Biography of Bonnie and Clyde, Notorious Depression-Era Outlaws

Bonnie and Clyde posing with shotgun, 1932
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Bonnie Parker (Oct. 1, 1910—May 23, 1934) and Clyde Barrow (March 24, 1909—May 23, 1934) went on a notorious two-year crime spree during the Great Depression, a time when the American public was hostile toward government. Bonnie and Clyde used that emotion to their advantage: Assuming an image closer to Robin Hood's than to the mass murderers they were, they captured the nation's imagination as a romantic young couple on the open road.

Fast Facts: Bonnie and Clyde

Known For: A notorious two-year crime spree

Also Known As: Bonnie Parker, Clyde Barrow, the Barrow Gang

Born: Bonnie, Oct. 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas; Clyde, March 24, 1909, in Telico, Texas

Parents: Bonnie, Henry and Emma Parker; Clyde, Henry and Cummie Barrow

Died: May 23, 1934, near Gibsland, Louisiana

Early Life: Bonnie

Bonnie Parker was born Oct. 1, 1910, in Rowena, Texas, the second of three children to Henry and Emma Parker. The family lived comfortably off her father's job as a bricklayer, but when he died unexpectedly in 1914, her mother moved the family in with her mother in Cement City, Texas (now part of Dallas). Bonnie Parker was beautiful, standing 4 feet 11 inches tall and weighing just 90 pounds. She did well in school and loved writing poetry.

Bonnie dropped out of school at 16 and married Roy Thornton. The marriage wasn't happy, and Thornton began spending more time away from home. In 1929 he was charged with robbery and sentenced to five years in prison. They never divorced.

While Roy was away, Bonnie worked as a waitress but was unemployed as the Great Depression got started toward the end of 1929.

Early Life: Clyde

Clyde Barrow was born March 24, 1909, in Telico, Texas, the sixth of eight children to Henry and Cummie Barrow. Clyde's parents were tenant farmers, often not making enough money to feed their children. When he was 12, his parents gave up tenant farming and moved to West Dallas, where his father opened a gas station.

West Dallas was a rough neighborhood, and Clyde fit right in. He and his older brother, Marvin Ivan "Buck" Barrow, were often in trouble with the law for stealing things such as turkeys and cars. Clyde was small, standing 5 foot 7 inches and weighing 130 pounds. He had two serious girlfriends before he met Bonnie, but he never married.

They Meet

In January 1930, they met at a mutual friend's house. The attraction was instantaneous. A few weeks later, Clyde was sentenced to two years in prison for previous crimes. Bonnie was devastated.

On March 11, 1930, Clyde escaped from jail, using a gun Bonnie had smuggled in. A week later he was recaptured and sentenced to 14 years in the brutal Eastham Prison Farm near Weldon, Texas. Clyde arrived at Eastham on April 21. Life there was unbearable and he became desperate to get out. Hoping a physical incapacity would earn him a transfer, he asked a fellow prisoner to chop off two of his toes with an ax. It proved unnecessary; he was paroled a week later, on Feb. 2, 1932, swearing he would rather die than return there.

Bonnie Becomes a Criminal

Leaving prison during the Depression, with jobs scarce, made living in society difficult. Plus, Clyde had little experience holding a job. As soon as his foot healed, he was back to robbing.

Bonnie went with him on one of these robberies. The plan was for the Barrow Gang—at different times Ray Hamilton, W.D. Jones, Buck Barrow, Blanche Barrow, and Henry Methvin in addition to Bonnie and Clyde—to rob a hardware store. Although she stayed in the car during the robbery, Bonnie was captured and put in the Kaufman, Texas, jail, but she was released for lack of evidence.

While Bonnie was in jail, Clyde and Hamilton staged another robbery in April 1932. It was supposed to be easy, but something went wrong and the general store's owner, John Bucher, was shot and killed.

Bonnie now faced a decision: Stay with Clyde for life on the run or leave him and start fresh. Bonnie knew Clyde had vowed never to return to prison and that staying with him meant death for both, very soon. Despite this knowledge, Bonnie decided not to leave Clyde, remaining loyal to the end.

On the Lam

For the next two years, they robbed across Texas, Oklahoma, Missouri, Louisiana, and New Mexico. They stayed close to a state border because police then couldn't cross state boundaries to follow a criminal. Clyde change cars frequently by stealing one and changed license plates more frequently. He studied maps and had an uncanny knowledge of back roads.

Police didn't know then that Bonnie and Clyde made frequent trips to Dallas to see their families. Bonnie was close to her mother, whom she insisted on seeing every couple of months. Clyde frequently visited his mother and favorite sister, Nell, which nearly got them killed several times in police ambushes.

Buck and Blanche

They had been on the run for a year when Clyde's brother Buck was released from prison in March 1933. Law enforcement wanted them for murder, bank robbery, auto theft, and robbing dozens of grocery stores and gas stations, but they decided to rent an apartment in Joplin, Missouri, for a reunion with Buck and his wife, Blanche. After two weeks of chatting, cooking, and playing cards, Clyde noticed two police cars pull up on April 13, 1933. A shootout ensued.

