Who Were Bonnie and Clyde & Why Are They Famous?

Making their name in the era of the Great Depression, Bonnie and Clyde were two of the most brutal and infamous criminals.

Jun 30, 2024By Greg Beyer, BA History & Linguistics, Journalism Diploma

who were bonnie clyde why famous

 

The United States was built as a land of opportunity, and society was not particularly well-prepared when the Great Depression hit. For some, they consigned themselves to the misery of the era, while other less scrupulous people used opportunities wherever they could find them, even if it took them afoul of the law.

 

The early 1930s was terrorized by immoral businessmen as well as criminals who used violence to get their reward. Of all the criminals of his era, it is the duo of Bonnie and Clyde that have garnered the most attention, for with their spree of robberies and murders, their legend was born.

 

This is the story of criminals and lovers.

 

Bonnie Parker

Portrait photograph of Bonnie Parker taken by Clyde Barrow in 1930. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

On October 1, 1910, Bonnie Elizabeth Parker was born. She was the second of three children born to Charles Robert Parker and Emma Parker (née Krause). Her family was from the agricultural town of Rowena in the center of Texas.

Get the latest articles delivered to your inbox

Sign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter

 

When Bonnie was just four, her father died, and her mother decided to move with her family to Cement City, an industrial part of West Dallas, where she would work as a seamstress. It was a rough neighborhood, and life for the Parkers became significantly more difficult without Charles’s financial support.

 

She began her schooling at the age of six. She was outspoken and liked to draw attention to herself. She also got into her fair share of fights while living in the rougher part of town. Independent and headstrong, she dropped out of school and married her first love, Roy Thornton. She was just 15 at the time.

 

The marriage would undergo serious stress, as Thornton led a life of crime and abandoned Parker for long periods of time. By 1929, the couple had split, although they never officially got divorced.

 

After their separation, Bonnie moved back in with her mother and worked as a waitress.

 

Clyde Barrow

Mugshot of Clyde Barrow, ca. 1926. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Clyde Chestnut (Champion) Barrow was born on March 24, 1909 into a poor family living in Ellis County in East Texas. He was one of five children born to Henry Basil Barrow and Cumie Talitha Walker.

 

Clyde grew to hate school, and his upbringing was neglected. He loved watching silent movies, especially those portraying outlaws, and he often imagined himself to be Jesse James while playing with the other children.

 

In the early 1920s, he moved with his family to the slums of West Dallas. The family was so poor they had to sleep under their wagon until they had enough money to afford rent. Despite having several legitimate jobs, Clyde was drawn to a life of crime and was arrested several times. His crimes became progressively more serious, from stealing turkeys to cracking safes, robbing stores, and stealing cars.

 

Bonnie and Clyde Meet

Wanted poster for Clyde Barrow and his brother Marvin “Buck” Barrow. The poster incorrectly names the latter as “Melvin.” Source: Portal to Texas History, provided by Dallas Municipal Archives

 

In January 1930, at the age of 20, Clyde Barrow was introduced to Bonnie Parker, who was 19 at the time. They took an instant liking to each other and spent the next few weeks in each other’s company. Their budding romance, however, was interrupted when Clyde was arrested. In April, he was sent to Eastham Prison Farm, but with the aid of Bonnie, who smuggled a revolver into the prison, Clyde was able to escape.

 

A week later, he was recaptured and sent to Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, where he was to serve a 14-year sentence. While there, he was subjected to physical and sexual abuse by another inmate. Barrow killed the man by caving his skull in with a metal pipe. Another inmate already serving a life sentence came to the aid of Barrow and claimed responsibility.

 

While in prison, Clyde cut two of his toes off in order to get out of laboring in the fields. Unbeknownst to him, his mother had managed to secure his release, and six days later, on February 2, 1932, he was a free man once again. His time in jail, however, had changed him. He was angry and bitter and sought revenge against the system which had allowed his abuse.

 

After being released, Clyde stayed with Bonnie while recuperating from his injuries. Within two weeks, he had convinced Bonnie to join him in a life of crime. With the aid of other hardened criminals, the Barrow gang was formed, and a crime spree ensued.

 

The Crime Spree Begins

A signed postcard of Blanche Barrow. Source: psacard.com

 

In April, Bonnie and fellow gang member Ralph Fults were arrested while trying to rob a hardware store. Fults was tried and convicted, but after three months, the legal system had failed to indict Bonnie, and she was released. Meanwhile, Clyde and other gang members added murder to their list of crimes when they killed a Jeweler named John Bucher.

 

A spate of robberies began, but none were particularly successful in gaining large sums of money. In August, they wounded Sheriff C.G. Maxwell and killed Deputy Sheriff E.C. Moore when the two lawmen approached Barrow, fellow gang member Raymond Hamilton, and Ross Dyer, who were drinking moonshine at a country dance.

 

The following months would see more members join the gang, which became known for its brutality and seemingly indiscriminate killings. Clyde’s brother, Buck, was released from prison, and with his wife, Blanche, joined the Barrow Gang, which operated from a temporary hideout in Joplin, Missouri.

 

The hideout as it stands today in Joplin, Missouri. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

With their rowdy behavior, the gang drew the attention of a neighbor who phoned the police. Expecting what they thought was a bootlegging operation, the police responded in force, and a gunfight broke out. The police, not having the numbers to contain their suspects, could not stop the Barrow Gang from making their escape.

 

What was left behind by the Barrow Gang in the Joplin hideout became a treasure trove for the media. Apart from all the guns and ammunition, there were undeveloped rolls of film, and a poem written by Bonnie Parker. The photographs were developed, and many showed Bonnie and Clyde posing with weapons in front of their car. Newspapers printed these iconic photographs and the crime duo became an instant phenomenon in the minds of the American public.

