Bonnie and Clyde: How the outlawed partners became such romanticized figures in American history

The star-crossed lovers of the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde have been described as probably the most notorious outlaw duo in American history. Often the subject of several films and literary works, the duo were known to most people as the perfect partners in crimes. They have have been romanticized by the mainstream media because of the myth that they were the modern-day Robin Hood and Marian who robbed to give to the poor.

Were they truly in love or just convenient partners? Did they actually rob the rich to help the poor? And how did they come to be such idolized figures in American history?

In the article below, World History Edu delves deep into the lives of Bonnie and Clyde and attempts to distinguish between the myths and facts surrounding the duo.

Who were Bonnie and Clyde?

Outlaws Bonnie and Clyde had several fierce brushes with the law, with crimes ranging from theft to assault and murder. Both grew up in poor families in Texas. Image: Bonnie (right) and Clyde

Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was born the second child in the small town of Rowena in Texas. As a teenager, Bonnie loved expressing her thoughts through poetry, a hobby she would carry on into adulthood. She wrote a collect of 10 odes titled “Poetry from Life’s Other Side”.

While in high school she met and fell in love with Roy Thornton, who became her husband in 1926. However, the marriage was short-lived because Roy had his fair share of run-ins with the law and was given a five-year sentence. Bonnie never divorced Roy and decided to wear her wedding ring until she died.

Clyde Chestnut Barrow was from a poor family. As a child, he and his family moved from Ellis County to the urban slums of Dallas. A member of a family of nine, he and his folks lived in a wagon until they could get a tent.

While Bonnie was getting married to Roy, Clyde was getting arrested for minor crimes. He later graduated from stealing turkeys to cracking safes and then to stealing cars.

Clyde crossed paths with Bonnie in 1930 and had a whirlwind romance but this was interrupted when Clyde was arrested for car theft. However, he did not stay locked up for long because he escaped using a gun her received from Bonnie. Clyde was rearrested, and it is reported he committed his first murder in prison, killing an inmate who sexually assaulted him. This outlaw was eventually paroled in 1932. He was reunited with his partner in crime, Bonnie.

It has been argued that Clyde’s time in prison had a detrimental effect on him as he went in a petty thief and came out a hardened criminal.

Early Crimes of Bonnie and Clyde

The lovebirds began their life of crime in 1932, when they developed the habit of robbing and terrorizing grocery stores and gas stations. The criminal were trying to make money to launch an attack on the Eastham prison where Clyde had been incarcerated for a while. But Bonnie was caught and she served a few months in the Kaufman County jail, where she wrote poems such as “Poetry from Life’s Other Side” and “The Story of Suicide Sal”.

In August 1932, Clyde and his friends Hamilton and Ross Dyer were drinking in Oklahoma when they noticed two sheriffs walking toward them. Unprovoked whatsoever, the gang pulled out their weapons and opened fire, killing Sheriff Deputy Eugene C. Moore and wounding Sheriff C.G. Maxwell. That marked the beginning of a killing spree. That same year, on Christmas day, Bonnie and Clyde robbed and killed Doyle Johnson.

The Gang

By March 1933, Clyde’s brother Buck had been released from prison after receiving a pardon from the governor of Texas. Buck and his wife, Blanche, joined Bonnie and Clyde. That was the start of the five-member Barrow Gang, comprising Bonnie, Clyde, Buck, Blanche, and William Daniel Jones.

In April 1933, the gang were involved in a fierce gunfire exchange with the police after the authorities had noticed suspicious activities at the gang’s house. The bitter exchange resulted in the deaths of two officers Harry L. McGinnis and Constable J. W. Harryman.

The gang made a run for it, leaving some personal possessions such as handwritten poems of Bonnie and undeveloped films, which became the famous images of Bonnie and Clyde. The pictures were published in all dailies. The gang gained instant fame as they continued in their crime spree and robbing banks.

There was nothing noble about their crimes. Contrary to the myth, the crime couple did not give money away to the poor like the legendary heroic outlaw archer, Robin Hood. Instead Bonnie and Clyde’s gang, which continued to throw caution to the wind, became bolder and more brutal in their crimes, often times using automatic pistols.

In June 1933, Bonnie was involved in a severe accident where she suffered extensive burns. For her to get treated, the gang rented two cabins in Platte City in Missouri. People in the town noticed the gang and informed the police. The police stormed their cabins at 11 pm and a fierce gun battle ensued.

