Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow
Source: AP Images
About the Photographer: The photographer is not known.
When it comes to America's most famous and notorious criminals, no legend has been larger than real life than that of the robber duo Bonnie and Clyde. Immortalized in the 1967 film that took their names and starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, they were portrayed as a latter-day Romeo and Juliet against a background of bank robbing and spectacular getaways. The film won two Oscars and is regarded a classic.
Yet because of the weight of movie legend, the real story of Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow has been almost wholly obscured. The two were both born in Texas in 1910 (some sources put Barrow's date of birth as March 1909) to poor families, although neither knew each other until adulthood. Bonnie Parker married Roy Thornton, a drifter and petty criminal, at the age of 15, but the marriage was never happy and the two were separated for most of its duration.
Clyde Barrow was also a petty thief from adolescence, robbing drugstores and stealing cars, though at the same time apparently holding down a series of manual jobs. In January 1930 he met Bonnie Parker and the two began seeing each other regularly. However, Barrow and his gang's larceny had attracted police attention and after police staked out the home of Parker's mother, he was arrested for burglary and car theft in February 1930 and sentenced to two years imprisonment.
As with his contemporary John Dillinger, Barrow's spell behind bars—where he lived hand-in-hand with fellow offenders—was believed to have transformed him from small-time larcenist into a hardened criminal. Following his release in 1932, he repaired to Massachusetts to make a clean break, but lasted there just weeks before returning to Texas apparently with the intention of gaining the release of one of his former co-felons.
Barrow soon returned to the old pattern of crime, but this now took on a brutality that soon assumed murderous proportions. In April 1932, Barrow and an associate attempted to break into a Texas hardware store. They were spotted by a night watchman, exchanged fire, and fled at high speed in their car. Though no one was murdered this time, it set the pattern for further crimes: the relatively small scale of the theft (Barrow would never get away with more than $3,500 in a single raid); the willingness to engage in violence at the slightest provocation; the use of a high-speed getaway car. Later that month, Barrow shot dead a grocer whose safe he was raiding. The grocer's widow identified him via photos shown to her by police as the killer and Barrow was again a wanted man and on the run.
At this stage he took his sweetheart, Bonnie Parker, on the run with him and his gang. Over the following two years the gang was credited with scores of thefts and robberies, all small-scale and mostly of remote and therefore vulnerable rural outposts: drugstores, filling stations, and private citizens. They shot at anyone who got in their way, sometimes without provocation, and were guilty of at least twelve murders, including four police officers. Newspapermen magnified Barrow into one of the "worst killers of the Southwest," and as was common at the time, he sometimes gave interviews to journalists ingenious enough to catch up with him.
The romance between Barrow and Parker, combined with the gang's ubiquity, captured the wider public's imagination, even if they were feared and reviled throughout the communities and towns they haunted in the Midwest and Southwest. And despite the glamorous image they gained, their trail across America was mostly a desperate one, constantly tinged with fear of the law and recognition by the public, always on the move to avoid detection. They were ambushed by police on a number of occasions and several members of the gang died, including Buck Barrow, Clyde's brother.
Finally, on May 23, 1934, police caught up with the pair after tracking them down to their hideout, near Bienville Parish, Louisiana, following a tip-off. After setting up a roadside ambush to stop Barrow's car, police hidden behind bushes opened fire on his vehicle, emptying 150 rounds of ammunition into the pair and killing them instantly.
BONNIE PARKER AND CLYDE BARROW
See primary source image.
Behind the romantic edifice perpetuated by some contemporary newspaper coverage and later by the duo's immortalization on film, Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were part of a gang of hardened and brutal criminals, who would stop at nothing to retain their freedom. Though the romanticized view was not universally held—not least in the areas they terrorized—there was more to them than the sympathetic portrayal painted by many journalists and filmmakers.
Had such a widely known and brutal crime spree been carried out even just fifteen years earlier, it is unlikely that the duo would have gained such a benevolent reaction. However, America had gone through seismic cultural changes during the 1920s, an era when crime became normalized due to the proliferation of an underworld that sated America's thirst for booze, outlawed since 1919 by a constitutional amendment. Prohibition saw previously respectable and law-abiding citizens seek their daily drink in illegal drinking dens, run and frequented by criminals, or from smugglers and bootleggers. Crime became a way of life as Americans sought to maintain the habits they had always held. Lawbreakers became accepted as at no time in modern history.
Moreover, the huge wealth gained by bootlegger-barons was often accompanied by huge acts of largesse and generosity that saw them feted and even adored by polite society. The most notable example was Al Capone, who became one of the most famous men in the world, and the trend continued on into the 1930s. Bonnie and Clyde were just one of a succession of lawbreakers idealized and lionized, an outcome they shared with other criminals, including John Dillinger and the Ma Barker Boys, who found public favor in 1930s.
As with many famous criminals, controversy and myth surrounds their ending. Police shot at them without warning and without returning fire, although as they later pointed out when criticized for doing so, they were merely treating Barrow in the same way he had acted towards their colleagues. More contentious still was the fate of Bonnie Parker. Although part of the gang, she had not been implicated in any of the murders they had carried out and had apparently never fired a gun in her life.
The police who carried out their killings were further discredited after allowing members of the public to raid Bonnie and Clyde's corpses and battered vehicle in search of souvenirs. The bullet-ridden Ford V-8 was later sold by the state of Louisiana and is now on display at a Nevada casino.
Sinclair, Andrew. Prohibition: The Era of Excess. New York: Little Brown, 1962.
Treherne, John. The Strange Life of Bonnie and Clyde. Lanham, Md.: Cooper Square Press, 2000.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Famous Cases: Bonnie and Clyde." 〈http://www.fbi.gov/libref/historic/famcases/clyde/clyde.htm〉 (accessed February 25, 2006).