowed. “I’m going to tell the truth about that dirty, filthy, diseased woman.” Director Fritz Lang’s You Only Live Once, shot about two years after the fatal ambush, completely rewrites history, telling of a truck driver (Henry Fonda) wrongly accused of murder during a bank robbery and sentenced to death. Like Clyde Barrow, he mutilates himself and gets his wife (Sylvia Sidney) to smuggle a gun into prison. Bonnie e Clyde all-italiana, a 1983 Italian film, depicts them as a pair of bumblers.
The best and most popular film is director Arthur Penn’s 1967 screen masterpiece Bonnie and Clyde. It’s the story of two likable social misfits, played by a 28-year-old Warren Beatty and a previously unknown actress named Faye Dunaway, whose sexuality, bravado, and just-folks demeanor allow the outlaws to emerge as folk heroes. The screenplay prescribes that the first time Clyde shows Bonnie his gun, she touch it “in a manner almost sexual, full of repressed excitement.” To impress her, Clyde immediately robs a grocery store. Crazed now by desire, she smothers him with hugs and kisses as their car careens wildly down a country road. Clyde rejects her advances, setting up one of the movie’s several memorable premises: that Clyde was either homosexual or impotent. “I might as well tell you right off,” he confesses. “I ain’t much of a lover boy.” Angry and hurt, Bonnie tells him, “Your advertisin’ is just dandy. Folks would never guess you don’t have a thing to sell.” But Dunaway’s Bonnie is a woman who is bored and desperate to leave her dead-end job as a waitress. Naturally she is intrigued by Clyde’s promise of excitement and adventure. Soon they are bopping from bank job to bank job, making Keystone Kops getaways to the jaunty banjo strains of Flatt and Scruggs’s “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Near the finish of the movie, Clyde is overwhelmed by her loyalty, her courage, her beauty, and most of all, her poetry. Bonnie and Clyde consummate their love in an open field shortly after she recites her magnum opus, a poem titled “The Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” which ends with these lines:
Some day, they’ll go down together
And they’ll bury them side by side
To a few, it’ll be grief—
To the law, a relief—
But it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.
Most of the 38 people on the Dallas Historical Society’s Bonnie and Clyde tour in December knew little about the lives and crimes of the famous pair except what they’d seen in the 1967 movie. The tour is a semi-annual five-hour marathon that takes visitors to ten sites in the Dallas area, where both Bonnie and Clyde grew up. As it progressed, I soon realized that the real outlaws weren’t nearly as romantic as Dunaway and Beatty and that the fear and desperation that ruled their lives and destroyed the lives of so many others can’t be played on a banjo. The question of Clyde’s sexual abilities, of course, fascinated all of us. Some researchers believe that the brutality of his two years in prison had made Clyde sexually dysfunctional. John Treherne, a Cambridge scholar who wrote The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde, speculated that Barrow was a violent man who could “initiate but not sustain a full sexual relationship.” Our tour guide, author John Neal Phillips, had a different view. Phillips is the author of Running With Bonnie and Clyde: The Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults, one of the best and most thoroughly researched books on the subject, based on interviews with several surviving members of the Barrow gang, including Ralph Fults and Buck Barrow’s wife, Blanche. He also talked to Clyde’s first known girlfriend, Eleanor B. Williams, who told him emphatically, “Clyde Barrow had no problems sexually.” We began the tour by inspecting two locations near the Dallas County courthouse and another on Swiss Avenue, where a teenage Bonnie had worked as a waitress in the years before her introduction to Clyde. She was married at the time to a safecracker named Roy Thornton. When Bonnie fell, she fell hard. In a rush of girlish devotion, she had her name and his tattooed inside a heart on her upper thigh. Thornton was a lousy husband who disappeared for weeks at a time. She vowed to friends that she would never take him back and resolved “to take no men or nothing seriously. Let all men go to hell!” Two years later, however, Clyde appeared in her life—they met by accident at the home of a mutual friend—and it was love at first sight. Too loyal to divorce Thornton, she continued wearing his ring until the day she died. Clyde Barrow, however, was truly the love of her life.
