Parker, Bonnie (1910–1934)

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Parker, Bonnie (1910–1934)

American bankrobber and folk legend who became Public Enemy Number One as one of the Barrow gang during the hard times of the Great Depression. Born on October 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas; shot to death on May 23, 1934; daughter of Emma Parker; married Roy Thornton, but was known for her long relationship with Clyde Barrow; no children.

The memory of Bonnie Parker will forever be linked with Clyde Barrow and the legend they created with their violent deeds in the early 1930s. Audiences who thrilled to the 1967 movie Bonnie and Clyde, starring the beautiful Faye Dunaway as Bonnie and the handsome Warren Beatty as Clyde, may have difficulty reaching behind this cinematic spectacular to come to grips with the more sordid reality. Although the question of whether Bonnie and Clyde were appreciated as folk heroes in their day is controversial, nevertheless, they became folk legends.

Popular history has relegated the notorious pair onto the same pages as Jesse and Frank James and even Robin Hood. Sympathetic press began only four months after their deaths when Bonnie's mother Emma Parker and Clyde's sister Nell Barrow Cowan published their book Fugitives: The Story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Actually written by professional journalist Jan Fortune , the book conveys the impression "that Bonnie and Clyde were both physically attractive and charming young people driven to a life of crime by unfair police harassment."

This theme was nothing new; those living outside the law from William Tell to John Dillinger often appealed to the lower class as larger-than-life figures freed from the shackles of poverty and the humdrum existence of everyday life. Further, these folk heroes, also from the lower class, ostensibly struck back against injustice and dared to right wrongs by taking on, through action, established societal order. Such considerations were still at the root of the success of the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde. Wrote John Treherne: "For many Americans in the latter years of the 1960s, Bonnie and Clyde became symbols of defiance against materialist capitalism and their nation's conflict in Vietnam." Further, Treherne asserts:

It was Bonnie Parker who supplied the unique ingredient: the image of the tiny feminine figure with a machine-gun, who chose to die with the man she loved. It was as though Annie Oakley had teamed up with Billy the Kid, or as if Maid Marian had fought with bow and arrow beside her Hood.

Bonnie Parker was born on October 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas. The blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bonnie was the second of three children of Emma Parker and a bricklayer father who was able to support his family in a moderately comfortable style in their small agricultural town, population 600. Ironically, the Parkers regularly attended the Rowena Baptist Church, and there was little to suggest from her early childhood that this delicate youth would grow into Public Enemy Number One. In fact, Bonnie was terrified of guns and was intensely devoted to her mother, a devotion that would last a lifetime.

Hardship began at the age of four when Parker's father died and the family had to move to the home of her maternal grandmother in Cement City, in the suburbs of Dallas. There, everyday existence was tough and criminal elements lurked: the family's quality of life rapidly deteriorated.

Parker, who began school at age six, excelled in her studies, especially in spelling, writing, and acting, the latter revealing a streak of exhibitionism which would carry into her adult career in crime. While living and playing in a poor, rough community, she became involved in her share of fighting.

At 15, she became interested in boys, and married her first flame, Roy Thornton, the following year. The two moved into a house two blocks from her mother for a period of several months, but Parker missed Emma to such an extent that she coaxed Roy into moving with her back home. Then, in 1926, the Parkers, with Thornton, moved to a house on Olive Street in Dallas. However, after a few months, Thornton, who had already embarked on an odyssey of crime, began the first of a series of abandonments which would eventually lead to the failure of the marriage. The entries in Parker's diary written during this period are filled with despair, while passage after passage complains of intense boredom.

At 18, she began working at Marco's Café in downtown Dallas, where she annoyed the management by offering free meals to the clientele and may have paid for food for the down-andouts from her own meager wages. While her family insisted these actions were examples of her essential good heart, others have suggested the acts were due to a showy exhibitionism or rebellion. She realized she no longer loved her husband, and refused to let him return after his last abandonment. Shortly after, Thornton was arrested for robbery and sentenced to five years in prison.

