Bonnie and Clyde: The Original Natural Born Killers

Bonnie and Clyde were superstars months before their car was ventilated by more than 130 shots.

They were outlaws, wanted fugitives, impossible to catch, lovers on the run. They were glamorous, they were alluring, and they were dangerous. Their story was tabloid gold that found its way into the hearts and minds of a generation. They weren’t Robin Hood, Jesse James or John Dillinger. They would die for each other and they died together.

Clyde in 1926, aged 16
Clyde in 1926, aged 16

Prison Changes a Man… For the Worse

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker grew up in Cement City in Texas, where life was as hard as the name suggests. She was a devoted daughter and a strong student, showing a talent for poetry that would go on to be a huge part of her life. However, at 16 she married Roy Thornton and dropped out of school. Their love didn’t last. Two years later, Roy was imprisoned for murder and Bonnie was an unemployed young woman with a wedding ring.

Clyde Chestnut Barrow came from a big family near Tellico, Texas, and didn’t have much of an opportunity to prove himself as a student at all. He dreamt of enlisting in the Navy but was turned away due to his health, at which point he turned his hand to petty crime along with his brother Buck. He was first arrested for not returning a rented car, and soon after for stealing a truck full of turkeys.

In January 1930, the two met at the house of a mutual friend. He walked in while she was making hot chocolate in the kitchen and it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, fate seemed to be working against them as Clyde would be arrested just weeks afterwards and sentenced to two years in prison. Bonnie promptly smuggled him in a gun, and by March Clyde had escaped…only to be recaptured a week later. He was sentenced to 14 years at Eastham Prison Farm in East Texas, one of the most feared facilities in the country.

This was the darkest time of Clyde’s life. His sometime partner Ralph Fults told a historian that Clyde was repeatedly raped by an inmate named Big Ed Crowder until he snapped and murdered him with a lead pipe. Clyde asked a fellow prisoner to cut off some of his toes to avoid working on the farm. It was a fruitless effort as his mother had helped secure him an early release, and Clyde walked with a limp for the rest of his life. Those who knew him say that his time inside had irrevocably changed him, and he’d developed a deep, dark grudge against the place that had held him prisoner.

Bonnie poses in front of the duo's car
Bonnie poses in front of the duo’s car

Clyde Shoots his First Lawman

It didn’t take long before Clyde fell back into old habits and Bonnie joined him on his crime spree. When the police recognised the stolen car they were driving, Fults and Bonnie were arrested, and she was sent to Kaufman Prison. She was released after a few months due to lack of evidence, but while inside she wrote The Story Of Suicide Sal, a poem that would prove to be part of her legacy. It didn’t take her long to find Clyde but things were about to get a lot more dangerous.
On 5 August 1932, while Bonnie was visiting her beloved mother, Clyde and his partner Raymond Hamilton shot and killed a Deputy Sheriff in Stringtown, Oklahoma, and wounded the Sheriff. It was the first lawman that Clyde had killed, but it would not be the last. Their spree had begun in earnest, and excitable 16-year-old friend of the family, WD Jones, was accepted into their gang, committing his first murder with Clyde during a carjacking gone wrong on Christmas Day 1932. By January, the group had committed five murders.

The gang grew in numbers when Clyde’s brother Buck was released from prison on 22 March 1933. Together with his reluctant wife Blanche, Buck set up with Bonnie and Clyde in a rented apartment in Joplin, Missouri. The familial atmosphere of the apartment must have given them some much needed respite, but it was not to last. They were there two weeks before their rambunctious activities attracted the law, who had assumed that the revelry and gambling meant that gin was being made on the property. Those officers were not prepared for what they found. Two were shot dead as the outlaws fought their way out of the apartment to their car and made their escape. What was left behind would propel the killers to stardom.