The perpetually mean streets of West Dallas look today much as they did in the thirties. As the tour bus crossed the Continental Street Viaduct (called the West Dallas Viaduct back then), we were told that this was the neighborhood where the Barrow brothers, Bonnie Parker, Roy Thornton, Raymond and Floyd Hamilton, and a lot of other desperadoes grew up. Then it was called the Devil’s Back Porch. Even though it festered in the shadows of downtown Dallas, the city ignored the disgrace of the Porch for years; West Dallas wasn’t even incorporated until 1952. In Bonnie and Clyde’s day only two of the streets were paved. Few of the houses had running water or electricity, and some of them didn’t have doors or window glass. Jobs were almost nonexistent. Disease and crime went unchecked. Cops who walked the Porch did so in pairs and never by choice. The Brick Hotel, a two-story beer hall, gambling parlor, and dope den, was an infamous safe house for outlaws and fugitives such as Machine Gun Kelly.
Singleton Boulevard, the main drag today, is a jumble of auto repair shops, junkyards, warehouses, cafes, service stations, and small framehouses with “Beware of the Dog” signs out front. The homes and businesses are owned mostly by Hispanics and blacks. The place looked much the same in the thirties, except the main drag was called Eagle Ford Road and the homes and businesses were owned by poor whites. In the decades between 1920 and 1940 the population of Dallas almost doubled as thousands of families were forced off their land by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. They settled in squatters’ camps under the viaducts and along the river bottom, living in tents and cardboard lean-tos. Henry Barrow, an illiterate sharecropper, moved his wife, Cumie, and their seven children from the small town of Telico, southeast of Dallas, to a camp on Muncie Street, next to the West Dallas railroad track. Clyde was eleven at the time and never forgot the humiliation of his squatters’ camp initiation. He enrolled in the sixth grade at Sidney Lanier Elementary School but quit after about a week, moved in with his older sister, Nell, and took a job at a candy company. Nell spoiled him. Her husband, a musician, taught Clyde to play the saxophone, which, along with guns, became a lifelong obsession. Soon he was supplementing his income by stealing bicycles and hubcaps. Meanwhile, Henry Barrow built a three-room house for his remaining family and hacked out a meager living picking up scrap metal in his horse cart and selling it. When his horse was killed by a car while crossing the Houston Street Viaduct, Henry sued and won a small sum. With the money, he moved his house to a vacant lot on Eagle Ford Road and converted the front room into a service station and store. The building that used to be the Barrows’ home and their service station–store stands today at the corner of Singleton and Borger.
In the thirties Eagle Ford Road (now Singleton) was a well-known escape route for Clyde and his gang. They called it the back door. After a holdup or during a police chase, Clyde would accelerate whatever car he happened to be stealing across the West Dallas Viaduct, down Eagle Ford Road, across the Trinity’s west fork at the old ford, then negotiate the rutted dirt road to Irving and disappear into the vast isolation of North Texas and the Great Plains. Similarly, the Barrow gang used the back door to sneak back into West Dallas when Bonnie could no longer stand another day away from her beloved mother. Clyde maintained favor with the neighbors by distributing large sums of cash, buying not only goodwill but also silence. In one of Bonnie’s poems the old neighborhood is celebrated as the Great Divide:
From Irving to West Dallas Viaduct
Is known as the Great Divide
Where the women are kin,
And men are men,
And they won’t “stool” on Bonnie and Clyde.
Around the corner from the old gas station sits a small frame duplex that was used in the thirties as a safe house for outlaws; on its front porch Clyde blew apart Tarrant County deputy Malcolm Davis, who was a member of a posse that surprised him one night. The home of Barrow gang members Raymond and Floyd Hamilton sits nearby. Up the hill on Fort Worth Avenue, in one corner of a picturesque pre–Civil War cemetery called Western Heights, is the Barrow family plot. Clyde is buried next to his older brother, Marvin “Buck” Barrow, who died after a shootout with the cops in Dexfield Park, Iowa, nine months before Clyde got it. Their joint headstone reads “Gone but Not Forgotten.” The headstone is embedded in a foot of concrete to prevent trophy hunters from carrying it away. “Someone used to steal it every Texas–OU weekend,” Phillips told us. “One time the police recovered it from the home of a prominent businessman who was using it as a coffee table to entertain his weekend guests.”
