Made into legends through books, comics, movies, songs, and TV specials, Bonnie and Clyde have lived on nearly 80 years after their deaths as a Depression era Romeo and Juliet. Brandishing high-powered machine guns and driving the newly invented Ford V-8s, Bonnie and Clyde are mythologized as Robin Hoods for the poor and destitute who had been failed by the American political and financial institutions.
Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker (via Library of Congress)
But what is the real story behind Bonnie — a girl from Cement City, Texas, a small industrial town three miles west of Dallas — and Clyde — a young man of 5-foot-6 with dark, wavy hair and tattoos on his arms that included a heart-dagger and the letters “U.S.N.” from a failed attempt to enter the Navy as a teenager?
Growing up in Dallas in the back room of his father’s filling station, Clyde’s first brush with the law came in 1926 when he was arrested for automobile theft as a result of neglecting to return a rental car. While these charges were dropped, Clyde was arrested again only three weeks later with his brother Buck — who would later initially refuse to join the Barrow gang during the height of its notoriety — for possession of a truck full of stolen turkeys.
The Barrow filling station (all photographs by the author)
By 1930, Clyde was incarcerated in the Eastham Prison Farm on a 14-year term for automobile theft and robbery. Known as the “Murder House” or “The Bloody Ham,” Eastham was notorious for its tough working and living conditions, as well as guards who would beat inmates with trace chains and perform random spot killings, all of which was substantiated by the Texas state legislature and the Osborne Association on U.S. Prisons which ranked the Texas prison system as the worst in the nation in 1935.
During his time at Eastham, Clyde transformed from petty criminal to emotionless killer when he murdered Ed Crowder, a man who had been sexually assaulting him since he entered the prison. Clyde’s drive in life wasn’t to become a famous bank robber, as he is sometimes labeled; it was to take revenge on Eastham. It was here that he enlisted future gang member Ralph Fults in a plan to raise enough money and ammunition to raid the prison farm and kill all of the guards after his release. While at Eastham, Clyde went so far as to chop off two of his toes with an ax to secure a medical release from the grueling work. Ironically, six days later, on February 2, 1932, he was granted parole by Texas Governor Ross Sterling.
What followed was a two-year stretch that saw the Barrow gang rise into the national consciousness.
1933 Wanted Poster (via Texas State Library & Archives Commission)
The first bank heist occurred in April of 1932 at the First National Bank in Lawrence, Kansas. While the Barrow gang is often thought of as prolific bank robbers, they mostly robbed mom-and-pop filling stations, feed, and hardware stores. After a failed robbery attempt and a shootout in Kaufman County, Texas, Clyde and an associate named Raymond Hamilton escaped while Fultz and Bonnie Parker were jailed in a small one-room cell in Kemp, Texas. Fults was transferred back to prison, but Bonnie spent only one night in jail and was released. Though injured and wounded several times by officers during her two-year run with Clyde, Bonnie never shot anyone but herself. In 1932 she accidentally grazed two of her toes when a weapon she was holding for Clyde discharged.