The following is a guest post by Thomas Beheler, a Reference Librarian in the Serial and Government Publications Division at the Library of Congress.
“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.”
There are few couples who have made headlines in quite the same way as Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The two criminals are known for a series of bank robberies, murders, and kidnappings that took place between 1932 and 1934, the height of the Great Depression. Their romance has also been the inspiration for films, songs, and even a musical. Even during their lives they were the subject of fascination, and tens of thousands reportedly viewed their bodies as they lay at separate funeral homes.
So what was it about these two criminals that garnered such adoration from the public? For that, let’s look at the couple’s origins.
Bonnie Parker was born in Rowena, Texas on October 1, 1910. But when her father died in 1914, her mother moved the family back to Cement City, a suburb of West Dallas. She was married on September 25, 1926 (six days before her 16th birthday) to high school sweetheart, Roy Thornton. However, Thornton was imprisoned in 1929 and the two never crossed paths again, despite still being legally married.
Clyde Barrow was born on March 24, 1909 in Ellis County, Texas. Their family moved to West Dallas in the early 1920s. They were extremely poor, and Barrow was first arrested for failing to return a rental car on time in 1926. Under guidance from his older brother and future fellow gang member, Marvin “Buck” Barrow, he continued to crack safes, rob stores, and steal cars throughout his youth.
Bonnie and Clyde met in January of 1930 at a friend’s house in West Dallas. This was just a few weeks before Clyde was arrested for stealing a car. Despite having just met, Bonnie visited Clyde frequently during his initial imprisonment and eventually aided Clyde’s escape by smuggling him a gun on March 11, 1930. While Clyde was quickly recaptured, this certainly supported the claims of their love at first sight. Throughout his sentence, they would send each other letters, often referring to each other as “honey,” “darling,” and “little wife.” While the physical letters have not been uncovered, you can read the transcriptions in The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde.
Clyde was subsequently transferred to Eastham Prison Farm on September 18, 1930, which was known for its harshness to prisoners. This included Ed Crowder, a “building tender” (a convict who tended to the prison building and was given great latitude on keeping the peace.) Crowder repeatedly assaulted Clyde and later became Clyde’s first murder victim. This occurred during his sentence and the only reason he did not suffer consequences for the murder was because fellow inmate, Aubrey Scalley, took the blame (he was already sentenced to a life term). Yet even aside from this, the manual labor in the prison was so intense that Clyde coordinated an “accident” with one of the inmates to cut off two of his toes, allowing him to rest in the infirmary. Ironically, Clyde was released about a week later thanks to petitioning from his mother. He was granted parole in February of 1932, and Bonnie and Clyde were reunited once more.
By April of 1932, Bonnie became more involved with Clyde’s criminal activities. This included an eighteen-hour flight from a posse in Kaufman County, Texas, after helping the gang steal two cars. The cars (and subsequently funds and firearms) were being collected in preparation to raid the Eastham Prison Farm. They started robbing banks and grocery stores, taking hostages, and even murdering law enforcement. But that’s not to say that Bonnie and Clyde were alone. The gang rotated through various members over two years including Marvin “Buck” Barrow (Clyde’s older brother), Buck Barrow’s wife Blanche Barrow, W. D. Jones, Henry Methvin, Raymond Hamilton, Joe Palmer, Ralph Fults, and S. J. Whatley. In one of their more successful robberies, the gang brought in $1,900, the equivalent of $39,000 today.
Arguably one of their most notable crimes was the jailbreak of Eastham Prison Farm, which took place on January 16, 1934. The event was meant to be the revenge Bonnie and Clyde had been working towards ever since Clyde’s release from the prison two years prior, but the results were mixed. While the gang succeeded in breaking out a few of the prisoners (including gang member Ray Hamilton, who had been transferred to the facility back in August 1933) and humiliating the prison that was warned about the raid at least twice, most of those prisoners were recaptured soon after their escape. And while the jailbreak made headlines, it was only a matter of time before they were caught.
The couple spent the rest of their short lives running, and met their end on May 23, 1934. They had long been pursued by local police and the FBI and, after successfully escaping the law multiple times, it was revealed through the investigation of former Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer, that they were en route to Bienville Parish, Louisiana. This allowed the police to stage an ambush. This time the police were successful, and the couple was shot to death in their car. Despite wanting to be buried side by side, they were buried separately. However, as of 2019, Rhea Linder (Bonnie’s niece) and Buddy Barrow (Clyde’s nephew) were still pursuing a court order to have Bonnie’s body exhumed and moved next to Clyde’s.
So are Bonnie and Clyde the romanticized villains that the media has made them out to be? Rebels against an economic system that failed them? Or just a couple of kids who fell into a life of crime with no feasible way out? Whatever the case, we can be sure of one thing: Bonnie and Clyde stuck together through good times and bad, and their dedication to each other has made its mark on history.
FBI Records: The Vault – Bonnie & Clyde
My Life with Bonnie & Clyde
Running with Bonnie and Clyde, the Ten Fast Years of Ralph Fults
The True Story of Bonnie and Clyde
Go Down Together : The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde
- Search Chronicling America* for additional newspaper coverage of Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, and more. And let us know what you find in the comments!
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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