For several months in 1929, Bonnie worked at another café in Houston Street, Dallas, where she confided to patrons that she would like a career in acting, singing, or writing poetry. As she left this job, however, the Great Depression hit, and unable to find work Parker returned home. Then, in January 1930, while staying at a girlfriend's house in West Dallas, she met Clyde Barrow, a man who would lead her desires and career in an entirely different direction.

Clyde Barrow had been born on March 24, 1909, the sixth of eight children, into an extremely poor family in Telico, Texas. Barrow had a childhood of neglect and he hated school. His happiest moments were spent watching silent movies of famous cowboy outlaws, and while playing he usually imagined himself to be Jesse James. Neighbors reported his preoccupation with guns and with tormenting pet and farmyard animals. At 12, his family moved into the tough neighborhood of West Dallas known as the "Bog." Barrow quit high school at age 16, went through a series of jobs, and developed an interest in girls and fast cars. Soon after, he embarked on a life of petty, then more serious, crime, following in the footsteps of his brother Buck Barrow, who was sitting in a Texas jail.

The meeting between Bonnie and Clyde at her friend's house was instant magic. Emma Parker thought Clyde was "a likeable boy, very handsome, with his dark wavy hair, dancing brown eyes…. [H]e had what they call charm." Clyde's sister, Nell, described Bonnie:

[She was] an adorable little thing, more like a doll than a girl. She had yellow hair that kinked all over her head like a baby's, the loveliest skin I've ever seen without a blemish on it, a regular cupid's bow of a mouth, and blue, blue eyes…. [S]he had dimples that showed constantly when she talked, and she was so tiny, she was only four feet ten inches tall, and weighed between eighty-five and ninety pounds. Her hands took a number five glove, and her feet a number three shoe.

For Bonnie, Clyde would prove a fatal attraction. Soon after she took him home to stay with her mother, the police came and arrested him for committing several robberies and burglaries. Distraught, Bonnie moved to a cousin's house in Waco where Clyde was being detained in jail while waiting trial. On March 11, 1930,

at Clyde's prompting, she smuggled a .32 Colt revolver into jail, enabling her lover to escape the following day. Unfortunately for young love, Clyde was apprehended after one week on the lam and was sent to the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville to serve a 14-year sentence.

However, Clyde Barrow was released in February 1932, under a general parole offered by Texas Governor Ross Sterling. Clyde, having cut off two of his toes in prison in order to avoid arduous work details, recuperated with Bonnie's assistance, made a two-week attempt to go straight, then persuaded Parker to join him in a life of crime. This new life would soon become costly; within weeks, Bonnie was arrested for stealing a car, and she was held for three months in jail. In the meantime, Clyde and associated gang-members killed for the first time in April, murdering John Bucher, a jeweler in Hillsboro, Texas, and making off with a mere $40.

The Barrow gang would never be known for taking large sums of money; rather, they would go down in history for their indiscriminate taking of lives. During July and early August, the gang conducted at least three robberies; then on August 5 they mortally wounded Sheriff C.G. Maxwell and killed Deputy Sheriff E.C. Moore at a roadside dance hall near Atoka, Oklahoma.

You have heard the story of Jesse James, Of how he lived and died. If you are still in need of something to read, Here's the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

—Bonnie Parker

The gang fled in a series of stolen cars and holed up at the house of Bonnie's aunt, Millie Stamps , near Carlsbad, New Mexico. There, they kidnapped a deputy sheriff who was making inquiries about their car, but released him unhurt. On August 30, they ran a police road block and wounded another officer. At least two more robberies occurred in October, and Howard Hall was killed defending his store in Sherman, Texas. On December 5, the gang killed Doyle Johnson in Temple, Texas, and stole his car. Another mortal shooting and kidnapping occurred in January 1933, as the gang continued to avoid traps laid by the law.

Then in March, the new governor of Texas, Miriam "Ma" Ferguson , pardoned Clyde's brother Buck. On April 13, as Bonnie and Clyde and their teen-aged accomplice W.E. Jones rested in a bungalow in Joplin, Missouri, they were joined by Buck and his wife Blanche Barrow , who had convinced Buck to go straight. He never got the chance. Responding to a local tip off, police had surrounded the house in an attempt to capture Bonnie and Clyde. In a blaze of fire, the Barrow gang shot its way free, killing a constable and a detective in the process.

