Bonnie and Clyde: The Romanticized Outlaws of the Great Depression

Bonnie and Clyde were notorious outlaws during the Great Depression who became idolized by their “until death do us part” relationship and glorified life on the run.

Nov 28, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
bonnie and clyde romantic outlaws great depression
Portraits of Bonnie Parker (left) and Clyde Barrow (right) posing in front of stolen automobiles with guns, via Federal Bureau of Investigation


One of the most iconic couples of the 20th century was Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The two became notorious outlaws at the height of the Great Depression and were surprisingly idolized for their dedication to each other through prison breaks, robberies, and murder. Clyde Barrow’s involvement with the law began before the 1930s, but his actions became more serious. Once Bonnie and Clyde met, the two became only separable during Clyde’s short time in prison early on in their relationship and upon their death. The story of Bonnie and Clyde is confounding, as one may wonder how these two young outlaws managed to send the law on a wild-goose chase for two years before their capture.


The Beginning of Bonnie & Clyde

Clyde Barrow (left) with fellow Barrow Gang member Raymond Hamilton (right) courtesy of Dallas Municipal Archives, via The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries


Bonnie Parker was born on October 1, 1910 in Rowena, Texas, but her family relocated to a small West Dallas town called Cement City. Bonnie met a boy named Roy Thornton while in high school, with whom she dropped out and married in September 1926 at 16 years old. Thornton got entangled with the law before Bonnie met Clyde. Thornton was imprisoned just three years after they married, the last time he and Bonnie would see each other. At the time of her death, Bonnie was still legally married to Roy Thornton and allegedly wore her wedding ring up to the day she died.


Clyde Barrow was born in Ellis County, Texas on March 24, 1909. The Barrow family was poor while Clyde was growing up. They moved to a more urban area in West Dallas, where they continued to struggle financially. Clyde’s first run-in with the law was at the age of 17. He was arrested for failing to return a rental car on time and had fled when confronted by the police. His older brother, Marvin “Buck” Barrow, had a criminal record and was known for theft. Both brothers participated in criminal activity in the late 1920s, including carjacking, safe cracking, and robbing small stores.


Clyde Barrow (right) wrapping his arm around Bonnie Parker (left) to pose for a picture in front of an automobile courtesy of Dallas Municipal Archives, via The Portal to Texas History, University of North Texas Libraries


The details of when Bonnie and Clyde met differ slightly between sources, but a common account is they met around January 1930. The two first encountered each other at a mutual friend’s place in West Dallas. They were allegedly inseparable after their initial meeting, but their time together was quickly cut short when Clyde was arrested and imprisoned for auto theft. It was clear that Bonnie had quickly fallen in love with Clyde because of her lack of criminal activity before meeting him.

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One of her first known crimes with Clyde was helping him escape by smuggling a gun into the prison on March 11, 1930. Clyde’s escape, however, was unsuccessful as he was recaptured shortly after. On September 18, 1930, Clyde was transferred to Eastham Prison Farm, which was notorious for being a brutal manual labor prison camp. Prisoners were often mistreated, and the labor was painstakingly harsh.


In February 1932, Clyde was granted parole by Texas Governor Ross Sterling and released from prison thanks to his mother’s efforts in petitioning for his release. Bonnie and Clyde were reunited once again. Governor Sterling’s release of Clyde on parole was soon realized as a mistake. Just over a month after Clyde was granted parole, he began his series of crimes in robbery, burglary, and murder that would go on for two years.


Criminal Activities of the Barrow Gang

Criminal record and identification sheet of Clyde Barrow wanted for violating the National Motor Vehicle Theft Act by the US Department of Justice, 1933, via the Federal Bureau of Investigation


Others often accompanied Bonnie and Clyde in their criminal activities. The group was referred to as the Barrow Gang. People in the 1930s didn’t refer to the group as “Bonnie and Clyde” like they do today. They were usually called Barrow and Parker, the Barrow Gang, or Clyde and his gunwoman. Other gang members included Buck Barrow and his wife Blanche, William Daniel Jones, Raymond Hamilton, and Henry Methvin. Some entered and exited the gang at different times, and they often only traveled by one car.


One of the most consistent crimes of the Barrow Gang was auto theft. Clyde took a liking to Ford automobiles, which is usually what he stole. The cars were stolen in one state and found abandoned in another. His carjacking record started as early as December 1926, when he was arrested in Dallas and sent to prison. After Clyde was released from jail, he committed robbery by firearms, burglary, and murder over the next several months. Many of their crimes occurred across the state of Texas and the Midwest.


Bonnie Parker posing in front of a stolen automobile with a gun and cigar in her mouth, via Texas State Historical Association


Bonnie, Clyde, and the other Barrow Gang members constantly remained on the run. They had a quick hand that was always ready to fire, and Clyde was rather skilled in driving fast and making an escape from law enforcement. They shot at anyone who got in their way and took down a number of officers throughout their time on the run. It’s estimated that they murdered at least 12 people during their two-year crime run. Many of their robberies and burglaries were at small-town shops, grocery stores, banks, and gas stations. Their payout for these robberies usually wasn’t much, but they targeted these places because they were located on back roads and in less populated areas where law enforcement wasn’t as present as they were in larger cities.


