Posted in Film, History, Motoring History, Museum, Vintage

The Real Bonnie and Clyde

1932 Austin 7 - Box Saloon. Bonnie and Clyde used a car similar to this, the 1934 Ford Model 18 - V8, 730 Deluxe Sedan. This Austin 7 is on display at Breamore Countryside Museum, Hampshire.

Following on from Carolyn Hair’s  great articles on the popularity of Bonnie and Clyde as cultural icons, I have been researching the life (and death) of the real-life duo.  The pair terrorised small-town America between 1932 and 1934, preying upon ordinary people ranging from travellers to small-business owners and killing 12 persons, including a number of police officers.  The duo met a violent and gruesome end at the hands of law enforcement officers who had been trying to track them down for sometime. So who were the real Bonnie and Clyde?

Clyde “Champion” Barrow was born Clyde Chestnut Barrow on March 24th, 1909 near Ennis, Texas.  He lived in extreme poverty with his parents and seven siblings.  Aged 12, the family moved to West Dallas where they lived in a squalid neighbourhood along the Trinity River bottoms, which was known as “the Bog”.  He dropped out of school in the 5th grade.   His brother Marvin “Buck” Barrow was often in trouble with the law and Clyde looked-up to him.  Clyde was frequently in Juvenile Court and spent several years in a Houston “reform” school before he committed his first crime, a car theft, aged just 13. By the time he was 21, he had been arrested five times.  Clyde was handsome, with dark, wavy hair and brown eyes.

Bonnie Parker Thornton was born Bonnie Elizabeth Parker on 1st October 1910 in Rowena, Texas.  She came from comfortable circumstances but when her father died in 1914, her mother and Bonnie’s two siblings were forced to move to a rough neighbourhood on the outskirts of Dallas, known as “Cement City”.  She was bright and did well at school but never finished her education. She left when she was 16 to marry Roy Thornton.  Thornton was not faithful to Bonnie and in 1929 she threw him out of the house that they were sharing with her mother.  Bonnie and Roy never got divorced and she wore her gold wedding ring right-up until the day she died. Bonnie was pretty, almost doll-like, with long, blonde, wavy hair and bright blue eyes.

Clyde allegedly first met Bonnie when she worked as a waitress in a Dallas cafe, January 1930.  There are also reports that their first meeting took place at a friend’s house during the same year.  Apparently, Clyde walked into the kitchen where Bonnie was making some hot chocolate.  There was a dangerous and strong attraction between the two right from the start.  In March 1930, Clyde was in Waco jail awaiting transfer to the State Penitentiary following a conviction on multiple counts of car theft and burglary.  Bonnie managed to smuggle a gun into the jail and Clyde escaped.  His freedom was short-lived, he was captured not long after and sent to one of the prison farms affiliated to the State Penitentiary at Huntsville.  In February 1932 he was released with a pardon and joined Bonnie in Dallas.

The ‘Barrow Gang’ formed around this time and the duo were joined by Raymond Hamilton.  The Gang robbed small stores and stole cars throughout the countryside and killed their first victim on 23rd April 1932, a store owner by the name of J.N. Bucher.  Hamilton eventually left the gang and was soon replaced by William Daniel Jones, a 16-year-old from Dallas.  In March 1933, Clyde’s older brother, Buck, was released from jail and together with his wife Blanche joined the Gang. Blanche and Buck did not last long on the run. Buck was wounded in a gun shoot-out and died a short while after in a local hospital.  Blanche was captured and received a lengthy sentence which she served in the Missouri State Penitentiary.  In October 1933, Jones left the Gang and was arrested a month later in Houston.  Bonnie and Clyde still alluded the lawmen and in January 1934 they even helped Raymond Hamilton escape from the Texas State Pen.  It was this last act that signalled the beginning of the end of Bonnie and Clyde’s killing and crime-spree. The Gang had now increased in number and included Hamilton, his girlfriend Mary O’Dare, Henry Methvin and Joe Palmer.

The duo’s end was a gruesome one.  At 9.15am, on May 23rd 1934, they were driving south on Highway 154 between Gibsland and Sailes in Bienville Parish, Louisiana.  A series of incidents led to lawmen: Frank Hamer; Ted Hinton; Bob Alcorn; Manny Gault; Henderson Jordan and Prentiss Oakley finally catching-up with them and springing an ambush.  Driving in their tan-coloured V-8 Ford, which the pair had stolen in Topeka, Kansas from the driveway of Jesse and Ruth Warren,  Bonnie and Clyde were almost shot to pieces.  Frank Hamer declared that, ‘we just shot the devil out of them, that’s all.  That’s all there was to it.’

The car had 150 bullet holes in the bodywork. Bonnie and Clyde sustained approximately 50 gunshot wounds between them. Clyde was found slumped over in the front of the car with his, unfired, pistol still in his hand and Bonnie had a half eaten sandwich at her feet. It was reported at the time that Bonnie’s body was decimated by bullets to a greater extent than Clyde’s.  The car was found to be full of illegal weapons, a dozen car license plates, road maps, detective and romance magazines, a saxophone and assorted tinned foods. You can view, on You Tube, newsreel footage of the death scene, taken by an amateur photographer five minutes after the shootings.  The footage does contain images that you may find upsetting. If you wish to view, then please CLICK HERE.

At the time Bonnie was killed, she was wearing two diamond rings, a gold wedding ring, a small watch, an acorn brooch, a Catholic Cross under her red dress and a red pair of shoes.  Immediately following the deaths, nearly 200 cars parked-up along the highway spot to catch a glimpse of the bullet-ridden duo. The scavengers and souvenir hunters set to work, hacking hair from Bonnie’s head and cutting material from her blood-soaked dress. One person even tried to cut-off Clyde’s trigger finger.  People were on their hands and knees searching the scene for empty shot-gun cartridges.  Eventually the car, with the duo still inside, was towed away to the nearby S.A. Conger & Son Furniture store in Arcadia which became a makeshift morgue.

By this time the crowds near the store were becoming increasingly impatient to view the bodies, some even tried to scale the building’s walls.  In order to maintain some degree of crowd control, so that the pathologist, Dr James L. Wade was able to carry out the autopsies, the undertaker sprayed embalming fluid over the masses. After the autopsies were done, the bodies were embalmed and dried blood swabbed from the corpses. The pair were covered to their necks in white sheets and then rolled-out into the furniture store so that the public could get their long-awaited viewing.  The viewings continued for 6 hours and the queues didn’t thin-out until well after midnight.

The autopsy revealed that both bodies had a number of tattoos and Bonnie had scars on her right leg as a result of third degree burns received from a car fire the previous year.  Clyde had two toes missing from his left foot.  Apparently, whilst in prison he had asked a fellow inmate to cut them off with an axe so that he could get out of doing prison chores.  The bodies were finally laid to rest in separate cemeteries at the request of their respective families.  This was against the wishes of Bonnie and Clyde who, knowing perhaps for a while that their fate was sealed, had wanted to be buried together.

The story of Bonnie and Clyde has always attracted film-makers.  The first ever movie of the duo’s life appeared in 1937, You Only Live Twice by John Houseman and starring Sylvia Sidney and Henry Fonda.  Later on this year The Story of Bonnie and Clyde will hit our cinema screens.  Directed and written by Tonya S. Holly and starring Lindsay Pulsipher as Bonnie Parker and Sean Faris as Clyde Barrow. I am sure there will be further movie adaptations in the coming decades as the legend continues to intrigue.  In Gibsland, Louisiana there is even a museum dedicated to the historic 1934 ambush, aptly named The Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum.


Social historian, based in the UK.

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