The gang would be hard to catch. Clyde was not only a crack shot; he was also a highly skilled driver able to cover phenomenal distances, and he was often aided by an uncanny "sixth sense" which alerted him to danger. Parker herself was reportedly an excellent relief driver and soon became expert in the handling of guns. Periodically, the gang would raid an armory to replenish supplies, which included machine-guns and several varieties of pistols and rifles. Additionally, the forces of the law were stretched thin, and the fact that the gang deliberately and frequently crossed state lines, especially between Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Louisiana, complicated questions of legal jurisdiction.

Bonnie and Clyde, in fact, were not the only problems facing law enforcement in 1933, for America was experiencing a virtual crime wave. During that year, 12,000 murders, 50,000 robberies, 3,000 kidnappings and 100,000 assaults were estimated to have taken place. This was the era of John Dillinger, Ma Barker , "Pretty Boy" Floyd, Al Capone, and "Machine Gun" Kelly, who was expertly guided by his wife Kathryn Kelly . For every gangster who was executed under due process, six lawmen died in the line of duty. Over 20 killings were attributed to Bonnie and Clyde, although only a dozen could be substantiated: nine of these were law enforcers.

Despite initial successes, however, beginning in June 1933 the gang began to suffer a series of reverses. Bonnie experienced serious burns when Clyde overturned their car near Wellington, Texas, on June 10, and was in great pain for several weeks. Then, on July 19, the gang fought a gun battle with police at Platte City, Missouri, in which Buck and Blanche were severely wounded. Four days later, a large posse ambushed the gang near Dexter, Iowa. Bonnie, Clyde, Buck and Blanche were all wounded. Blanche and Buck, who would later die of his wounds, were taken prisoner, while Bonnie and Clyde escaped with W.D. Jones. After laying low, the gang was back in action in November, but Jones was captured.

A new gang was assembled in January 1934, when Bonnie and Clyde in conjunction with other gangsters arranged a break of several prisoners from Eastham Prison Farm in Texas. After shooting a prison guard, Bonnie and Clyde hit the road again with Joe Palmer, Ray Hamilton and his girlfriend Mary O'Dare , and Henry Methven. After robbing another bank as well as a National Guard Armory in Texas in February, the gang quarreled and split up the following month.

In March, Bonnie and Clyde visited their respective mothers in south Dallas and narrowly avoided capture. On April 1, they shot E.B. Wheeler and H.D. Murphy, two motorcycle patrolmen in Grapevine, Texas, who had dared to approach them. Five days later, they killed Constable Cal Campbell in Miami, Oklahoma.

Meanwhile, their exploits had become front-page news: Clyde was nicknamed "The Texas Rattlesnake," while Bonnie was known as "Suicide Sal" because of a poem she had written and sent to the press:

Some day they will go down together,
And they will bury them side by side.
To a few it means grief.
To the law it's relief.
But it's death to Bonnie and Clyde.

Life was now too dangerous for the couple and the various members of their outlaw gang to stay in hotels or even in campgrounds or tourist cabins. They lived and slept in cars; they would drive one until it broke down, then steal another. Periodic robberies, mostly with a spur-of-the-moment, amateurish flair, kept them in pocket money but little else.

The law, meanwhile, had determined to bring them in. The shoot-out at Platte City had involved a posse of 100 peace officers, while the ambush at Dexter had been made by 400. Then, in February 1934, a posse of nearly 1,000 men had been dispatched into the Cookson Hills of Oklahoma to find the gang with orders to "shoot-to-kill." Officers of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had begun to support local police.

