"The Story of Suicide Sal" by Bonnie Parker

Brief Historical Context and Analysis of a Poem by Bonnie Parker

The infamous couple, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, were American criminals during the Great Depression who attracted a cult following during their days alive which has lasted to today. They died a gruesome yet sensational death together after a round of allegedly 50 bullets were fired at them during an ambush. Bonnie Parker was only 24 years old.

While Bonnie Parker's name is more attached to the image of her as a gang member, arsenal thief and murderer, she was also a poet.


The Story of Suicide Sal

Bonnie showed an interest in writing at a young age. In school, she won prizes for spelling and writing. 

She continued to write after she dropped out of school. In fact, she wrote poems while she and Clyde were on the run from the law. She even submitted some of her poems to newspapers.

Bonnie wrote "The Story of Suicide Sal" on pieces of scrap paper while she was held in the Kaufman jail in spring 1932. The poem was published in newspapers after it was found during the raid on Bonnie and Clyde's hideout in Joplin, Missouri on April 13, 1933.

Dangerous Life Decisions

The poem tells the story of a pair of doomed lovers, Sal and Jack, who are desperadoes driven by circumstances outside of their control to criminality. It can be assumed that Sal is Bonnie while Jack is Clyde. The poem is told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator, who then retells a story that Sal once told in the first person.

From this piece, we can glean some details about Bonnie's life and thoughts. Beginning with the title, "The Story of Suicide Sal" makes it clear that Bonnie recognized her highly dangerous lifestyle and had premonitions of early death.

A Harsh Environment

In the poem, Sal says,

"I left my old home for the city
To play in its mad dizzy whirl,
Not knowing how little of pity
It holds for a country girl."

Perhaps this stanza conveys how a harsh, unforgiving and fast-paced environment made Bonnie feel disoriented. Maybe these emotions set the scene for Bonnie's turn to crime.

Love for Clyde

Then Sal says,

"There I fell for the line of a "henchman,
A professional killer from Chi;
I couldn't help loving him madly;
For him even now I would die.
I was taught the ways of the underworld;
Jack was just like a god to me."

Again, Jack most likely represents Clyde in this poem. Bonnie felt passionately about Clyde, regarding him as a "god" and willing to die for him. This love probably prompted her to follow him in his line of work. 

Lost Faith in Government

Sal continues on to describe how she gets arrested and is eventually imprisoned. While her friends are able to rally some lawyers to defend her in court, Sal says:

"But it takes more than lawyers and money
When Uncle Sam starts shaking you down."

In American culture, Uncle Sam is a symbol that represents the U.S. government and is supposed to inspire patriotism and a sense of duty. A noble figure, so to speak. However, Bonnie paints Uncle Sam in a negative light by describing his violent actions, like "shaking you down." Perhaps this phrase speaks to Bonnie and Clyde's belief that the government system had failed them.

Bonnie/Sal continues to paint the government in a negative light by saying:

"I took the rap like good people,
And never one squawk did I make."

In describing herself as a good and compliant person, Bonnie implies that the government and/or the police are unfairly vilifying citizens trying to hustle and scrape by during the Great Depression.