Bonnie grew up a few miles to the west of the Devil’s Back Porch, on the farm of her maternal grandmother, near a dismal company town named Cement City. She attended Eagle Ford elementary school, which stands abandoned on Chalk Hill Road, across from the site of the old cement plant. She was a bright and popular student, winning prizes in essay writing and spelling, a natural show-off who loved playacting and being the center of attention. Famously tenderhearted, she would break a pencil in two and give half to a classmate who couldn’t afford one, but she could also be tough. When a boy upstaged her during a school play, Bonnie decked him on the spot. The audience broke into applause, inspiring Bonnie to execute a series of cartwheels and somersaults. Bonnie dreamed of a career as a singer, an actress, or a poet. If she hadn’t quit Cement City High after her sophomore year, she might have made it, though chances are we wouldn’t know her name today.
Bonnie fretted that people wouldn’t understand her, and she was right. J. Edgar Hoover characterized her in his anti-crime books and films as a vulgar, scheming seductress. In the 1958 movie The Bonnie Parker Story, she was a brassy blonde who heaves a frying pan of sizzling grease at “Guy Darrow” in their first meeting. Soon, however, she succumbs to his promises of easy money and fast living. Even the Arthur Penn version paints her as something of a nihilistic tramp. The real Bonnie Parker wasn’t interested in money and cheap thrills; she merely had the misfortune to love a man who was. Nor was she a killer. Although Penn’s movie shows her as adept with a machine gun, she in fact did not like guns at all. John Neal Phillips’ research has turned up just a single incident in which she fired a weapon. She shot herself in the foot while picking up one of Clyde’s guns. It is true that she craved attention and respect. She spoke of “my public,” but with a sense of humor and a self-deprecation that lets us know she knew this was a one-way trip.
Sometimes her jokes backfired, as when she struck the famous pose with a cigar in her mouth, a pistol in her hand, and a foot cocked on the bumper of a car. These and other photographs were abandoned when the Barrow gang hastily retreated from two apartments they had rented in Joplin, Missouri, in the course of a bloody shootout with the police. After the photograph was published in nearly every newspaper across the country, Bonnie was forever branded as “the cigar-smoking moll.” She jumped at every opportunity to set the record straight, assuring a lawman the gang had taken hostage that she was a nice girl and that nice girls didn’t smoke cigars.
The final stop on our tour was Bonnie’s grave at Crown Hill Cemetery, on Webb Chapel Road north of Love Field. Her headstone is also sunk in concrete. Though none of their names appear there, three people that Bonnie loved dearly share her resting place: her mother, Emma, and her favorite niece and nephew, who died as children. They rest on top of Bonnie, as though sheltered through eternity in her arms. Apparently we were not the only visitors to the grave site that day. Two bunches of fresh flowers rested on the headstone, and nearby were the remains of four or five other bouquets from previous days. People who come here are moved by emotions they can’t always identify. They feel a need to say something but words fail. Instead they leave flowers, coins, notes, poetry, even, on one occasion, a deck of playing cards.
Bonnie and Clyde met at a portentous moment in American history. The stock market had just crashed, and banks were closing at an alarming rate. Unemployment was soaring; soon 13 million people would be out of work. Texas and the Midwest were additionally devastated by the worst drought of the century. Bootlegging was one of the few job opportunities available to the working class. After the repeal of Prohibition, robbing banks became a handy alternative. In 1933 the country recorded 50,000 robberies, 12,000 murders, and 3,000 kidnappings. A new breed of gangster was emerging—heavily armed and mobile. Bonnie didn’t realize at their first meeting that Clyde was already wanted for robberies in Sherman, Denton, and Waco. All she saw was an attractive man who seemed to like her. She immediately took him home to meet her mother. Clyde was sleeping on Emma Parker’s sofa when the cops came in and hauled him away. Bonnie screamed, cried, and beat her hands on the wall, begging the police not to take him. “I thought she was going crazy,” Mrs. Parker remembered. While Clyde was awaiting trial, Bonnie visited him in jail and wrote long, passionate letters: “I know you are good and I know you can make good. . . . This outside world is a swell place, and we are young and should be happy like other boys and girls instead of being like we are.”
Her first criminal act was a textbook example of love conquering fear and good judgment. She smuggled a .32 revolver, belted between her breasts, into the Waco jail. Clyde used it to escape. He was arrested a short time later and served two years at the infamous Eastham Prison Farm, 25 miles north of Huntsville. Her second attempt at crime was a disaster played as high comedy. It came a few weeks after Clyde’s parole, when she accompanied him and Ralph Fults in a botched attempt to rob a hardware store in Kaufman. Soon they were involved in a shootout with a night watchman and fleeing from an armed posse—by mule, by stolen car, and finally on foot. Abandoned by her lover in a drainage ditch, Bonnie spent a night in a one-room dirt-floor jail in the tiny town of Kemp. From there she was transferred to a cell in Kaufman, where she began writing her first poem, “The Story of Suicide Sal.” After her release, Bonnie mostly stayed home with her mother or with Clyde’s family, while he was out making a living and acquiring a reputation.
