The date was April 13, 1933, and the not-so-notorious-yet Bonnie and Clyde and three more of the Barrow gang were having a raucous old time at their garage-apartment hideout in a neighborhood of Joplin, Missouri.
At this time the gang consisted of Clyde Barrow; his partner in crime and devoted lover, Bonnie Parker; Clyde’s older brother, Buck Barrow, and his wife Blanche Barrow. The last of the gang was a childhood friend of the Barrows, one W.D. Jones– no one knows if he had a girlfriend or wife or was just a sad fifth wheel.
For days on end the quintet of criminals had been chugging liquor, chain-smoking cigarettes and running card games – much to the chagrin of their neighbors whose peace and quiet had been momentarily spoiled.
Neighbors had enough and called the police
That day, during yet another long session on the booze, one of the neighbors decided enough is enough and called the Joplin Police Department. The cops, hearing of tales of what was apparently going down in that house, assumed bootleggers were hiding out there. This was, after all, the era of prohibition in the USA.
Five armed police turned up at the hideout and demanded the gang come out with their hands up, acceding to the demands of the cops was certainly not Bonnie and Clyde’s style. The gang opened fire, Clyde using his trusty Browning Automatic Rifle, while the rest of the gang let loose with an arsenal of different weapons.
A detective and a police constable were hit while under that hail of fire, with the former dying immediately and the latter dying later from his injuries. The rest of the policemen took cover, but they were outgunned by the gang.
Firing back, they managed to hit W.D in the shoulder, a bullet that W.D would later say went right through…another shot hit Clyde, but it ricocheted off his jacket button. Buck was almost hit, but the shot only grazed him.
They all managed to escape and drive into the sunset
In the middle, even with bullets flying everywhere, all the gang except Blanche managed to drive away leaving the traumatized and dead police behind. Blanche had wanted to save her pet dog, Snowball, and could be seen running down the road after him. Snowball was long gone, so Blanche took off with the rest of the gang.
As would happen time and again, the police could only watch as a fast car loaded with powerful guns and a band of criminals disappeared into the distance.
This was a pivotal moment in the story of the Barrow gang, and it was after that bloody day that Bonnie and Clyde became immortalized in American history. Not so much for the carnage they caused, but for what they left behind.
The time Bonnie and Clyde got popular amongst people
You see, Bonnie was something of an amateur photographer, and she was also fond of writing poems. From a young age she had fallen in love with the silver screen and the girl became possessed with celebrity in those early days of the movies. She wrote stories which she starred in, and she took pictures of herself…Unwittingly, this would in fact make her a celebrity in time.
After the shoot-out, the cops found one of Bonnie’s poems called, “The Story of Suicide Sal”.
Part of the poem went like this:
“I left my old home for the city
o play in its mad dizzy whirl,
Not knowing how little of pity
it holds for a country girl.”
In some ways, the poem was the story of Bonnie and Clyde. It described the lives of two runaway hoodlum lovers, a doomed criminal pair who were heading towards an early death.
That poem filled the pages of U.S. newspapers, but so did the negatives that were found on a camera that had been left behind at the hideout, and they would become part of America’s criminal iconography.
One of them showed Bonnie, dressed in black, pointing a shotgun at Clyde’s belly Another shows Bonnie smoking a cigar, leaning up against a powerful car. Bonnie didn’t smoke cigars, but when these photos were seen by the public what people saw was a strong woman, a masculine but beautiful lady who had taken life into her own hands.
In spite of the bloodshed the pair had caused, much of the American public were in awe of the couple…people started to romanticize crime.
To better understand why, here are two more lines from Bonnie’s poem:
“It takes more than lawyers and money
hen Uncle Sam starts shaking you down.”
You see, all the gang members were born into poverty in the southern plains of the USA.
Bonnie and Clyde both grew up in poverty
Back in the 1930s this area, known as the “Dust Bowl”, experienced massive dust storms that ended with drought, dead cattle and failed crops. It was an era when rural folks, some of them farmers, were desperate. To make matters worse, this was smack-dab in the middle of the Great Depression, because trouble always comes in twos.
What the public saw in this criminal couple was two renegade folks that had taken control of their own lives, that had found love during harsh times, and had turned away from an Uncle Sam that hadn’t been treating poorer folks very well. And Clyde certainly knew a thing or two about being poor.
The poverty that Clyde grew up in was what you might call abject. In the 1920s when he and his six brothers were growing up there wasn’t much hope for them. They lived under a wagon for a while, were constantly covered in mud, and barely had enough food to prevent malnutrition. It was a step up for the family when they managed to move into a tent in a slum.
As a youth, Bonnie had more chances in life, but without much cash at hand she got married at age just 15 in the hope of having some semblance of a normal life. It didn’t happen… her husband was a crook and a cheat. She didn’t divorce her spouse, but she soon took off in search of a better life.
Clyde didn’t much like slum life. He grew up seeing his older brother Buck buying smart suits and driving fancy cars. Buck had his “game”, and that was mostly stealing cars, cracking safes and robbing stores. In his teens, Clyde wanted in on the action, and so that’s what he did…he became a criminal in between times of having some legitimate jobs.