As usual, the gang again managed to evade the law, but this time they suffered casualties. Clyde’s brother Buck was shot and his wife Blanche was severely injured. The gang did not hide for long as their bloody clothes gave them away on July 24, 1933, Buck and Blanche were captured in Iowa.

The incident marked the beginning of the end for the gang because Buck succumbed to his injuries. Still, on the run, William Daniel Jones decided to break ties with the duo and went back home to Houston, where he was captured in November 1933.

Following their murder spree, publich opinion turned sour for the outlawed duo Bonnie and Clyde. Image – Editorial cartoon from defunct Dallas Journal showing electric chair “reserved for Clyde and Bonnie”

Authorities intensify the manhunt for Bonnie and Clyde

In January 1934, Clyde fulfilled his dream of launching an attack on the Eastham State Prison Farm, killing a prison officer Major Joe Crowson and releasing five prisoners, including an old friend Raymond Hamilton and criminal Henry Methvin of Louisiana.

Outraged by the prison break, the Texas Department of Corrections deployed all means, including recalling a retired Texas Ranger Captain Frank Hamer, to ensure the gang members were captured dead or alive. Wanted notices and information were distributed among local, state and federal agencies across the country.

Unperturbed by the manhunt, the gang continued its reign of terror, including killing two patrolmen, H.D. Murphy and Edward Bryant Wheeler, in April 1934 at Grapevine, Texas. The gruesome killings of those law enforcers completely turned public opinion against them. Bonnie and Clyde were previously seen as daredevils taking on the authorities, but after the Grapevine killings, they became public enemies, with newspapers advocating for their immediate apprehension.

Just five days after murder of those officers, Clyde killed an elderly widower Constable William Campbell. This triggered a $1,500 bounty on each member of the gang.

A six-man posse is set up

Gibsland posse that killed Bonnie and Clyde. The six-man posse was led by Texas Ranger captain Frank Hamer

Captain Frank Hamer set up a six-man posse to find and capture Bonnie and Clyde dead or alive. The six-man posse team were: Hamer, Gault, Ted Hinton, Bob Alcorn, Henderson Jordan and Rentiss Oakley. They came from three different law enforcement agencies. Jordan and Oakley were Louisiana officers, while the rest were Texas officers.

The posse was discreet in their investigations and started monitoring the families of the outlaws.

How did Bonnie and Clyde die?

On May 21, 1934, Hamer-led posse were informed by Methvin (who decided to turn against Clyde to save his life) that the crime duo was planning to visit Henry Methvin in Louisiana.

Armed with that information, the authorities laid an ambush for outlaws. They waited for a full day in the bushes near Sailes, Bienville Parish until May 23 when they spotted a Ford V8 with Clyde driving. As soon as the car drove toward the officers, the posse opened fire.

It is reported from the bullet holes on the car that more than 120 rounds of bullets were fired at Bonnie and Clyde. The infamous pair who were known for evading the law would not escape this time as they were killed on the spot.

On May 23, lawmen fired a barrage of shots at the car Bonnie and Clyde were driving, killing the infamous outlaws on the spot. Image: Bonnie and Clyde Car – 1934 Ford Deluxe V-8

Where were they buried?

Bonnie was buried on May 26 at Fishtrap Cemetery in Rowena, but her remains were moved to Crown Hill Cemetery in Dallas in 1945. On the other hand, Clyde was buried beside his brother in Western Heights Cemetery in Dallas on May 25. Although these star-crossed lovers were inseparable in life, they were eventually separated in death.

Bonnie and Clyde wanted to be buried beside each other; however, their wish was not granted. Bonnie’s mother, who did not approve of her daughter’s relationship with Clyde, vehemently opposed that wish.

What happened to Bonnie and Clyde’s “Death Car”?

Bonnie and Clyde’s death car

After the death of Bonnie and Clyde, the bullet-riddled car was given back to the former owner, Ruth Warren of Topeka, Kansas. The car was later sold to Charles Stanley, an anti-crime researcher. As of 2022, the so-called “death car” is on display at a casino near Las Vegas, Nevada.

Why were Bonnie and Clyde idolized figures?

The question that begs to be answered is: how did such violent criminals as Bonnie and Clyde become such fascinating figures in mainstream media and pop culture?

To answer the above question, we must consider the following points:

In the 1930s, people in the United States were reeling heavily from the effects of the Great Depression. There was unimaginable pain and misery across the nation, as had taken a nose dive and the despondency in the air was palpable. Bonnie and Clyde gave the impression they were challenging authorities like the police and FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation). People were fascinated because they were the rebels who would take on the authority when others could not.

The media also made the public believe those lovebirds were young adults who just wanted to be wild and free. They painted an image of lovers who were devoted to each other but had childlike antics and directness. Somehow the ruthless nature of the cold-blooded killers was not conveyed properly as films and even literature continued to portray their misdeeds as that of romantic heroes.

The 1967 film “Bonnie and Clyde”, which starred Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, went a long way in romanticizing the outlaw duo.

There was also the 1958 film “The Bonnie Parker Story”, which was directed by filmmaker William Witney, that portrayed Bonnie as a very strong and independent woman who dominated the affairs of the crime gang.

In 2019, a Netflix film came out, titled “The Highwaymen”. Directed by John Lee Hancock, the film views the story from the perspective of the six-man posse that successfully stopped Bonnie and Clyde in their tracks. The film stars Kevin Costner as the retired Texas Rangers captain Frank Hamer.

The famous image of Bonnie posing with a gun and cigar made this duo iconic because this was the first time a woman was seen in that light. Though she was petite, the image gave her a larger-than-life persona. She was not the poor helpless damsel in distress but was seen by some as an equal partner and a revolutionary.

The media was absolutely obsessed with the power-image that Bonnie oozed in her pictures

Why didn’t Bonnie and Clyde turn themselves in?

As their crime spree intensified, the duo knew that turning themselves was tantamount to a death sentence. Considering all the bloodshed and mayhem the couple had caused, there was no way they would have been left off the hook that easily had they surrendered to the police.

They also knew the inevitable fate that awaited them if they remained on the run – a brutal gunfire exchange that would see them gunned down by the police or whoever found them.

Did you know?

Bonnie and Clyde are regarded by many as the most notorious crime partners in American history. The Great Depression-era criminals grew up in poor families in Dallas.

  • Due to poor health, Clyde could not make the cut in his application to the U.S. Navy. The would-be criminal was enthusiastic about joining the navy that he had a tattoo on his left arm that read “USN”.
  • Clyde once cut off two of his toes in order to avoid prison labor at Eastham Prison Farm
  • In addition to assault, kidnapping, burglaries and bank robberies, the outlawed duo, who first met in Texas in January 1930, committed about 13 murders between themselves. Some of their victims included lawmen. For example, Clyde murdered a law enforcement officer at Stringtown, Oklahoma. He also allegedly killed two police officers at Joplin, Missouri.
  • The FBI (then Bureau of Investigation) was able to get involved in the investigations because the crimes of Bonnie and Clyde had moved beyond local level. The criminals had crossed state lines with stolen cars and were charged with interstate car theft.
  • The expression “Bonnie and Clyde” has made to pop cultural lingo to refer to a very loyal couple that are willing to go to great lengths for each other, even if it means committing crime. It is often seen as the equivalent of “ride-or-die” phrase.
  • The lawmen that killed Bonnie and Clyde never received the reward money they had been promised. Instead they were given around about $200 and asked to take some macabre memorabilia from the crime scene.

The prosecution of Bonnie and Clyde’s families

Buck’s wife, Blanche, was sentenced to ten years in prison but was paroled for good behavior in 1939. She remarried in 1940 to Eddie Frasure and lived a private life until she died of cancer at the age of 77.

William Daniel Jones, captured in November 1933, was given a fifteen-year sentence. He was killed in 1974.

Henry Methvin, who gave information leading to the duo’s death, was convicted and sentenced to eight years in jail. He was released for good behavior in 1942 but was killed in a train accident in 1948.

To what extent was Clyde’s mother involved?

Clyde’s mother, Cumie Barrow, went to great lengths to get her son off the hook in several cases. She even paid lawyers to make up story to win the sympathy of the public in Texas. By so doing, she was a able to have Clyde paroled.

Cumie was relentless in defending her sons’ actions, calling the them very kind young men. At no point in time did she call Clyde to give himself up to the authorities. She feared that the electric chair awaited her son should he turn himself in to the police.

Prosecutors gave many instances of Bonnie and Clyde stopping by at Cumie’s house. It was also alleged that much of the loot money that Bonnie and Clyde made went straight to Cumie. She might have also handed some trinkets of cash to the poor folks in West Dallas in order to buy their silence. It’s estimated that she received thousands of dollars (today’s dollars) from the outlawed duo.

Months after the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde, prosecutors charged Cumie with aiding and abating the criminals. The jury found Cumie and some of her family members guilty of those charges. The judge was said to have been very lenient on that day and only sentenced Cumie to sixty days in jail, which he later slashed by half after a plea from Cumie.

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