The state of Texas was equally determined and ordered Frank Hamer, a tough and experienced Texas Ranger, known as the fastest draw in the state, to track down and destroy the gang. Hamer, who had killed 65 outlaws, studied their haunts and patterns of movement and took to the road as they did. On May 23, 1934, he and a veteran posse of six laid a deadly ambush near Gibsland, Louisiana. Hamer had worked a deal with Ivan Methvin, father of Henry Methvin, the last gang member who had been loyal to Bonnie and Clyde. There would be clemency for Henry, if Ivan helped set up the notorious outlaw pair who had been living with the Methvins at their home and in various backwoods cabins. Henry, informed of the arrangement, slipped away from Bonnie and Clyde to safety. Suspecting nothing, and believing Henry merely had gotten lost, the pair informed Ivan of the route they would take the next day while looking for Henry, intent on arranging a rendezvous.

At nine o'clock on the morning of May 23, Bonnie and Clyde pulled up alongside Ivan Methvin's truck, which appeared to have a flat tire, at the designated meeting place. Bonnie, in a new red dress and red shoes, was eating a sandwich. Clyde asked about Henry, and Ivan asked the pair for a drink of water. Bonnie's last word was "Sure." As she reached for a thermos, Ivan scrambled under his truck and one of the posse, lying concealed by the side of the road, yelled for the gang to put their hands up. The pair went for their guns while Clyde attempted to drive away. For four minutes, the posse sprayed the car with bullets: Bonnie and Clyde were each hit about 50 times. The last stanza of Bonnie's poem had been prophetic: it was "death to Bonnie and Clyde."

But though they went "down together," they were not buried "side by side." Clyde was buried in West Dallas Cemetery while Bonnie was laid first to rest several miles away in Fish Trap Cemetery. While few attended Clyde's funeral, crowds mobbed Bonnie's burial, and a quartet sang "Beautiful Isle of Somewhere." Parker was later moved to Crown Hill Memorial Park Cemetery near Love Airfield in Dallas. Her mother had the following inscription carved on the headstone:

As the flowers are all made sweeter
By the sunshine and the dew,
So this old world is made brighter
By the lives of folks like you.

Even if the families of the victims Bonnie helped murder would disagree, there were those who would sympathize with the woman who often had told her mother of her love for Clyde, and her determination to die with him when that inevitable time came. Bonnie and Clyde had started their notorious legend long before their deaths by taking a large number of photographs of themselves posing before the camera, gun in hand, and by writing messages and testimonies to the press for publication. Wrote Jay Robert Nash:

To themselves they were American frontier heroes, pathfinders of a new and violent age to be admired. Bonnie, especially, … made sure that a photographic record would be left behind to mark her distinctive contribution to American crime.

After their deaths, wax effigies of the couple would be fashioned for museums, movies would portray them as glamorous, and rock and country-western songs would extol their struggles with the law.


Hinton, Ted. Ambush: The Real Story of Bonnie and Clyde. Bryan, TX: Shoal Creek, 1979.

Hyde, H. Montgomery, et al., eds. Crimes and Punishment. NY: Marshall Cavendish, 1986.

Jenkins, John H., and H. Gordon Frost. "I'm Frank Hamer": The Life of a Texas Peace Officer. Austin, TX: Pemberton Press, 1980.

Nash, Jay Robert. Encyclopedia of World Crime: Criminal Justice, Criminology, and Law Enforcement. Vol. 1. Wilmette, IL: Crime Books, 1989.

Treherne, John. The Strange History of Bonnie and Clyde. NY: Stein & Day, 1985.

suggested reading:

Deford, Miriam. The Real Bonnie and Clyde. NY: Ace Books, 1968.

Fortune, Jan I. Fugitives: The Story of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Dallas, TX: Ranger Press, 1934.

Philips, John Neal, and André L. Gorzell. "Tell Them I Don't Smoke Cigars: The Story of Bonnie Parker," in Legendary Ladies of Texas. Ed. by Francis Edward Abernathy. Dallas, TX: E-Heart Press, 1981.

related media:

Bonnie and Clyde, starring Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty, and Estelle Parsons , directed by Arthur Penn, edited by Dede Allen , produced by Warner Bros., 1967.

The Bonnie Parker Story, starring Dorothy Provine and Jack Hogan, produced by AIP, 1958.

David L. Bullock , Ph.D., author of Allenby's War: The Palestine-Arabian Campaigns, 1916–1918 (London: the Blandford Press, 1988)

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Parker, Bonnie (1910–1934)

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