How did Bonnie and Clyde meet?
It was at the age of 19 when he ran into a young, pretty woman whose name was Bonnie. They had a mutual friend, as the story goes. The two soon became inseparable, but Clyde’s criminal exploits would soon land him in the dreaded Eastham Prison Farm. He was just 21 years old.
After Clyde was imprisoned, Bonnie came to help. She managed to smuggle a weapon into the prison and with it, Clyde made his way out. His freedom didn’t last long, and soon he was recaptured and in prison again.
Clyde being incarcerated again
It was during this second stint in what could only be called a hellish slave camp that young Clyde, so far a friendly and jovial sort of guy, turned into a different beast altogether. You see, prison back then wasn’t supposed to rehabilitate people…it was supposed to break a man…it was supposed to be a living hell. Well, maybe not much has changed.
But that’s what it was for Clyde, hell, but a multifaceted kind of hell. He not only almost died working insane hours under the hot sun on a chain gang, but experienced something worse – that was the bullying and continuous sexual assault by another inmate. Clyde, then just a waif of young man, could do nothing at first to stop his 6-foot tall, 200 pound attacker.
On October 29, 1931, Clyde snuck a piece of galvanized pipe into his cell. During the evening, he invited his tormentor to the open toilets in the building. As soon as they entered the toilets, Clyde turned around and swung, almost taking the top of the abuser’s head off.
That was the end of the abuse, and thankfully for Clyde, another inmate doing a long sentence for murder said he did it. Clyde was never the same again, though. As one inmate put it, he saw his friend turn from a schoolboy into a rattlesnake.
He was still desperate to get out of that hell, and in 1932, he or someone else chopped two of his toes off on purpose. Clyde thought the injury might at least get him off doing the grueling hard labor, but little did he know that his mother had successfully been petitioning for his release. He got out in the end, and there was never any need for self-harm.
Clyde would limp for the rest of his life, but at least he would limp along with his lover, his eternally devoted Bonnie Parker.
The formation of The Borrow Gang
The two formed what was called The Barrow Gang, and you already know the names of some of the gang’s members. There were more people involved, each with his own history of poverty and desperation and criminality, but we’ll mainly stick with our two anti-heroes today.
After Clyde got out he soon started committing robberies, mainly of gas stations and regular stores. It was small-time stuff, but Clyde had bigger things in mind. What he really wanted to do was to get back at the prison that had treated him so badly, the place where he had been defiled by another prisoner. He’d eventually get one over on the prison after a time.
During those early robberies, Bonnie was arrested and ended up doing some time behind bars, whiling away the hours writing poetry and thinking about Clyde.
Meanwhile, Clyde was committing more robberies, and this would end with the murders of several police officers.
Public opinion turned against the famous couple
You already know about the incident that made the Barrow gang famous, but it was what they did after that, that started to change the minds of the American public. Not only did the gang rob stores, gas stations, but they sometimes robbed banks – perhaps not as many the movies have made out, though.
Other times they robbed people in the street and relieved them of their valuables and their car. If anyone got in their way, whether the person was a police officer or a civilian, they would be shot dead. And it was the killings that began to sway the minds of the American public- no one likes a murderer after all.
Bonnie and Clyde kept evading police
Each time the police would give chase though, the gang would always getaway. That’s thanks to their hot-rod of a preferred getaway car, the Ford V-8, which packed more horsepower than a regular old police cruiser. Poor coppers never had a chance, and Bonnie and Clyde would leave them in the dust.
As for weapons, the gang had plenty of them since they stole from National Guard armories. Clyde’s favorite weapon was his Browning Automatic Rifle, but the gang also had an array of other weapons. But fast cars and powerful guns couldn’t protect them forever.
Bonnie gets badly hurt in a getaway
During one of the gang’s getaways they ended up crashing the car, and while most of them were busted up, it was Bonnie that took the worst punishment. In fact, she was lucky to survive. The burns on one of her legs were so bad that W.D later said that he could see the bone.
She was in agony and could hardly walk, so the gang decided to retreat to a farmhouse. In that particular town, they kidnapped a sheriff and a marshal and later tried to commit another robbery, so they could get provisions and medicines to help the injured Bonnie. The robberies didn’t exactly go to plan and yet another marshal was killed…Again they had to flee, even though Bonnie was staring death in the eye.
They later checked into a place called the Red Town Cavern in Platte City, Missouri, and there they put newspapers over the windows of their room and settled in with food and beers. Some of the gang stayed inside to nurse Bonnie, while the others went out to get provisions and buy medicine for Bonnie’s leg.
Borrow gang once again, getting away from the police, but this time not unscathed
Not only were the owners of the cavern suspicious, but the drug store owner also called the cops – cops who were pretty sure who was staying at the hotel. They would take no risks this time, and made sure they met the gang with a bunch of Thompson submachine guns and an armored car.
A gunfight ensued and the gang got away, but not before Buck took a bullet to the head that took part of his skull clean-off. At the same time, his wife Blanche was almost blinded when the glass from a blown-out windscreen sprayed into her face.