After killing one policeman and wounding another, Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, and Jones got to their car and sped away, picking up Blanche, who had escaped the shooting, nearby.

Although they got away, police found a trove of information in the apartment, including rolls of film with the now-famous images of Bonnie and Clyde in various poses holding guns and Bonnie's poem "The Story of Suicide Sal," one of two she wrote on the run. The pictures, the poem, and the getaway increased their fame.

They evaded trouble until June 1933, when they had an accident near Wellington, Texas. Clyde realized too late that the bridge ahead had been closed for repairs. He swerved and the car went down an embankment. Clyde and Jones got out safely, but Bonnie's leg was burned badly by leaking battery acid, and she never walked properly again. Despite her injuries, they couldn't stop for medical care. Clyde nursed Bonnie with help from Blanche and Billie, Bonnie's sister.

Ambushes

A month later, Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and Jones checked into two cabins at the Red Crown Tavern near Platte City, Missouri. On July 19, 1933, police, tipped by locals, surrounded the cabins. At 11 p.m., a policeman banged on a cabin door. Blanche replied, "Just a minute. Let me get dressed," giving Clyde time to pick up his Browning Automatic Rifle and start shooting. While the others took cover, Buck kept shooting and was shot in the head. Clyde gathered everyone, including Buck, for a charge to the garage. As they roared off, police shot out two tires and shattered a window, the shards severely damaging one of Blanche's eyes.

Clyde drove through the night and the next day, stopping only to change bandages and tires. At Dexter, Iowa, they stopped for rest at the Dexfield Park recreation area, not knowing police had been alerted to their presence by a local farmer who had found bloodied bandages.

Over a hundred policemen, National Guardsmen, vigilantes, and local farmers surrounded them. On the morning of July 24, Bonnie saw the policemen closing in and screamed. Clyde and Jones picked up their guns and start shooting. Buck, unable to move, kept shooting and was hit several times, Blanche by his side. Clyde hopped into a car but was shot in the arm and crashed into a tree. He, Bonnie, and Jones ran and then swam across a river. Clyde stole another car and drove them away.

Buck died a few days later, and Blanche was captured. Clyde had been shot four times and Bonnie had been hit by numerous buckshot pellets. Jones, who was shot in the head, took off, never to return.

Last Days

After several months of recuperating, they were back out robbing. They had to be careful, realizing that locals might recognize them and turn them in, as they had in Missouri and Iowa. To avoid scrutiny, they slept in their car at night and drove during the day.

In November 1933 Jones was captured and told his story to the police, who learned of the close ties between Bonnie and Clyde and their families. This gave them an idea: By watching their families, police could establish an ambush when Bonnie and Clyde tried to contact them.

When an ambush attempt that month endangered their mothers, Clyde became furious. He wanted to retaliate against the lawmen, but his family convinced him this wouldn't be smart.

Rather than seek revenge on those who had threatened his family, Clyde focused on the Eastham Prison Farm. In January 1934, they helped Clyde's old friend, Raymond Hamilton, break out. A guard was killed and several prisoners hopped into the getaway car.

One of those prisoners was Henry Methvin. After the other convicts went their own ways— including Hamilton, who left after a dispute with Clyde—Methvin stayed on. The crime spree continued, including the brutal murder of two motorcycle cops, but the end was near. Methvin and his family were to play a role in Bonnie and Clyde's demise.

Final Shootout

Realizing how tied to family Bonnie and Clyde were, the police guessed that Bonnie, Clyde, and Henry were on their way to visit Iverson Methvin, Henry Methvin's father, in May 1934. When police learned that Henry Methvin had become separated from Bonnie and Clyde on the evening of May 19, they realized this was their chance to set up an ambush. Police assumed they would search for Henry at his father's farm, so they planned an ambush along the road the outlaws were expected to take.

The six lawmen planning the ambush confiscated Iverson Methvin's truck and removed one of its tires, then placed it along Highway 154 between Sailes and Gibsland, Louisiana. If Clyde saw Iverson's vehicle on the roadside, they figured, he would slow down and investigate.

At 9:15 a.m. on May 23, 1934, Clyde spotted Iverson's truck. As he slowed down, the officers opened fire. Bonnie and Clyde had little time to react. The police shot more than 130 bullets at the couple, killing them quickly. When the shooting ended, policemen found that the back of Clyde's head had exploded and part of Bonnie's right hand had been shot off.

Their bodies were taken to Dallas and put on public view. Crowds gathered for a glimpse of the famous pair. Although Bonnie had requested that she be buried with Clyde, they were buried in different cemeteries, according to their families' wishes.

Legacy

Although they created a romantic image—two young lovers running from the big, bad cops, Clyde's driving skills, Bonnie's poetry and her beauty—it was tarnished by the truth. Though they often captured police who caught up to them and let them off unharmed hours and hundreds of miles later, they killed 13 people, some bystanders slain during bungled robberies.

Because they never got away with much money when they robbed banks, they were desperate criminals, sleeping in the most recently stolen car, constantly fearing death in a hail of bullets from a police ambush, but still the stuff of legend.

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