 

In 2016, this building was purchased by Saundra Carr Cooper and her husband Stan who turned it into a guesthouse.

 

On June 10, 1933, Parker received third degree burns on her right leg as a result of a car accident in which she failed to see the warning signs of a bridge under construction near Wellington, Texas. The car flipped and ended up in a ditch.

 

Her wounds were tended to by a nearby family of farmers.

 

The Robberies & Murders Continue

Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Source: cc / Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons

 

On June 23, after robbing R. L. Brown Grocery Market, Clyde Barrow and fellow gang member William D. Jones ran into trouble when approached by Marshal Henry D. Humphrey and Deputy Sheriff Ansel Salyers. The gunfight that followed claimed the life of Humphrey after he was shot in the chest, and the two outlaws made their escape.

 

In July, the gang checked into a guest house by the Red Crown Tavern in Platte City, Missouri. They seemed not to even attempt to be conspicuous, and their actions attracted a lot of attention. They rented two cabins adjoined by a garage and took several actions which raised suspicions. The owner of the guest house noticed they backed the car into the garage “gangster style” in order to make a quick getaway. They also taped newspapers over the inside of the windows and paid for the accommodations and all their meals with coins.

 

When two of the gang members went into town for supplies, the alarm was finally raised, and police officers arrived to investigate. A gunfight ensued, and with superior firepower and a bit of luck, the Barrow gang were once again able to make their escape. When a bullet short-circuited the horn on the getaway car, the police took it as a sign of a cease-fire and did not engage the gang further.

 

There were, however, injuries. Buck Barrow was severely wounded in the head, and Blanche received micro-shards of glass in her eyes.

 

Wanted posters for Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Source: Heritage Auctions

 

Buck was in a critical state as the group of criminals camped at Dexfield Park in Dexter, Iowa. Their activities once again drew the attention of neighbors, who alerted the police. For five days, they camped out at the site, and every day, two of them would undertake the dangerous journey into town to buy food and medical supplies. They drew suspicion by backing their car into parking spaces and leaving the engine running.

 

With law enforcement on the constant lookout, it was only a matter of time before the group was identified as the Barrow Gang. The final piece of evidence was the discovery of a bloodied bandage by a visitor to the park.

 

Police arrived in force with around 50 lawmen, and in the gunfight that followed, Barrow, Parker, and Jones escaped on foot, while Buck was shot in the back, and Blanch was caught and arrested. Buck would die from his injuries five days later after undergoing surgery.

 

In January 1934, the gang helped several inmates escape from Eastham Prison. Prison guard Major Joe Crowson was fatally wounded during the escape, and the event triggered a nationwide manhunt. The full force of the Texas government was brought to bear.

 

Texas Ranger, Frank Hamer, who led the hunt in 1934 to find and kill Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Source: Travis Hamer personal collection via The Dallas Morning News

 

Frank Hamer, a retired Texas Ranger captain known for his toughness, was asked out of retirement to lead the efforts in bringing the Barrow Gang to justice.

 

On April 1, two highway patrolmen were added to the list of murders as they approached Parker, Barrow, and fellow gang member Henry Methvin when they thought what they saw were motorists in need of help. They were shot mercilessly.

 

Five days later, another policeman lay dead. Sixty-year-old William Campbell. It would be their last murder. Frank Hamer was doggedly determined and spent day and night stalking his prey, following up on leads and waiting for the right opportunity to strike.

 

A marker erected on the site of the ambush where Bonnie and Clyde were killed. It has been damaged by souvenir hunters. Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Fellow gang member Henry Methvin had been helping the police in an effort to gain clemency for his crimes. He helped set up the ambush that would claim the lives of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker.

 

Early in the morning of May 23, 1934, the police spotted their quarry. Under the cover of foliage on the side of the road near Sailes, Louisiana, they opened fire on Bonnie and Clyde’s sedan. Every attempt was taken to make sure that the two criminals were killed. Death was instant for both of them.

 

Aftermath

The Highwaymen (2019). Source: Netflix via IMDb

 

By the time of their death, Bonnie and Clyde had become infamous celebrities. Members of the posse appropriated many of the items from the car and sold them as souvenirs to the public.

 

Bonnie and Clyde had entered the public imagination as daring outlaws challenging authority, but the reality of their murders eventually hit home, and the public opinion turned against the Barrow gang and the two lovers, Bonnie and Clyde. For a while, their romance intrigued the American public, but when they were eventually killed, their deaths were celebrated.

 

Their stories, however, were perfect for books, films, and even stage plays, and to this day, public interest in the story of Bonnie and Clyde has never waned.

 

The latest rendition in film is Netflix’s 2019 film The Highwaymen, which is told from the perspective of Frank Hamer, played by Kevin Costner, and in music, Taylor Swift references the couple in her 2017 song “Getaway Car” from her album Reputation.

 

Fay Dunaway and Warren Beatty in Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Source: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment, Inc.

 

Bonnie and Clyde and the exploits of the Barrow Gang offered real-life entertainment to an American public beaten down in the era of the Great Depression. Bonnie was a woman, an unusual character for a hardened antagonist, and this fuelled interest even further.

 

Bonnie and Clyde earned the reputation of one of the world’s most iconic crime duos and will be forever etched in the memory of American history.

Author Image

By Greg BeyerBA History & Linguistics, Journalism DiplomaGreg specializes in African History. He holds a BA in History & Linguistics and a Journalism Diploma from the University of Cape Town. A former English teacher, he now excels in academic writing and pursues his passion for art through drawing and painting in his free time.