Clyde soon escalated from robber to killer. In August 1932 he and Raymond Hamilton had just robbed a packing company in Dallas and were sitting in a stolen car at an outdoor dance in Stringtown, Oklahoma, when a nosy sheriff walked up to ask questions. Barrow’s response was to pull his gun and shoot the sheriff, then shoot and kill one of his deputies. Barrow and Hamilton escaped in a volley of gunfire, wrecking their car and stealing several other cars on their way back to Dallas. Bonnie and her grandmother were sitting on their front porch when a member of the gang came with the bad news. Clyde had to make a run for it, and he wanted Bonnie to join him. She did not hesitate. From that night until the day they died, they were never apart for more than a few hours.
Between the summer of 1932 and the spring of 1934, they covered hundreds of thousands of miles, moving up and down the Midwest, robbing, killing, running from the law. Bonnie missed her mother terribly and was prone to crying jags. Clyde developed a system to get messages to their families and arrange clandestine reunions. When Emma Parker telephoned Cumie Barrow and said, “We’re having red beans for supper,” it was a signal that the kids were headed home. Clyde was manic behind the wheel, wrecking almost as many cars as he stole, but he developed special skills—such as skidding 180-degree turns—that made pursuing lawmen look foolish. He stole nothing except Ford V-8s, the gold standard of fast autos back then. The V-8 could hit 70 miles per hour in second gear and scream past 90 in third. With police officers stuck in four- or six-cylinder Plymouths or Chevrolets, it was no contest.
In the early thirties it seemed that gangsters had all the advantages. Archaic laws prevented cops from chasing crooks across county or state lines. Liaison between law authorities was almost nonexistent, especially in the days before radio communication was perfected. Cops communicated mostly by telephone, and the Barrow gang learned to climb poles and cut telephone wires on their way out of town. Their arsenal was far superior to anything most police departments could afford. They broke into National Guard Armories, taking crates of .45’s and Browning automatic rifles. The BAR was Clyde’s personal favorite. The weapon usually identified with cops and robbers of this period was the Thompson submachine gun, and though the Tommy was a terrifying weapon, Clyde considered it inaccurate and unreliable. The BAR, on the other hand, could fire a 20-round clip in three seconds and rip the side off an armored car. Clyde’s BAR was custom-fitted with a 57-round banana clip.
By the summer of 1933, when Buck Barrow and his wife, Blanche, joined up, the Barrow gang had gained a national reputation. Clyde had recruited a sixteen-year-old West Dallas boy named W. D. Jones, whose family had known the Barrows from their days in the squatters’ camp and who viewed Clyde as the most glamorous of heroes. In the movie version the character C. W. Moss, played by the unforgettable Michael J. Pollard, is a combination of W. D. Jones and a later gang member, Henry Methvin. The reunion of the Barrow brothers and their ladies was as happy (and as bloody) as depicted in the movie. They rented apartments above a two-car garage in Joplin, strategically positioned for a quick getaway. For a couple of weeks life was as normal as it could be for gangsters. Bonnie revised her poem, “Suicide Sal,” and cooked her favorite food, red beans with cabbage. Clyde, Buck, and W. D. worked on their cars and prowled neighboring towns at night, robbing small businesses. Blanche played solitaire and romped with her little dog, Snow Ball. The real Blanche wasn’t the weepy, hysterical preacher’s daughter portrayed so convincingly by Estelle Parsons but a willing member of the crime team, a stand-up gal right to the end.
Their peaceful world was shattered by one of their biggest shootouts with the police, who had surrounded the Joplin apartments. It seems to have been every bit as horrific as the movie version. “I never lived through such hell,” Bonnie recalled later. “Every minute seemed like it would be our last. Clyde was wounded, W. D.’s head was spouting blood, . . . and shells were spatting and snarling at us.”