Although tales of Bonnie and Clyde are often glamorized for the sake of their memory as outlaw lovers, their life wasn’t glorious at all. The group frequently took pictures posing in front of one of their stolen vehicles and guns, which helped romanticize their life on the run. Since the Bureau of Investigation, now known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), began tracking the Barrow Gang in 1932, they were constantly on the road. They had to take turns driving throughout the day and night and hopping from town to town across multiple states on a daily basis to prevent being caught. They had little time to settle down in one spot and often bathed in rivers. A few close encounters with the law left them injured and bloodied.


Bonnie & Clyde’s Last Big Shootout

Newspaper clipping detailing the Dallas County shootout with an Iowa posse and the Barrow Gang by Des Moines Register, 1933, via Des Moines Register Archives

The Dallas County shootout in Iowa is often marked as Bonnie and Clyde’s beginning of their end. Bonnie, Clyde, W.D. Jones, and Buck and Blanche Barrow made their way to Dallas County, Iowa in July 1933.


They set up camp in a rural area to lay low after being involved in a shootout in Platte City, Missouri that wounded Buck. Their camp was situated on a hilltop near the Dexfield Amusement Park. Clyde made a few trips into the city of Dexter to buy supplies. The people who serviced him were unaware that he was a notorious outlaw. A nearby resident, Henry Nye, stumbled across their campsite and contacted local authorities. They contacted the Dallas County Sheriff, Clint Knee, who assembled a posse of about 50 people to confront the Barrow Gang.


The posse and gang exchanged gunfire before the gang attempted to escape. One of the vehicles was too damaged by the gunfire to start, and Clyde wrecked a second vehicle they had stolen while attempting to get away. Buck Barrow was injured during the shootout and was left behind. Blanche Barrow was also left behind, but Clyde, Bonnie, and W.D. Jones managed to escape. They traveled on foot until they found a car to steal. After traveling away from Dexter, they wrecked the car, robbed a gas station, and stole another car before they eventually escaped to Sioux City, Iowa.


Buck Barrow died several days after the shootout due to his injuries, and Blanche Barrow was charged and convicted for her involvement with the gang. She served a six-year prison sentence and left her life of crime behind upon her release. W.D. Jones left the gang a few weeks after the shootout but was turned in when his identity was discovered, and spent some time in prison for his involvement with the Barrow Gang. Bonnie and Clyde were both injured in the Dallas County shootout but continued their life on the run for another year.


The Capture of Bonnie & Clyde

Man posing next to the “death car” of Bonnie and Clyde covered in bullets from the Highway 154 ambush, 1934, via Des Moines Register Archives


While Bonnie and Clyde were riding all throughout the backroads of Texas and the Midwest, former Texas Ranger Frank Hamer had been tracking their movements and learning the routes the outlaws frequently traveled. Hamer coordinated with a Louisiana Sheriff, Henderson Jordan, and other Louisiana and Texas highway patrolmen and police officers to set up an ambush. Jordan managed to contact one of the old gang members’ families, the Methvin’s, in an attempt to strike a deal in exchange for their son’s amnesty. Bonnie and Clyde had visited the Methvin’s previously, and it offered law enforcement a chance to catch the outlaws without an escape route.


The ambush was set up on the side of Highway 154 in Bienville Parish, Louisiana on May 23, 1934. Law enforcement hid in bushes off the side of the highway. They spotted a Ford V-8 coming over the horizon, traveling at a hasty speed. Before Bonnie and Clyde were given a chance to raise their guns, law enforcement fired more than 100 rounds at their vehicle. The Brownsville Herald of Texas reported that Clyde Barrow had approximately 60 bullet wounds in his body, while Bonnie Park had about 50 bullet wounds.


A crowd gathered around the vehicle, nicknamed the “death car,” after hearing of Bonnie and Clyde’s death. People swarmed the vehicle with Bonnie and Clyde still inside, attempting to steal pieces of clothing, hair, and whatever else they could retrieve. Law enforcement managed to get the crowd under control and towed the car, with the bodies still inside, to another location for them to be removed. Tens of thousands of people attended Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow’s funeral. Although it was their wish to be buried together, the Parker family dismissed this idea and had Bonnie buried in a separate location.


Why the Story of Bonnie & Clyde Is Romanticized

Bonnie and Clyde posing for the camera in front of a stolen automobile, via Texas Historical Association


The gruesome details of Bonnie and Clyde’s criminal activities are often polished over by their undying love. The Barrow Gang was feared by many across the Midwest during the Great Depression. Photographs that the Barrow Gang took of each other made them seem more personable. Their young age also added to the seemingly innocent image many photographs of the gang members portrayed. Although they were known as notorious outlaws in the 1930s, their story died out fairly quickly and wasn’t discussed often for the next few decades.


The romanticization of Bonnie and Clyde began when the 1967 Bonnie and Clyde film was released and became a box-office hit. Many details from the film weren’t portrayed accurately in the true story of Bonnie Clyde, but most viewers enjoyed it. The film received heavy criticism because it glorified Bonnie and Clyde’s romance and downplayed the horrendousness of their crimes. Another film, The Highwaymen, was released in 2019 and tells the story of Bonnie and Clyde from the perspective of the law enforcement who tracked them down, specifically Frank Hamer and Maney Gault.


Other gangsters during the Great Depression, such as John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Machine Gun Kelly, didn’t receive the same kind of positive attention as Bonnie and Clyde. Their relationship and young age is possibly the biggest reason for their glorification. The long manhunt for the couple also made their crimes and capture more interesting. As their story entered the entertainment industry, it became a part of pop culture and ultimately swept a lot of the grim details of their crimes under the rug to be forgotten.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.