Bonnie Parker (October 1, 1910 – May 23, 1934) and Clyde Barrow (March 24, 1909 – May 23, 1934) were well known outlaws, robbers and criminals who, with their gang, traveled the Central United States during the Great Depression. Their exploits captured the attention of the American public during what is sometimes referred to as the “public enemy era” between 1931 and 1934. Though known today for his dozen-or-so bank robberies, Barrow in fact preferred to rob small stores or rural gas stations. The gang is believed to have killed at least nine police officers and committed several civilian murders. They were eventually ambushed and killed in Louisiana by law officers. Their reputation was cemented in American pop folklore by Arthur Penn’s 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde.
Believed at the time to be a full participant in the gang’s crimes, Parker’s role has since been a source of controversy. While gang members W. D. Jones and Ralph Fults said they never saw her fire a gun and described her role as logistical, Jones also told investigators that she had fired a pistol at officers “two or three times” when he was deposed under arrest in 1933. By 1968, his recollection was that “during the five big gun battles I was with them, she never fired a gun. But I’ll say she was a hell of a loader.” Youngest Barrow sister Marie made the same claim: “Bonnie never fired a shot. She just followed my brother no matter where he went.” Parker’s reputation as a cigar-smoking gun moll grew out of a gag snapshot found by police abandoned at a hideout, released to the press, and published in newspapers, magazines and newsreels nationwide; while she did chain-smoke Camel cigarettes, she was not a cigar smoker.
Author Jeff Guinn, in his 2009 book Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde, explains that it was these very photos that put the outlaws on the media map and launched their legend: “John Dillinger had matinee-idol good looks and Pretty Boy Floyd had the best possible nickname, but the Joplin photos introduced new criminal superstars with the most titillating trademark of all—illicit sex. Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were young and unmarried. They undoubtedly slept together—after all, the girl smoked cigars…. Without Bonnie, the media outside Texas might have dismissed Clyde as a gun-toting punk, if it ever considered him at all. With her sassy photographs, Bonnie supplied the sex-appeal, the oomph, that allowed the two of them to transcend the small-scale thefts and needless killings that actually comprised their criminal careers.”
On January 16, 1934, Barrow finally made his long-contemplated move against the Texas Department of Corrections as he orchestrated the escape of Raymond Hamilton, Henry Methvin and several others in the infamous “Eastham Breakout” of 1934. The Texas prison system received national negative publicity from the brazen raid, and Barrow appeared to have achieved what Phillips describes as the burning passion in his life: exacting revenge on the Texas Department of Corrections.
It was expensive revenge, though, for all concerned. During the jailbreak, escapee Joe Palmer shot prison officer Major Joe Crowson and this act would eventually bring the full power of the Texas and federal governments to bear on the manhunt for Barrow and Parker. As Crowson struggled for life, prison chief Lee Simmons reportedly promised him that all persons involved in the breakout would be hunted down and killed, and all were, except for Henry Methvin, whose life would eventually be exchanged for turning Barrow and Parker over to authorities. The Texas Department of Corrections then contacted former Texas Ranger Captain Frank A. Hamer, and persuaded him to accept an assignment to hunt down the Barrow Gang. Though retired, Hamer had retained his commission, which had not yet expired. He accepted the assignment as a Texas Highway Patrol officer, secondarily assigned to the prison system as a special investigator, and given the specific task of hunting down Bonnie, Clyde and the Barrow Gang.
Frank Hamer was that rara avis, a true legend in his own time. Tall, burly, cryptic and taciturn, unimpressed by authority, driven by an “inflexible adherence to right, or what he thinks is right,” for twenty years Hamer had been feared and admired throughout the Lone Star State as “the walking embodiment of the ‘One Riot, One Ranger’ ethos.” In accomplishing the aims of Texas law enforcement he “had acquired a formidable reputation as a result of several spectacular captures and the shooting of a number of Texas criminals.” He was officially credited with fifty-three kills (and seventeen wounds to himself). Although prison boss Simmons always said publicly that Hamer had been his first choice for the Barrow hunt, there’s evidence he approached two other Rangers first, both of whom had been queasy about shooting a woman and declined; Hamer apparently had no such qualms. Starting February 10, he became the constant shadow of Barrow and Parker, living out of his car, just a town or two behind the bandits. Three of Hamer’s brothers were also Texas Rangers, and while brother Harrison was the best shot of the four, Frank was considered the most tenacious.
On April 1, 1934, Easter Sunday, Barrow and Henry Methvin killed two young highway patrolmen, H. D. Murphy and Edward Bryant Wheeler, at Grapevine, Texas (now called Southlake). A contemporary eyewitness account stated that Barrow and Parker fired the fatal shots and this story got widespread coverage in the press before it was discredited. Henry Methvin later admitted he fired the first shot, after assuming Barrow wanted the officers killed; he also admitted that Parker approached the dying officers intending to help them, not to administer the cold-blooded point-blank coup de grâce the discredited eyewitness had described. Having little choice once Methvin had shot Wheeler, Barrow then joined in, firing at Patrolman Murphy. Most likely, Parker was asleep in the back seat when Methvin started shooting and took no part in the assault.