For the next few weeks, the gang lived like nomads, constantly on the run, hiding out in creek bottoms and hobo camps, eating cold cans of beans and potted meat. They were broke, sick, exhausted, and half-crazy. Bonnie and Clyde quarreled frequently. She even announced that she was hitchhiking home to her mother. Clyde chased her across a cornfield and carried her back, kicking and crying. He did arrange for a family meeting, however, in the East Texas town of Commerce. At that meeting Emma Parker begged Bonnie to surrender. “Clyde’s name is up, Mama,” Bonnie told her mother. “He’ll be killed sooner or later because he’s never gonna give up. When he dies, I want to die too.”
A few weeks later Bonnie nearly did die, thanks to Clyde’s reckless driving. Driving at his customary lunatic clip across the Panhandle, Clyde failed to notice that the bridge over the Salt River had been washed away. Their car sailed across the dry wash, rolled over twice, landed upside down, and burst into flames. Bonnie was trapped inside. Clyde worked like a demon to free her as she screamed in pain and begged him to kill her. Two passing farmers finally rescued Bonnie, but she was close to death. Clyde remained constantly at her bedside at a tourist camp in Fort Smith, Arkansas. When she was able to travel, he carried her to and from the car, wrapped in a blanket. For once in his life, Clyde cared for someone other than himself. Maybe it wasn’t true love, but it was as close as his makeup permitted.
A few weeks later, in a shootout from a tourist court in Platte City, Missouri, Buck was critically wounded by a bullet that passed through his temple and exited his forehead. Blanche was nearly blinded by flying glass. The gang somehow escaped to a campground in Dexfield Park, Iowa, where they were again surrounded by a massive posse. As the others escaped, Blanche stayed behind with her dying husband. She was taken away in handcuffs and never saw Buck again. He died a few days later in a hospital in Perry, Iowa.
Bonnie, Clyde, and W. D. miraculously escaped on foot. They thrashed for hours through dense underbrush, bullets whining inches from their heads. They swam a river, stole a 1929 Plymouth, and hit the road again, wounded, exhausted, and desperate. A few weeks later, in Mississippi, Clyde sent Jones off alone to steal a car, and the boy just kept going. Apparently he had had enough of the glamorous outlaw life.
More peril lay ahead. Acting on a tip that the fugitives had scheduled a reunion with their mothers on an isolated road in northeast Dallas, Dallas County sheriff Smoot Schmid and his deputies waited in ambush, armed with two Thompson submachine guns and a .351 “bullhead” repeating rifle. Clyde smelled trouble and sped past the ambush. The posse shot up his car, but Bonnie and Clyde escaped on three flat tires with relatively minor wounds. In spite of these setbacks and the fact that nearly every lawman in the country was looking for them, Clyde was already planning his next big job: a daring—many would say insane—raid on the Eastham Prison Farm.
Historians have always believed that the famous prison break at Eastham in January 1934 was to free Raymond Hamilton, who was facing 263 years of hard time. Hamilton planned the escape himself, with some help from his older brother, Floyd, who rounded up the necessary guns and people. Why did Clyde Barrow agree to come along? Barrow and Hamilton had joined forces in 1932 but were bitter rivals by then. The Barrow gang was in tatters; death, arrest, desertion, and attrition had exacted a terrible toll. Bonnie and Clyde were at their lowest point. Why take such a risk? Only Clyde knew. He had never talked about his time at Eastham two years earlier, not to his family, not even to Bonnie. Prisons across the country were notoriously brutal and inhumane in the thirties, but this isolated prison farm was the worst of the worst. Beatings of prisoners were common, as were punishments such as being locked in a sheet metal sweatbox or made to “ride the barrel”—standing all day on a barrel, hands cuffed to an overhead pipe. A guard known as Boss Killer specialized in what inmates called spot killings. He would separate a particularly troublesome prisoner from the group, march him behind a hill, and summarily execute him with a pistol. Then he would file a report of another escape attempt thwarted by decisive action.
Clyde was just twenty when he arrived at Eastham, fresh meat for a vicious trusty named Big Ed Crowder who beat and raped him repeatedly. Humiliated and fearing for his life, Clyde lured Big Ed into the toilet one night and beat him to death with a lead pipe. With the exception of a few inmate friends, nobody knew about the rapes or the killing of Ed Crowder until many years later, when Ralph Fults began his series of interviews with author John Neal Phillips. Fults told of watching his friend Clyde become hard, bitter, and full of hate, mutating “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake.” Clyde cut off two of his toes in an attempt to get transferred out, but the ploy failed.