Bonnie’s poems and the photographs they had taken of each other posing in front of their getaway car were like the perfect press kit for these dashing criminals on the run. Both lovers of movies and music, they had created their own mythology. In those pictures, Bonnie is seen holding a shotgun and smoking a huge cigar. In truth, Bonnie smoked Lucky Strikes, and several gang members swore that she never fired a shot. That didn’t matter. The public ate it up.

However, their newfound fame was not conducive to life on the run and they forced to work, and live, harder to stay one step ahead. The group stuck close to state lines to confound local law enforcement, driving as far north as Minnesota, but tensions within the group ran high. The Barrows would split up from time and time, and Jones took off for an extended period. Their next dance with death involved no bullets at all. Clyde had no idea that the bridge he was speeding towards was out, and careered into a ravine. He and Jones got out unscathed, but Bonnie was trapped inside and suffered horrific burns to her leg. The injuries were obviously severe, but they could not risk a hospital. Although the group nursed her as best they could, she never walked properly again.

The site of Bonnie and Clyde’s ambush

The Law Catches up with Bonnie and Clyde

The gang pulled together and they stopped in at the Red Crown Tourist Court in Missouri on 18 July, where they were quickly recognised. Gunplay commenced at 11pm as lawmen, armed to the teeth with submachine guns, went for the cabin. It would be another daring escape for Bonnie and Clyde, but at a price. Buck Barrow was shot in the forehead. He survived, despite his brain being exposed, but it was clear that he wouldn’t make it far. They made a shelter for themselves at an abandoned fairground called Dexfield Park on 24 July, but they found themselves under siege once more. Buck was shot in the back and was arrested with Blanche. He died in hospital five days later.

Bonnie and Clyde were getting desperate. They needed to keep a low profile but Bonnie still needed medical attention. They kept moving and kept their jobs small, with the exception of robbing an armoury in Illinois on 20 August. Jones was arrested in on 16 November, and a few days later they were ambushed and both shot in their legs during their escape. A murder indictment was finally delivered for Clyde for the murder of a Deputy in January 1933. Their world was getting smaller.

Laying low was put to one side on 16 January 1934 when Clyde finally found a way to wreak vengeance on Eastham Prison, breaking out a group of prisoners. With that embarrassment and a dead correctional officer, the state of Texas brought in an outside player: Frank A Hamer, a former Texas Ranger, who would track Bonnie and Clyde day and night.

When Clyde and Eastham escapee Henry Methvin killed two young highway patrolmen on Easter Sunday, the press finally turned on the famous duo. The stories now painted them as dangerous criminals who killed in cold blood. They weren’t helped when Methvin and Parker killed another lawman; a 60 year old constable. Police Chief Percy Boyd was luckier. He was kidnapped and driven into Kansas where he was dropped off with some clean clothes, cash and instructions to clear up the misconception that Bonnie was a cigar smoker. The press didn’t much care; a cartoon was published in The Dallas Journal with an electric chair reserved for the pair.

A 1934 wanted poster for Bonnie and Clyde
A 1934 wanted poster for Bonnie and Clyde

The Legacy of America’s Outlaw Love Story

They would never make it that far. On 23 May, Bonnie and Clyde were caught driving on a country road in Bienville Parish, Louisville. A posse led by Hamer was waiting in the bushes when they heard Clyde’s car stop by a truck, and opened fire. Clyde died almost instantly, but Bonnie was heard to scream. It’s estimated that about 50 bullets tore through them. The crime scene quickly turned into a circus, as the locals realised what had happened and ghoulish souvenir hunters claimed locks of their hair.

Despite the public turning against them in their final months, the legend of Bonnie and Clyde lives on. Although some reports have claimed that Bonnie was coerced into her life of crime by her partner, most believe it was love that kept them together. She may not have killed anyone herself, but she stood by her man every step of the way. She drove, she loaded guns, she laid down covering fire, and when they went, they went together. Some say they were cold-blooded killers. Others say they hated the use of deadly force. Whatever the truth, they’re not remembered for the scale of their robberies, or the success of their few bank jobs. They’re remembered for what they represented.

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