Bonnie and Clyde have been glamorized and mythologized arguably more than any other criminals in history. Movies, songs and TV and stage shows have all been inspired by the murderous pair. But what is the real, unvarnished truth about the criminal couple and their gang, whom the FBI suspected of 13 murders?
Bonnie Elizabeth Parker came into the world in 1910 in Rowena, Texas, a rural community about 230 miles from Dallas. A middle child, her bricklayer father Charles died when she was only four. Her mother, Emma, subsequently moved with her children to West Dallas. And there, Bonnie’s mom worked as a seamstress, while the family lived with Emma’s parents.
Meanwhile, Clyde Chestnut Barrow was the child of dirt-poor farmers, born the fifth of seven children in 1909. In the early 1920s the Barrow family moved to the notorious slum of West Dallas. Around the same time, Bonnie grew up to be a good-looking woman, although she stood just 4 feet 11 inches tall. As a child, she’s said to have been a good student with a passion for poetry who aspired to be an actress.
Clyde, for his part, started out on his life of crime at a tender age. His first arrest took place before he had turned 18 for failing to bring back a rental car. More petty crime followed for him, sometimes in the company of his elder brother Buck – until Clyde was sent to the Eastham Prison Farm in 1930.
While incarcerated, Clyde beat to death another prisoner with a lead pipe, apparently after the man had sexually assaulted him. However, another prisoner, serving life, took the rap for the killing. Clyde also later convinced an inmate to chop off a pair of his toes so that he could avoid the arduous prison farm work. He was therefore left with a permanent limp. Yet unbeknownst to Clyde, he was only six days away from an early prison release thanks to a petition from his mother.
Clyde was let out of Eastham in February 1932, but doing time seems to have taken its toll. A fellow prisoner remembered that he “change[d] from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake” while serving his sentence there. And one of Clyde’s sisters would later say, “Something awful sure must have happened to him in prison because he wasn’t the same person when he got out.” It’s also been reported that Barrow was subsequently obsessed with exacting revenge on Eastham.
The details of the fateful first meeting of Clyde and Bonnie are murky, but it certainly happened in early 1930 in West Dallas. It’s been said that it was love at first sight – despite the fact that Bonnie was already married. Indeed, she’d wed one Roy Thornton a few days before she turned 16, although they split in 1929. Thornton was subsequently shot dead when he tried to escape from Eastham Prison Farm in 1937.
Meanwhile, once he was free again in 1932, Clyde, Bonnie and Ralph Fults – the man who later said that Clyde had turned into a rattlesnake in jail – formed a gang. Several other members came and went over the ensuing months. But with Clyde and Fults to the fore, they concentrated mainly on robbing gas stations and small stores – with the apparent aim of building up a war chest to attack Eastham Prison.
Bonnie and Fults were apprehended in April 1932 during a store robbery in which they’d hoped to steal guns. The latter was convicted, but Bonnie, after a few months in jail, was released without charge. Fults never rejoined the gang. Meanwhile, around the time of Bonnie’s release, Clyde was involved in the murder of a storekeeper in Hillsboro, Texas, during a hold-up.
The killing spree continued during 1932. Clyde and fellow gang member Raymond Hamilton shot and killed Deputy Sheriff Eugene C. Moore and badly wounded his boss, Sheriff C.G. Maxwell, in August. Later, in December, Clyde and his childhood friend W.D. Jones murdered one Doyle Jonson while in the process of stealing his car. And then in January 1933, Clyde, Bonnie and Jones killed another Deputy Sheriff, Malcolm Davis. The bodies were piling up.
Meanwhile, Marvin Ivan “Buck” Barrow, Clyde’s elder brother, had been in jail for burglary, but he was released in March 1933. Buck and his wife Blanche subsequently joined up with Clyde and Bonnie. So, with Jones still in tow, now they were five, and the gang soon settled into a house in Joplin, Missouri.
Despite the fact that they were living in a peaceful district, the gang regularly threw rowdy parties that went on into the night. Unsurprisingly, a neighbor eventually complained to the police, who thought they might be on to a bootlegging operation. Five officers subsequently raided the house, at which point Clyde, Buck and Jones opened fire, killing Detective Harry McGinnis and Constable John Harryman. The gang then made their getaway.
Their hurried exit from the Joplin house meant that Bonnie and Clyde left most of their belongings behind. These included a sizable arsenal, a poem of Bonnie’s called “The Story of Suicide Sal” and, most importantly, some undeveloped rolls of film. Staff at the local paper, The Joplin Globe, subsequently developed the pictures, and this was to be the start of Bonnie and Clyde’s nationwide fame.
The photographs showed the gang in a sinisterly playful mood, posing while brandishing guns. One shot that was to become iconic showed Bonnie with a revolver, puffing on a cigar. The newswire had recently been introduced, and the pictures were, consequently, sent around the nation. Overnight, the gang were famous, and they were given a name: the Barrow Gang. In fact, much of the myth-making around Bonnie and Clyde can be traced back to those images.
Yet while the photos made Bonnie, Clyde and their gang look like glamorous outlaws, the reality of their lives was very different. Years later while in jail, Blanche Barrow wrote that, as the gang escaped from Joplin, “all [her] hopes and dreams [were] tumbling down around [her].” And as a result of the publicity, the Barrow Gang were now permanently on the run, always looking over their shoulders. Hence, they often had to camp out, basically living rough.
In a 1968 article in Playboy, W.D. Jones recalled, “Run, run, run. At times, that seemed all we did.” Moreover, their situation just became more and more desperate. In June 1933 Clyde crashed their car off a bridge and into a ravine near Wellington, Texas, and Bonnie was badly burnt on the leg, either from burning gas or spilled battery acid. Her injuries meant she could barely walk, and as a consequence, Clyde sometimes had to carry her.
Nevertheless, the robbing and killing continued in a litany of depraved crimes. In July 1933 there was a fierce gunfight with law enforcement officers near Platte City, Missouri. And while the gang made another seemingly miraculous escape, they were far from unscathed. Buck had been shot through the forehead – a wound so bad that the other gang members could actually see his brain. Furthermore, Blanche was partially blinded during the shoot-out.
Even so, the group stuck together in the immediate aftermath of the shootout, camping at a disused amusement park in Iowa. Lawmen caught up with the gang again, however, and subsequently attacked them. Buck and Blanche were apprehended, but Clyde, Bonnie and Jones somehow escaped. Moreover, Buck was shot again, and he died of his wounds a few days later.
In another shocking crime in January 1934, Clyde organized a jail breakout from Eastham Farm Prison. A prison officer, Major Joseph Crowson, was shot and subsequently died. As a result, the authorities redoubled their efforts to catch Bonnie and Clyde. Texas Ranger Captain Frank A. Hamer, noted for his uncompromising attitude towards criminals, was put on the case. At the time of his appointment, he had already killed 53 outlaws, but it was his efforts here that cemented his name in history.
In April 1934 Clyde and one of the prison escapees, Henry Methvin, took the lives of two highway patrolmen close to Grapevine, Texas. Then five days later, near Commerce, Oklahoma, they murdered Constable William Campbell. The following month, however, saw the mayhem finally come to an end. With Hamer at the helm of an ambush, Bonnie and Clyde were killed in a hail of bullets on a country road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. In a distinctly unglamorous and ugly death, which left the undertaker with a gruesome job, Clyde sustained 17 gunshot wounds and Parker suffered 26.