Clyde began planning his revenge while he was still in prison, formulating a plot so fantastic and far-fetched that friends thought it was a joke. After he was paroled, he confided to Fults, he would round up a gang, rob and steal until they had enough money and guns, and then raid the prison farm. They would shoot all the guards and free all the inmates. Clyde was obsessed with his plan and talked of nothing else for days, finally convincing Fults that the idea had merit. While he was recovering from the mutilation, Clyde learned that his parole had been approved. On February 2, 1932, after a little less than two years inside, he left prison on crutches. Clyde set aside his plans for raiding the prison farm. But he never forgot.
A cold fog shrouded Eastham on the early morning of January 16, 1934, as the line of prisoners trotted out to clear a field for spring planting. Raymond Hamilton and another prisoner, Joe Palmer, were armed with smuggled .45 automatics. Clyde and James Mullens, a mercenary hired for the job by Floyd Hamilton, hid in the trees, each with a BAR. Bonnie waited in the getaway car. When the mounted guard rode up close to the work detail, Palmer shot him in the stomach, then turned and shot another guard. Bonnie sounded the horn, directing the escapees to the car. Only Hamilton and Palmer were part of the escape plan, but Clyde permitted two additional inmates to join them. This would prove to be a fatal mistake. One of the added escapees was a thickset, pimply-faced 21-year-old named Henry Methvin, the Judas goat who would lead Bonnie and Clyde to their executioners.
Whatever the reason for the Eastham raid—to secure Hamilton’s services or to exact revenge—the raid was Clyde’s first victory in months, and he gloried in the triumph. Once again he had a gang to lead. As soon as things cooled down, they burglarized a National Guard Armory in the oil boomtown of Ranger, then hit the bank in Lancaster. But the old rivalry between Hamilton and Barrow simmered below the surface. Raymond insisted on bringing along his girlfriend, Mary O’Dare, an oversexed redhead who flirted with all the men in the gang. Bonnie hated O’Dare and called her “that washerwoman.” Bonnie and Clyde continued to quarrel, which prompted O’Dare to suggest to Bonnie that they poison Clyde. Raymond flirted recklessly with Bonnie, hinting that they should “knock off” Clyde and form a threesome with O’Dare. The final argument between the two macho males was over how to split the money and who would decide on the jobs. Raymond called Clyde a small-time twerp, and Clyde called him a yellow punk.
In early March 1934 Hamilton and his girlfriend left the gang for good and began pulling their own bank jobs. A few weeks later Raymond wrote a letter to his attorney, which was published in a Dallas newspaper, dissociating himself from the Barrow gang and accusing Clyde of being a trigger-happy killer and a petty holdup man not worthy of Raymond’s time. When Clyde read Raymond’s letter, he swore revenge and plotted to kill Hamilton.
Clyde had a premonition that the end was near. At a family gathering at a cemetery near Lancaster, he tried to persuade Bonnie to surrender and spare herself his fate. “I know somebody will put me on the spot soon,” he said. Bonnie wouldn’t consider the suggestion. He was dead right about someone putting him “on the spot,” right down to the use of that colorful phrase. Politicians and lawmen, including the Texas Rangers, were being ridiculed unmercifully in the media. After Smoot Schmid’s failed ambush, for example, the headlines were typically caustic, to the delight of Dallas newsboys, who called out, “Read all about it! Sheriff escapes from Clyde Barrow!” No one was more embarrassed by the Eastham breakout and the murder of a guard than Lee Simmons, the general manager of the Texas prison system who had been hired specifically to prevent such lawlessness. Simmons made a daring, quasi-legal decision to hire former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer and commission him to eliminate Bonnie and Clyde. Hamer dated back to the days when Rangers patrolled on horseback and had in his long career killed at least 53 outlaws. Simmons’ mandate to the old Ranger was simple and direct: “I want you to put Clyde and Bonnie ‘on the spot’ and shoot everyone in sight.”
Hamer set up his operation center in Dallas, knowing that he would find informants there. Sheriff Smoot Schmid had assigned two deputies, Bob Alcorn and Ted Hinton, to work full-time on the case. The assignment must have come as something of a jolt to Hinton, who had befriended Bonnie in her days as a waitress at a cafe near the courthouse. He had flirted and joked with her, and the notion of helping bring about her demise couldn’t have been pleasant.
While the cops ran their traps, Clyde had agreed to arrange a rendezvous between Bonnie and her mother. He selected a meadow off a dirt road, near the town of Grapevine, a place they had used before for meetings. Early that afternoon all seemed serene. Bonnie was grooming the pet rabbit, Sonny Boy, that she had brought as a present for her mother. Clyde was taking a nap in the backseat of the snappy V-8 with canary-yellow wheels. Henry Methvin was keeping a lookout for Raymond Hamilton. Clyde had heard on the radio that the hated Hamilton had robbed a bank in a town south of Dallas, kidnapping a mother and her four-year-old to help the getaway. He felt sure Raymond was headed toward Grapevine, and he planned to kill him on sight. But Raymond never showed. Instead, two highway patrolmen, E. B. Wheeler and H. D. Murphy, were cruising by on their motorcycles and noticed the black V-8 with the canary-yellow wheels, the exact description of the car that Hamilton was last seen driving. When Methvin saw that they were stopping, he retrieved his BAR. Clyde slipped out of the backseat and stood behind the car with a sawed-off shotgun. He intended to take the lawmen prisoners, but when he shouted, “Let’s take ’em!” Methvin mistook his meaning and opened fire, shooting Wheeler in the chest. Clyde killed the second officer as he was going for his gun. Methvin then administered the coup de gráce with a handgun, firing point-blank at the fallen officers. Then the gang hightailed it for Oklahoma, where the trigger-happy Methvin shot and killed a 63-year-old constable.
News of the killings of the two patrolmen outraged people all over the country. Over the next few weeks there were dozens of reported sightings of Bonnie and Clyde, some as far north as Indiana. Radio bulletins advised people to stay inside, with their doors and windows locked. Rumors, misinformation, and speculation fed the public fear, not just in the daily media but in pulp-fiction magazines that raced to print the latest Bonnie and Clyde assaults. One self-proclaimed eyewitness to the Grapevine murders told the police that after the first two bursts of gunfire, he saw a short, blond woman stand over one of the fallen officers and blast away with her pistol, exclaiming, “Look-a-there, his head bounced just like a rubber ball.” The story was completely made up.
It is also likely that evidence gathered at the murder scene was tainted by lawmen with their own agenda. Thumbprints on a whiskey bottle were identified as being those of Clyde Barrow, when in fact they were the prints of Henry Methvin, whose complicity in the crime the police were trying to conceal. That was because Frank Hamer had worked a secret deal with Methvin and his parents to betray Bonnie and Clyde. An agreement approved by Governor Miriam Ferguson guaranteed Henry Methvin a full parole for a series of robberies if he could successfully lure Bonnie and Clyde into Hamer’s trap. Methvin’s part in the brutal killing of the two policemen near Grapevine, followed by the slaying of the constable in Commerce, Oklahoma, complicated but didn’t kill the deal.
Hamer knew by now that Bonnie and Clyde had a new hideout, an abandoned farmhouse south of Gibsland, Louisiana, near the home of Henry Methvin’s parents, Iverson and Ave Methvin. Clyde was pretending to be a lumberjack, working with Iverson. In nearby Arcadia, Hamer formulated plans for the ambush with Sheriff Jordan Hamilton and other local lawmen. The first stage of the plan commenced on May 21, 1934, when Henry slipped away from his outlaw friends; they expected to meet up with him a few days later at the farmhouse. That same day the six-man posse settled in for the kill. They built a blind of brush and vines on a hill above a long, straight stretch of road that provided a perfect sight line. Each man was armed with a BAR, a twelve-gauge shotgun, and two .45 automatics. It would be a long and decidedly unpleasant wait—two nights and a day with chiggers and mosquitoes for company, eating dry sandwiches and drinking cold coffee. On the morning of the second day, they were ready to give up. Then they heard the unmistakable high-pitched whine of a V-8 engine, running full throttle.
Bonnie and Clyde had finished a breakfast of doughnuts and coffee at a cafe in Gibsland and were headed to the farmhouse. He was dapper in his silk suit and blue western-style shirt and tie. As was his custom while driving, Clyde had removed his shoes. Next to his left leg was a sixteen-gauge sawed-off shotgun, next to his right leg a twenty-gauge shotgun, and in his belt a .45 automatic. Bonnie was equally dashing in a red dress with matching shoes and hat. She was eating a sandwich and reading a true-detective magazine. Near a curve at the base of a hill, Clyde spotted Iverson Methvin standing beside his Model A logging truck, one wheel jacked up and a tire removed. When Clyde stopped to help his friend—as Hamer hoped he would—the old man pretended to have a sudden bellyache and rushed behind some trees. This was the signal for the lawmen to open fire.
