The true story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, the criminal duo who travelled across the United States robbing banks and gas stations during the Great Depression, has fascinated the public for decades.
They were active at a time known as the “public enemy era” – a term coined by the police to describe a period of intense activity by criminals who were considered extremely dangerous to society between 1931 and 1936.
Barrow led a bunch of outlaws who became known as the Barrow Gang on a major crime spree between 1932 and 1934, while Parker was his girlfriend. Their lives came to an abrupt end in a hail of police bullets on 23rd May 1934, in Bienville Parish, Louisiana, after a posse of lawmen lay in wait at the side of the road and ambushed their car.
When Bonnie met Clyde, on 5th January 1930, she was 19 years old and worked as a waitress in Dallas, Texas, while he was 20 and had already served time in prison for several offences, including robbery, safe-cracking and car theft. Associates said prison had changed him from a young tearaway into a hardened and bitter criminal.
Depression-era outlaw Ralph Fults was a fellow inmate when Barrow served time in Eastham Prison Farm in Houston County. Fults described Barrow’s transformation “from a schoolboy to a rattlesnake” in prison.
Parker was born in Rowena, Texas, on 1st October 1910. When she was four, her bricklayer father died, so her seamstress mother Emma moved the rest of the family to the industrial suburb of Cement City, now known as West Dallas.
In her second year at high school, Parker, who enjoyed writing poetry, met fellow student Roy Thornton. They dropped out of school and married when she was only 15, but he had frequent brushes with the law and was absent for much of their four-year marriage. They separated in January 1929 and never saw each other again.
Parker went back to live with her mother and found work as a waitress. She kept a diary in 1929 and wrote of how lonely she felt, how fed up she was of life in the suburbs and how much she loved the new talking pictures. She seemed to yearn for something more.
Barrow was born to an impoverished farming family in Ellis County, Texas, on 24th March 1909. He was the fifth of seven children. The family moved to West Dallas in the early 1920s. They were so poor they had to spend several months living in their wagon and then in a tent.
In 1926, at the age of 17, Barrow was arrested for the first time after running away from police when he failed to return a hire car. He got involved in petty crime and was arrested again for being in possession of stolen turkeys.
He had a number of legitimate jobs between 1927 and 1929, but he also robbed stores, cracked safes and stole cars in his spare time.
The couple met for the first time at mutual friend Clarence Clay’s home at 105 Herbert Street, West Dallas. Parker was visiting at the time and Barrow met her by chance. She was said to be in the kitchen, making hot chocolate, when he dropped by.
When they met, there was an immediate attraction, described as “love at first sight”. Parker had separated from her husband months earlier and had just lost her waitressing job as a result of the closure of Marco’s Cafe. Barrow unexpectedly came into her life when she was at a low ebb.
Writing after Parker’s death, her mother, Emma, described their meeting as coming about “so simply – as such momentous and life-changing things often do”, because Clyde happened to drop by his friend’s house when Bonnie was there.
Life of crime
Most historians today believe Parker fell in love with Barrow and remained loyal to him throughout their life of crime because of her deep feelings for him.
In April 1930, three months after their fateful meeting, Barrow was sent to Eastham Prison Farm. This was when his personality changed, as described by Fults.
On his release from prison in February 1932, Barrow and Fults assembled a criminal gang, including Parker, to carry out small robberies of gas stations and stores. They aimed to raise enough money for firearms to liberate other inmates from Eastham Prison.
Fults was arrested and jailed after being caught with Parker at a failed hardware store burglary. The jury failed to indict Parker and she was released, re-joining Barrow’s gang and continuing their life of crime.
On 30th April 1932, the owner of a store in Hillsboro, Texas, was shot dead during a robbery. Barrow had been the getaway driver and had remained outside in the car, but he was accused of murder for the first time.
There was no turning back and Barrow, accompanied by Parker, went on the run from the police, living by their wits and carrying out further robberies as they travelled across America, with various members of the Barrow Gang drifting in and out, as they robbed banks, gas stations and rural stores.
Many of the raids ended in gunfights as they made their escape and a total of nine officers of the law were killed in the shootouts, making them the United States’ most wanted criminals.
Although the newspapers portrayed Parker as a gun-toting, cigar-smoking “moll”, historians said this image was largely a myth. They claimed she went on the run because she was in love with Barrow, not because she was inclined to be a ruthless criminal.
Although she was present during at least 100 felonies committed by the gang over the two-year period that she was with Barrow, statements by surviving gang members after her death claimed she had never fired a gun at a police officer. Yet a warrant had been issued for her arrest for murder.
One photo of Parker (found at an abandoned hideout) showed her leaning on a car, while casually holding a gun, a cigar hanging out of her mouth. The police circulated this to the newspapers and claimed she was a gangster.
However, after her death, historians pieced together a picture of her life, using other photographs and statements made by gang members, concluding that the photo of her with a gun and a cigar had been “staged” in jest. It was said that she smoked Camel cigarettes, but had never smoked a cigar in her life.
Bonnie and Clyde were eventually caught and shot dead due to the dogged determination of Texas police officer Frank Hamer, who began tracking them on 12th February 1934.
He studied their movements and using his experience, he calculated their path, taking into account they made family visits on their travels and were consistent in their movements. His hunch proved correct and the outlaws were killed.
Their story had gripped public imagination and they became romantic heroes, rather than villains, with thousands of ordinary people attending their funerals. Their deaths marked the beginning of the end of the “public enemy era” in the US.
The romantic nature of their relationship was emphasised in the dramatised story of their lives, Arthur Penn’s 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway in the title roles.
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