But in the spring of 1934, the reality of the Grapevine killings was far less important than the perception of them. All four Dallas daily papers seized on the story told by the eyewitness, a farmer, who claimed to have seen Parker throw her head back and laugh at the way Patrolman Murphy’s head “bounced like a rubber ball” on the ground as she pumped bullets into his prone body. The stories even claimed that police found a cigar butt “with tiny teeth marks” that could only be attributed to the diminutive Parker. Things got worse several days later when Murphy’s intended bride walked into his funeral wearing her wedding gown and sparked another round of photo-supported coverage in the papers. The eyewitness’s ever-changing story was soon discredited, but not in time for Barrow and Parker: the massive negative publicity, against Parker in particular, accelerated the public clamor for the extermination of the remaining elements of the Barrow Gang.
It was more than just bad press, though—the outcry galvanized the authorities into taking more concrete legal actions. Highway Patrol boss L.G. Phares immediately offered a $1,000 reward for “the dead bodies of the Grapevine slayers”—not their capture, just the bodies. Texas governor Ma Ferguson was as outraged as the voting public, and she added another $500 reward for each of the two alleged killers, which “meant for the first time there was a specific price on Bonnie’s head, since she was so widely believed to have shot H.D. Murphy.”
Public hostility only increased when, just five days later, Barrow and Methvin killed 60 year-old Constable William “Cal” Campbell, a widower single father, near Commerce, Oklahoma. They kidnapped Commerce police chief Percy Boyd, drove around with him, crossing the state line into Kansas, and then let him out with a clean shirt, a few dollars and a request from Parker to tell the world she didn’t smoke cigars. The outlaws didn’t realize at their upbeat parting that Boyd would identify both Barrow and Parker to authorities—he never learned the name of the sullen youth who was with them—and when the resultant arrest warrant was issued for the Campbell murder, it specified “Clyde Barrow, Bonnie Parker and John Doe.” Historian Knight writes: “For the first time, Bonnie was seen as a killer, actually pulling the trigger—just like Clyde. Whatever chance she had for clemency had just been reduced.”
The Dallas Journal ran a cartoon on its editorial page showing the Texas electric chair, empty, but with a sign on it saying “Reserved”—for Clyde and Bonnie
Bonnie and Clyde were killed on May 23, 1934, on a desolate road in Bienville Parish, Louisiana. The couple appeared in daylight in an automobile and were shot by a posse of four Texas officers (Frank Hamer, B.M. “Manny” Gault, Bob Alcorn and Ted Hinton) and two Louisiana officers (Henderson Jordan and Prentiss Morel Oakley).
The posse was led by Hamer, who had begun tracking the pair on February 10, 1934. He studied the gang’s movements and found they swung in a circle skirting the edges of five midwest states, exploiting the “state line” rule that prevented officers from one jurisdiction from pursuing a fugitive into another. Barrow was a master of that pre-FBI rule, but he was consistent in his movements, so an experienced manhunter like Hamer could chart his path and predict where he would go. The gang’s itinerary centered on family visits, and they were due to see Henry Methvin’s family in Louisiana, which explained Hamer’s meeting with them over the course of the hunt. Hamer obtained a quantity of civilian Browning Automatic Rifles (manufactured by Colt as the “Monitor”) and 20 round magazines with armor piercing rounds.
On May 21, 1934, the four posse members from Texas were in Shreveport, Louisiana, when they learned that Barrow and Parker were to go to Bienville Parish that evening with Methvin. Barrow had designated the residence of Methvin’s parents as a rendezvous in case they were later separated and indeed Methvin did get separated from the pair in Shreveport. The full posse, consisting of Captain Hamer, Dallas County Sheriff’s Deputies Bob Alcorn and Ted Hinton (both of whom knew Barrow and Parker by sight), former Texas Ranger B.M. “Manny” Gault, Bienville Parish Sheriff Henderson Jordan, and his deputy Prentiss Oakley, set up an ambush at the rendezvous point along Louisiana State Highway 154 south of Gibsland toward Sailes. Hinton’s account has the group in place by 9:00 p.m. on the 21st and waiting through the whole next day (May 22) with no sign of the outlaw couple, but other accounts have them setting up on the evening of the 22nd.