These were not the best of times for the Barrow gang, with Buck looking so bad a grave was dug for him. Surprisingly, he could eat and talk, even though a good chunk of his skull was missing. Blanche couldn’t see a thing, and Bonnie could hardly walk.
The group camped out at an abandoned amusement park in Iowa, and it was there that the cops would catch up with them again. This time only W.D., Bonnie and Clyde would get away. The almost-dead Buck was helpless to do anything and he was shot in the back, meanwhile, his almost-blind wife was easily captured. Buck died a few days later and Blanche was arrested.
Bonnie and Clyde took off and later split up with W.D, who was also later arrested. Now it was just the two of them. They were desperate and wartorn, and Bonnie was still treating some very nasty burns.
Clyde still, had some unfinished business
Despite all their troubles, in January 1934, Clyde somehow managed to break out a number of prisoners at Eastham Prison Farm, the place he most hated in the world. According to some historians, Clyde was still not done with the Texas Department of Corrections, but he had at least made a dream come true.
The authorities were now nothing short of furious with Bonnie and Clyde, especially seeing as a local mayor had been killed during that breakout. Enough was enough, and Texas put together a team of the hardest law enforcement officers the state could find and launched a massive manhunt. Now it wasn’t a case of arresting the duo…they had to die.
The man put on Bonnie and Clyde case had to be just as bad
A man named Frank Hamer was put on the case, and he wasn’t exactly known for his tolerance. He had a kill streak of 53 people and he’d injured seventeen more people. He was what you might call a natural first choice to hunt down and murder two criminals.
It was during this cat and mouse game that the Barrow gang, now with another member named Henry Methvin, killed two highway patrolmen.
The authorities and media wanted to make sure that this time none of the American public sided with the criminals, and so they made sure that stories were spread saying that Bonnie had laughed at seeing one of the dying patrolmen, and then shot him in the head as he lay helpless on the ground.
This wasn’t true of course, since Methvin later admitted to killing the man and he said all the time Bonnie was asleep in the back of the car. Supposed eye-witnesses also changed their stories several times, but the media had at last succeeded in turning America against Bonnie and Clyde. With all the murder the couple had been doing though, maybe they shouldn’t have been idolized in the first place.
Public perception became even worse after the gang killed an ageing Constable named William “Cal” Campbell. Now there was a blood lust for Bonnie and Clyde…their outlaw celebrity status now only served to foment hatred within the public.
The ambush that led to Bonnie and Clyde’s death
What happened next has been speculated and argued over for decades, but we know for certain that on May 23, 1934, Hamer and a posse had set up a roadblock on the Louisiana State Highway. They had learned that Bonnie and Clyde would be travelling down that road to rendezvous at Methvin’s father’s house.
Instead, the cops got Old Man Methvin – some accounts say by force – and had him wait with his car in the road as if he had broken down. Knowing that the Ford V-8 would be travelling at high speed, the posse believed that Clyde would slow down if he saw Methvin’s father.
Bonnie and Clyde, notorious criminal duo and celebrity outlaws, were about to meet death.
The cops waited in the bushes armed to the teeth with weapons, and when the car slowed down, they opened fire. Bullets strafed the passenger cab of the vehicle, and there was no chance of survival. When the gun smoke cleared, Bonnie and Clyde had each taken fifty rounds, leaving bullet riddled-corpses behind.
One of the posse later gave a statement, saying:
“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 of the public soon heard of the story and in no time the road was full of people, a jostling crowd of hundreds that wanted to see the dead outlaws and maybe get close enough to take a souvenir.
The crowd took bits of the car…people tried to cut off parts of Bonnie’s clothes and cut off chunks of her hair. One man even tried to cut off one of Clyde’s ears with a knife, and another attempted to cut off his trigger-finger. The scene was described as a bloody circus, with the public acting like wild beasts.
In the car, the police found seven .45 Colt 1911 pistols, one .32 caliber Colt automatic pistol, a sawed-off 20 gauge Remington Model 11 shotgun, three .30-06 Browning Automatic Rifles, a double-action Colt revolver, a sawed-off Winchester 10 gauge lever-action shotgun, and a .380 caliber Colt automatic pistol.
Bonnie and Clyde had one final wish in life, one that they had dreamed of even before they knew the end was near. That wish was that they be buried side by side. It didn’t happen though, because Bonnie’s family didn’t want it that way.
Nonetheless, thousands upon thousands of people showed up at the funeral, just to get a look at the two outlaws they had loved and hated in equal measures.
Early gang member W.D. Jones as well as 19 people who were family and associates ended up in court in 1935. Jones did his time in prison and lived long enough to watch the 1967 movie, the now-classic, “Bonnie and Clyde”.
When the movie ended, news reporters were there to ask W.D how he felt about it. His response was: “It made it all look sort of glamorous, but like I told them teenage boys sitting near me at the drive-in showing: ‘Take it from an old man who was there. It was hell.”
Featured image: Bonnie and Clyde, by Library of Congress, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons