'They'll shoot almost anything in this part of the world.' The inscription on the memorial has been blasted into illegibility, but at least the peremptory resolution of a hail of bullets has a resonance here. The mutilated stone stands at the side of the road six miles out of Gibsland in the state of Louisiana, and it marks the spot where a kind of justice was meted out.
The short and brutal lives of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker combined to make one of the strangest love stories of the 20th Century. It could only have happened in America, the land in which lowly people can become legends if only they entertain lofty dreams. During the Great Depression of the early 1930s, there was no shortage of dreamers. There were towns full of people with nothing to lose and defiance of the law became glamorous as well as lucrative. When a disillusioned waitress fell for a small-time crook, an insignificant crime spree spiralled into a tide of blood.
Bonnie Parker was born on 1 October, 1910 in a small town called Rowena, Texas. The second of three children, her father died when she was four years old and her mother took the family back some 200 miles east to her own hometown of Dallas. Bonnie was a bright and articulate girl, and an avid reader. She married at 16 and regretted it little more than a year later when her husband strayed. Before she was out of her teens, she was a lonely and disillusioned waitress working in Marco's Cafe on the east side.
Clyde Barrow hailed from Telico, some 20 miles south of the same Texas city. He was the second son of poor sharecropping parents, and his schooling was intermittent from an early age. He took to stealing cars before he took to shaving, his early criminal career being mentored by his elder brother Buck. Their repertoire soon extended to robbing stores, filling stations and even the occasional bank. Clyde was arrested at least five times before he met Bonnie, and the authorities were itching to make some of the many charges stick. It was January 1930 when a mutual friend introduced the two of them. They were together for a little over four years, inseparable except through sojourns in various jails.
It was only a matter of weeks after that first meeting that Clyde was picked up again. This time, the evidence of his involvement in burglaries in Waco was inescapable. He confessed, and was jailed for two years. Bonnie was already sufficiently smitten to slip him a handgun during a prison visit, and that same night Clyde Barrow and two other inmates broke out. The Colt was brandished but not fired. Clyde got as far as Middletown, Ohio before he was recaptured, and for his impertinence the sentence was stretched to 14 years. No visitors were to be allowed for the first two of them, and so the sundered lovers had to content themselves with letter-writing for the duration.
In any event, two years is that all Clyde served. After that time his mother's plea for leniency was granted. A bizarre and possibly self-inflicted injury may have played some part in this: Clyde lost two toes while on a cotton-picking detail, and did no further work until his release. He went all the way to Massachusetts, briefly determined to lose his past and to hold down an honest job. Within a matter of weeks, though, he was back in Texas and seeing Bonnie again, and they were soon picked up in possession of a stolen car. Clyde ran for it, and so this time it was Bonnie who spent time in jail. She served three months, and they were eventful ones. One outcome was the first of Bonnie's celebrated poems, 'The Story of Suicide Sal', a reading of which suggests that her resolve to live fast and die young was instilled even before the killing started. The other major event took place outside. When Clyde and an accomplice called Raymond Hamilton burgled a Dallas jewellers, one of the two (probably Hamilton) shot the proprietor, one John Bucher, dead. After 13 April 1932, Clyde Barrow was no longer pursued as a persistent thief, but as a murderer.
The Spree Begins
Bonnie got out in mid-June and went to live with her mother. She knew that her partner was now being actively hunted, and although the pursuit was not yet intense, Bonnie was not about to lead the police to him. By the time they met up again, another killing had taken place. This time the victim was a policeman, Eugene Moore, and it is fairly certain that Clyde shot him. Moore and another officer named Maxwell confronted Barrow and Hamilton following a dance at Stringtown, Oklahoma. Maxwell was wounded too.
There was no gang as yet, but a pattern was beginning to form. Clyde Barrow was already as intimate with his guns as he was estranged from his conscience. His hatred of the Texas Department of Corrections (TDC) was similarly well developed, even blaming his criminal propensities on his ill-treatment at their hands while still a youth. Barrow's practised coolness in a shoot-out also gave him an advantage over most of the lawmen he was destined to meet. As the manhunt intensified, all these factors made it inevitable that the killing would escalate.
Hamilton was soon caught, and was sentenced to 260 years, a stretch obviously meant to entail a lifelong loss of liberty. Bonnie and Clyde's lot was meanwhile not so different. From the summer of 1932 until the day they died, the couple would never again be able to settle anywhere. Whereas Hamilton presumably didn't enjoy his sentence, though, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seem to have relished theirs.
Bad for the Fun of It
They stole cars and robbed small-town businesses whenever they needed some money, and for the rest of the time they laid low or moved around to keep one step ahead of the authorities. The diaries they kept reveal that they had already fully rationalised an inevitable conclusion: sooner or later their pursuers would corner them, and since they had no intention of emulating Hamilton's fate, they would die. The humour in these diaries is not wholly black, though, and most of the many photographs they took look like the carefree snaps of a young couple in love. The anecdotes of the survivors of encounters with Bonnie and Clyde suggest, too, that the notorious pair found their adventure exhilarating and regretted little if any of it.