Hamer remembered that Bonnie “screamed like a panther” as the first two shots rang out, blasting away part of Clyde’s head. Then eternal hell broke loose, creating a sound that someone described later as similar to the explosion of a dynamite charge. In the first three seconds the lawmen fired 120 steel-jacketed .30-06 rounds from their BARs. As Clyde’s foot slipped from the clutch, the car began rolling downhill, at which point the lawmen emptied their shotguns and then their .45’s. Clyde was hit at least 25 times, his head blown open and his spinal cord shattered. Another 28 rounds took off the top of Bonnie’s head, tore away part of the left side of her face, smashed her jaw, and blew off several fingers of her right hand. The car came to rest against an embankment, two bloody forms slumped forward on the front seat. Hinton opened the door on the passenger side and lifted the limp, shattered body of his little waitress friend, secretly praying she was still alive. He held her for a moment, then placed her gently on the seat, dead five months short of her twenty-fifth birthday.
The bodies were put on public view, first at an Arcadia furniture store, which doubled as a funeral parlor, then again in Dallas. At the coroner’s inquest someone stole Clyde’s diamond stickpin. A photographer took pictures of their naked bodies. A man offered the Barrow family $50,000 for Clyde’s body, which he wanted to mummify and take on tour with a traveling tent show. An estimated 10,000 people crowded into Clyde’s funeral, nearly wrecking the old Belo mansion on Ross Avenue, which had been converted into a funeral home. An airplane chartered by racketeer Benny Binion flew over Clyde’s grave site and dropped a floral wreath. Bonnie’s funeral the following day was more orderly. She was laid out in a silver casket, dressed in a blue silk negligee, her head wounds partly covered by her permanent wave. The newspaper boys of Dallas, who had benefited so handsomely from her infamy, sent the largest wreath.
Henry Methvin got his pardon and died years later on a railroad track, his body cut in half by a passing train. Raymond Hamilton died in the electric chair. W. D. Jones served prison time, moved to Houston, got addicted to drugs, and died in a shooting in 1974. Ralph Fults was eventually pardoned, found religion, and got a job at Buckner Home for Boys in Mesquite. Emma Parker’s ghosted memoirs were published a year or two later. Bonnie’s sister, Billie Mace, served a short prison term, then made her stage debut at the State Theater in Wichita Falls, using the name Billie Jean Parker. Rumors of a movie contract did not materialize. Cumie Barrow wrote an indignant letter to Frank Hamer, demanding the return of Clyde’s guns. Denounced by some newspapers as a cowardly murderer, the reclusive Hamer vanished from the public eye, refusing to attend his testimonial dinner in Austin. When a showman brought the death car to Austin, Hamer slapped him across the room and warned, “If you ever use my name again, even if you are in South America, I will come to you if I have to crawl on my hands and feet.” After Hamer’s death, two writers published his unauthorized biography, I’m Frank Hamer, a book filled with misinformation. It includes a cropped photograph of Bonnie’s naked body, one of her breasts clearly visible.
It is hard to know just what to make of Bonnie and Clyde. Their legend was nearly lost until Arthur Penn’s 1967 movie renewed public interest. At first a number of critics blasted the film, unable to deal with its revolutionary blending of humor and bloody murder. It was years before people were comfortable with the graphically violent death scene, Faye Dunaway twisting in a ballet of bullets, her hair dancing in the wind. Newsweek‘s John Morgenstern originally pronounced the film “a squalid shoot-’em-up for the moron trade,” then changed his mind and decided that it was an American classic. The film became a national and an international sensation. A whole generation of young people came of age wearing gangster-retro clothes and listening to authentic period music of the thirties. The film was a watershed in Hollywood, a battering ram that broke down the old ways and brought on a new wave of directors and writers and films like Easy Rider and The Wild Bunch. For many Texans my age, born the same year that Bonnie and Clyde bought the farm and who lived through a depression, a world war, wars in Korea and Vietnam, the Kennedy assassination, Charles Whitman, and other contortions and abominations, watching the movie was a catharsis. The story of two obsessive-compulsive West Dallas lovers who lived fast and died young is American history writ large. It’s who we are.