80 Years Later, Retracing the Real Life of Bonnie and Clyde
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.
“There’s actually no tellin’ how many times they were wounded,” said “Boots” Hinton, son of Dallas County Deputy Sheriff Ted Hinton, the youngest of six law enforcement officers who ambushed Bonnie and Clyde. Living in Gibsland, Louisiana, where he runs the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in the rundown town eight miles north of the actual ambush site, Boots insists it was an old school method of detective work that brought the outlaws down: a prescription bottle in the floorboard of an abandoned car in Michigan; testimony from waitresses and store clerks; and major highways and back roads canvassed to catch the gang on the move.
Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsland, Louisiana
Inside the Ambush Museum
Guns in the Ambush Museum
While the carnage the Barrow gang left behind perpetuated an image of a murderous, blood-lusting gang, their flight through the Midwest was anything but disorganized. If you were to drive from the Barrow filling station outward, you’d come across a string of markers and historical sites that are abandoned, rural, or are lining roads where the gang was fleeing from law enforcement.
Not far west of the Barrow filling station is the abandoned shell of Bonnie’s primary school in the defunct town of Cement City — now West Dallas. Through this community Bonnie and Clyde drove in and out of town across the original Eagle Ford Road — known as “The Devil’s Back Porch” — to visit family members while they were being hunted.
Bonnie Parker's primary school in Cement City
Also around the corner from the filling station is the small white house where Clyde gunned-down Deputy Malcom Davis as officers waited for the gang. Northwest of Dallas, Bonnie and Clyde were confronted on the side of the road by Patrolmen H. D. Murphy and Edward Wheeler, ensuing in a shootout that turned the tide of public opinion against them. The gang ran as far west as Wellington, Texas, in the Panhandle, and as far north as Michigan to avoid the law. They drove through ambushes, wrecked cars, and sprinted ahead of the law with their stolen Ford V-8s. But it was outside of Gibsland, Louisiana, that their run violently ended.
Memorial to Edward Wheeler & H. D. Murphy
Today, Boots is happy to talk about what he knows with anyone who stops in the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum. He recalls stories his father told him in the years after the final shootout, and he sees his place at the museum as a testament and honor to his father’s wishes: to tell what really happened not only on that fateful day in rural Louisiana, but across the timeline of the Barrow gang’s reign.
“[Henry Methvin] went underground, which was a damn smart thing,” Boots said, referring to a member of the gang who supposedly sold out Bonnie and Clyde to Texas lawmen. For several decades, the ambush was retold as a plan by Henry Methvin — and his father — to secure his own freedom by snitching on the outlaw couple, but Boots insists the real story was suppressed because of its illegality. The lawmen saw Ivan Methvin, Henry’s father, coming down the road and flagged him down. From there they tied him to a tree and beat him.
Replica of Bonnie & Clyde's car in the Ambush Museum
Methvin’s broken-down car was a decoy to stop Bonnie and Clyde. What ensued was a massacre and rain of bullets that has captured the imagination of generation after generation through American pop culture. But there is so much more to the story. Clyde’s brother, “Buck,” was shot in the head during another ambush at the abandoned Dexfield Amusement Park in Iowa and survived for six days before passing away in a hospital. Raymond Hamilton, the Barrow gang member at odds with the group and thought to be more murderous and heartless than Clyde, was sent to electric chair.
Bonnie and Clyde narrowly escaped traps in multiple states and were passed on the highway several times by lawmen who were unable to turn around and follow them. Boots even says that the first two shots fired into the ambush car struck Clyde in the head, but the car continue to roll forward while it was in neutral, prompting lawmen to pump round after round into the car, killing Bonnie and providing the image we have today.
Bonnie & Clyde's car full of bullet holes, photo in the Ambush Museum
The bodies of Bonnie Parker & Clyde Barrow, photos in the Ambush Museum
May 23 of this year will mark the 80th anniversary of the infamous ambush, and the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum will be holding a reenactment and festival in Gibsland to mark the occasion.
Bonnie and Clyde lived in a time when many were stealing to survive. They knew countless people sent to prison for petty crimes. But it was Clyde's experiences at Eastham that turned him from Depression era-criminal into half of the legend of Bonnie and Clyde. At one point in his post-prison career, he returned to initiate a prison break that killed one guard and helped free a few inmates. Yet the myth of Bonnie and Clyde may outlast the reality, even with these genuine moments of legend.
Bonnie & Clyde Ambush Museum
Site of the death of Bonne & Clyde Barrow in Gibsland, Louisiana
Detail of the stone at their death site in Gibsland, Louisiana, with chips missing from visitors who took pieces as souvenirs
Grave of Clyde Barrow in Western Heights Cemetery, Dallas, Texas