At approximately 9:15 a.m. on May 23, the posse, concealed in the bushes and almost ready to concede defeat, heard Barrow’s stolen Ford V8 approaching at a high rate of speed. The posse’s official report had Barrow stopping to speak with Henry Methvin’s father, planted there with his truck that morning to distract him and force him into the lane closer to the posse. The lawmen then opened fire, killing Barrow and Parker while shooting a combined total of approximately 130 rounds. All accounts of the ambush, including his own, agree that Oakley fired first, and probably before any order was given to do so. Barrow was killed instantly by Oakley’s initial head shot, but Parker had a moment to reflect; Hinton reported hearing her scream as she realized Barrow was dead before the shooting at her began in earnest. The officers emptied the specially ordered automatic rifles, as well as other rifles, shotguns and pistols at the car, and any one of many wounds would have been fatal to either of the fugitives. According to statements made by Ted Hinton and Bob Alcorn:
“Each of us six officers had a shotgun and an automatic rifle and pistols. We opened fire with the automatic rifles. They were emptied before the car got even with us. Then we used shotguns … There was smoke coming from the car, and it looked like it was on fire. After shooting the shotguns, we emptied the pistols at the car, which had passed us and ran into a ditch about 50 yards on down the road. It almost turned over. We kept shooting at the car even after it stopped. We weren’t taking any chances.”
Some today say Bonnie and Clyde were shot more than 50 times, others claim closer to 25 wounds per corpse, or 50 total. Officially, the tally in Parish coroner Dr. J. L. Wade’s 1934 report listed seventeen separate entrance wounds on Barrow’s body and twenty-six on Parker’s, including several headshots on each, and one that had snapped Barrow’s spinal column. So numerous were the bullet holes that undertaker C. F. “Boots” Bailey would have difficulty embalming the bodies because they wouldn’t contain the embalming fluid.
Amidst the lingering gunsmoke at the ambush site, the temporarily deafened officers inspected the vehicle and discovered an arsenal of weapons including stolen automatic rifles, sawed-off semi-automatic shotguns, assorted handguns and several thousand rounds of ammunition, along with fifteen sets of license plates from various states.
Word of the ambush quickly got around when Hamer, Jordan, Oakley and Hinton drove to town to telephone their respective bosses. A crowd soon gathered at the spot, and Gault and Alcorn, who were left to guard the bodies, lost control of the jostling curious; one woman cut off bloody locks of Parker’s hair and pieces from her dress, which were sold as souvenirs. Hinton returned to find a man trying to cut off Barrow’s trigger finger, and was sickened by what was occurring. The coroner, arriving on the scene, saw the following: “nearly everyone had begun collecting souvenirs such as shell casings, slivers of glass from the shattered car windows, and bloody pieces of clothing from the garments of Bonnie and Clyde. One eager man had opened his pocket knife, and was reaching into the car to cut off Clyde’s left ear.” The coroner enlisted Hamer for help in controlling the “circus-like atmosphere,” and only then did people move away from the car.
The bullet-riddled Ford containing the two bodies was towed to the Conger Furniture Store & Funeral Parlor on Railroad Avenue in downtown Arcadia across from the Illinois Central train station (which is now a historical museum containing Bonnie and Clyde artifacts.) Preliminary embalming was done by Bailey in the small preparation room in back of the furniture store. It was estimated that the northwest Louisiana town swelled in population from 2,000 to 12,000 within hours, the curious throngs arriving by train, horseback, buggy, and plane. Beer which normally sold for 15 cents a bottle jumped to 25 cents; ham sandwiches quickly sold out. After identifying his son’s body, an emotional Henry Barrow sat in a rocking chair in the furniture part of the Conger establishment and wept.
H.D. Darby, a young undertaker who worked for the McClure Funeral Parlor in nearby Ruston, Louisiana, and Sophia Stone, a home demonstration agent also from Ruston, came to Arcadia to identify the bodies. They had been kidnapped by the Barrow gang the previous year in Ruston and released near Waldo, Arkansas. Parker reportedly had laughed when she asked Darby his profession and discovered he was an undertaker. She remarked that maybe someday he would be working on her. As it turned out, she could be no closer to the truth: Darby assisted Bailey in embalming the outlaws.
Six weeks before the couple was ambushed, a letter purportedly written by Barrow arrived at the office of Henry Ford praising his “dandy car.” Although the handwriting does not match known samples of Clyde’s penmanship, and despite the fact the letter was signed by “Clyde Champion Barrow” while Barrow’s middle name was Chestnut, the unauthenticated letter is on display in the Ford Museum. It was never used in any form in Ford advertising, nor was a similar letter Ford received around the same time from someone claiming to be John Dillinger, himself slain just two months after Barrow.
The “Bonnie and Clyde Death car” has been on tour since the ambush. I first seen this car at Primm Valley near Las Vegas. It is currently located at the Terribles Las Chance Casino outside of Reno NV. Here are the photos of the car as it looks today.
If you get the chance to see this car, it is really interesting. There are so many bullet holes and damage to the car from the ambush but other than that it is still all original.
I went to the fair this weekend and we got a nostalgic photo which reminds me of Bonnie and Clyde. See for your self:
Thanks for reading,