A Mr Darby of Ruston, Louisiana, and his neighbour Miss Stone joined the survivors with stories to tell in the October of 1932. Darby saw his own car being driven away by Clyde Barrow from the street outside his lodgings. Stone offered to give chase in her own car, but the two of them can't have thought very deeply about what they would do when they caught up with the stolen vehicle. Soon after doing so, Clyde had a choice of cars and decided (as he usually did) to stick with the Ford Sedan. Darby and Stone found themselves captive in the back seat with Bonnie Parker pointing a gun at them, though at the same time making cheerful conversation. Bonnie told them that there was nothing to worry about because she didn't shoot likeable people. She asked Darby what he did for a living, and was delighted to discover that he was an undertaker. She joked that he might someday get to work on her. A year and half later, Darby was destined to do just that.
It wasn't always so innocent, of course. There were two more killings before the year was out, both of civilians and both as a result of robberies that didn't go as planned. One man, named Hall, was too resolute in the protection of his grocery store. Another named Johnson resisted the theft of his car, and was shot dead by Clyde Barrow on Christmas Day. Then in January 1933, a police officer called Malcolm Davis recognised the couple in Dallas and attempted to arrest them. Clyde shot him down too.
The early years of Clyde's criminal career were guided by his brother Buck, but the mentor had been doing time in the Texas Penitentiary almost since his protege's first meeting with Bonnie Parker. In March, however, Buck walked free. Along with his wife Blanch, he joined forces with Bonnie and Clyde at their current hideout in Joplin, Missouri. One of Clyde's occasional accomplices, one WD Jones, was lying low there too.
The Texas police followed Buck to the hideout, only to find that local lawmen were poised to raid an illegal distillery in the same apartment block. After some debate about priorities, the force of law descended on Clyde and strength in numbers should have assured his demise. Clyde had seen it coming, though. Six police officers were hit, two of them fatally, in a brief though intense gunfight. Amid the confusion, the gang escaped. Clyde Barrow received his first bullet wound that day, and Jones was hit too, but their injuries were trivial compared with the ones they meted out. The most significant legacy of the Joplin raid, however, was in the material recovered through a journalist's visit to the apartment. The police had been less than meticulous. The newsman found Buck's pardon papers and a roll of film, which yielded many of the images that spawned the myth. Most famous are the pictures of Bonnie smoking a cigar and toting a shotgun. The 'Barrow Gang' became a household name overnight, and Clyde revelled in his new-found notoriety.
The price of celebrity soon became apparent in a more purposeful police response to sightings, though the next example of this was self-inflicted. Clyde drove a stolen car clean off a part-constructed bridge near Wellington, Texas. Bonnie was trapped in the wreck, and sustained burns to her legs from which she would never fully recover. Some locals tried to help, but when they noticed the arsenal of firearms inside the vehicle, WD Jones panicked and blew a woman's hand off. Two policemen were soon on the scene, only to find themselves seriously outgunned. They had the sense to drop their weapons and accept the indignity of providing Clyde with yet another escape car.
The gang made it as far as Platte City, Missouri, before the authorities caught up with them, this time in force. Buck was shot in the head, and Blanch was showered with broken glass from a blasted windshield, injuring both her eyes. Nonetheless, Clyde managed to drive out of the ambush, only to be cornered again three days later in Iowa. This time, Clyde crashed while attempting to escape and the police arrived shortly afterwards, riddling the car with bullets before they dared approach it. Inside they found Buck, more dead than alive having been hit several more times, and Blanch, who was unable to see but was miraculously otherwise unhurt. The others had fled the scene.
Bonnie's wounds were still fresh and she could barely walk. Clyde and Jones carried her through a stream and up to a farmhouse, where they stole another car at gunpoint. Soon afterwards, Jones decided to go his own way, but was soon captured. In his defence, he claimed to have been held captive by Bonnie and Clyde, and his testimony to the court was the only one ever to cast Bonnie Parker as an active participant in the slayings.
Buck died a few days after his capture, and Blanch was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary. She was destined to survive them all, even forming a friendship with Warren Beatty, who played Clyde in the 1967 film. Bonnie and Clyde hid for several months, narrowly surviving another ambush when they somewhat recklessly tried to visit their parents in November 1933. Their car came under fire in Dallas, about a mile from the spot where 30 years to the day later, Jack Kennedy's motorcade would itself drive into the sights of a marksman. Except for that one encounter, however, it was as if the most wanted couple in America had disappeared from the face of the earth. Nothing was seen of them right up to the day that Clyde Barrow wrought his long-awaited vengeance on the Texas Department of Corrections.
The date was 16 January, 1934. Clyde's erstwhile partner, Raymond Hamilton, was serving his prodigious sentence at the Eastham Prison Farm in Huntsville when he became one of five prisoners sprung at gunpoint in an audacious and well-planned raid. A guard who resisted, one Joe Crowson, was shot dead. The immediate consequence of the incident was the hiring of Frank Hamer at a salary of $150 a month to hunt down the Barrow Gang. Captain Lee Simmons of the TDC reportedly swore that everyone involved in the breakout would die, and it would transpire that there would be only one exception to his promise. An escapee called Henry Methvin was eventually spared the death penalty in return for the betrayal of Bonnie and Clyde to the authorities.
Captain Frank A Hamer of the Texas Rangers had technically retired a few days before being offered the most significant commission in the Rangers' august history. Hamer had a formidable record of apprehending wanted criminals, however, and the resources now put at his disposal meant that it was only a matter of time before Bonnie and Clyde met their doom. At last, too, public sentiment began to turn against the pair. They had hitherto attracted a sympathetic kind of notoriety, largely because of their charmed ability to dodge the hapless authorities. Now the couple didn't seem quite so romantic, as the killing of two young highway patrolmen at Grapevine, Texas was announced. This was swiftly followed by the death of another constable at Commerce, Oklahoma. All three died in the same week in April.
Another constable, Percy Boyd, was captured in the Oklahoma confrontation but was allowed to walk free. He was thus able to report, somewhat bizarrely, that Bonnie Parker wanted it known that she did not smoke cigars and in fact preferred Lucky Strikes. More significant was Boyd's revelation that Henry Methvin had done the killing. Methvin's father now realised that his son faced capital punishment, and this at a time when he, like all the other gang members' relatives, was being pressured to give information. Methvin Senior made a deal with Simmons: a tip-off leading to Bonnie and Clyde's apprehension in return for a custodial sentence for his son. The information divulged was the location of a dead-letter-box used by the gang for communicating with relatives. Hamer had enjoyed little success in tailing the Barrow Gang up to this point. He elected to stake out the spot for as long as it took.
The men in the posse were Hamer himself, a fellow Texas Ranger called Gault and four local lawmen named Alcorn, Hinton, Jordan and Oakley. They constructed hides in the trees along the road to Gibsland in the early hours of 23 May, and then they waited. At 9.10am a cream-coloured Ford V8 - a model which Clyde Barrow had a particular penchant for stealing - came along the road, and Hamer and Alcorn stepped out to confront it. The car stopped. The occupants were a man and a woman matching the description of Bonnie and Clyde. They were given no opportunity to surrender.
The first few rounds ripped into the car, and Clyde managed to get it moving again, but only just. It rolled into a ditch with the posse all firing relentlessly, using heavy-duty steel-jacketed ammunition that Hamer had secured special dispensation to deploy. Several minutes and an estimated 150 rounds later, Hamer tentatively approached the ruin of the car. He had no cause to worry. Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow had been shot to pieces. The inventory recovered from the car included two sawn-off Winchester shotguns, three Browning automatic rifles and nine various Colt handguns, as well as more than 3,000 rounds of ammunition. There were also licence plates from a dozen different states and a somewhat incongruous saxophone. The human remains were still in the car when it was towed to an undertakers in Arcadia, Louisiana, and the proprietor is said to have had to squirt the crowd with embalming fluid to discourage souvenir hunting.
Clyde Barrow was buried two days later in West Dallas, alongside his brother Buck. Although Bonnie had left an express wish to be interred with Clyde, her mother would have none of it, and she now lies in the Fishtrap Cemetery in another part of the city. Frank Hamer was honoured by Congress, Raymond Hamilton was captured in 1935 and went to the electric chair, and Henry Methvin was released from prison after serving 12 years, only to fall under a train a few months later.
The legend of Bonnie and Clyde lives on, of course. Another of the latter-day survivors, WD Jones, provided an interesting twist through an interview with Playboy magazine in the 1960s. In it, he reversed his earlier assertion that Bonnie was a violent participant in the shootings, claiming instead that she never fired a weapon in any of the shoot-outs that he witnessed, adding nonetheless that she was 'one hell of a loader'.
Bonnie Parker is undoubtedly the factor that gives the story its mythic quality. There were plenty of notorious all-male gangs around at the time, but the public imagination was captured by the one with the pretty young woman. The poems added to the fascination: their writer was clearly more than happy to accompany her man in a spectacular ride to an early grave.
Although it's hard to characterise Clyde Barrow as anything but a ruthless murderer, Bonnie Parker's devotion somehow exonerates him and even suggests the idea of star-crossed lovers who fought back. More than that, Bonnie's legacy is the scandalous but irresistible idea that it was all worth it. Who says that crime doesn't pay? Only those who overlook the thrill of the act itself.
This one is an American tale, that's for sure. Maybe, just maybe, it's an American dream as well.